Obsessions and compulsions: how they manifest themselves

Manifesting certain behaviors, such as obsessions and compulsions, are characteristic symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but what do psychiatrists mean when we talk about obsessions and compulsions?

What are obsessions?

Psychiatry defines obsessions as parasitic thoughts that we recognize as our own, because they are thoughts that appear in our consciousness without our having evoked them and persist despite our efforts to get rid of them. It is also said that they are egodystonic, because they generate discomfort: tension, anxiety, fear, difficulty in concentrating, moral scruples, doubt, repulsion, etc.

We recognize them as our own because, in spite of the strangeness of these thoughts, we do not interpret them as imposed from outside (as can happen in psychosis). This characteristic implies that, in general, the person suffering from this disorder has a good awareness of the pathological nature of this type of thinking.

Compulsions, a consequence of obsessions

Compulsions are usually motor acts (although they can also be thoughts such as reciting a phrase, song, prayer, etc.). What defines a compulsion is its purpose, which is to neutralize the discomfort caused by the obsession; since, by means of the compulsion, the psychic tension generated by the obsession is relieved.

How do I know if I suffer from obsessions or compulsions?

The most frequent obsessions are those of contamination, for example, the worry of having acquired germs by touching a doorknob. These are followed by cleaning compulsions, such as conscientiously sanitizing one’s hands, even with products that can be abrasive.

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In many occasions the relation between obsession and compulsion is more complex since, between both, it can that no logical nexus is established. For example, a fear of choking if we eat food with certain characteristics (obsession) and to neutralize it we resort to mentally recite some prime numbers (compulsion). Another example is the fear of dying at night (obsession) if before going to bed we do not turn on and off the light five times (compulsion).