Why some people have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and others don't

Search this site here:

Most people think of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD as it is often known, as a separate diagnosis, distinct from anything else. In reality Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a slightly different way in which anxiety shows up in people with a certain personality type. It is not something which you either have or don’t have.

Many of us with a perfectionist tendency in our personalities have some obsessive tendencies.

In some respects such tendencies are good especially when organisation skills or attention to detail are important.

I can recognise many such tendencies in myself and at times of stress I can see how they might easily take a hold if I'd let them. Luckily for me I have a good understanding of what’s happening.

This means I am able to put a stop to them before they take hold.

Most people for whom OCD is diagnosed have not been able, or had the awareness, to do this.

So where does personality come in?

We are each born with different personalities. Even as babies we show different traits from our brothers and sisters despite the fact that we may grow up in the same house and with the same rules.

I raised five children and applied the same rules about tidiness etc to all of them. They are now all grown up but, despite having been taught exactly the same behaviours as children, one is extremely tidy and organised, three are moderately so depending what it applies to, and the other is chaotic.

People who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder have inherited a quick acting arousal system as well as a perfectionist personality trait.

A perfectionist personality is not a bad thing. I have one myself. The world would be a very dull place if we all had identical personality types - we would be more like robots than people. Even our pets tend to have different personalities as anyone who has ever kept more than one will know. A perfectionist tendency can be an asset when applied in appropriate circumstances.

People with perfectionist tendencies like order and to know where they stand. Our brains like this too. One of the two factors upon which the survival instinct bases its warnings, is being unable to match the new input with something it already knows to be safe. If this is not known the arousal level goes up and the survival instinct looks more actively for danger.

Any sufferer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder will recognise that the symptoms get much worse when they are generally more anxious about things, or because unsettling or different things are happening in their everyday life.

This is simply because things are going on which the survival instinct can't match to what it knows and isn't certain they're safe. So it raises the arousal level. This in turn makes the person uncomfortable and they start to worry more about how they're feeling, which pushes the arousal higher still. The brain starts to feel out of control, which it certainly doesn't like. It therefore seeks a degree of control or predictability. What is more predictable than obsessive behaviour?

So the development of obsessive symptoms, which are pointless in themselves, is simply the brain's way of trying to reduce the ongoing and uncomfortable high arousal by introducing predictability anywhere it can. We know brains like predictability at a very basic level - think how much babies and pets hate to have their routines disturbed, it makes them anxious because it is unexpected and so causes raised negative arousal. But the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder sufferer also feels they shouldn't be having those obsessive thoughts and doing compulsive behaviours and stresses about them. This of course just pushes the negative arousal even higher... and so it escalates.

brain developing ocd

Because the brain learns connections between events, each time an obsessive thought or compulsive behaviour happens under particular circumstances, the brain remembers that. When it finds itself in those circumstances again, it will automatically send you a reminder to have the obsessive thought or carry out the compulsive behaviour. Therefore, although such behaviours are originally learnt at times of stress, they are maintained afterwards by the brain which at times can be far too clever for its own good. Let me give an example.

Let's look at an example: 

Suppose during a time of stress I started counting things. Let’s assume that one of the things I started to count was switches on the wall on leaving a room. In time, when my general stress/arousal levels have reduced, I still find that every time I get up to leave a room, my head will tell me to count the switches, even if I hadn't been thinking about doing it.

This is because the brain has made a link between leaving a room and counting switches. People who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder will then feel they should do what their head is telling them because they have an uneasy feeling that something bad might happen if they don't.

This 'bad' feeling is merely a reflection of the fact that when they first started this behaviour they were very stressed and they were getting danger signals from the survival instinct, so they did the counting because something told them there was danger if they didn't.

In my example, this feeling of impending doom has simply attached itself to the idea of leaving a room. So when I get up to go, my brain gives me both the thought, "count the switches" and along with it the sense of impending doom. Feelings get attached to events in the same way as thoughts.

Feelings get attached to events in the same way as thoughts do.

There is evidence from PET scans that when such links are made repeatedly, a track forms in the brain itself. The good news is that this track can be erased again. Although a person with perfectionist tendencies is unlikely to lose them, and why would they want to?

Our personality traits are what make us individuals. What those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder need to do is learn to make their traits work for them and give them pleasure, rather than being at their mercy. The information on the Feelgood Way to overcome anxiety is relevant to OCD.

I have also written a book which specifically focuses on the application of this approach to OCD - its causes and how to go about reducing the symptoms or even overcoming them. You can find out more about the book and download a sample chapter by clicking below.

cover image of

"The Blackmailer in Your Head"
Self help in a book which explains how OCD happens and how to go about taming it.