Compulsive behavior

Why Do I Count In My Head?

Nidhi Nangia
By Nidhi Nangia. Updated: August 2, 2020
Why Do I Count In My Head?

Counting in your head is a kind of OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder, in which the person feels the need or urge to count certain things or everything that he comes across. Whether it is counting the stairs while climbing them, tiles on a floor or wall, birds on a line or peas in a bowl, the patient with this mental health condition feels as if it is necessary to count them, otherwise something very bad will happen. If you or anyone in your family feels an inevitable need to count things, you must be wondering why this is happening. Read this oneHOWTO article to find an answer to the question: why do I count in my head?

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  1. Fear
  2. Misinterpretation of thoughts
  3. Low serotonin level
  4. Streptococcus infection
  5. Heredity


People who count in their head associate their behavior with a certain fear. They try to avoid the consequences by counting certain things. This fear and the act of counting begins especially when a person is under a period of high emotional stress, such as end of a relationship, loss of a loved one, starting of a new job etc. During such times, a person is more vulnerable to anxiety and fear, and he develops fear for otherwise neutral things. For example, a person who always walked up stairs normally would start counting stairs while climbing them as a fear of missing some important detail. Because counting reduces the level of fear temporarily, the person avoids the fear and deal with it by reinforcing the act of counting.

Misinterpretation of thoughts

Everyone has unwanted thoughts under stress, but patients with OCD may not be able to shrug them off and exaggerate their importance to respond with counting. A person may think that a wall may not be symmetrical and organized, and may fall off if he does not count tiles on it. Sometimes, counting in your head may cause high levels of anxiety and negative emotions that may lead to feelings of guilt, disgust and shame. People who misinterpret their thoughts usually try to neutralize their feelings by counting certain things around them. Misinterpreting thoughts and exaggerating their importance may make a person feel distressed, and cause him to count in head.

Why Do I Count In My Head? - Misinterpretation of thoughts

Low serotonin level

People who count in their head have certain brain functions that act differently from normal people. Most importantly, such people have low levels of serotonin in their brain. Serotonin is a brain chemical that is responsible for transmitting signals from one brain cell to the other. This is a chemical messenger in the brain that plays an important role in regulating mood, sleep, aggression, impulse, pain, appetite and body temperature. Any medicine that you may be prescribe to control counting in head will intend to raise serotonin levels in your brain.

Streptococcus infection

According to some researches, people who suddenly develop OCD counting may have encountered a recent infection of streptococcus. It is the same bacterium that causes strep throat common infection. In a few cases, when your body is forming antibodies to fight against the infection, they may mistakenly react to basal ganglia and ask you to count in head. Basal ganglia is a brain area that is linked with obsessive compulsive disorder. This kind of OCD is more commonly seen in children, and may not be a cause for counting in head among adults.


Counting in head or other kinds of OCD seems to run in families. Around 50% of cases show similar patterns in parents and children, siblings, cousins and others. If someone in your family has an OCD disorder, then your OCD may be a result of your heredity. Even if a child learnt counting in head from his mother or father, the child may show very different OCD symptoms. Genes may be involved in the regulation of serotonin and can be passed through generations. It is commonly seen that if one of the identical twins develops OCD, it is more likely for the other twin to develop it too, now or later.

If you need a solution, at oneHOWTO we give you some techniques in our article: How to stop OCD counting.

Why Do I Count In My Head? - Heredity

This article is merely informative, oneHOWTO does not have the authority to prescribe any medical treatments or create a diagnosis. We invite you to visit your doctor if you have any type of condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Why Do I Count In My Head?, we recommend you visit our Mental health category.

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I am a retired 72 year old female. Similar to people who count in their head, I do many physical actions and most manual tasks throughout the day to a steady rhythm I create in my mind. It's a basic 4/4 rhythm (without counting) to a repetitive phrase of a tune I create that I apply to what I am doing, with my hands primarily, such as cooking, laundry, cleaning up, making the bed, and anything that is more or less a process through time. It doesn't happen when I'm reading, driving, conversing, sleeping, etc.

It has increased lately but doesn't get in the way - on the contrary, this inner rhythm makes jobs very efficient. I slow the rhythm when necessary in order to keep the actions of the tasks on the beats. I actually like this about myself but it seems strange and I can't find anything online to apply to the behavior. I have little stress and do manage any difficulties in life well at this point. I would appreciate any clues as to what is going on.
I am 71 and have just started counting in my head. I don't actually count anything I just get the urge to start counting numbers. I am very worried I am epileptic and also recently had a fall which required me having stitches in my head. I feel like I am going mad I just want to stop these numbers keep coming in my brain. I am due to see my doctor next week but am not hopeful that I wll get any treatment.
OneHowTo Editor
Hi Vanessa,

We're glad to hear you're seeing a doctor, this is the safest bet if you want to stop your condition. Meanwhile, you can try out these tricks which may work while you wait for your appointment:

Hope this helps!
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Why Do I Count In My Head?