Table of Contents
When Thoughts Cause Anxiety and Distress
A common manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is the unwanted parade of involuntary and disturbing thoughts that torment the individual. These are not just ordinary thoughts that flow through the mind all day but are highly upsetting in nature. The intrusive thoughts can cause intense feelings of anxiety and distress.
Many times, these intrusive thoughts are what drive the subsequent compulsive behaviors that are characteristic of OCD. The thoughts are so distressing that the individual with OCD will respond with unusual behaviors in an attempt to diminish the potency of the upsetting thoughts. This only reinforces the pattern of obsessive thoughts followed by compulsive actions. For these individuals, learning how to overcome OCD intrusive thoughts becomes an essential goal in managing this mental health disorder.
About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a complex mental health disorder that is associated with anxiety disorders. OCD affects approximately 1.2% of the US adult population, according to statistics provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, with women more than three times as likely to suffer from the disorder. Depending on the severity of the OCD, this disorder has the potential to cause serious impairment in daily functioning. Due to the chronic nature of OCD, treatment goals will center around learning how to manage the disorder and improve the quality of life.
OCD involves two disordered activities—obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions that become paired. Obsessive thoughts, which are rooted in fear, guilt, or fear trap the individual in a pattern of repetitive compulsive behaviors. The compulsive behaviors represent a response to the obsessive doubts and fears and act as an anxiety management measure.
Some common examples of obsessive-compulsive patterns include:
- An intense fear of germs or contamination, resulting in repetitive hand washing or excessive cleaning
- Fear of burning the house down, which leads to checking things repeatedly, such as whether the stove is truly turned off
- Emotional disturbance when items are out of place or order, resulting in a precise arranging of items and not permitting anyone to change the order
OCD may become so severe that a person becomes enslaved by the compulsive actions, even preventing them from leaving the house.
About OCD Intrusive Thoughts
OCD is a complex and mysterious condition that can affect each person differently. One way that is expressed is through the intrusive thoughts that can disrupt daily functioning. It is believed that at the center of a person’s particular intrusive thoughts is a core value, something the person cares about. In the mind of someone with OCD, a meaningful core value is flipped and what results are thoughts that are both disturbing and taunting.
When the intrusive thoughts emerge, the individual is alarmed and begins anticipating the thoughts or dreading that the upsetting thoughts will reemerge. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the more the thoughts are dreaded the more often they are summoned back to the forefront. To help learn how to overcome OCD intrusive thoughts the individual has to learn techniques that help them avoid ruminating over them. . In this way the individual trains the mind to not take the thoughts so seriously.
It is next to impossible to achieve relief from intrusive mental imagery without the support and coaching of a psychotherapist. In addition to the therapy sessions, an OCD support group can also provide opportunities to practice the techniques together.
Different Types of OCD Intrusive Thoughts
OCD intrusive thoughts vary by the individual. Where one person might be haunted with worrisome thoughts about harming their child, another may experience disturbing thoughts regarding religious beliefs, while another may have repetitive intrusive thoughts that are sexual in nature. What those who suffer with OCD have in common is the belief that they are a bad person because of the thoughts in their head.
Some of the different types of OCD intrusive thoughts include:
- Harming intrusive thoughts. Thoughts that feature fear of impulsively harming someone, such as the spouse, child, parent, or his or herself, cause a great deal of disturbance for obvious reasons. These harming thoughts may center on one particular person that in reality is dearly loved by the individual, and they have no intent to ever hurt the person. The OCD flips this and causes the disturbing thoughts that lead them to imagine harming that person.
- Sexual intrusive thoughts. Sexually intrusive thoughts are those that involve sexual imagery or questioning one’s own sexual identity. The individual might conjure of uninvited images of violent sexual activity or that which involves inappropriate sexual practices.
- Religious intrusive thoughts. Obsessive thoughts around religion or scrupulosity feature such things as being constantly concerned about sinning against God, compulsive praying, and hypermorality. It can also involve intrusive blasphemous thoughts, inability to sit through church service, or constantly doubting faith beliefs.
