Ask The Doctor

Obsessive Behaviors Can Begin at Any Age

Dear Dr. Garner,

My family tells that there is something wrong with me. Whenever I leave the house, I find myself going back to make sure I turned off the stove and locked the door. As it turns out, I never do leave the stove on or leave the door unlocked, but doing this routine makes me feel better.

At first, my family thought it was humorous, but now is concerned that it is interfering with my life. I am afraid that if I don’t recheck these things, then something bad is going to happen. So I perform this routine each day, and it is beginning to cause me to be late for work.

Is there anything that can be done for this? Is there something wrong with me?

What’s Going On

In Williamsburg


Dear What’s Going On,

I am sorry you are having this trouble but fortunately, there are approaches that can help improve your situation.

What you are describing sounds like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, a behavior disorder that is noted to have high amounts of anxiety in which certain rituals are performed on a daily basis and begin to interfere with one’s lifestyle.

OCD causes severe anxiety that involves obsessions, which are thoughts, or images that cause a person great anxiety and compulsions. Performing routines or rituals is the person’s attempt to lessen the anxiety.

In your case, you have obsessions about security issues. You worry that your house is not secure due to the door being left unlocked or the stove being left on. Your routine helps you to deal with this fear. The people who exhibit this behavior often don’t recognize that these actions help them deal with their fears.

Examples of obsessive thoughts may range from harmless concerns to more serious ones, such as:

  1. Fear of being infected by shaking hands.
  2. Having things in orderly and a symmetrical pattern such as the silverware on the table.
  3. Aggressive thoughts about harming yourself or others.
  4. Having unwanted thoughts including aggression.

Some avoid a situation entirely, such as not shaking hands for fear of germs. Others have fear of unlocked doors much as you described. The person with OCD has compulsions performing rituals which the person feels driven to complete. These are meant to reduce anxiety.

Some compulsive signs and symptoms include:

  1. Hand washing to the point that the skin becomes broken or raw.
  2. Checking doors repeatedly to make sure they are locked.
  3. Silently, or aloud, repeating a word or phrase.
  4. Arranging cabinets so that the contents are in a symmetrical fashion.
  5. Repeatedly checking to make sure appliances are off.

The cause of OCD isn’t fully understood. Some argue that it is related to genetic factors as it often common in certain families, while others believe that it is caused by certain infections that trigger OCD behavior.

It is important to keep a diary of these symptoms and the events surrounding them so that when you visit your doctor, you can work together to identify causes and possible treatment. To diagnose that a patient has OCD, there must be recurrent, persistent and unwelcome thoughts, impulses or images that can cause a great deal of distress. The patient tries to remove the stress by developing a certain routine.

OCD can occur at any age beginning as early as preschool. It usually begins between 6 to 15 years of age for males, and between 20 to 29 years of age for females. There is no test to diagnose OCD. The diagnosis is made by observation and assessment of the person’s symptoms. Medication and psychotherapy can often help a patient to lead a normal life.

In view of the fact that your symptoms are interfering with your job and family life, I urge you to see your physician as soon as possible and get started on the road to recovery.

Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET-TV, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Time Warner Channel 97 and Cablevision Channel 30.

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