Research suggests that anxiety and stress drive the majority of compulsions in OCD, and individuals with the disorder participate in ritualistic behaviors in an effort to alleviate the angst of obsessive thoughts, visions, or emotions.
Researchers at Hong Kong Shue Yan University recently conducted a study that explored how dream experiences affected waking behaviors and symptoms in a sample of 594 individuals with OCD.
“The overall ﬁndings substantiate the notion that individuals with high obsessive-compulsive distress tend to dream certain themes more frequently,” said Calvin Kai-Ching Yu, Ph.D., of the Department of Counseling and Psychology.
In fact, the researchers found that individuals who experienced dreams with strong emotional messages — those that were charged with feelings of guilt, shame, and anger — had increased waking compulsive behavior.
Furthermore, magical thinking — thinking that one had super powers or could control other people or things — also elevated OCD symptoms.
Yu believes that dreams filled with malevolent content can prompt individuals to try to purify themselves during waking hours. Those who feel especially guilty, angry, or shameful may become obsessed with finding ways to remove their negative feelings while they are awake.
The conscious level of anxiety experienced during the day, caused by obsessive magical thoughts and negative dreams, can lead to more compulsions.
Yu theorizes that most of these obsessions are first developed in childhood, when imagination is strongest. As people with OCD get older, they are unable to distinguish between magical thinking and reality.
Feelings of paranoia and other heightened states of anxiety resulting from magical thoughts and intense dreams consume these individuals during their waking hours, making the sole mission of their lives to achieve a state of harmony, absent of anxiety, guilt, anger, or fear.
Yu would like these findings to draw more attention to the way that dreams — especially those of anger — affect anxiety in individuals with OCD.