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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Catgorizing Illness

Q. I am a doctor and was wondering if there is a psychological disorder where the sufferer puts things (illnesses, for instance) into categories and feels uneasy if he can't attach a label to these things?

A. I'm not aware of a specific psychiatric disorder that fits the bill, but this sort of problem may be encountered in obsessive-compulsive disorder. It might be understood as a way of binding anxiety.

There are terms in the phobia literature that roughly describe this behavior; e.g., "ataxophobia" is defined as a "fear of disorder or untidiness". Usually, in OCD, we see this as a need to arrange things symmetrically, or in a specific pattern that is "just so"--with great anxiety resulting if the arrangement is disturbed for any reason. Some autistic individuals may also show such an obsessive need for order, categories, symmetry, sameness, etc.

On the other hand, the passion for order is not necessarily a disorder. In fact, I could make the argument that the need to put illnesses into categories and label them is a constitutional trait among those of us who find our way into the medical profession!

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September 2003

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