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How can you stop acting on a compulsion?

I have obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve written about this before. I’ve been known to wash my hands over and over again – 25, 30 times in a row under scalding hot water. I have a fear of germs. I don’t like to shake hands. I don’t like to kiss anyone but my boyfriend. I don’t like to touch towels that other people have touched. I abhor used dishcloths.

I also have this thing about order. It’s strange because I am a messy person, but certain things must be placed exactly so. In the bathroom medicine cabinet my tubes of makeup and lotions must face forward and be pushed to the very edge of the shelf. I mean, I pull them out then carefully push them back with my fingertip until the edges of both the product and the shelf are even. In the shower, all the bottles and tubes face a certain way. When I put food in the fridge or pantry I make sure the labels of the items face forward. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but unless I do it “perfectly” I experience incredible anxiety.

Another obsessive thought I experience is to cut my wrist. The thought just gets in my head and repeats itself over and over again until I give in. I feel a lot of shame and embarrassment about this and don’t ever really talk about it except with my therapist or psychiatrist. But maybe this will help someone out there so that is why I am admitting it here. I used to be sure to hide my wrist under large bracelets or watches worn inwards to cover the scars. I loved cold weather because I could wear long sleeves. But, for the most part, today I try not to worry too much about it. The scars are there. Not much I can do about them and feeling the need to hide them only intensifies the feelings of shame.

So here’s the point of this blog – how can I (or you) stop from acting on my compulsions. I asked my therapist that two weeks ago. “What can I do when I feel that way?”

timerThis is what she had to say: Come up with a list of things you can do instead of the compulsion – be it hand washing or cutting or arranging things. For me that list might include listening to some calming music, dancing, writing, or baking. Write down this list on an index card. When the obsession starts set a timer for 30 minutes. Then pull out your index card and do some of the things you have written down for the next 30 minutes. Odds are, by the time the 30 minutes are up the obsession and anxiety will have lessened because you have directed you attention to something else.

This sounds like a great, workable plan to me. What do you think? Should we try it? I think it is worth a shot. As you know, I will do just about anything to be well so if that means dancing in the kitchen while the timer ticks, I’ll get my dancing shoes on.


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How can you stop acting on a compulsion?

Elaina J. Martin

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APA Reference
Martin, E. (2014). How can you stop acting on a compulsion?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Feb 2014
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