An obsession is a persistent (continuous) and recurring thought that a person is unable to control. A person suffering from obsessive thoughts often has symptoms of anxiety (uneasiness or dread) or emotional distress. To relieve this anxiety, a person may resort to compulsive behavior.
A compulsion is an irresistible impulse or desire to perform some act over and over. Examples of compulsive behavior are repetitive hand washing or turning a light on and off again and again to be certain it is on or off.
Although performing the specific act relieves the tension of the obsession, the person feels no pleasure from the action. On the contrary, the compulsive behavior combined with the obsession cause a great deal of distress for the person. The main concern of psychiatrists and therapists who treat people with obsessions is the role those obsessions play in a mental illness called obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is classified as an anxiety disorder. A person suffering from an obsession may be aware of how irrational or senseless their obsession is. However, that person is over-whelmed by the need to perform some repetitive behavior in order to relieve the anxiety connected with the obsession.
OCD makes normal functioning and social interactions very difficult because it tends to consume more and more of a person's time and energy. For example, a person obsessed with the fear of being dirty might spend three to four hours in the bathroom, washing and rewashing himself or herself. Fortunately, OCD is a rare disorder, affecting less than 5 percent of people suffering psychiatric problems.
People who are overt perfectionists or are rigidly controlling may be suffering from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). In this disorder, the patient may spend excessive amounts of energy on details and lose perspective about the overall goals of a task or job. Obsessive personalities tend to be rigid and unreasonable about how things must be done. They tend also to be workaholics, preferring work over the pleasures of leisure-time activities.
OCPD does not involve specific obsessions or compulsions. The obsessive behavior arises more from generalized attitudes about perfectionism than from a specific obsessive thought. A person suffering from OCPD may be able to function quite successfully at work, but makes everyone else miserable by demanding the same excessive standards of perfection.
Compulsive behavior: Behavior that is driven by irresistible impulses to perform some act over and over.
Flooding: Exposing a person with an obsession to his or her fears as a way of helping him or her face and overcome them.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Mental illness in which a person is driven to compulsive behavior to relieve the anxiety of an obsession.
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: Mental illness in which a person is overtly preoccupied with minor details to the exclusion of larger goals.
Therapists first try to make patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive illnesses understand that thoughts cannot be controlled. They then try to have patients face the fears that produce their anxiety and gradually learn to deal with them. This type of therapy is called flooding. Once patients begin to modify or change their behavior, they find that the obsessive thoughts begin to diminish.
Most professionals who treat obsessive-compulsive illnesses feel that a combination of therapy and medication is helpful. Some antidepressants, like Anafranil™ and Prozac™, are prescribed to help ease the condition.