DiscoverYour Anxiety Toolkit - It's a Beautiful Day to Do Hard ThingsEp. 282 6 Part Series: Introduction to Mental Compulsions
Ep. 282 6 Part Series: Introduction to Mental Compulsions

Ep. 282 6 Part Series: Introduction to Mental Compulsions

Update: 2022-04-29



Welcome to the first week of this 6-part series on Mental Compulsions.  This week is an introduction to mental compulsions.   Ove the next 6 weeks, we will hear from many of the leaders in our feild on how to manage mental compulsions using many different strategies and CBT techniques.  Next week, we will have Jon Hershfield to talk about how he using mindfulness to help with mental compulsions and mental rituals.

In This Episode:

  • What is a mental compulsion?
  • Is there a different between a mental compulsion and mental rumination and mental rituals?
  • What is a compulsion?
  • Types of Mental Compulsions

Links To Things I Talk About:

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ERP School:

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This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 282 and the first part of a six-part series that I am overwhelmed and honored to share with you – all on mental compulsions.

I have wanted to provide a free resource on mental compulsions for years, and I don’t know why, but I finally got enough energy under my wings and I pulled it off and I could not be more excited. Let me tell you why.

This is a six-part series. The next six episodes will be dedicated to managing mental compulsions, mental rituals, mental rumination. I will be presenting today the first part of the training, which is what we call Mental Compulsions 101. It will talk to you about all the different types of mental compulsions, give you a little bit of starter training. And then from there, it gets exciting. We have the most incredible experts in the field, all bringing their own approach to the same topic, which is how do we manage mental compulsions?

We don’t talk about mental compulsions enough. Often, it’s not addressed enough in treatment. It’s usually very, very difficult to reduce or stop mental compulsion. I thought I would bring all of the leaders, not all of them, the ones I could get and the ones that I had the time to squeeze into this six-part series, the ones that I have found the most beneficial for my training and my education for me and my stuff. I asked very similar questions, all with the main goal of getting their specific way of managing it, their little take, their little nuance, fairy tale magic because they do work magic. These people are volunteering their time to provide this amazing resource.

Welcome to number one of a six-part series on mental compulsions. I hope you get every amazing tool from it. I hope it changes your life. I hope you get out your journal and you write down everything that you think will help you and you put it together and you try it and you experiment with it and you practice and you practice because these amazing humans are so good and they bring such wisdom.

I’m going to stop there because I don’t want to go on too much. Of course, I will be starting. And then from there, every week for the next five weeks after this one, you will get a new take, a new set of tools, a new way of approaching it. Hopefully, it’s enough to really get you moving in managing your mental compulsion so you can go and live the life that you deserve, so that you can go and do the things you want without fear and anxiety and mental compulsions taking over your time.

Let’s do this. I have not once been more excited, so let’s do this together. It is a beautiful day to do hard things and so let’s do it together.

Welcome, everybody. Welcome to Mental Compulsions 101. This is where I set the scene and teach you everything you need to know to get you started on understanding mental compulsions, understanding what they are, different kinds, what to do, and then we’re going to move over and let the experts talk about how they personally manage mental compulsions. But before they shared their amazing knowledge and wisdom, I wanted to make sure you all had a good understanding of what a mental compulsion is and really get to know your own mental compulsions so you can catch little, maybe nuanced ways that maybe you’re doing mental compulsions.

I’m going to do this in a slideshow format. If you’re listening to this audio, there will be a video format that you can access as well here very soon. I will let you know about that. But for right now, let’s go straight into the content.

Who is Kimberley Quinlan?

First of all, who am I? My name is Kimberley Quinlan. A lot of you know who I am already. If you don’t, I am a marriage and family therapist in the State of California. I am an Australian, but I live in America and I am honored to say that I am an OCD and Anxiety Specialist. I treat all of the anxiety disorders. I also treat body-focused repetitive behaviors, and we specialize in eating disorders as well. The reason I tell you all that is you probably will find that many different disorders use mental compulsions as a part of their disorder. My hope is that you all feel equally as included in this series.

