I count to a hundred every time I write a word. Always go around the block three times before you can go in the house. Touch or ask the same thing seven times in a row.

Brush your teeth exactly 35 times before spitting out and rinsing your mouth. All these situations have one thing in common: for some reason you perform an action a certain number of times. This is something frequent for people with numerological obsession a, 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 summary of the disorder in which it appears: obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD is a psychological disorder closely linked to anxiety and characterized by the presence of obsessions, intrusive and recurrent thoughts that are beyond the person’s control and cause him/her a high level of anxiety, despite the fact that they are recognized as their own and are tried to neutralize them.

Generally, in order to reduce anxiety, the subject ends up beginning to perform some type of action, either physical or mental, an activity that, by 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 the anxiety regulating mechanism, which occupies a large part of the patient’s time and plunges him/her into a state of permanent anxiety from which he/she can only temporarily escape by means of the compulsions (an escape which in turn reinforces the anxiety), producing continuous discomfort.

Entering a Thought Loop

The process this disorder follows is usually as follows: by chance, one day a thought appears that the person finds aberrant and unacceptable . The fact that this idea has crossed his 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 provokes a fixation on it, making its reappearance even more probable and generating an even greater anxiety that will be tried to avoid even more. To do this, he generally uses the previously mentioned compulsions, which produce a temporary relief of the discomfort.

It is a disorder that causes the sufferer a deep vital suffering: The person knows that the thoughts and actions he or she carries out do not have any logical or practical sense and he or she lives them as something absurd, but nevertheless he or she has to carry them out to reduce his or her level of anxiety. The same goes for obsessive thoughts.

The continuous cycle between obsession and compulsion only feeds back and aggravates the subject’s state , occupying a large part of his daily time and being an element that largely inhibits his life in various aspects. In addition, 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 the fixation on them is due to multiple causes, there being a certain genetic predisposition in this respect. It has been found that many of these patients have a frontal hyperactivity along with problems in the basal ganglia. It is also frequent that they appear in people who are strongly inhibited at a vital level, restricted in one or several aspects of their person by society or education received.

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

Numerological obsession: numbers that settle in the mind

Count to ten. This is something that a large majority of the population has done at one time or another, usually to reassure themselves after something or someone has provoked our anger, rage or anxiety. Counting and ordering makes our mind occupied with something concrete and demanding our attention, and it can be an escape route to avoid doing something we regret or leaving something that disturbs us.

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

A mechanism for calming anxiety… or anxiety itself

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

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

There are numerous cases of OCD with numerological obsessions , with frequent obsessions with specific numbers or with groupings of numbers 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 many 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 the one coming from pharmacology, which allows treating and reducing the symptoms with a certain level of effectiveness. Especially effective are the antidepressants that inhibit the reuptake of serotonin, the SSRIs.

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

In the case of numerological obsession, this type of treatment encounters the problem that it is more complicated to find the source thought that causes the anxiety and work with it . In spite of this, working on response prevention is possible and may facilitate the reduction of manifest behaviours.

Together with this, interventions are applied to make the patient’s level of responsibility in the events that he or she imagines might occur if the rituals are not fulfilled, to make it visible that trying to deny a thought causes us to repeat it and that thinking something negative does not imply doing so. Again, in the numerological obsession this type of treatment is very complicated because it is not visible what specific thought produces the problem. A deep analysis of the case and the circumstances surrounding it is necessary in order to discover it

Other current therapies such as psychodynamics show that while 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 root 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 bring about a structural change in the person, which can greatly contribute to the person’s recovery.

Bibliographic references:

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  • Pickover, C.A. (2002). The wonder of numbers, Ma Non Troppo.
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  • Santos, J.L. ; García, L.I. ; Calderón, M.A. ; Sanz, L.J.; de los Ríos, P.; Izquierdo, S.; Román, P.; Hernangómez, L.; Navas, E.; Ladrón, A and Álvarez-Cienfuegos, L. (2012).
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