Have you ever sat next to someone who repeatedly tapped their fingers in a rhythmic manner? Or perhaps their body from side to side. If so, you may have witnessed two common examples of stimming. It’s a repetitive behavior that may include spinning, humming, hand flapping, skin rubbing, and more. Stimming is often associated with autism but is also common in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Autism and OCD share other symptoms, e.g. anxiety, obsessive behaviors, and difficulty handling any kind of change. About 17 percent of people with autism are also diagnosed with OCD. But they use stimming for different reasons.
What is OCD?
As suggested by its name, OCD involves obsessions and their subsequent compulsions. The obsessions are intrusive, anxiety-fueled thoughts or mental images. They are recurring and usually very distressing. For example, a person with OCD may suddenly and strongly believe that something harmful is about to happen to them or someone else. Or they feel they have been contaminated in some way.
The OCD cycle then shifts to the person needing to prevent the harm or remove the contamination. This is where compulsions arise. In order to decrease their anxiety, someone struggling with OCD feels compelled to engage in rituals that will satisfy the obsession. Such compulsions are typically related to cleaning, checking, ordering, counting, and touching. They temporarily soothe anxiety but other obsessions soon emerge to kick off a new cycle.
It’s important to note that people with OCD don’t usually believe that the compulsions are effective or logical. They simply and understandably desire some relief from the cycle. This is where stimming can enter the picture.
Why does someone with OCD stim?
Even after a compulsion has caused a brief break in anxiety, the fear remains. When will the next obsession arise? Hence, people with OCD may utilize some form of stimming as a bulwark against the ongoing cycle. Like many OCD compulsions, stimming is repetitive and rhythmic. Therefore, it has the potential to thwart perceived threats and dangers. In this sense, it can be called self-soothing but not in the same way stimming is used by someone with autism.
Why does someone with autism stim?
People with autism can frequently find themselves overwhelmed by sensory input. Their surroundings feel threatening. Thus, the goal is often to block out the stimuli as much as they can. Behavior like this can be called self-regulation or self-soothing and stimming fits the bill. Even if the act of stimming brings with it some social stigma, the need for self-regulation outweighs any other factor.
What can be done to help those who stim due to OCD?
While there is no specific cure for OCD, some effective therapeutic options exist. So, if OCD-inspired stimming is something you want to reduce, it makes a whole lot of sense to aim more specifically at treating OCD itself. I’ve written about these treatments in a previous post but let’s review what is considered your best option.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) that can return some much-needed control to the person with OCD. Basically, when an obsessive thought appears, you can take incremental steps as to how you respond. Even if you do follow through with the compulsion, you can:
- Take longer than usual before performing the ritual
- Engage the compulsion in slow motion to feel more power over it
- Slowly but surely, strip away parts of the compulsion
- All of this leads up to you being able to sometimes fully resist the compulsion (and stimming)
I’d love to talk with you directly about your options. Let’s connect soon about OCD treatment.