OCD isn’t just about behavior; the disorder also changes the way you think. People with OCD commonly experience intrusive thoughts, or obsessions. These can be ideas or trains of thought that are unwanted, feel difficult to prevent, and often revolve around distressing themes or topics. Such thoughts are often repetitive or feed upon themselves, sparking ruminations, which are undirected, unproductive trains of thought that can consume minutes or hours. Although research in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders found that 94 percent of people experience intrusive thoughts to some degree, these thoughts can present a real challenge among people with OCD.
Intrusive thoughts or ruminations might include:
- Obsession with hygiene or cleanliness based on fears of feeling dirty, catching a disease, or infecting others with your germs
- Worry about environmental contaminants, like toxins, mold, asbestos, lead or radioactivity
- These types of fears may vary based on widespread cultural fears. For example, fears of radioactive contamination were common during the Cold War, and fear of pesticides has become common since the 1960s.
- Fear of injuring someone else unknowingly or unintentionally
- Fear that something horrible might happen to you or a loved one
- Worry that something will go wrong if you don’t take action or get something just right
- Disturbing images of harming your loved ones
- Distressing sexual imagery, such as of performing inappropriate sexual behaviors
- Thoughts or images in powerful conflict with your ideals or religious beliefs
- A nagging need for order or symmetry
- Existential, religious or philosophical obsessions, such as a need to know your place in the universe
According to OCD-UK, one main difference between intrusive thoughts and ruminations is that intrusive thoughts are usually disturbing and the person often tries to resist them, while ruminations often initially feel interesting, even indulgent. However, ruminations rarely tend to go anywhere or lead to new insights. Intrusive thoughts also tend to feel ego-dystonic, or apart from yourself. Ruminations usually feel more much ego-syntonic, or like they are part of your own mind.
Gaining Control of Your Thoughts
Even though both types of thoughts may be problematic in their own way, they don’t define you. You know who you are and what your values are. Just because you’ve caught yourself thinking disturbing thoughts doesn’t mean you have to act on them or that they’ll in any way become a reality. If anything, people with OCD are less likely to act on disturbing thoughts because they find them so troubling. An article in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment noted that people with OCD who experience violent, aggressive, or sexually inappropriate intrusive thoughts are not the same people who experience such images and go on to commit violent crimes.
Fortunately, help is out there – you can learn to quiet your mind and live free of obsessions and compulsions. Treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can teach you how to master your thoughts and actions, and mindfulness practices can help you learn to coexist with any remaining symptoms you have difficulty controlling. A variety of medications can also rebalance the malfunctioning pathways in your brain, giving you more sway over your thoughts and helping therapy work more effectively.
At Black Bear Lodge, we offer a wide variety of services to help clients with OCD regain control over their lives. Get in touch with us to find out more.