How weird is that?

Are your quirks perfectly normal, or is it time to get help?

How weird is that?

Source: Best Health Magazine, Spring 2008

All of us have our idiosyncrasies; really, is there any such thing as “normal”? But we should distinguish between unusual behaviours we can easily tolerate and troublesome patterns we should try to fix, because the line between quirk and crisis is very thin. Best Health turned to the professionals for their take on some behaviours—and whether or not they’re worth investigating further with your doctor.

Numbers game

You count everything: the stairs at work (23), ceiling tiles (96), ruffles in the curtain (14). It may be a way to get through life’s less pleasant moments. “You could be using counting as a form of distraction from something that’s boring or upsetting,” says Neil Rector, head of the anxiety disorders clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. But some people find that obsessive counting (arithmomania) interferes with their lives; they may suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). So are you in control of your counting, or is it in control of you? Rector says it can be a problem if you “experience discomfort in trying to resist counting, if you are spending hours doing it, and it’s leading to significant distress, or interfering with work or relationships.” For some people with OCD, treatment is a combination of antidepressants and behavioural therapy.

That quirky hair-twirling habit

Do you twirl your hair with one finger when you read? Your behaviour is just a quirk. (Just be glad you don’t have trichotillomania, the impulse to pull out your hair in clumps—from your head, eyebrows and other fuzzy body parts.) “Hair twirling is harmless; I wouldn’t even call it a nervous habit,” says John Walker, director of the anxiety disorders program at St. Boniface General Hospital in Winnipeg. Chances are you developed the habit long ago, and it’s now automatic. But it could be helping you focus on what you’re reading. “Twirling your hair may be connected to concentration,” says University of Waterloo psychologist David A. Moscovitch. “Some people think better when they’re moving in some way.”

How much is too much to worry?

Lying awake at night, you worry about bad things you know couldn’t possibly happen. You have full-blown scenarios of being captured and tortured, or of how you’ll survive should the wings fall off the plane you’re in.

Psychologists and psychiatrists saw a surge of anxiety of this kind after 9/11. In today’s world, some measure of anxiety is natural and understandable. Worrying is perfectly normal, and there’s no sense trying to eliminate it. “Most of us are worrying at least some of the time,” says Rector, noting that by helping us prepare for the future, worrying might even have some evolutionary benefit.

But you may be working yourself into more of a lather than you need to—and that may point to larger issues. Moscovitch says one of the features of anxiety is “ ‘catastrophizing.’ A lot of people with anxiety problems tend to think about the world and the future in a catastrophic way.” Walker says they “may be trying to eliminate uncertainty by having a solution for every problem. Problems and difficulties will happen in your life, but it’s unproductive to spend time worrying about things that might never happen.”

Walker suggests that instead of preparing for implausible things, you could use your logic and understanding of the world to prepare for likely eventualities. “It probably wouldn’t hurt to know something about CPR and first aid. It’s a positive way to channel your tendency to worry.” If your fretting is occasional, see if you can reason your way out of it. But if you feel it’s more in control than you are, consider talking to a trusted friend or therapist. If your anxiety spikes into panic attacks, see your doctor. There are medications for this.

A sensation of falling

Sometimes you feel as if you’re falling, whether you’re sitting, standing or lying down—but you never actually fall. Go see your doctor as soon as possible. There are a dozen possible causes for your condition, from an innocuous side effect of a medicine you might be taking to a dangerous brain tumour. There’s no way to know unless you see your physician, who may order brain scans and refer you to a neurologist. So make an appointment immediately.

The clutter queen

You are incapable of throwing things out, whether it’s clothing, electronic equipment or yesterday’s newspaper, because you think you might need it one day.

Freud would have called that anal-retentive behaviour. You may well have pack-rat syndrome, or pathological hoarding. Pack rats feel the world is out of whack if they don’t have all their things—often meaning anything that has ever passed into their possession.

Pathological hoarding is related to OCD, and, in both, it is a futile attempt to control something in an unstable world. Pathological hoarders tend to have stuff almost everywhere in their home, but hoarding is a question of degree. Your family may well have a better perspective on this behaviour, and if they say you need help, you should listen to them.

Don’t stand so close to me

Whether walking in the mall or driving on the highway, you can’t stand to be next to people going at the same pace: You have to pass them or let them move ahead. Weird, maybe, but that doesn’t make it a psychopathology. Says Yale psychologist Marianne LaFrance, “Finding yourself right next to someone feels like intimate behaviour, and when that person is a stranger, that intimacy is unnerving.” Translation: Not to worry!

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