Reading OCD – When Reading Becomes an Obsession
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety condition that takes over your life and robs you of self-control, self-esteem, and self-confidence. And, if left unchecked, it can become your worst nightmare. Thus, OCD can affect many, if not all areas of your life – including your ability to read, analyze, and comprehend content (books, workbooks, articles, textbooks, blogs, etc.).
Being able to read is essential to surviving and thriving in most modern societies. It does not matter if your penchant is soapy, sizzling romance novels, or if textbooks are required to understand course material, reading is a necessity. Reading is even required to pay bills and/or navigate your way around town (by reading a map).
Moreover, it is nearly impossible to select what you want to eat at a restaurant without being able to read the menu. How can you learn what a television program or movie is about if you are unable to read its synopsis? So, as you can see reading is vital. However, some people suffer from reading OCD. This type of OCD involves a cycle of intrusive thoughts and/or compulsions that revolves around “reading.”
Wondering what reading OCD is and how it manifests in everyday life, look no further because this article will help you better understand what this type of OCD is, what the signs and symptoms are, how it is treated, and how it can “show up” in your life.
What is Reading OCD?
Reading OCD, sometimes termed “reading with OCD,” involves having to reread a word, sentence, phrase, and paragraph many times to analyze and comprehend the material. In other words, people with this type of OCD get stuck in an OCD loop that causes them to have to go over words, sentences, phrases, and paragraphs several times to grasp the meaning of them or understand the content.
Thus, a person with reading OCD is unable to move forward in the story, article, textbook passage, etc., until he or she understands what is being said. For people with high-functioning OCD, this could mean having to reread the first or last word on every page. However, for moderate or low-functioning OCD sufferers it may mean obsessively mulling over a particular word, sentence, or phrase for hours.
It could also involve perfectionism or the need to read a section a certain way. When the section or passage is not read “the right way,” it could lead to starting over and over again until the word or sentence sounds “just right.”
Avoidance is another important facet of reading OCD, for instance, a person with reading OCD may give up on reading because it takes too long or is too difficult to read the material. People with this type of OCD (reading OCD) tend to be extremely afraid of not being able to fully understand the material, so they either seek reassurance that they are capable of analyzing and comprehending the reading content or they avoid reading altogether.
Some people with reading OCD must engage in a specific ritual or routine (compulsion) every time they purchase a book or they have to read books in a certain order. If something is amiss, these individuals have to begin again until everything is “just right.” People with reading OCD report feeling “odd” or “strange” if they do not perform certain reading rituals or routines, such as starting a book the same way each time, or re-reading certain words, sentences, passages, or sections if there is a mistake.
For some reading OCD sufferers, reading a book in a certain way or order is necessary to keep them engaged in it. Other reading OCD sufferers have certain “milestones” that must be met when reading – before they can move to the next section, passage, chapter, or article. This “milestone” could involve making it through half of the article, or completing a chapter or page of a book.
Because completing “milestones” is a requirement for completing the textbook, article, novel, etc., many reading OCD sufferers fail to read anything all the way through. When a “milestone” is not successfully completed, these OCD sufferers are “forced” to begin anew (create a new milestone). Still, some people with reading OCD may feel strong urges to reread the material to ensure that they did not “miss” anything important.
These individuals are unable to skip pages. More specifically, they may feel stressed or anxious if they do not read every single word after the introduction. Skipping sentences, sections, or passages is not an option because of the order of things. Making “mistakes” is a no-no for these individuals.
If a person with reading OCD manages to finish a book – with “mistakes,” the book is deemed “dirty” or “tainted” so the book does not get the full consideration or appreciation it deserves because it is associated with “bad feelings.” As a result, most reading OCD sufferers prefer podcasts and audiobooks to paperback books, articles, etc.
Children and teens with reading OCD tend to have the hardest time with this condition, primarily because being able to read is a necessity for academic success and graduation. Also, some children and teens with reading OCD feel that they are “failures” or “frauds” because they are unable to fully understand each word, sentence, phrase, or paragraph on the page.
People with reading OCD, just like people with other types of OCD, know that their thoughts, fears, urges, emotions, and mental images are illogical or unlikely to happen, they are powerless to stop the stress, angst, and/or ritualistic behaviors.
How Common is Reading OCD?
Because studies are limited when it comes to reading OCD, it is hard to say how common it is. However, researchers suggest that 1-2 percent of the general population struggles with OCD, there is a good chance that a percentage of OCD sufferers struggle with reading OCD.
Note: One of the hallmark signs of OCD is repeating things, which means that many people with OCD have a habit of reading things over and over again.
