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Today we’re getting the straight facts about intrusive thoughts and OCD.
If there’s one mental health concept that desperately needs explaining, it’s Intrusive Thoughts. Why? Because these thoughts, while naturally occurring and totally normal, can lead to years of misery for certain sufferers who don’t understand the science behind them.
Believe me, I know. Because I was one of them but we’ll get into that in a minute.
First, let’s take a look at what an Intrusive Thought is.
What is an Intrusive Thought?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and often disturbing thoughts that seem to pop up in your mind randomly. Many are sexual or otherwise taboo in nature. Others include randomly wanting to break up with a beloved partner. Some of them may even be violent, including ideas of self harm or seem suicidal (like looking over a cliff and wondering what would happen if you jumped).
Now, the reason why they are considered intrusive is because they don’t match your current thought process and they come out of nowhere. Intrusive thoughts differ from suicidal or violent ideation because they occur so randomly, most times when you’re in a perfectly fine headspace.
The truth is, we all have intrusive thoughts. Psychologist Stanley Rachman’s famous study of college students (and many more done after that) found that virtually all of the particpants had occasional disturbing thoughts. As weird as it sounds, this fleeting depravity is widely regarded as just part of the human condition. And unless you act on these thoughts, which is highly unlikely, they can’t harm anyone. Generally, if you don’t react to them they just go away. Poof.
So the big question now is why are these thoughts such a problem then?
Why is it Critically Important to Know the Facts About Intrusive Thoughts and OCD?
As I said, Intrusive Thoughts are totally normal. But hell if I knew that as a young adult with undiagnosed OCD.
I thought my repeated, disturbing thoughts about hurting other people meant I was an absolute monster. I lived in constant fear that I would lose control and harm someone. And if I wasn’t worrying about that, I was scared to death that someone would find out about my depraved thoughts and put me in a mental institution forever.
Even worse, I 100% believed I deserved to be locked if I was thinking that way.
What I didn’t know was that I wasn’t a monster. I had one of the most common types of OCD, Harm OCD. I also didn’t know that people with OCD, PTSD, and other mental health disorders are prone to react to Intrusive Thoughts way more strongly than others. We tend to hyperfocus on the immorality of the thoughts which can actually make them occur more frequently. Which sets us up for a miserable loop of inner turmoil almost 24/7.
So, because of my lack of knowledge, I didn’t mention my experience to anyone for the better part of 10 years which delayed me getting seriously needed treatment.
I could have saved myself years of fear, self loathing and inner torment if I had only know the truth. That’s why it’s so crucial to know the facts about Intrusive Thoughts and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
5 Big Facts About Intrusive Thoughts and OCD That You Need to Know
So just what are the most important facts about Intrusive Thoughts?
Let’s find out shall we?
Intrusive Thought Fact 1: You’re Not A Monster For Having Intrusive Thoughts
I mean, we already covered this pretty extensively but I can’t remind people enough of this point. It’s a literal life saver. If I didn’t randomly come across a fact similar to this as a twenty something, there was a good chance I wouldn’t have lived to be a thirty something. So I’ll always shout it from the hilltop:
You are not a bad person if you have Intrusive Thoughts.
In fact, if you’re super reviled and distressed when you have these thoughts, that’s a good sign you’re actually probably a great person. In my OCD recovery program, the practitioners consistently reminded us that OCD attacks our most important values. Which means that if you’re worried to death about hurting someone you love, it shows you really care for them a lot.
Further more, there’s a big distinction between obessesive, Intrusive Thoughts and psychosis or command hallucinations.
There is an important distinction between obsessive-compulsive thoughts and the thoughts, plans, and desires that actually put people in harm’s way. Clients who experience horrific thoughts and images are no more likely to act on these thoughts than the general population. They are not psychotic, delusional, or experiencing command hallucinations instructing them to do harm. They are experiencing thoughts that are ego-dystonic, meaning they are distressing, unacceptable, and inconsistent with their identity and how they choose to behave.Stacey Kuhl Wochner, LCSW via Social Work Today
Intrusive Thought Fact 2: Fighting Intrusive Thoughts Makes Them Worse and More Frequent
Reacting strongly to an Intrusive Thought is a one way ticket to Misery.
That’s because many of us with OCD also deal with something called Distress Intolerance. This means we’re inherently bad at dealing with stress. This makes us react much more negatively to something stressful like a disturbing intrusive thought. Our natural impulse as card carrying worriers is to hyperfocus on the thing and worry it away.
But here’s the thing, you can’t worry or rationalize Intrusive Thoughts away. You can’t perform compulsions or rituals to make them stop either. That behavior will actively make them worse and more frequent.
(Check out this video from YouTuber Mark Freeman for a visual explanation of why performing compulsions to assuage Intrusive Thoughts actually creates a bigger problem)
Instead of performing a compulsion, you’re going to have to go against everything in your nature. You’re going to have to lean in and accept the Intrusive Thought for what it is, harmless and fleeting. Then you have to let it go.
Which is hella hard, I know. Here’s a little list of resources and tricks that have helped me overcome my preoccupation with Intrusive Thoughts.
- Mindfulness and meditation – I know, meditation is often touted by the uninformed as the cure all for any mental health problems. But in this case, mindfulness really is key in order to help us recognize our obsessive worry and change the thought patterns before they become a danger to our mental wellbeing.