- Existential intrusive thoughts. These thoughts revolve around questioning the purpose of life, of the reality of the universe or self. Someone suffering from OCD may become obsessed with questioning why they exist and allow their thoughts to pull them into a deep vortex of fear or anxiety.
- Responsibility intrusive thoughts. Compulsively worrying about the repercussions of actions or lack of action taken, sometimes taking responsibility to things that were no fault of the individual. Contamination obsessions fall into this group, such as excessive worry about a child getting sick from being around an animal or taking the blame for an accident that they had nothing to do with.
To self-manage the stress that results from intrusive thoughts, individuals with OCD might engage in compulsive rituals, repetitive mental rituals, reassurance seeking, or avoidance behaviors. By avoidance behaviors, this might involve removing all the knives in the house if there is a belief that they might harm someone, or to avoid the people, situations, or objects that are related to the intrusive thoughts.
How to Overcome OCD Intrusive Thoughts
Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, those unwanted often unsettling thoughts that fleetingly pass through the mind. But for most people, the thoughts are benign because they are allowed to dissipate; they are not given any real credence. For someone with OCD, these intrusive thoughts are nurtured until they become a narrative in the mind. The thoughts become obsessive and become followed by compulsions.
So how can these intrusive thoughts be neutralized? Professional therapy can help the individual acquire some coping skills that help them to take the fear and power out of the intrusive thoughts. The therapist can guide the individual to detach from the thoughts personally, instead of believing that the disturbing thoughts say something revealing about their character. Therapy is a process that can help someone with OCD to eventually allow the thoughts to pass without feeling compelled to take compulsive actions.
What is Exposure and Response Prevention?
One of the targeted treatment methods for OCD is exposure and response prevention, or ERP. ERP is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that involves incrementally exposing the patient to the intrusive thoughts, to face the thoughts head on in small stages, and then disengaging from the compulsive actions that usually follow. By sharing the intrusive thoughts with the therapist, actually stating them out loud, much of the power of the thoughts becomes diminished. As Dr. Debra Kissen, a Clinical Fellow at the Anxiety Depression Association of America states, “The same intrusive thoughts that feel so real, all powerful and self-defining when swirling around in your head will disintegrate when said out loud.”
In essence, the “exposure” component of the ERP therapy refers to the voicing of the actual intrusive thoughts and the “response prevention” refers to the purposeful decision not to engage in the compulsive behavior once the obsession has been triggered. The individual must make a commitment to not give in to the usual compulsions that typically follow. For the initial weeks of ERP a therapist guides the patient through the incremental steps of exposure and non-response. After that the individual will be provided with the tools to conduct ERP on their own.
Comprehensive Treatment for OCD
When desiring to break free and learn how to overcome OCD intrusive thoughts it is helpful to understand how OCD is treated and managed. Overcoming OCD intrusive thoughts will involve a multi-pronged approach to treatment. These include medication, psychotherapy, and holistic activities that help reduce anxiety.
Medication. SSRI antidepressants have been shown to help individuals with OCD by helping to rebalance neurotransmitters, or brain chemistry. The medications that have been shown to help manage the symptoms of OCD include Prozac, Anafranil, Fluvoxamine, Zoloft, and Paxil. Other psychotropic medications may be prescribed as needed, based on the features of the OCD.
Psychotherapy. In addition to ERP, cognitive behavioral therapy and habit reversal training provide other behavioral solutions to help change thought distortions and compulsive actions. A therapist can help the individual examine the intrusive thoughts and learn how to neutralize them, which helps to diminish the compulsions. Group therapy offers a peer support setting for individuals struggling with OCD to share their struggles and successes.
Holistic therapies. Because OCD is associated with anxiety disorder, certain complementary activities can help the individual reduce stress. Activities such as yoga, meditation, massage, or even gardening will help to promote relaxation and calm.
Guidance and Treatment for Mental Health Conditions
The Treatment Specialist is a team of experienced mental health professionals who have assembled an online library of information about mental health conditions, including OCD. Consider seeking helpful guidance from The Treatment Specialist, where free information is provided free regarding treatment options and providers. For more information, please contact a Treatment Specialist today at (866) 644-7911.