What Causes Reading OCD?
The exact cause of reading OCD varies from person to person.
Generally speaking, the cause of reading OCD mimics the cause of other types of OCD. Therefore, when trying to determine the cause(s) of reading OCD, the best place to look at the causes of OCD as a whole.
Researchers have found that both genetic and environmental facts (i.e., a personal or family history of mental illness, an imbalance in neurotransmitters, brain chemistry, structure, and function irregularities, trauma, childhood abuse, addiction, etc.) can contribute to the development and progression of all OCD symptoms, including reading OCD.
However, the most probable cause of reading OCD appears to be a fear of not being able to fully understand everything that is being read. As prefaced above, OCD sufferers are more likely to engage in repetitive behaviors, and people with reading OCD may engage in repetitive reading practices (caused by obsessions and/or compulsions).
These repetitive and compulsive reading behaviors can cause comprehension and transition (i.e., moving from word to word, sentence to sentence, article to article, book to book, or paragraph to paragraph) problems, along with a slow processing speed.
Are Reading OCD Symptoms the Same as General OCD?
Yes, they are.
All OCD types, including reading OCD involve the same symptoms – non-stop and unwanted intrusive thoughts, urges, fears, doubts, mental images, and negative emotions (obsessions), and/or rituals or routines (compulsions). The only difference between the different types of OCD is the focus point. More specifically, the “thing” or person being obsessed about. For instance, the focus point for contamination OCD is germs, bacteria, dirt, bodily fluids, etc. While in the case of reading OCD, the focus point is reading – words, sentences, and/or paragraphs.
What is It Like to Have Reading OCD?
I believe that the best way to demonstrate what it is like to have reading OCD is to let you hear from people, who have dealt with it in the past, or who are currently dealing with it.
Thus, listed below are personal testimonies from people, who have experienced this condition:
“I have been undergoing CBT treatment with great success for the past year. As a result, I hope to give other people struggling with mental health issues hope by telling them about my experience to see that there are treatments out there that work!
My OCD started relatively mild, but slowly got worse over the years. My OCD symptoms initially began when I was in college. I would often get anxious while studying if I did not learn everything ‘perfectly.’ Because of my anxiety, my grades suffered tremendously. The more anxiety-provoking thoughts I had, the more time I spent studying and thinking about school.
And, the more obsessed I became, the worse my reading OCD symptoms became until I had reached a point where I could not go to school anymore. I fell into many more “OCD traps” over the years. For instance, I was obsessed with keeping my apartment ‘perfectly” clean. I also had an irrational fear that something terrible would happen, if I left books on the floor.
The worst part of this wasn’t my apartment – it was living inside my head. I could not even go to class anymore because I was extremely anxious about making ‘mistakes’ or not doing things ‘just right.’ The next several years were miserable. I eventually became afraid to go to the movies or hang out with my friends.
My ultimate goal was to ease my stress and anxiety, which inevitably drove me deeper into depression. At this point, I felt helpless. Fortunately, a friend recommended that I see a CBT therapist. I knew that I needed help, so I started researching OCD treatments. After a few hours of research, I found a therapist with lots of education, training, and experience in OCD. After a couple of therapy sessions, my therapist officially diagnosed me with OCD.
We decided to use a form of CBT, known as ERP. I was told that this treatment would be challenging, but honestly, I did things could get any worse in my life so I was committed to the therapy process. Over the next year, we worked on cognitive techniques to help me cope with my stress and anxiety. And, I learned how to recognize the difference between what was “real” and not real and how to question my fears and replace negative thoughts with more helpful ones.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT has helped me a lot. I now spend less than an hour a day obsessing over things that do not matter. I can also now go out and do normal things, like watch a movie or sit outside on a bench without feeling too anxious.
Do not get me wrong, I still have bad days, but at least I now know how to cope with them better. CBT has made me happier and more confident in my ability to overcome challenges, which was something I lost during the early stages of my OCD. It is nice to do everyday things without experiencing too much anxiety. If you are struggling with OCD, you need to know that there is another way! I am living proof that it gets better if you get help.”
“I currently cannot read very well. I legit take 10-15 minutes to read one page and understand it. If I read a sentence and do not understand it, I start again. Or, even if I am almost at the end of a paragraph, but unable to understand the last sentence, I will literally start all over again or reread the paragraph because I forgot everything. But if I understand the sentence, but not the full paragraph, and I feel like it is okay to continue reading then I continue reading.
But in the back of my mind, I still wonder if I am missing something important when I skip over things. Perhaps, I am. But being stuck on one paragraph for 30 minutes, and reading the same word, sentence, page, or paragraph a million times only to not finish the book. I need to be able to focus and remember things better when I am reading. I have OCD and low testosterone if that means anything.”