- Exposure Response Prevention Therapy – ERP is an offshoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where you slowly exposure yourself to things that trigger you using a “hierarchy” in order to desensitize your brain. Here’s a page with great resources and worksheets for ERP.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy – DBT is a great compliment to ERP therapy because it helps you deal with the distress tolerance
- Radical Self Compassion
Intrusive Thought Fact 3: OCD with Intrusive Thoughts That are Sexual, Pedophilic, and/or Violent in nature is the among the most common types of OCD
Plot Twist, OCD isn’t about being obsessively cleanly. Don’t get me wrong, Contamination OCD is very real and very debilitating. But it’s far from the only expression of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In fact, researchers can’t even really count how many different subsets there are of OCD.
What they do know is that there are 7-10 main “themes” of OCD characterized by similarly occurring obsessions and compulsions across a wide population. And while scientists may not agree what kind of OCD is the most common, one thing is pretty clear. Harm OCD and Pedophilia OCD (where you’re terrified you will sexually harm a child or be perceived as a pedophile) consistently take the top spots.
Why’s that? Well, it goes back to the idea that OCD attacks our greatest values. If you have this type of OCD, chances are you’d move Heaven and Earth to make sure other people are safe.
So who do I bring his up as a fact? Because I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not a monster or broken. And most of all you CAN tell a mental health professional about your Intrusive Thoughts without fear of being institutionalized. Because, while you might feel like the world’s worst person, your therapist is trained to know that these thoughts are SO common and can help you overcome them.
Intrusive Thought Fact 4: Talking About Your Intrusive Thoughts is Essential to Healing
OCD keeps us in the dark. Scary Intrusive Thoughts make us believe we are *literally the worst* all the time.
But guess what? You can’t heal in the dark. You have to tell a mental health professional about the Intrusive Thoughts. Why? Because they can help you understand about your condition and how to treat it.
Look, I get it. It is possible therapist, doctor, or school counselor might misunderstand you and fire off unnecessary alarm bells. That can be scary and traumatizing which I really don’t want for you. So here’s a short list of resources to help you talk about your Intrusive Thoughts in a way that’s safe:
- Find a Professional Who Specializes in OCD and Anxiety Disorders: Most MH professionals these days have a good working knowledge on OCD. However, it’s really helpful to find one that specializes in Anxiety Disorders. This is because they are way less likely to misunderstand you when you vocalize about Intrusive Thoughts. They are literally trained for this very situation so you are in safe(r) hands with them.
- Educate Yourself on Intrusive Thoughts: You can cut the possibility of misunderstandings in half by being knowledgable about OCD and Anxiety before you speak to a professional.
3. Find support groups online where you can talk about having Intrusive Thoughts freely: There are lots of informed OCD communities, groups and message boards where you can speak freely about having intrusive thoughts. Talking to others at varying degrees of recovery will help you learn and make you feel vastly less alone. One thing to be wary of however: avoid groups that allow/encourage reassurance seeking as this will almost certainly have a negative effect on your recovery. If you’re not sure what groups are safe, peep this list of OCD support groups here on our Mental Health Community Connector page !
As frightening as that prospect may be, vocalizing that you’re having this scary thought loop is the first step towards recovery!
Intrusive Thought Fact 5: Recovery Is Possible
And speaking of recovery! OCD is actually really treatable with the right therapy methods, medicine and support.
I live a relatively Intrusive Thought free life thanks to an Intensive Outpatient program at Rogers Behavioral Health, the national specialists in ERP therapy. I also benefited greatly from medication and support from my family and friends. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bad days but the important part is that my life isn’t ruled by OCD and Intrusive Thoughts anymore.
Here’s a quick run down of what works for OCD:
- Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy: ERP helps you become comfortable with the anxiety produced by your thoughts and “natural” exposures (external anxiety producing events). By creating a hierarchy of “exposures” an ERP clinician will safely challenge you to become habituated to stress inducing events. Don’t get me wrong, it’s scary and difficult work and will often seem backwards, but it really, really works – check out these figures from Rogers on how a majority of their patients progressed tremendously using ERP techniques.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy: DBT is an offshoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that helps OCD patients become more comfortable with stress, helping them habituate to ERP exposures more quickly. It’s often used hand in hand with clinical OCD treatment but the techniques can easily be used at home if you can’t access therapy (check out DBTselfhelp.com).
- SSRI’s: High levels of OCD have been linked to the brain’s inability to produce or retain the neurotransmitter Serotonin. That means Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors like Prozac can help tremendously with OCD treatment and can be a great compliment to ERP and DBT therapies.
And there are many more treatments out there. These are the three most effective ones but what works for some may not work for all. No matter what you choose, the big thing to remember is the you CAN recover from OCD and you CAN live a life with fewer Intrusive Thoughts. So don’t give up hope <3
Wrap Up To The 5 Big Facts About Intrusive Thoughts and OCD
So there you go, 5 Big Facts About Intrusive Thoughts and OCD that you need to know! I really hope this post helped you out. If you want to share awareness on OCD and mental illness in general please share this article with others.
Knowing the facts about Intrusive Thoughts and OCD will help us create a world where people feel safe to get treatment as soon as symptoms present instead of waiting. And that’s how we change the world my friends.
Bonus: International OCD Foundation’s Comprehensive Treatment and Support Finder
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