What Is Repetitive Compulsion And How To Overcome It

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated June 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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In some cases, people find that specific tasks seem to take excessive time or occur without intention. These behaviors may seem out of control and repetitive. If you're experiencing this challenge, you might be experiencing a repetition compulsion.  

From picking skin, pulling hair, and performing rituals repeatedly, these habits can become exhausting for the individual who partakes in them. To further understand why compulsions might occur, it can be helpful to look at obsessive and compulsive-related disorders, history of repetitive compulsions, emotional responses linked to this challenge, and ways to find relief. 

Break free of repetitive compulsion

What is a repetition compulsion? 

Repetitive compulsions are repetitive patterns and behaviors often stemming from unresolved and deep-rooted emotional pain or past traumas. The compulsion to repeat certain behaviors can also be caused by a mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This behavior may pervasively impact various aspects of an individual's life, perpetuating a cycle of unhealthy interpersonal relationships, self-destructive habits, negative thoughts, or stagnant personal growth.

By understanding and recognizing the signs of repetitive compulsion, individuals can be empowered to break free from this limiting behavioral pattern, paving the way for more fulfilling and balanced lives. Through self-reflection, therapy, or coaching, individuals can uncover the roots of their compulsions, allowing them to confront, process, and potentially transcend the causes. 

How can past trauma impact repetitive compulsions? 

Understanding trauma may help some individuals understand why compulsive behaviors can occur. Trauma can be a sudden, shocking event such as an accident – or repeated exposure to stressful circumstances - such as having a distant parent or experiencing abuse. People who experience traumatic events or remember past trauma may struggle to cope with these intense feelings and turn to compulsive behavior to ease the emotional and psychological strain. 

The effects of trauma vary among individuals, ranging from distress and anxiety to complete avoidance and detachment. It can be helpful to understand this process when looking for treatment for repetitive compulsions. Several effective strategies are aimed at helping people manage the psychological repercussions of trauma to live successful, healthy lives without relying on compulsive behavior.

What are the emotional responses associated with repetitive compulsions? 

Anxiety, fear, or a sense of urgency often fuel compulsive behavior. Repetitive compulsions, such as excessive handwashing, checking, or repeating specific actions, can manifest in various forms. These compulsions may not relate to the theme of one's fear or whether there is actual risk involved. For example, someone who fears being alone may pick their skin, which seems unrelated but is done to soothe the fear of abandonment. 

Recognizing these emotions and their connection to compulsive behaviors can provide valuable insights into the factors driving these actions. It encourages self-awareness, fosters empathy towards oneself and others experiencing similar challenges, and enables individuals to strive for healthier coping mechanisms.

Potential causes of repetitive compulsions

Repetitive compulsions, commonly known as compulsive behaviors, can significantly impact an individual's life and well-being. Delving into the potential causes of these actions can provide valuable insight into the complexities surrounding them.

One such cause is obsessive-compulsive disorder, characterized by intrusive thoughts and overpowering urges that repeatedly drive individuals to perform tasks or rituals. In addition to OCD, anxiety disorders may contribute to the development of repetitive compulsions. 

Furthermore, neurological conditions such as Tourette's syndrome and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), also a neurodivergence, might be responsible for repetitive compulsions. In the DSM-5, a new category of mental illness called obsessive and compulsive-related disorders (OCD-related disorders) can also be the culprit. Conditions under this category include trichotillomania (hair pulling), dermatillomania (skin picking), and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), among a few others. All these conditions are characterized by repetitive compulsions. 

How to address compulsive behavior 

Understanding and addressing your defenses can be crucial to personal growth and self-awareness. Recognizing the mechanisms that safeguard you from emotional pain or potential threats may offer insight into why they occur, allowing you to confront and work through unresolved trauma or emotional challenges. 

Defenses can manifest in various forms, such as denial, projection, or suppression. By examining your reactions and emotions during challenging situations, you can identify and address your specific defense mechanisms and develop healthy coping strategies instead.

Take control and find lasting relief from repetitive compulsions

Living with repetitive and seemingly uncontrollable compulsions can be a challenge. You may become overwhelmed. However, these conditions are often manageable with treatment and support. By taking control and seeking guidance, you can uncover the underlying reasons for your compulsions and find ways to challenge them. One potential treatment for these conditions is psychotherapy. 

The benefit of psychotherapy for compulsive behaviors 

Engaging in talk therapy for repetitive compulsion can be a transformative and empowering experience, particularly for those struggling with seemingly unmanageable compulsive behaviors. As an educational approach, therapy addresses the crucial psychological underpinnings that often drive these repetitive actions, paving the way for a deeper understanding of oneself and your present situation. 

Therapeutic interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), enable individuals to recognize and challenge their thought patterns, gradually breaking the cycle of compulsivity. Furthermore, therapy provides a safe and non-judgmental space for individuals to talk through their traumatic experiences and express their emotions, frustrations, and fears related to compulsions.

One of the most effective treatments for OCD-related disorders is exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), an offshoot of CBT. This treatment exposes individuals to fears and the idea of avoiding their compulsions, which can slowly desensitize them to their fears. In addition, it may help individuals take power away from their intrusive thoughts or obsessions if they experience them. A therapist trained in ERP can work with you to slowly integrate ERP so that it isn't too much of a shock at first. 

Break free of repetitive compulsion

Alternative support options 

Some people facing compulsive behavior may have fears about seeking therapy face-to-face. In these cases, online individual therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be more available. 

Online therapy platforms allow clients to meet with a therapist from home, which can offer a sense of comfort. In addition, clients can get matched with a provider specializing in their unique condition or symptoms, which may be a helpful way to receive treatment if no specialists are in their area.

Studies also back up the effectiveness of online therapy in treating compulsions. One study found that online therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder could be more effective and cheaper than in-person options and had long-lasting results. 


Taking control of your life and finding relief from repetitive compulsions can be possible. With support, individuals can learn how self-defense mechanisms may underlie certain behaviors and gain reach to new responses that allow them to break free from obsessive thoughts and actions. Consider reaching out to a professional online or in your area to get started with this form of treatment. You're not alone, and support is available.
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