Now, as well as a therapist, I’m also a mental health educator. I am the owner, the very proud owner of It is an online platform where we offer free and paid resources, educational resources for people who have anxiety disorder orders or want to just improve their mental health. I am also the host of Your Anxiety Toolkit Podcast. You may be watching this in a video format, or you may actually be listening to this because it will also be released. All of this will be offered for free on Your Anxiety Toolkit Podcast as well. I wanted to just give you all of that information before we get started so that you know that you can trust me as we move forward. Here we go.

What is a Mental Compulsion?

First of all, what is a mental compulsion? Well, a mental compulsion is something that we do mentally. The word “compulsion” is something we do, but in this case, we’re talking about not a physical behavior, but a mental behavior. We do it in effort to reduce or remove anxiety, uncertainty, some other form of discomfort, or maybe even disgust. It’s a behavior, it’s a response to a discomfort and you do that response in a way to remove or resist the discomfort that you’re feeling.

Now, we know that in obsessive-compulsive disorder, there are a lot of physical compulsions. A lot of us know these physical compulsions because they’ve been shown in Hollywood movies. Jumping over cracks, washing our hands, moving objects – these are very common physical compulsions – checking stoves, checking doors. Most people are very understanding and acknowledge that as being a part of OCD. But what’s important to know is that a lot of people with OCD don’t do those physical compulsions at all. In fact, 100% of their compulsions are done in their head mentally. Now, this is also very true for people with generalized anxiety. It’s also very true for some people with health anxiety or an eating disorder, many disorders engage in mental compulsions.

Mental Compulsion Vs Mental Ritual?

For the sake of this series, we use the word “mental compulsion,” but you will hear me, as we have guests, you will hear me ask them, do you call them “mental compulsions”? Some people use the word “mental ritual.” Some people use the word “mental rumination.” There are different ways, but ultimately throughout this series, we’re going to mostly consider them one and the same. But again, just briefly, a mental compulsion is something you do inside of your mind to reduce, remove, or resist anxiety, uncertainty, or some form of discomfort that you experience. Let’s keep moving from here.

What is a Compulsion

Now, who does mental compulsions? I’ve probably answered that for you already. Lots of people do mental compulsions. Again, it ranges over a course of many different anxiety disorders and other disorders, including eating disorders. But again, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, phobias, health anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the people with that mental disorder also engage in mental compulsions.

Predominantly, we talk a lot about the practice of mental compulsions for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The thing to remember is it’s more common than you think, and you’re probably doing more of them than you guessed. I’m hoping that this 101 training will help you to be able to identify the compulsions you’re doing so that when we go through this series, you have a really good grasp of where you could practice those skills.

Now, often when people find out they’re doing mental compulsions, they can be very hard on themselves and berate and criticize themselves for doing them. I really want to make this a judgment-free and punish-free zone where you’re really gentle with yourself as you go through this series. It’s very important that you don’t use this information as a reason to beat yourself up even more. So let’s make a deal. We’re going to be as kind and non-judgmental as we can, as we move through this process. Compassion is always number one. Do we have a deal? Good.

Types of Mental Compulsions

Here is the big question: Are there different types of mental compulsions? Now, I’m going to proceed with caution here because there is no clear differentiation between the different compulsions. I did a bunch of research. I also wrote a book called The Self-Compassion Workbook For OCD. There is no specific way in which all of the psychological fields agree on what is different types of mental compulsions. There are some guidelines, but there’s no one list.

I want to proceed with caution first by letting you know this list that we use with our patients. Now, as you listen, you may have different names for them. Your therapist may use different terminology. That’s all fine. It doesn’t mean what you have done is wrong or what we are doing is wrong. To be honest with you, this would be a 17-hour training if I were to be as thorough as listing out every single one. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I’ve put them into 10 different types of mental compulsions. If you have ones that aren’t listed, that doesn’t mean it’s not a mental compulsion. I encourage you to just check in. If you have additional or you have a different name, that’s totally okay. Totally okay. We’re just using this again for the sake of clarity and simplicity. Here we go.

