Everyone has intrusive thoughts, but people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are bothered by them more than others. In 1993, two psychologists did a study of people who were not diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and found that to varying degrees, they endorsed having the same intrusive thoughts as people with OCD. Why did these people not have OCD? They simply did not focus on these intrusive thoughts, they had them, didn't pay attention to them, and simply let them go. This research has led to a greater understanding of how and why certain people struggle so much with unwanted intrusive thoughts. If you have obsessive intrusive thoughts, I hope this page can provide you with some information that helps you. The categories of intrusive thoughts from the original study referenced above are listed below ( Purdon and Clark 1993).
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If everyone has intrusive thoughts, why do some people have so much trouble with them and some people just go on with their lives?
We know people with OCD interact with their intrusive thoughts differently. They are more likely to become confused and frightened by their thoughts. Usually, this is because of how they perceive them and how they act towards them. They believe the thoughts mean something about who they are ( they don't) and so they fight hard against them.
Paradoxically, the trying not to have the thought is what causes the intrusive thought to stick around.
Below are some beliefs you likely have and behaviors you are engaging in which are exacerbating your intrusive thoughts.
Confusing your thoughts with impulses
If you have OCD, you are likely to confuse your intrusive thoughts with impulses. When you have an impulse, it's an actual desire to act. Intrusive OCD thoughts are unwanted and people who suffer from them do not want to act on them, and are afraid of them! OCD intrusive thoughts pick the things you hold most dear to attack,and you are likely to become very disturbed by the thoughts. So, if for example, you love your baby, OCD will give you intrusive thoughts about murdering your child. If you are a devout christian, OCD might decide to give you an intrusive thought of standing up in church and shouting obscenities. The thought is the opposite of what you want to do. It is actually the opposite of an impulse. The key here is that the thoughts are UNWANTED.
Thoughts are just thoughts, if you have OCD. they are often completely random and mean nothing about the quality of who you are as a person or what you intend to do. Many thoughts are meaningless junk. Think of them as pop ups on your computer, or spam in your email. You can learn to train your brain to recognize scary intrusive thoughts in your mind as spam or pop ups on your computer. You don't want to click on spam or pop ups in the same way you don't want to engage in these thoughts.
Fighting with the Thought or Thought Suppression
When people who have intrusive thoughts are studied, it is determined that the main response they use to cope is thought suppression. It is human nature to try and stop disturbing and upsetting thoughts, but it actually makes them worse. This creates a cycle that increases the intensity of the thought and forces one to try harder to suppress it.
In 1987 Wegner published research and began to develop his theory of "ironic processes". This explains why it's so hard to push down unwanted thoughts. He found the evidence that when we try "not to think of something" we actually think about it more through a process of checking in to see if we are thinking about it. Try this little experiment right now by not thinking about a blue unicorn for the next three minutes. Healing from intrusive thoughts entails learning new strategies to be with your thoughts mindfully so you aren't trying to suppress them. If you understand that they don't mean you are a bad person nor that you will act on them it can help. It's also important to know you aren't in danger of hurting yourself or others when you have these thoughts.
Appraising Intrusive Thoughts as Danger
Humans tend focus on the negative more than the positive. We call this the negativity bias. People who are anxious and depressed are even more likely than the rest of everyone to do this. This was pretty important for our survival and we are wired this way evolutionarily to help use survive. In our environment as cave dwellers, we needed to pay more attention to the things that could kill us, rather than the flowers that look pretty. However, we don't need to do that anymore, because we don't ( most of us) live in caves and aren't hunted by predators or hunting to survive. In the case of people who struggle with intrusive thoughts, they are using this instinct and appraising their thoughts as dangerous. However, as we already established, thoughts are just thoughts, often just spam or popups and not dangerous unless you click on them or give them attention. If you do click on it, the thought generates an alarm response which then generates psychological arousal and trips us into a pattern of fear. At that point we go on automatic pilot. You can help yourself to understand they are NOT DANGEROUS. Just thoughts, and learn new strategies to work with and interact with them.
Getting Caught in the Content of Thoughts
If you click on an intrusive thought, you may get caught in the content of it. You may think you need to figure something out, and spend a lot of time on it. It can be exhausting.
OCD, or anxiety, will trick you in this way. OCD sees its job as to masquerade as something important, and strip you of your happiness in your life. It will morph into different intrusive thoughts and distract you from whatever you really should be doing and enjoying. Remember the intrusive thought is really spam, it isn't an urgent message that needs to be answered or a problem that needs to be solved. If you engage in it, it's like sending your money to a fake cause. Think of this intrusive thought as a person who is trying to steal from you, or a bad link that will infect your computer with a virus.
It's also important to note here that if you are seeing a therapist who is not trained in spotting OCD, however well meaning they may be, they might make you worse by getting involved in the content of your thoughts.
You want to spend time on developing NEW ways of interacting with your thoughts, not investigating the content of your thoughts. If you are focusing most of your time on the thoughts themselves, you are feeding the intrusive thoughts and the cycle.
Martin Seif and Sally Winston in their book Overcoming Intrusive Thoughts, have a great strategy you can learn to recognize subtle patterns you may be engaging in that are perpetuating the intrusive thoughts or anxious patterns that are persisting for you.
They suggest breaking down the voices in our heads ( self talk) into that of the worried voice, the voice of false comfort and the wise mind voice.
The worried voice consists of the voice that continues to create fear and anxiety. It continually asks what if something bad happens?
It is the voice that is constantly catastrophizing. If you are an anxious person you are likely familiar with this voice. Because it is constantly generating more and more fearful thoughts and feelings, it also creates anxious bodily sensations and ultimately will drive us into fight or flight. The worried voice begs for reassurance from you and everyone around you.
False Comfort is another voice most anxious people have. False comfort is the mistaken answer to the worry voice. In fact this is voice that members of your family may also provide. It's one that you may have been taught to help you with anxiety. It also may be what untrained therapists provide for you. It will say things that try to make the worried voice feel better. It will reassure you that you will be okay. It may encourage you to distract and avoid. It may also be full of empty and false affirmations. We know that false comfort serves as a compulsion for people with OCD. It makes them worse, and dependent on false reassurances rather than skills to becoming tolerant of their anxiety. It's an enabling voice.
Wise mind is the voice that incorporates all that we know and you have learned on this page about OCD, anxiety and intrusive thoughts. It will encourage you to take wise and skillful action. It will remind you that thoughts are just thoughts, they are not impulses, and you don't need to believe them. It will remind you to work on not trying to suppress your thoughts, but to cope with tolerating them. This voice encourages you not to get caught in the content, and reminds you that you aren't in danger even though you might feel like you are.
Developing wise mind is a goal to help you with your intrusive thoughts.
Many of the ideas are from Martin Seif and Sally Winston who are experts in this topic.
Purdon, Christine & A. Clark, David. (1993). Obsessive intrusive thoughts in nonclinical subjects. Part I. Content and relation with depressive, anxious and obsessional symptoms. Behaviour research and therapy. 31. 713-20. 10.1016/0005-7967(93)90001-B.
Seif, M., and Winston,S. ADAA. (2018,April 27th). Overcoming Intrusive Thoughts [Video webinar]. In ADAA Got ANxiety Series. Retreved from Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5FcpiRxLCg&feature=youtu.be
Winston, S., & Seif, M. N. (2017). Overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts: A CBT-based guide to getting over frightening, obsessive, or disturbing thoughts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Winerman, L. (2011, October). Suppressing the 'white bears'. Retrieved August 03, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/unwanted-thoughts
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