Obsessions and Compulsions

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Randy Hyde
From Candeocan.com

It is probably because of an Obsessive Compulsive Cycle that you have had difficulty overcoming your sexual addiction. Understanding this cycle can help you understand why the more you try to avoid your sexual addiction the more difficult it is. The advice to just quit thinking about it, avoid it, get it out of your mind actually makes it worse! It is the worst advice there is! After you understand obsessions, compulsions, fear, and how the mind works you will know why you have failed in the past and why this 'seemingly common sense advice' is so destructive. Understanding obsessions and compulsions is one of the most powerful keys in helping you overcome a sexual addiction.  It is the obsessive-compulsive dynamic that has most likely kept you trapped. 

Fear can be very powerful in our lives. Understanding how to effectively deal with fear is absolutely necessary in order to free you from a lifestyle that has been destructive, limiting, and seemingly beyond your control. In order to understand fear let me show you different types of fear that all have the same foundation. You will come to find out why being bright, sensitive, and spiritual can set you up to experience a sexual obsessive-compulsive cycle.  

Phobias, Obsessions, and Compulsions

  A Phobia is "a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that results in a compelling desire to avoid it" (DSM IV).  Common phobias include things such as spiders, snakes, heights (that's my favorite),  people, dogs, dentists, storms, flying, tests, enclosed places, etc.  The numbers of phobias are limitless because a person can develop a phobia towards anything at all in their environment.  At the heart of a phobia is irrational or exaggerated fear. These phobias are produced by negatively predicting the future concerning something, and exaggerating the negative, or 'making mountains out of molehills'.  People who experience phobias actually believe that they are vulnerable in some way. They are also created and maintained through Classical Conditioning or neurological conditioning that is reinforced through avoidance.

A hallmark of a phobia is the process of avoidance.  People who have phobias generally tend to avoid those things that they are afraid of.  For example, if you are afraid of elevators, you would prefer to take the stairs.  This is good for your health, but not so great emotionally.  It is this avoidance that helps keep phobias alive.

An Obsession is closely related to a phobia.  However, instead of being afraid of some thing, a person is afraid of a "thought, concept, impulse or image that is seen as intrusive and inappropriate" (DSM IV).  A common obsession is the fear of becoming ill, which manifests itself in the fear of germs. Other common obsessions include fears of being alone, fears of hurting or killing themselves or others, fears of separation, fears of being unworthy, the fear that some natural disaster may occur, or the fear of being out-of-control.

Similar dynamics occur with an obsession as they do with a phobia.  As with a phobia, an obsession occurs with an irrational or exaggerated fear or idea.  An obsession is maintained through avoidance. For example, a person might get an unwanted or disturbing thought, which they then try to avoid this thought or force that thought out of their minds. Trying to force this thought out of their minds actually makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of this thought. The brain is made in such a way that as soon as you try to force a thought out of your mind it comes back in with a vengeance! For example, try not to visualize a yellow school bus. If you combine that thought with stress, anxiety, guilt, or fear it increases the determination of that thought to come back into your mind. In fact, it is called an "intrusive thought". The more you try to not think of a feared or disturbing thought, the more this thought forces itself into your mind.  Your life then becomes dominated by these unwanted and intrusive thoughts.  This can become disturbing at first and horrifying later because you realize that you are literally 'out-of-control'.  You try to cope the best you know how and do everything in your power to avoid and get rid of these thoughts and images only to find that you cannot.  We have learned that avoiding or running from feared thoughts is the worst possible way to handle this kind of fear.  In fact, avoiding or running from any fear, conditions, sets, and increases that fear. Try not to think of a yellow school bus! ... It is hard enough not to think of a yellow school bus, but not thinking about or not visualizing a yellow school bus would become near impossible if it caused anxiety, guilt, or distress. Do you get it? Our minds are so powerful. Avoidance of fear, anxiety, or guilt is death emotionally! Trying not to think about something that is anxiety or guilt-provoking or disturbing only makes it that much more difficult to get rid of.

