Compulsive behaviour can range from a need to have the tins in your food cupboard lined up in a neat row with the labels all facing the same way to full blown Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In my experience, compulsive behaviour is often a strategy a person has found to manage anxiety. Unfortunately, what might have worked quite well at some point in their lives suddenly starts to get out of hand. Effectively, the solution they have found to keep themselves feeling emotionally safe now becomes the problem.
Signs of Compulsive Behaviour
The NHS Choices website has some excellent and detailed information about anxiety, OCD and compulsive behaviour. People who come to me for anxiety counselling frequently mention the following types of troublesome behaviour:
- excessive cleaning or washing e.g. of hands
- repeated checking e.g that light switches, irons and ovens are turned off
- a need for order e.g. bank notes all facing the same way in a wallet
- a need for a sense of control e.g. difficulty being a passenger in a car, train or plane
We probably all have a tendency to find ourselves behaving in compulsive ways when we are feeling under pressure. It is only when these behaviours have a detrimental and prolonged impact on our day-to-day lives that we might seek help.
‘Am I Going Mad?’
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has been much publicised in the UK in the last few years and I often encounter people who are worried that their relatively minor compulsive behaviour is the sign of something much more sinister in terms of mental health and especially if it is accompanied by, for example, panic attacks. Through counselling and psychotherapy, I focus on helping people to explore what might be making them anxious – and think about new possibilities for responding – rather than simply trying to stop the compulsive behaviour.
Life is often messy. As human beings we come up against uncertainty every day of our lives and it can be difficult to retain a sense of security in an ever-changing world. Occasionally we will encounter major shocks which only serve to highlight just how little personal control we actually have. Such shocks will often bring us to counselling for help. For example, we may have experienced:
- the death of someone close to us
- serious illness
- a major accident
- witnessing a traumatic incident, even if we are not personally involved
- the end of a significant relationship
If we feel – or have felt at some crucial time in our lives – alone, unsupported and powerless to influence others, then we may have worked out that compulsive behaviour can bring at least some order and stability to our world. In essence, we may find ourselves drowning in responsibilities and having control over the layout of our cutlery drawer is one way of alleviating these feelings – at least in the short term.
How Counselling and Psychotherapy Can Help
I would be interested in the assumptions you might be making about how other people can help you manage your anxiety. For example, are you expecting other people to withhold support, or to completely take over? Maybe you are seeking support from the ‘wrong’ sort of person? Or perhaps you are paralyzed by the fear of trauma returning without warning? Counselling and psychotherapy can be effective in discovering the root cause of your anxiety and exploring new ways of managing it.
Thinking about what lies behind compulsive behaviour can be particularly helpful for people seeking help with anxiety, depression and panic attacks.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation.
Copyright: Caroline Clarke, UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and Counsellor in Brighton and Hove, UK
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