Mental illness mystery: visual tracing

I’m hoping that my friends here in the blogging world can help me understand a symptom I’ve been experiencing for nearly two decades. Some of my psychologists and therapists have attributed it to OCD, others to PTSD, and others just say they don’t know. None have been able to treat it or help me manage it much. Usually I am just told to “try really hard to resist the urge” or “distract yourself”. These things have worked on rare occasions, but usually I just can’t help but do it.

The symptom is what I call visual tracing. It first began when I was a child. I began to feel this compulsion/urge to visually trace the frames of pictures on the wall. That soon expanded to having to trace the line where the wall meets the ceiling, the outlines of windows and doorways, the contours of the mountains outside, and clouds. After I turned 16 I noticed I had to trace the outlines of buildings, billboards, and clouds as I drove—miraculously and thankfully I have never rear-ended anyone or caused any crashes because of it.

It happens with objects on my left more often than objects to my right. And my neck can get really sore from turning my head repeatedly to trace. It causes a lot of tension and pain in my face and head as well, causing terrible headaches.

The times I notice it most are when I’m jogging (gets dangerous), reading, on the computer, watching a movie, driving (more dangerous), in class, or talking to people.

Like most mental illness symptoms, its worse when I’m really stressed or really tired. And its worse when I am somewhere unfamiliar or less-safe feeling.

Sometimes it even happens when my eyes are closed (like when I’m falling asleep), and I have to trace things I can’t even see. My brain just still feels compelled to turn my closed eyes to the left and trace unseen lines.

When it’s really bad, I also have to add my tongue—tracing my gums and the inside of my teeth along with what my eyes are tracing.

Sometimes I go a long time—weeks—without having to trace anything (or at least not noticing it), other times it happens all day long.

I have tried to notice any thoughts/obsessions that could be driving the visual tracing, but usually I don’t notice anything preceding it.

Do any of you experience anything similar? Or do you have a friend with a mental illness who experiences these things? Please spread the word. I won’t take it as authoritative medical advice, I would just love to know what disorder this might be part of, and what people’s psychologists have taught them that helps with it. Send me a message if you or anyone you know could shed some light on this for me. Thank you!


5 thoughts on “Mental illness mystery: visual tracing

  1. First of all, obviously I’m no psychiatrist or therapist, so take this for what it’s worth. I have a severe case of PTSD, and I know several people really well who have OCD. It sounds to me like classic OCD….you have a “compulsive need” to trace things. One friend I have to has a pretty serious case of OCD has a therapist who has worked with her to find ways to lessen the compulsive habits that she has. Do you have a therapist who knows enough about OCD who can help you with that? I find it odd that they’re just telling you to “try not to do it.”

    I have seen quite a few therapists since my childhood, most of them since I went to college. They’ve all been helpful in some ways, and I’m grateful for all of them. Some have been more helpful than others, though. I think this is normal: sometimes you have to search for the right fit. Two in particular have been especially helpful. I saw one for five years who had done her Ph.D. dissertation research in anxiety. I think I’d seen 4 or 5 therapists before her (moved a lot) and she was able to help me make more progress in the first few months, I think, than all the time I’d seen the rest of the therapists combined. She knew what was going on with me. I’ve often, since, quoted her to other therapists and friends who are therapists about things that they didn’t know before.

    The second most helpful, I think, is my current therapist. She did her dissertation research in trauma. She knows all kinds of helpful things that my other “most helpful” didn’t know.

    Are you in any online groups for OCD or PTSD? I’ve found them pretty helpful. You need to know how to “take what you need, and throw the rest away.” But really, they’ve been helpful to me. I’ve met a lot of fellow mental health patients, but “meeting” those with the same diagnoses as myself has been really comforting. Attending a local “trauma” support group was also really helpful. I’ve been in other groups that were just okay. Getting to be with other trauma victims, even though our “traumas” were different, was priceless.

    You could try NAMI to see if they know of any local groups, or local therapists, who are more specific to what you’re dealing with. There are local NAMI offices all over the U.S., unless you’re in Canada. I know there’s a similar organization there, but I don’t know what it’s called. Google can tell you. 🙂

    Good luck!


    1. Wow, thank you for such a comprehensive response, I really appreciate it. I will definitely look into your ideas. I have seen psychologists in the past–some who were extremely helpful about some aspects of my PTSD and OCD–but I currently can’t afford therapy and have really wanted some time to see what I can do without one if that makes sense. Anyway, thank you again for your thoughts!


      1. No problem, and good luck again! If you decide to try therapy again, NAMI (or another local agency) may be able to help find you something no cost or low cost. (((hugs)))


  2. It sounds like it’s a coping mechanism for you. I have a coping mechanism that I’ve done ever since I was a kid; let’s call it mental counting. When I hear or read a sentence I will quickly count how many letters are in the sentence. I’ll do this when driving, reading, watching tv, but not all the time. Usually when I’m either stressed or bored. I’ll also do a variation of it by counting numbers down to their lowest added number. For example, the license plate that reads B55 8703 would be represented by 1 (5+5+8+7+3 = 28; 2+8 = 10; 1+0 = 1). And I really love it when a lot of numbers add up to 9, because those can be immediately ignored. Sounds weird, but I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. There aren’t any side affects to it, although I don’t hear part of conversations or shows as I am busy counting letters. In my book, there’s worse coping mechanisms that we could be doing instead. Like drinking. Or drugs. We chose (or our minds did) something safer and more sublime.


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