A Compulsion is related to an obsession, in that a compulsion is a ritual or behavior that is an attempt to get rid of the obsessive thought or reduce or prevent the obsessive anxiety or distress.  For example, if someone is afraid of becoming ill (obsession), they often worry about becoming contaminated by disease through germs.  Often, people realize that if they maintain good hygiene it reduces the chance for them to become contaminated with germs and thus they prevent themselves from getting sick.  These people often wash their hands repeatedly (compulsion) in order to avoid the possibility of contamination. So for example, a person shakes hands with another person and then fears that they got germs from the other person. They try not to think about this or let this though bother them, but they cannot get it out of their mind. It is driving them crazy so they go to a restroom and wash their hands, at which point their is immediate relief and the thought, "whew, I'm safe now!" You can also see that they are engaging in the two thoughts that create anxiety and fear: "Negatively predicting the future."  and "Exaggerating the negative, or 'making mountains out of molehills.'" A compulsion, then, is an act or behavior that a person engages in to avoid the dreaded result - sickness.  Because one can never be too careful, these people often will end up washing their hands excessively throughout the day, to an excess.  When this interferes with a person's life and is deemed excessive and out of control, this is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I once saw a patient who heard on the news that there was an outbreak of botulism and had claimed the lives of several people.  He was just young at the time and was afraid that he could contract botulism.  His mother had warned him that after he used the restroom, he should wash his hands.  He mistakenly believed that botulism was contracted through the germs one receives after having used the restroom.  When he was older he became ill and felt very nauseated.  He found himself vomiting and having diarrhea.  This was extremely uncomfortable for him and he reasoned that this probably occurred because he hadn't washed his hands sufficiently after having gone to the bathroom.  Thus started the cycle of avoidance and irrational reasoning.  He reasoned that since everyone that he knew used the bathroom and that not many of these people wash their hands when they were through, they were spreading germs everywhere!  He then reasoned that if they weren't going to wash their hands, he could avoid becoming ill by washing his.  This had progressed for several years.  By the time I met this young man, he washed his hands upwards of thirty times a day.  He wasn't just washing his hands; he was sterilizing and disinfecting them with Comet, a household cleaner, after which he would rinse his hands using alcohol.  As you can imagine, his hands were cracked, rough, and bleeding.  I worked with him to overcome his irrational and mistaken beliefs.  He had to desensitize, de-condition, and face his fears in order to become free.

Overcoming an obsessive-compulsive cycle is most often simple, but difficult.  It involves changing one's beliefs so that they are more in line with truth and reason, as well as facing one's fears and desensitizing the feared stimulus.  Both of these tasks require a great deal of courage.  

The Sexual Obsessive-Compulsive Cycle

  As I mentioned, when a person is afraid of a thought, concept, or image and tries to avoid thinking that thought, or seeing that image, the feared thought or image is relentless in forcing its way into that person's mind.  Most everyone experiences obsessive or intrusive thoughts at some level.  These intrusive thoughts are intensified through stress.  The more stress a person experiences, the greater will be the intrusive thoughts.

Sexual thoughts can also follow this pattern.  Typically, people have normal sexual curiosity and a healthy sexual drive.  This is God-given.  But, sometimes a person may believe these thoughts are "bad," "unhealthy", "immoral", and should not be thought.  The person tries to avoid sexual thoughts due to guilt.  To avoid further problems, he or she tries to force sexual thoughts out of their mind.  This sets up an obsessive cycle where sexual thoughts force their way into their mind all the more.

When a person is bright, has a good imagination, is emotionally sensitive, and is dedicated spiritually or to their own code of ethics or morals they are especially vulnerable to this kind of cycle. They have great ambition and motivation to be a good moral person. Often they want to be valiant and true to their God and their own strict conscience.  Often they are taught that they should avoid sexual sin. This can include pornography, masturbation, petting, intercourse, the wearing of immodest clothing, and lusting.  Then one day out of the blue they are confronted with an image, talk, or an idea that is sexual in nature.  This frightens them.  They are afraid that they are bad because they may have become sexually aroused through this unwanted stimulus. Sometimes people overgeneralize that all sexual stimuli is bad and that they themselves are bad if they have sexual thoughts, are sexually aroused, or are attracted sexually. Many decide that the best way to cope with this is through not thinking sexual thoughts, visualizing sexual images or being attracted or aroused to sexual stimuli that normally occurs in our world.

