Are you compulsive?

You may be twirling your hair to soothe yourself.

Perhaps you bite your nails. Maybe you drum your fingers on tables or twirl your hair absent-mindedly while reading. Maybe you shop on impulse or can’t pass up the lottery wicket whenever you walk by–which may be making a serious dent in your finances. Each of us has her own funny little compulsions. Most humans do. Have you ever wondered why you do the things you do? Or how to stop.

According to Dr. Neil Rector, head of the anxiety disorders clinic at the Clarke site of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, compulsive behaviours start because you need to comfort yourself when you’re feeling anxious. Since anxiety runs in families, Dr. Rector says some people are more prone to seek out self-soothing behaviours. Still others, he says, are compelled by a desire for perfection, which may prompt them to bite their nails until they’re “perfectly even.”

Once you’ve repeated a self-soothing behaviour a number of times, it can become automatic; in other words, a habit. “At that point, you don’t necessarily need to feel anxious in order to do the deed, although it’s likely to be triggered by anxiety,”says Dr. Rector.

Compulsions should not be confused with addictions. For one thing, addictions to substances such as drugs result in a desirable feeling, says Dennis James, clinical director of assessment and general treatment at the CAMH. After all, no one ever reported getting high from tearing off a hangnail.

Behaviours such as compulsive gambling or shopping have elements of both addictions and compulsions, says Dr. Rector. “They give you a kind of high, which may even have a physiological component,”he says. “On the other hand, your body doesn’t go through a withdrawal process when you attempt to stop, although you may experience anxiety.”

This raises the question: how do you stop giving your cuticles or credit card a daily workout? Dr. Rector lists three steps you must do for several months before successfully replacing the bad habit.

The first step, he says, is to learn to endure the psychological discomfort you’re bound to feel when you consciously stop your compulsion. The anxiety will pass. Then find a substitute for the behaviour. Flip through a magazine, knit or chop vegetables, something that engages your body and mind. Finally, consciously focus on the new activity until your mind is off the compulsion. If these suggestions don’t help, see a therapist.