Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC
Compulsions are the second half of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a very common mental health condition that can be severely impairing. In this article, you will learn about what compulsions are and examples of them, including some scenarios, and what can be done to stop them.
What Are Compulsions?
To make sense of compulsions and understand the complete picture of OCD, it’s important to cover the first part of the OCD symptoms - the obsessions.
Without obsessions, there aren’t compulsions, and these can be described as unwanted intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety and distress.
OCD intrusive thoughts and obsessions can be practically limitless, and it tends to be anything that people find fearful, disturbing, disgusting, or morally wrong.
To find relief for the anxiety that these thoughts bring, people will perform compulsions, which are repetitive actions or other behaviors that aim to counteract or neutralize the obsessive intrusive thoughts. Sometimes they can be performed to try to prevent a negative outcome from occurring. They are often ritualistic in nature and can be performed continuously to provide certainty or a sense of something being ideal, optimal, or perfect. 
Many compulsions tend to be tailored to the types of obsessions that they’re experiencing (i.e., excessive and aggressive hand washing or cleaning for contamination OCD), but, in general, many compulsive behaviors can be commonly grouped as:
- Repetitive actions
- Mental rituals
As you continue to read, you will learn more about specific examples and scenarios that involve OCD compulsions, so you can get a better look at how they are interrelated.
Examples Of Compulsions
Below you will find some common compulsions that people use to deal with their obsessions and reduce stress and anxiety. 
- Repeatedly checking things such as the stove and locks to prevent danger
- Washing or cleaning excessively to avoid potential contamination and getting sick
- Avoiding objects that might cause harm to others, such as kitchen knives
- Counting or staying away from certain numbers that might be perceived as good or bad, respectively
- Arranging things until they are in a way that they are believed to be perfect
- Mentally reviewing to make sure something inappropriate was done in the past
- Fear of discarding items due to the belief that something bad might happen
- Replacing bad words with good words or using mantras to neutralize thoughts
- Doing tasks multiple times until it feels right
- Checking on people, especially loved ones, to ensure no harm was done to them
- Seeking reassurance from someone
- Avoiding triggers for obsessive thoughts
As you can see, there are many ways compulsions can be carried out, and like obsessions, there are essentially infinite options.
Nonetheless, they all have similar goals. They are all very problematic in that they create stress and are what causes OCD to be extremely persistent by reinforcing the obsessions, but they can also cause smaller issues that can add up.
For example, checking compulsions can cause someone to become chronically late, or excessive hand washing can lead to skin problems. Friends and family may also become weary of reassurance-seeking behaviors from loved ones with OCD, such as constantly making confessions about their thoughts.
Here are a couple of scenarios of some OCD types that can show in-depth how people can use compulsions:
One day while driving at night after leaving late from work, Tim runs over something on the road, most likely a piece of debris or a road bump.
He moves on and keeps driving and later wonders, “what if it was a person?” and so he goes back and checks to see, even though there is no damage done to his car or any other signs of a serious accident.
Once going back, Tim doesn’t see anything unusual, and he drives off again but isn't convinced that everything is fine, so he goes back and checks again.
The other night, Tim heard about a horrible hit-and-run accident on the news, so it’s been on his mind recently, and this causes him to keep checking over and over to ensure that no harm was done to anyone or anything.
Eventually, he leaves, but he still doubts himself, and the anxiety is still looming; and for the next couple of days, he keeps watching the local news to see if anything has been reported by the police regarding a hit-and-run.
Of course, nothing happened, and his anxiety has since subsided, but now Tim tries to avoid driving at night in fear that he might cause an accident and commit a crime. By avoiding driving, he can also ensure that he won’t become triggered, have anxiety, and get caught in a loop of compulsions.
In this scenario, Tim uses three compulsions to deal with his obsession with accidentally hurting someone while driving, which are checking, reassurance-seeking, and avoidance.
Sexual Orientation OCD
Amanda was spending some time with another one of her female friends, and out of nowhere, Amanda had a sexually-explicit thought about her friend pop into her head.
Historically, Amanda has always been interested in the opposite sex, but this thought has caused her to question her sexuality and wonder if the thought had any meaning to it.
Amanda knows deep-down that she doesn’t have any feelings for her friend but still struggles to get the thoughts out of her mind, causing distress.
She tries to test herself by deliberately looking at other women to see if it’s stimulating to her and then looks at men to make sure that they are still her preference. Later, she starts to confess her thoughts to others to see if she is right to worry about her sexual orientation.
Despite reassurance from people around her that the thoughts are baseless and meaningless and nothing to worry about, Amanda constantly has unwanted thoughts regarding her sexual orientation. It’s making her feel like she has been living a lie.
To deal with them, Amanda continues to check and test herself to prove that she is heterosexual and seek reassurance from others.
Marge has had a strong sense of faith for her entire life and does her absolute best to abide by her religion's rules and morals.
One day while at church, a funny thought appeared in her head while a sermon was going on, and she laughed to herself out loud. Some people around her noticed and gave disapproving looks, but the session just continued as normal.
Marge starts to feel shameful and guilty for laughing, and not only does she think that she was disrespectful towards the people inside the church, but to God as well.
She then starts to have obsessive thoughts that she is a bad person and needs to atone for her sins. Otherwise, she will go to Hell. Marge can’t help that she feels like she has done something blasphemous and, therefore, confesses to her pastor.
Marge reads the scriptures repeatedly and will pray several times per day and seek forgiveness despite getting reassurance. She has also stopped dating entirely and drinking alcohol socially because she is afraid of committing sins and not seeming devout enough.
By staying away from things that might possibly be considered sinful or immoral in God’s eyes, it provides comfort and relief to her. Still, ever since that initial event, she continues to worry and obsess about accidentally doing the wrong thing.
How To Stop Compulsions
Addressing compulsions will be the key to beating the symptoms of OCD. One of the most effective methods of doing so is through a method known as exposure and response prevention (ERP), which is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
The goal of ERP is to gradually expose you to your fears and sources of obsessive thoughts and teach you not to respond to them with compulsions. Early on, anxiety will be heightened, and you will have the urge to perform compulsions, but with practice, this anxiety will be reduced over time as you continue to resist it.
By not giving in and performing compulsions, you don’t give power and meaning to your thoughts, and they will simply pass. Eventually, you will become desensitized, and they will no longer be obsessions.
This doesn’t mean that intrusive thoughts will stop entirely, though, and there isn’t a cure for OCD. Managing it will be an ongoing process that you will keep getting better at. Everyone has intrusive thoughts, and as long as you don’t respond to them, you’re in control.
Do You Struggle With OCD?
Getting therapy treatment often requires a diagnosis from a mental health professional. By making an appointment and consulting with one, you can start getting on track to taking back your life through a combination of therapy and medication.
You can also take this free OCD test before your diagnosis. Sharing the results and discussing your personal experiences can help your mental health adviser make an accurate diagnosis for you.
The assessment is brief and completely free, and it is highly recommended if you think that you may be having signs of OCD.
By understanding compulsions and why they occur, you can actively work to put a stop to them. Hopefully, this article has shown you how to recognize these harmful behaviors that can seem beneficial on the surface at first and can start taking the necessary steps to end them and live a happier, healthier, and more productive life. It’s not easy, but stopping your compulsions and making your OCD thoughts disappear can be done with time, effort, and commitment.
- OCD UK. (, 2020). What are compulsions? Retrieved from https://www.ocduk.org/ocd/compulsions/
- International OCD Foundation. (2020, November 05). What is OCD? Retrieved from https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/