Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

I’m constantly counting my steps. Is it OCD?

By Elle Warren

Nov 28, 20237 minute read

Reviewed byApril Kilduff, MA, LCPC

You’re trying to go for a nice, peaceful walk. You want to feel the sun on your face. You want to get those endorphins pumping. Yet as soon as you step outside, the counting begins. Maybe it sounds like 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. Maybe it’s continuous, and you count well into the hundreds. You hear the count going, going, going. 

You want to stop. You’re not enjoying the counting—it’s distracting, and it makes you feel tense. It feels impossible to stop, though. Like if you don’t keep counting, something bad will happen, and you’ll be in even more distress. 

You feel like there’s no way to win. You feel anxious while counting, but you also feel anxious if you don’t count. If any of this sounds familiar, you could be experiencing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Counting commonly shows up in those with OCD. April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, a therapist specializing in OCD and anxiety disorders, says, “There’s a lot of ways that counting can figure into OCD.” 

Keep reading to learn more about what OCD is, how counting your steps could be a sign of the condition, and how the disorder is treated.

First of all, what is OCD? 

Let’s establish what obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is—because it’s highly misunderstood by most people. It’s a condition characterized by repetitive, unwanted intrusive thoughts (obsessions) followed by mental actions or outward behaviors (compulsions) done in attempt to quickly feel better or prevent something unwanted from happening. 

Intrusive thoughts can latch onto just about any theme, but here are some examples of what they could sound like:

Intrusive thoughts are ego-dystonic, meaning they don’t align with your values, beliefs, or actual intentions. Everyone has intrusive thoughts—the difference is that people with OCD have a great difficulty moving on from them, finding them meaningful or dangerous. 

Someone without OCD can have a thought like, “What if I hit my partner with the hammer I’m holding?” immediately recognize it as untrue to themselves, and move on with their day. The OCD sufferer, on the other hand, becomes concerned that this thought means something—that they have some secret desire to actually harm their partner. As a result, they’re filled with intense feelings: distress, panic, anxiety.

Desperate to get rid of those uncomfortable feelings, people then turn to compulsions, which are any physical or mental behaviors done to find relief or prevent an unwanted outcome. The relief is short-lived, though, as they just feed the OCD cycle, reinforcing the idea that intrusive triggers are real threats. 

If you count your steps as you walk as a means of keeping certain thoughts or uncomfortable feelings at bay, it could be a compulsion. In the case of compulsively counting your steps, “it may or may not be logically connected to your obsessions”, says Kilduff. If they are not logically connected, you may not realize that they’re connected at all—but recognizing your counting as compulsive is the first step to getting better. 

Is constantly counting your steps a sign of OCD?

Counting is a rather common compulsion among people with OCD. It could serve the purpose of fulfilling a “just right” or perfectionistic desire. For example, walking may simply feel “off” unless you do so in sets of four. If it took you fourteen steps to walk to the bathroom, you take two more steps so you can have the “just right” feeling of walking in sets of four. 

Moreover, you could experience obsessions related to symmetry. This can present as wanting things to feel exactly the same on both sides of your body and fearing a negative outcome if they don’t. For example, you may count your steps in order to ensure that you’re taking the same amount of steps with each foot. Or, perhaps, you count so that you can make sure the rhythm between your strides feels consistent. 

Counting your steps as you walk can also be a product of magical thinking, another common phenomenon among OCD sufferers. Magical thinking happens when we believe that our thoughts and specific actions are directly connected to whether or not our feared outcome will happen.

For example, if you fear that you’ll contract a deadly germ that you’ll bring home to your family, you might feel like if you count your steps, your family won’t die. While there’s no logical connection between the two, our brains make associations in a desire for control and certainty. There’s often a general unease associated with not completing your compulsive counting to your satisfaction: “If I don’t count, I might feel wrong all day, or it might be bad luck. I might as well count just in case.”

Counting could also serve the purpose of distraction from your intrusive thoughts. Distraction is a common compulsion and can take many forms. You might have the feeling of trying to “drown out” your thoughts. You might think that if you keep your mind occupied with counting, there will be no room for intrusive thoughts, worries, or negative feelings.

When should you get help for your counting habit?

If your ability to live fully at home, school, work, social settings, or any other situation is being negatively impacted, or if counting your steps is causing you distress or discomfort, it’s time for you to seek help.

Kilduff echoes this, saying, “If it’s dominating a lot of your thoughts, causing you to be less focused at work or home, or bringing you any kind of impairment,” those are all indicators that you could benefit from treatment.

By making contact with a licensed mental health professional—specifically, someone with specialized training in OCD treatment—you can take a monumental first step toward living free from compulsive urges and frustrating behaviors. You can gain back the valuable time and energy that you currently spend counting.

How is OCD treated?

All themes of OCD are treated the same: with exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). ERP breaks the cycle of OCD by introducing you to the things that cause you anxiety or discomfort, and giving you skills to resist the urge to engage in compulsive counting for a false sense of relief.

If you are not totally sure what your triggers are, you and your therapist can dedicate time to identifying those things. From there, you’ll work together to develop a plan for therapy exercises. Typically, you’ll start with the ones that bring minimal distress, and then work your way up to those that bring the most. This might look like counting “wrong” once a day to begin, then eventually working up to going for a full walk or run without counting your steps at all.

Just like it takes hard work to train and build up muscles, it’s hard work to retrain our brains. ERP will likely feel quite challenging at first, especially if the urge to count your steps has become deeply ingrained for years and years—that’s why it’s crucial to start slow, with intentional efforts to resist your counting habit. While it’s uncomfortable, it’s also a good sign that it’s having its intended effect, and that it will help you in the long run.

Over time, you will teach your brain that it doesn’t have to relentlessly count your steps. You’ll come to realize that it’s not keeping you safe or comfortable, and it’s not actually preventing anything bad from happening. You will learn that you can tolerate discomfort and uncertainty, rather than feeling ruled by anything that feels “off.”

Where you can go for help

No matter how impossible it might sound, you can gain a full, rich life back that is not dominated by counting your steps. By working with people who have the specialized training and experience necessary to treat OCD effectively, you can confidently put yourself on the path to recovery—even after years of counting your steps every day.

If you think that OCD may be the reason you count your steps, please know that it doesn’t always have to be this way. Thousands of people struggling with the same symptoms have found relief, and you can too. I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treating OCD.

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