Numerological Obsessions: Constantly Thinking About Numbers

One of the obsessions most frequently treated in psychological consultations.

Count to one hundred every time I write a word. Always walk around the block three times before entering the house. Touch or ask the same thing seven times in a row. 

Brush your teeth exactly 35 times before spitting and rinsing your mouth. All these situations have something in common: for some reason an action is performed a certain number of times. It is something common for people with numerological obsession, a type of obsession typical of subjects with  obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

To understand the functioning of numerological obsessions, it is first necessary to make a brief synthesis of the disorder in which it appears: obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The obsessive-compulsive or OCD disorder is a psychological disorder closely related to anxiety and characterized by the presence of obsessions, intrusive, recurring thoughts that escape the control of the person and cause a high level of anxiety, although recognized as their own and that they are trying to neutralize.

Generally, in order to reduce anxiety, the subject ends up starting to carry out some type of action, be it physical or mental, an activity that when  relieving anxiety is reinforced and repeated each time the thought reappears, establishing itself as a compulsion. This creates a continuous spiral between obsessive thinking and anxiety regulating mechanism, which occupies a large part of the patient’s time and plunges him into a state of permanent anxiety from which he can only escape temporarily through compulsions (an escape that in turn reinforces anxiety), producing continuous discomfort.

Getting into a loop of thoughts

The process that this disorder follows is usually the following: fortuitously, one day a thought appears that the person finds aberrant and unacceptable. The fact that this idea has crossed your mind generates a high level of discomfort and anxiety, trying at all costs to eliminate the thought and avoid it as much as possible. However, the fact of trying to avoid it causes a fixation on it, making its reappearance even more probable and generating an even greater anxiety that will be tried to avoid with greater determination. To do this, he generally uses the aforementioned compulsions, which produce temporary relief from discomfort.

It is a disorder that causes the person who suffers it a deep vital suffering: The person knows that the thoughts and actions carried out have no logical or practical sense and lives them as something absurd, but nevertheless they have to take them out to reduce your anxiety level. The same goes for  obsessive thoughts. 

The continuous cycle between obsession and compulsion only feeds back and aggravates the subject’s condition, occupying a large part of their daily time and being an element that greatly inhibits their life in various aspects. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for variations to appear within the vicious circle, and new anxiety-generating thoughts may be added.

The causes of the appearance of obsessive thoughts and fixation on them are due to multiple causes, with a certain genetic predisposition in this regard. Many of these patients have been found to have frontal hyperactivity along with basal ganglia problems. It is also common for them to appear in people strongly inhibited at a vital level, restricted in one or more aspects of their person by society or education received.

There is a wide variety of obsessions and compulsions that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder have, such as cleaning or checking. One of them is the obsessions that have to do with numbers, or numerological obsession.

Numerological obsession: numbers that settle in the mind

Count to ten. That is something that a large majority of the population has done at some time, usually to calm down after something or someone has caused our anger, anger or anxiety. And it is that counting and ordering makes us occupy our mind on something concrete and that demands our attention, being able to be a means of escape to avoid doing something that we regret or leaving aside something that upsets us.

Returning to obsessive-compulsive disorder, in people who have numerological obsessions, the mechanism used as an anxiety calming ritual is based precisely on this. But then, why do we speak of numerological obsession and not of rituals or numerological compulsions?

A mechanism to calm anxiety … or anxiety itself

This is because people with numerological obsession not only use numbers as a mechanism to calm anxiety, but in them the numbers themselves are the reason for anxiety. This type of case is highly complex, since in them the person would be totally blocked, to the point of having already forgotten the reason that led him to use numbers as a way of reassuring and transforming what was compulsion into obsession. This does not mean that the original idea has faded, but rather that the obsessive theme has been masked.

The way in which the numbers are applied is very varied. There are people who have to mentally count to a certain number, perform an action a certain number of times, have a specific amount of objects or avoid contact with anything linked to one or more numbers in question. In fact it can appear related to other obsessions and compulsions such as cleaning, but in the case of numerological obsession, what will prevail will be the number and not the action per se (that is, if they are not washed X number of times, their anxiety does not decrease).

There are numerous cases of OCD with numerological obsessions, being frequent the obsession with concrete numbers or with groupings of them that have common characteristics (for example with odd or even numbers). A well-known example is the famous inventor Nicholas Tesla, who was obsessed with the number three in multiple aspects of his life.

Treating numerological OCD

The treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder has been somewhat complex throughout history, being a traditionally difficult disorder to treat. Thus, OCD (including numerological obsessions).

One of them is from pharmacology, which allows treating and reducing symptoms with a certain level of effectiveness. Especially effective are the antidepressants that inhibit serotonin reuptake , the SSRIs.

Generally, from the cognitive-behavioral aspect, obsessive-compulsive disorder is treated through exposure techniques with response prevention, causing the patient to gradually disassociate obsessive thinking and compulsion. Given that the repetition of the compulsion maintains the vicious circle of obsession-compulsion by negative reinforcement, it is one of the most applied therapies to treat the symptoms.

In the case of numerological obsession, this type of treatment encounters the problem that it is more difficult to find the source thought that causes the anxiety and to work with it. Despite this, working on response prevention is possible and can make it easier to reduce overt behaviors.

Along with this, interventions are applied to make a realistic view of the patient’s level of responsibility in the events that he imagines could occur in the non-compliance of the rituals, to make visible that trying to deny a thought causes us to relapse into it and to think something negative it does not imply doing so. Again, in numerological obsession, this type of treatment is very complicated as it is not visible which specific thought produces the problem. A thorough analysis of the case and the circumstances surrounding it is necessary in order to discover it.

Other current therapies such as psychodynamics show that although the treatment of the symptom is very useful to improve the patient’s condition and can lead to success, the treatment should focus on modifying the first cause that caused the patient’s obsessive structure. In this aspect, reducing inhibition and uncovering and directing the internal energy to what the individual really wants can greatly help to cause a structural change in the person, which can greatly contribute to the recovery of the person.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.
  • Pickover, CA (2002). The wonder of numbers, Ma Non Troppo.
  • Ruiz, D. (2014). Free the monkey, rescue the princess. The AFOP method to free yourself from obsessions. RIOCC Editorial: Barcelona.
  • Santos, JL; Garcia, LI; Calderón, MA; Sanz, LJ; de los Ríos, P .; Izquierdo, S .; Román, P .; Hernangómez, L .; Navas, E .; Ladrón, A and Álvarez-Cienfuegos, L. (2012).
  • Clinical psychology. CEDE Preparation Manual PIR, 02. CEDE. Madrid.
  • Vallejo, J. & Leal, C. (2010). Treaty of Psychiatry. Volume II. Ars Medica. Barcelona.
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