Many are curious and dabble with or experiment with sexuality through conversation, looking at sexual material, acting out sexually, or by just having a natural sexual curiosity.  After they have indulged in their curiosity or exploration many feel guilty and become determined that they will quit (repent) and never again give into sexual thoughts, curiosity or arousal.  They believe that if they try hard enough they will overcome "the lust of the flesh" and will be free from temptation and sexual thoughts, interests, or feelings.  Because this is an embarrassing topic, many of our young people are uninformed as to what is natural and normal.

For example, I have seen many young men who feel guilty because they will have an erection, sexual thought, or visualize a sexual image, not realizing that every young man has an erection several times a day and that this is absolutely normal and healthy in order to keep the penis healthy and that being sexually attracted or having sexual thoughts is a normal part of development.  These involuntary and sometimes voluntary erections and thoughts are seen as sinful.  This can set up the pattern of guilt and avoidance.  Before long this terrific young man is obsessed with sexuality, obsessed meaning terrified, frightened, and experiencing intrusive, unwanted thoughts that are torturous to them.  Most of these people suffer in silence because of their shame.  Working with these suffering, tortured, great people is one of the most heartbreaking but rewarding things that I do as a psychologist.

The more this person tries to get these intrusive, unwanted thoughts and images out of their mind, the more difficult and impossible it is to do so.  At times, it is extremely difficult to think of little else.  Most people explain to me that these sexual thoughts are so strong and relentless that it simply wears them down.  The person then discovers that "giving in" to masturbation, pornography, or some other sexual behavior gives them temporary relief, which becomes compulsive.  It also becomes classically conditioned.  After fighting the intrusive thoughts and simply being worn down and exhausted a person gives in to the sexual temptation.  For example, a young man has fought the temptation to look at pornography and masturbate for three days.  But because the temptation is relentless the young man eventually becomes exhausted, gives, in and looks at pornography and masturbates.  This young man then immediately experiences an immediate relief from the harassing and relentless temptations and intrusive thoughts.  This peace is classically reinforcing and sets the young man up for continued cycles of:   Temptation and intrusive thoughts - fighting the temptation and intrusive thoughts through avoidance - wearing down and exhaustion - giving in to the temptation and intrusive thoughts - pornography, masturbation, or some other sexual behavior - relief and peace from the relentless barrage of temptations and intrusive thoughts - reinforced classical conditioning - guilt, shame, hopelessness, self-condemnation, stress - increase in temptation and intrusive thoughts - cycling through this whole pattern again and again.   This then becomes an obsessive-compulsive cycle of fear, avoidance, escalation, failure, relief, guilt, and shame.  The more the person tries to avoid the sexual thoughts and behavior, the more relentless, intrusive, and dominating are these thoughts and unwanted behaviors.  This horrifies the person; they are losing control, which reinforces the obsessive cycle.  The person now feels helpless, discouraged, and hopeless because of the repeated efforts and eventual failure.  The person feels "out of control," weak, discouraged, ashamed.  This hits at the very core of the personality, self-esteem, and soul of the person.  Because the despair is so deep, suicide is not uncommon.  Often, a person fights these thoughts or behaviors for as long as they can.  But, because of the relentless nature of the mind, the person gets worn out fighting these thoughts and sexual drives and then gives in and often gives up, sometimes on themselves.  The person then feels more out-of-control than ever, guilty, weak, and worthless, which only adds to the obsessive and compulsive nature of this cycle.

This avoidance can be so extreme that I have often - yes often - seen men who have not been in a grocery store for years due to the fact that they 'may' see 'cleavage' on a magazine cover. I have seen people who have not been to a swimming pool for years since they 'may' have unwanted sexual thoughts. If this was not mental imprisonment and torture, then I have no idea what would be. Avoidance is Death! Mental extremes and exaggeration is also emotional death! No wonder God in every religion in the world teaches temperance and moderation. It is the extreme that entraps!

If you or someone you know is suffering with a sexual addiction - Fear Not, We Can Help! You can and will be free, just keep going and we will show you how. It will be easier than you think. It will just require understanding correct principles, practice and perseverance.