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Compulsions: definition, causes and possible symptoms

Compulsions: definition, causes and possible symptoms

February 21, 2024

There are people who, feeling frustrated for some reason, unconsciously perform a ritualized action through which they try to reduce their discomfort.

This is this kind of behavior they reflect a psychological phenomenon that is known as compulsion .

What are compulsions?

The idea of ​​what compulsions are can be defined in a slightly different way according to two different psychological approaches: psychoanalysis born with Sigmund Freud and cognitive-behavioral psychology.

Compulsions according to psychoanalysis

The concept of compulsion was widely used in the field of psychoanalysis, and from this approach it was understood that its meaning was that of a repetitive behavior that is used to give vent to the frustration of not being able to satisfy desires that are born in the most unconscious part and passionate of the mind.

In this way, compulsions will be ways of compensating for the impossibility of responding to a desire of an emotional type while keeping the consciousness distracted and away from the true source of frustration. In this way, for the psychoanalytic approach, compulsion is a way of masking a need whose idea is tried to repress so that it does not pass to the conscious part of the psyche.

But this deception does not correspond to reality, and in fact it is not effective to definitively end the need, since it is a superficial and momentary arrangement; that is why this forbidden desire is still latent in the unconscious, and makes the compulsions have to be repeated all the time.

Compulsions according to the cognitive-behavioral paradigm

According to this current of psychology, there is no conscious entity that tries to suppress contents stored in another unconscious entity, so the definition of compulsion renounces these concepts. Thus, from this point of view a compulsion is a behavior (like stretching the hair or washing one's hands) or a mental act (like mentally repeating a word) that it becomes a repetitive ritual without having to lead to a clear purpose of which the person has conscience.

With the passage of time, compulsions can be repeated so frequently that they can significantly damage the quality of life of the person by not allowing him to carry out normal plans and tasks on a day-to-day basis.


As we have seen, the definition of what a compulsion is changes significantly depending on what stream we pay attention to. From the current psychology, however, it is considered that the psychoanalytic concept of compulsion is not useful, since it does not allow experimentation to be hypothesized; that's why the second one is the dominant one.

According to the concept of compulsion used by the cognitive-behavioral current, the cause of this phenomenon it is due to a maladaptive association . That is, the compulsions are the result of an apprenticeship that tries to respond to a feeling of discomfort that occurs with assiduity and that is just as bad or worse than what you want to fight, since it repeats all the time and makes The person feels good if he does not perform a series of very determined and rigid steps.

The role of obsessions

It is considered that that unpleasant stimulus that makes the person repeatedly compulsions is something called obsession . An obsession is an idea or a mental image (that is, an idea that instead of being able to communicate with words is rather visual) it is unbearable or too intrusive .

For example, you may often think of a scene that produces a lot of embarrassment, or think of a picture that is disgusting.

These obsessions appear without prior notice and without the person's wish, and generate discomfort. Compulsion is the improvised strategy that is made to try to reduce the discomfort. Regrettably, over time the compulsion becomes as uncontrollable and unpredictable as the obsession , because as it has been repeated it has been totally associated with it. This mechanism is the foundation of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

  • You can read more about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in this article: "Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): what is it and how does it manifest?"

Symptoms in cases of compulsion

These are some of the most frequent symptoms related to compulsions and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It must be taken into account that if there is no sense of inability to control these actions and if a worsening of the quality of life is not perceived due to them, it is premature to consider that there are compulsions. In any case, the diagnosis must be made by clinical psychologists or other professionals specialized in such kind of practices within the health system.

  • Frequent ritual of handwashing
  • Need to have a certain area of ​​the house very well ordered , with perfectly aligned objects, symmetrical organizations, etc.
  • Frequent ritual of wash an object always following the same steps in the same order
  • Need to check several times if a door has been locked
  • Need to check many times if the gas cock has been closed

Psychological Disorders : Definition of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (February 2024).

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