Compulsive whistling: Is it a disorder? (OCD)

In this blog post, we will answer the question, “Compulsive whistling: Is it a disorder?”, and we will also discuss what is OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), signs and symptoms of OCD, what are compulsive behaviors including compulsive whistling, and discuss treatment of the condition. 

Compulsive whistling: Is it a disorder? (OCD)

Compulsive behaviors are associated with a disorder known as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People often indulge in obsessive and ritualistic behaviors that can be a sign of OCD but one needs to seek professional help for an official diagnosis and treatment of their condition.

Before we get into how compulsive whistling is a sign of OCD, let us understand OCD well and then proceed further.  

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) comes under the class of Obsessive-Compulsive and related disorders in DSM-5. 

Apart from OCD, this class of disorders includes the following disorders:

  • body dysmorphic disorder, 
  • hoarding disorder, 
  • trichotillomania (hairpulling disorder), 
  • excoriation (skin-picking) disorder, 
  • substance/medication-induced obsessive-compulsive, obsessive-compulsive, and related disorder due to another medical condition, 
  • unspecified obsessive-compulsive plus related disorder (e.g., body-focused repetitive behavior, obsessional jealousy, etc.)

If you’re facing this, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a therapist or other mental health professional. You can find a therapist at BetterHelp who can help you learn how to cope and address it.

The characteristic of this disorder is described by the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions. 

So, what exactly are obsessions and compulsions? 

Obsessions are experienced as unwanted and intrusive images, urges, or thoughts that are recurrent and persistent.

On the other hand, mental acts or repetitive behaviors that a person is motivated to perform, according to the “rules” that must be applied rigidly or in response to an obsession are compulsions. 

We will be talking about compulsions in more detail later on. OCD and related disorders are closely related to anxiety disorders. They frequently occur together and are especially common in people with OCD. 

Please keep in mind that OCD is developmentally different from the normal preoccupations a person performs in their daily routines. 

For a diagnosis to be made, a number of factors are considered including the presence of rituals excessively or persistently beyond developmentally appropriate periods. 

The individual’s levels of distress and impairment in functioning are also required factors in the assessment. 

While the presentation of obsessions and compulsions differ from individual to individual, there are some common dimensional symptoms including symmetry, cleaning, forbidden or taboo, and harm obsessions and compulsions. 

OCD causes reduced quality of life as well as social and occupational impairment at a high level. Impairment occurs across many different aspects of life and is directly proportional to the symptom severity. 

The time spent obsessing and doing compulsions is also one of the reasons for impairment. When a person tries to avoid situations that can trigger obsessions or compulsions it can severely restrict functioning. 

Further, specific obstacles are created by specific symptoms. For example, obsessions around harm can lead to avoidance with family and friends out of the fear of hurting them and it can also make others feel hazardous. 

Obsessions concerning symmetry can delay the on-time completion of school or work targets because whatever the person does, it never feels “right,” this can potentially fail in school or job loss. Health consequences can also occur. 

For example, individuals with cleanliness concerns may avoid doctors’ offices and hospitals out of the fear of germs or potential exposure to diseases and the fear of developing those diseases. Repetitive behaviors such as frequently washing the hands or the body might result in the development of skin-related problems like excessive drying, etc.

Signs and symptoms of OCD 

Simply put, the symptoms are obsessions and compulsions that interfere with your daily-life activities. 

For example, the presence of these symptoms may often prevent you from getting to school on time because you cannot help but think that you are forgetting something which results in repetitive checking of your backpack. 

Most times a person with OCD is well aware they have a problem but cannot stop. If they do try to stop on their own, they develop a great deal of anxiety which keeps them restless unless they give in to the compulsion and perform the behaviour which gives them a sense of relief.

Causes of OCD 

Some of the causes of OCD are listed below: 

  • Emotional trauma or death of someone close with insufficient grieving. 
  • A History of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. 
  • Major life changes which are not planned, such as moving away from a dear place or moving to a totally unfamiliar place, getting into an unprepared relationship or getting divorced, or starting something new which they are not prepared for.
  • Overactivity in areas of the brain such as low levels of serotonin.
  • Problems at workplace or school.
  • Traumatic/life threatening Illnesses or experiences. 
  • Problems in a significant relationship.

As of now, scientists do not understand the exact causes of OCD. There may be certain factors or events that may increase an individual’s chances of developing the condition or causing an episode of OCD. 

What are Compulsive behaviors?

There are no specific definitions to define compulsive behaviors but Luigjes and colleagues have put forth this definition; compulsive behavior consists of repetitive acts that are characterized by the feeling that one has to perform them while one is aware that these acts are not in line with one’s overall goal (Luigjes J, Lorenzetti V, de Haan S, et al, 2019). 

Basically, there are three main points of compulsive behaviors:

  • The feelings of wanting to perform the behaviour 
  • Wanting to do it repetitively 
  • Most people above a certain age are aware that it is not in line with their goals, but still cannot help it. 

Almost all the time compulsions and obsessions occur together. Obsessional thoughts lead to compulsions and compulsions might in turn lead to obsessions. 

However, recently in a study posted by the University of Cambridge in the year 2011, there is the discovery that compulsive behaviours can occur in the absence of obsessions. 

