How Does OCD Relate to Control and Intentional Habits?

~2 minute read

Starting from a young age, we’re taught how to build habits at home, in school, and in sports. Brushing your teeth before bed and warming up before practice are a couple examples of habits that you might not even realize you have because they’re so ingrained into your daily routine. The beauty of automatic, intentional habits is that they can help you maintain a balanced lifestyle. However, for someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), habits can make life feel rigid and imbalanced.

Obsessions and compulsions can lead to completing certain actions over and over again until they feel just right. These behaviors might stem from a logical place, like checking that the oven is turned off before you leave the house, or they might seem completely arbitrary, like turning the light switch on and off a certain number of times before leaving a room. Regardless of the action itself, the drive behind these behaviors tends to come from a need for control and the need to complete these actions a certain way can prevent being able to live freely.


Research shows that people who fear losing control are more likely to exhibit OCD-like behaviors. Some people might feel like their compulsions are a way to get control of their intrusive thoughts. Other people might feel like they have no control over either their obsessions or compulsions. While it’s important to take responsibility for your actions and recognize the ripple effects of your behaviors on others, depending on control to feel safe takes a toll on your mental health. Building a healthy relationship to control can help relieve OCD behaviors.


Fear is another reason why behaviors driven by OCD might feel mandatory rather than intentional. Fear of harm (either to yourself or to others) leads to intrusive thoughts, anxieties, and urges. OCD tends to cause people to view non-fearful situations, events, and interactions with fear – this is called fear conditioning and it makes things that wouldn’t otherwise cause you to worry become stressful. The fear associated with OCD behaviors is actually reinforced when you engage in the behavior that you think will help alleviate the fear.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)

It’s admirable to feel a sense of agency over your life and to want to take responsibility for your actions, but feeling like you need to complete certain tasks or actions in order to avoid anxiety could be a sign that you’re depending on control to feel safe. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a treatment approach that teaches you that you are in charge of your thoughts and actions, not OCD. Even though it might go against all of your instincts, repeated exposure to the feared stimulus helps tremendously with overcoming your fears and OCD-related behaviors. It might be scary to face your fears, but in the long run it’ll decrease the amount of stress and anxiety you have over them.

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