Everyone needs to develop patterns in our behaviour, otherwise our lives would be chaotic. It would be impossible if we came into every situation as if it was new and had to learn what to do each time. Having habits of thinking and behaviour, expectations of how things are and knowing what do in most situations, is essential in order to function normally. It is only when these habits become rigid or detached from meaning that they cause problems. We sometimes then call them obsessional compulsive. But if we were without all habits and patterns we would all live chaotic and probably anxiety-filled days. So some ritual and habit is necessary.
We have all checked something more than once, even when we know we have already checked it. Maybe that just involved rechecking that you have your house keys before pulling the door closed or double checking you have your passport before travelling.
Now imagine you are nervous and on your way to an important interview or exam. Or perhaps you are heading to a meeting that will impact the rest of your life. In these circumstances a lot of people would probably check and recheck that they have brought everything necessary for the occasion.
In other words, we check and recheck things when we are anxious and need to be in control of our lives. Checking is a way to feel in control. It is normal unless it escalates to the point that the need for checking begins to feel as if it is controlling us.
Sometimes checking or rituals become detached from the original meaning. Most people have at some time been a little superstitious, even though that is usually very benign. Maybe you avoided walking under ladders, or avoided a black cat or cracks in the pavement. Maybe now though you have developed certain patterns in how you do things, or maybe you count numbers when it is not necessary. There is no harm in this and no need to change if your habits are not interfering with your life. But sometimes those habits become so ingrained that you feel you must perform them before you do something. If the words "must do" are part of your habits or actions or thinking then it might be time to change. They are just habits, even if it feels as if they have a life of their own. Changing a habit is always hard but there are tips on the "Tips on Reducing Checking Rituals" page of this website.
Habits of thinking or habits of doing are not always a problem. Sometimes they are just a means of being organised. But sometimes, even after an original stressful circumstance has passed, a person can keep habits, such as checking or counting, because it made them feel better at the stressful time. The checking and counting can increase in frequency because it made the person, in this case you, feel more in control. You add in new aspects that were not related to the original situation. As this behaviour expands, these rituals can become such a habit that they come to dominate a person's life. But remember the origin was entirely rational and it is possible to reverse the process and learn to control them by reversing the same techniques that caused them.
Gradually, particularly in a person who feels anxious anyway, the range and type of ritual needed before the person feels good can increase to such an extent that it seems to have no relationship to the original problem. This is like the message changing in a game of Chinese Whispers. At the end point, the habit begins to drive the anxiety and not the other way around. The link with the past can be lost. Some mysterious force seems to drive the habit and it seems to exist on its own and without clear meaning. But of course there is no force other than force of habit. Once a habit has been formed, any habit - smoking, eating at certain times, obsessive exercise, or others - then it can be difficult to change but it is not impossible with a little persistence. You dont need to understand the past in order to change the habit in your present life.
When a person feels that their habits of checking or thinking are controlling them, not the other way around, then it is time to take charge and learn to change that. You are performing these habits to get away from the bad feeling. It is like taking a drug to get rid of withdrawal symptoms. The drug "hit" of repetitive checking is the feeling of calm, even if that only comes briefly. Like any drug that gives a hit, you need more and more of it over time in order to get the same feeling.
You can learn to break that habit by
- breaking it down into manageable parts, and changing one at a time.
- resisting the urge to carry out the habit or part of it,
- physically relaxing through meditation or relaxation exercises until the urge passes.
For more specific tips see the page on "6 Tips on Reducing Checking Rituals".
If you feel these 6 tips above apply to you and your rituals of either thinking or behaviour, then maybe you would benefit from these further tips on how to break the habit.