“I honestly was not sure ‘reading OCD’ was even a ‘thing,’ but it is exactly what I have been dealing with since middle school. I loved reading growing up, but as an adult, the need to reread/look up words has been time-consuming and alienating. I am hoping that I get to try ERP therapy soon for this and other obsessions.”
“For years, I have had extreme anxiety surrounding reading. As a result, I need to read very slowly. I do not know why. I have always been good at reading, and I have always enjoyed it. Recently, I have been trying to up the ante on reading. I have also started getting more into writing, but it has been challenging, primarily because of my paralyzing anxiety. I have been diagnosed with reading OCD, which I did not know even existed. I feel like this type of OCD is odd. Anyway, I am going to get help for it. There must be some OCD treatments available for this type of OCD, right?”
How is Reading OCD Treated?
The treatment for reading OCD is the same as any other type of OCD. Thereby, reading OCD treatment typically involves a variety of OCD therapies – i.e., cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and/or exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Medications (SSRIs) may be combined with OCD therapies when therapies alone do not work.
It may also include targeted psychotherapies, such as trauma counseling, couples and family counseling, individual therapy, group therapy, addiction therapy, etc. OCD support groups, forums, apps, healthy coping skills and strategies, along with vitamins and minerals, hypnotherapy/hypnosis, CBD, OCD books and workbooks, mindfulness meditation, and online OCD treatment programs, like Impulse Therapy.
These natural remedies, alternative OCD treatments, self-help tools, and be added to formal treatment plans or used alone, which makes them valuable assets in your OCD recovery toolbox. Getting more sleep, noshing on healthy foods, and moving around (exercise) can also get you back on track so you can take control of your life.
Still, the “go-to” treatment for reading OCD, just like for general OCD, is ERP therapy. ERP therapy is a subtype of CBT. The OCD treatment involves “going against the grain” or doing the opposite of what your OCD wants you to do. Thus, ERP therapy teaches you how to be a rebel when it comes to your OCD symptoms.
How Can ERP Therapy Help Me Overcome Reading OCD?
ERP is the “gold standard” therapy approach for reading OCD.
When you start to become inundated with intrusive thoughts and urges to reread something 20x or throw the book down in anger (vowing never to read again) – do not do that. In other words, ERP therapists encourage you to keep trying – keep reading – and do not give up. Avoidance is not your friend.
An ERP therapist, however, may counter those urges to reread content or avoid reading it altogether by instructing you to put a piece of paper or a bookmark over the words (to cover them up) you have already read. The key to making this exercise work is refraining from removing the paper or bookmark from the previously read words.
Why is this important? Well, removing the paper or bookmark will only make you start rereading each word, sentence, phrase, and paragraph. What happens next? An endless cycle of obsessions and/or compulsions of reading and rereading content begins.
You may be wondering, “But if I am unable to reread words, how will I know for sure that I understand everything?” Well, unfortunately, you will not know for sure that you understand everything. ERP therapy, along with ACT, can help you come to terms with the fact that you may never really know what the passage, article, blog, novel, textbook passage, etc., is really saying, and that is okay. Honestly, nothing in life is set in stone, and not everything in our lives will make sense to us.
Listed below are ways that ERP therapy can reduce reading OCD thoughts, urges, and behaviors:
- Covering what you have already read with a piece of paper, so you cannot physically reread what you have already read
- Setting a “time limit” or gradually reducing the amount of time spent on a word, sentence, paragraph, etc., then stopping when the time is up – even if you have not finished reading
- “Speed reading,” and asking someone to quiz you on what you just read (reading comprehension)
- Deliberately skipping words, sentences, and eventually paragraphs in a book, article, etc.
- Actively engaging in “simple reading exposures” and gradually increasing these “exposures” until you become desensitized to your old reading OCD triggers
- Ramping up (instead of avoiding) how much you read each day or week
- Parmet, S., Lynm, C., Golub, R. M. (2011). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. JAMA, 305(18), 1926. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/899894
- Nichols, H. (2020). What is obsessive-compulsive disorder? Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/178508#:~:text=Despite%20a%20wealth%20of%20research%2C%20the%20exact%20causes,neurotransmitters%2C%20is%20thought%20to%20be%20involved%20in%20OCD.
- National Institute of Health. (n.d.). Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd
- My OCD Voices. (2018). How I overcame my reading OCD. Retrieved from https://myocdvoice.com/2018/02/21/how-i-overcame-my-reading-ocd/