1. Mental Repeating

The first mental compulsion that we want to look at is mental repeating. This is where you repeat or you make a list of individual items or categories. It can also involve words, numbers, or phrases. Often people will do this for two reasons or more, like I said, is they may repeat them for reassurance. They may be repeating to see whether they have relief. They may be repeating them to see if they feel okay. They may be repeating them to see if any additional obsessions arise, or they may be repeating them to unjinx something. Now, that’s not a clinical term, so let’s just put that out there.

What I mean by this is some people will repeat things because they feel like the first time something happened, it was jinx. Like it will mean something bad will happen. It’s been associated with something bad, so they repeat it to unjinx it. We’ll talk more about neutralizing compulsions here in a second, but that’s in regards to mental repeating. You may do it for a completely different reason. Don’t worry too much as we go through this on why you do it. Just get your notepad out and your pencil out and just take note. Do I do any mental repeating compulsions? Not physical. Remember, we’re just talking about mental in this series.

2. Mental Counting

This is where you either count words, count letters, count numbers, or count objects. Again, you will not do this out loud. Well, sometimes you may do it out loud in addition to mental, but we’re mostly talking about things you would do silently in your head. Again, you may do this for a multitude of reasons, but again, we want to just keep tabs. Am I doing any mental counting or mental counting rituals?

3. Neutralization Compulsions or Neutralizing Compulsions

What we’re talking about here is you’re replacing an obsession with a different image or word. Let’s say you are opening your computer. As you opened the computer, you had an intrusive thought that you didn’t like. And so in effort to neutralize that thought, you would have the opposite thought. Let’s say you had a thought, a number. Let’s say you’ve had the number that you feel is a bad number. You may neutralize it by then repeating a positive number, a number that you like, or a safe number. Or you may do a behavior, you may see something being done and you have a negative thought. So then, you recall a different thought or a prayer, it could be also a prayer, to undo that bad feeling or thought or sensation.

Now, when it comes to compulsive prayer, that could be done as a neutralization. In fact, I almost wanted to make prayer its own category, because a lot of people do engage in compulsive prayer, particularly those who have moral and scrupulous obsessions. Again, not to say that all prayer is a compulsion at all, but if you are finding that you’re doing prayer to undo a bad thought or a bad feeling or a bad sensation or a bad urge – when I say bad, I mean unwanted – we would consider that a neutralization or a neutralizing compulsion.

4. Hypervigilance Compulsions

Now again, this is the term we use in my practice. Remember here before we proceed that hypervigilance is an obsession, meaning it can be automatic, unwanted, intrusive, but it can also be a compulsive behavior. It could be both or it could be one. But when I talk about the term “hypervigilance compulsions,” this is also true for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, is it’s a scanning of the environment. It’s a scanning, like looking around. I always say with my clients, it’s like this little set of eyes that go doot, doot, doot, doot really quick, and they’re scanning for danger, scanning for potential fear or potential problems. They also do that when we’re in a hypervigilance compulsion. We may do that with our thoughts. We’re scanning thoughts or we’re scanning sensations like, is this coming? What’s happening? Where am I feeling things?

You may be scanning and doing hypervigilance in regards to feeling like, am I having a good thought or a bad thought or a good feeling or a bad feeling? And then making meaning about that. You may actually also be hypervigilant about your reaction. If let’s say you saw something that usually you would consider concerning and this time you didn’t, you might become very hypervigilant. What does that mean? I need to make sure I always have this feeling because this feeling would mean I’m a good person or only good things will happen.

The last one again is emotions, which emotions and feelings can sometimes go in together. Hypervigilant compulsion is something to keep an eye out. It could be simple as you just being hypervigilant, looking king around. Often this is true for people with driving obsessions or panic disorder. They’re constantly looking for when the next anxiety attack is coming.