Examples of compulsive behaviours 

  • The compulsive need to checking the things, like whether all the switches are turned off, or if the oven is turned off. 
  • Avoiding certain spaces over inability to stop performing these compulsive and ritualistic behaviours
  • Excessive cleanliness leading to compulsive washing of one’s hands or body. 
  • Correcting or moving things to form a symmetry, sequencing them in a specific manner which they feel is right.
  • The compulsion to harm oneself or others is especially dangerous.
  • Performing mental rituals like counting or checking in the attempt to ‘neutralise’ an obsessional thought. It results from the obsessive thought that something bad might happen if they do not follow the ritual.
  • Repeating words or certain noises which helps them “neutralize” themselves. 
  • Hoarding (keeping all the things, however useless stored up in a place) because of obsessional thought of how discarding something important might hurt others or themselves. 

Compulsive whistling behaviour : An in-depth analysis

In the report of a peculiar case back in 2012, there was a report of a 65-year-old man who presented with compulsive need to whistle. However, other symptoms of OCD and related disorders were completely absent. 

The patient in the year 1992, at the age of 42, was found unconscious in his car after suffering from a myocardial infarction (Myocardial Infraction is a heart attack caused by the blockage of blood flow to the heart muscles). 

He was brought to the emergency room, however upon examination was found to be brady phrenic, apathetic and disoriented. His short-term memory was severely affected and was also found to be in a dysphoric mood (unhappiness and dissatisfaction). 

Over the years, his wife and close relatives noticed changes in his social behavior and signs of disinhibition in pleasurable activities and continuous whistling. His wife reported that the patient whistles for about 5-8 hours per day and the duration would increase when he was tired. 

He was being treated with a psychiatric medication called clomipramine which decreased his whistling by about 50%, however, he had side effects including urinary incontinence. 

The patient felt annoyed when asked to stop whistling however stated that it would be good if he did not have this urge to whistle. 

There were many hypotheses as to why this compulsive whistling has been taking place. It was hypothesised that the repetitive whistling may have a merely impulsive nature with restricted behaviour. In was thought that the whistling may be attributed to a frontal syndrome. 

Another possibility was that repetitive whistling has a compulsive nature relating to OCD compulsions and may hence be originated in the development of the obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

There are specific lesions in the brain that are known to be involved in the development of OCD, such as frontal regions and the basal ganglia.

In conclusion, researchers present that one such reason why the compulsive behavior originated was not present and that the behavior can present independently and be a sign of OCD.

Is Compulsive Whistling a sign of OCD?

Yes, OCD can also include various compulsive behaviours that point towards a serious mental condition like OCD. One should seek the help of medical and mental health practitioners to navigate through their obsessions, compulsions, and OCD. 

Compulsive behaviours like compulsive whistling, excessive handwashing, etc., can be extremely debilitating for a person as they waste a large chunk of their day in these behaviours and this often creates problems in their studies, work, and even relationships.  

Treatment and management of OCD and compulsive behaviours

Symptoms of OCD that interfere with your daily life are without a doubt, hard to handle. A mental health professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of OCD:

Exposure and response prevention therapy

This therapy is especially used for compulsive behaviours. In this therapy, the client is asked to do the exact thing that causes anxiety. The response to this anxiety is prevented from happening i.e., the compulsive response is restricted. For example, the client may be asked to move things so that they are not in symmetry and they will not be allowed to correct the symmetry. 

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioural therapy is a type of psychotherapy/talk therapy. The client will talk to the therapist, who will help examine and understand the thoughts and emotions revolving around obsessions and compulsions. Over multiple sessions, CBT can help stop negative habits/thoughts, by replacing them with healthier ways to cope.


Drugs called tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) and selective SRIs (SSRIs) may be of help to manage the symptoms. They help to increase the levels of serotonin. Some of these drugs include fluoxetine, clomipramine, paroxetine fluvoxamine, and sertraline.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Compulsive whistling: Is it a disorder? (OCD)

How do you break the habit of whistling?

The best way to get out of action is to replace it with other actions. Balance out your whistling with soft humming or singing. Make sure to strike a balance and not get into the habit of too much humming. Other ways like distracting yourself by reading books or talking to someone also help. 

Is whistling an OCD? 

Repetitive whistling which a person is unable to stop or might find difficult to stop might have a compulsive character to it but does not qualify to be diagnosed as OCD. 

Is OCD an anxiety disorder? 

Previously considered an anxiety disorder, OCD is not a disorder separate from an anxiety disorder. However, it is closely related to anxiety disorders and it frequently presents with anxiety. 

What are the most common intrusive thoughts?

The most common intrusive thoughts include fear-based thoughts – fear of doing something to embarrass yourself, doing things wrong, not being able to so them perfectly, fear of harming dear ones, etc. 

Does OCD go away? 

OCD most times does not “go away” on its own without any treatment. It can be managed or decreased to a great extent. When OCD is diagnosed during childhood, there are greater chances of correcting the obsessions or compulsions. 

What are the medications for OCD?

Drugs called tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) and selective SRIs (SSRIs) may be of help to manage the symptoms. They help to increase the levels of serotonin. Some of these drugs include fluoxetine, clomipramine, paroxetine fluvoxamine, and sertraline.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Polak, A. R., van der Paardt, J. W., Figee, M., Vulink, N., de Koning, P., Olff, M., & Denys, D. (2012). Compulsive carnival song whistling following cardiac arrest: a case study. BMC psychiatry, 12, 75.

The University of Cambridge. (2011, May 23). OCD: Compulsions lead to obsessions, not the other way around. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 23, 2022,

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