A compulsion is a repetitive, excessive, meaningless activity or mental exercise that a person performs in an attempt to avoid distress or worry.


Compulsions are not voluntary activities and are not performed for pleasure. Instead, a person with a compulsion feels the need to engage in a particular behavior to relieve the stress and discomfort which would become overwhelming if the activity were not performed in a specific, repeated manner. Examples of compulsive motor activities are washing hands until raw, repeatedly checking the security of a locked door, and arranging and rearranging items in a set order. Some examples of compulsory mental acts are counting or silently repeating specific words. If a person troubled by compulsions is unable to perform such activities, stress and discomfort increase. The performance of the acts relieves distress but only temporarily.

Often, compulsions are not acts that could logically be expected to relieve or prevent the fears that inspire them. For example, a person might feel compelled to count numbers in a certain order to "undo" the perceived damage or threat that follows a thought or behavior. Or a person might check to make sure a door is locked every few minutes. Compulsions, in some cases, are attempts to undo obsessions and are usually not successful.

See also Obsession ; Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Dean A. Haycock, Ph.D.

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