5. Mental Reassurance

We can do physical reassurance, which is looking at Google, asking a friend like, are you sure nothing bad will happen? We can do physical, but we can also do mental reassurance, which is mentally checking to confirm an obsession is not or will not become a threat. This is true for basic like we already talked about and some checking and repeating behaviors. You may mentally stare at the doorknob to make sure it is locked. You may mentally check and check for reassurance once, twice, five times, ten times, or more. If the stove is off or that you are not having arousal is another one, or that you are not going to panic. You may be checking to get reassurance mentally that your fear is not going to happen.

Again, some people’s fear is fear itself. The fear of having a panic attack is very common as well. Again, we’re looking for different ways that mentally we are on alert for potential danger or perceived danger.

6. Mental Review

We’ve talked a lot about behaviors that we’re doing in alert of anxiety. Mental review is reviewing and replaying past situations, figuring out the meaning of internal experiences, such as, what is the meaning of the thought I had? What is the meaning of the feeling I had? What is the meaning of that sensation? What does that mean? What is the meaning of an image that just showed up intrusively and repetitively in my mind? What is the meaning of an urge I have?

This is very true for people with harm obsessions or sexual obsessions. When they feel an urge, they may review for hours, what did that mean? What does that mean about me? Why am I having those? And so the review piece can be very painful. All of these are very painful and take many, many hours, because not only are you reviewing the past, which can be hard because it’s hard to get mental clarity of the past, but then you’re also trying to figure out what does that mean about me or the world or the future. So, just things to think about.

To be honest, mental review could cover all of the categories that we’ve covered, because it’s all review in some way. But again, for the sake of clarity and simplicity, I’ve tried to break them up. You may want to break them up in different ways yourself. That is entirely okay. I just wanted to give you a little category here on its own.

7. Mental Catastrophization

This is where you dissect and scrutinize past situations with potential catastrophic scenarios. Now, I made an error here because a lot of people do this about the future as well. But we’ll talk about that here in a little bit.

Mental catastrophization, if you have reviewed the past and you’re going over all of the potential terrible situations. This is very true for people who review like, what did I say? Was that a silly thing to say? Was that a good thing to say? What would they think about me?

Mental catastrophization is reviewing the past, but is also the future and reviewing every possible catastrophic scenario or opportunity that happened. Whether it happened or not, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to mental compulsions. Usually, when someone does a mental compulsion, they’re reviewing maybe’s, the just in case it does happen, I better review it.

8. Mental Solving

Very similar, again, which is anticipating future situations with or without potential what-if scenarios. Very similar to catastrophization compulsions. This is where you’re looking into the future and going, “What if this happens? What if that happens? What if this happens? Well, what if that happens?” and going through multiple, sometimes dozens of scenarios of the worst-case scenarios on what may or may not happen. Again, it usually involves a lot of catastrophizing. But again, these are all safety behaviors. None of this means there’s anything wrong with you or that you’re bad or that you’re not strong.

Remember, our brain is just trying to survive. In the moment when we are doing these, our brain actually thinks it’s coming up with solutions, but what we have to do, and all of the guests will talk about this, is recognize. Most of the time, the problem isn’t actually happening. We’re just having thoughts that it’s happening. Again, this is reviewing thoughts of potential what-if scenarios.

9. Mental Self-Punishment

I talk a lot about this in my book, The Self-Compassion Workbook For OCD. Mental self-punishment is a compulsion, a mental compulsion that is not talked about enough. One is criticizing, withholding pleasure, harshly disciplining yourself for your obsessions or even the compulsions that you’ve done. Often, we do this as a compulsion, meaning we think that if we punish ourselves, that will prevent us from having the obsession or the compulsion in the future. The fact here is beating yourself up actually doesn’t reduce your chances of having thoughts and feelings and sensations and behaviors or urges. But that is why we do them. It’s to catch when you are engaging in criticizing or withholding or punishing compulsions.

10. Mental Comparison

Again, not a very common use of compulsions, but this is one I like to talk about a lot. Most of my patients with OCD and with anxiety will say that they know for certain that they compare more than their friends and family members who do not have anxiety disorders. I’ve put it here just so that you can catch when you are engaging in mental comparison, which is comparing your own life with other people’s life, or comparing your own life with the idea that you thought you should have had for your life. So, an idea of how your life was supposed to be.

This is a compulsive behavior because it’s done again to reduce or remove a feeling or a sensation or a discomfort of anxiety or uncertainty you have around your current situation. It’s really important to catch that as well because there’s a lot of damage that can be done from comparing a lot with other people or from a fantasy that you had about the way your life should or shouldn’t look. Again, we will talk about this in episodes, particularly with Jonathan Grayson. He talks a lot about this one. I just wanted to add that one in as well.

They’re the main top 10 mental compulsions. Again, I want to stress, these are not a conclusive list that is the be-all and end-all. A lot of clinicians may not agree and they may have different ways of conceptualizing them. That is entirely okay. I’m never going to pretend to be the knower of all things. That is just one way that we conceptualize it here at our center with our staff and our clients to help patients identify ways in which they’re behaving mentally.

Something to think about here, though, is you may find some of your compulsions are in more than one category. You might say, “Well, I do mental comparison, but it’s also a self-punishment,” or “I do mental checking, but it’s also a form of reassurance.” That’s okay too. Don’t worry too much about what section it should be under. Again, it’s very fluid. We want you just to be able to document. It doesn’t matter what category it is particularly. I really just wanted this 101 for you to do an inventory and see, “Oh, wow, maybe I’m doing more compulsions than I thought.” Because sometimes they’re very habitual and we are doing them before we even know we’re doing them. I just want to keep reminding you guys it’s okay if it looks a little messy and it’s okay if your list is a little different.

The main question here as we conclude is: How do I stop? Well, the beauty is I have the honor of introducing to you some of the absolute, most amazing therapists and specialists in the planet. I fully wholeheartedly agree with that. While I wish I could have done 20 people, I picked six people who I felt would bring a different perspective, who have such amazing wisdom to share with you on how to manage mental compulsions.

Now, why did I invite more than one person? Because I have learned as a clinician and as a human being, there is not one way to treat something. When I first started CBT School, I was under the assumption that there is only one way to do it and it’s the right way or the wrong way. From there, I have really grown and matured into recognizing that what works for one person may not work for the next person.

As we go through this series, I may be asking very, very similar questions to each person. You will be so amazed and in awe of the responses and how they bring about a small degree of nuance and a little flare of passion and some creativity of each person and bring in a different theme. I’m so honored to have these amazing human beings who are so kind to offer their time, to offer this series, and help you find what works for you.

As you go through, I will continue reminding you, please keep asking yourself, would this work for me? Am I willing to try this? The truth is, all of them are doable for everybody, but you might find for your particular set of compulsions specific tools work better. So trial them, see what works, be gentle, experiment. Don’t give up. It may require multiple tries to really find some little win. Please, just listen, enjoy, take as many notes as you can, because literally, the wisdom that is dropped here is mind-blowing.

I’ve been treating OCD for over a decade and I actually stopped a few things after I learned this and went straight to my staff and said, “We have to make a new plan. Let’s implement this. This is an amazing skill for our clients. Let’s make sure we do it.” Even I, I’m a student of some of these amazing, amazing people.

How do I stop? Stay tuned, listen, learn, take notes, and most importantly, put it into practice. Apply. That’s where the real change happens.

Now, before we finish, please do note this series should not replace professional healthcare. This or any product provided by CBT School should be used for education purposes only, so please take as much as you can. If you feel that you need more support, please reach out to a therapist in your area who can help you use these tools and maybe pick a part. Maybe there’s a few things that you need additional help with, and that is okay.

Thank you, guys. I am so excited to share this with you.

Have a wonderful day.









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Ep. 282 6 Part Series: Introduction to Mental Compulsions

Ep. 282 6 Part Series: Introduction to Mental Compulsions