Intrusive thoughts about violence, one’s sexual orientation, gender, and other topics can lead to severe anxiety. Learn about common myths that can actually make intrusive thoughts worse.
“Intrusive thoughts” are thoughts or images that a person experiences as unwanted. Intrusive thoughts are normal and unproblematic for most people. However, when experienced frequently, these thoughts can cause significant distress.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is one condition that involves frequent intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors (rituals). The rituals reduce anxious feelings that stem from intrusive thoughts. Fortunately, OCD is highly treatable using a treatment called exposure and response prevention (ExRP).
One thing that can limit the effectiveness of ExRP is false beliefs about the nature of intrusive thoughts. Here are some of the most common myths about intrusive thoughts:
1. “I must ritualize in order to keep myself and/or others safe.”
Each time you ritualize (i.e., do something to reduce your anxiety around your thoughts) and your feared outcome subsequently does not come true, it’s tempting to conclude that the ritual is what prevented the feared outcome from occurring. In reality, there is no connection between the ritual and the outcome. In order to learn this, you must be willing to accept the risk of not ritualizing in response to the intrusive thoughts. Since rituals are time-consuming, demanding, and the main reason why OCD symptoms persist, this is certainly a risk worth taking!
2. “My thoughts say something about who I am as a person.”
Many OCD sufferers, especially those who experience intrusive thoughts about harming others and being attracted to children, come to see themselves as horrible people due to the content of their thoughts. This line of thinking can lead people to feel guilty and depressed in addition to the distress they are already experiencing.
It’s important to know that there is no rhyme or reason why you suffer from any specific intrusive thought theme. Some theorists propose that the thoughts you suffer from actually reflect what you care most strongly about. For example, if you care deeply about your partner, you may be more likely to suffer from thoughts about harming your partner. What we do know is this: your thoughts do not reflect your character.
Consider this: if someone were suffering from another mental health condition, such as depression, or a medical condition, such as a brain tumor, it would be difficult (and nonsensical) to draw conclusions about the person’s values or character simply based on their symptoms. You wouldn’t say, “That person has a brain tumor, he must be a horrible person!” With OCD, the intrusive thoughts are the symptoms, and we cannot draw conclusions about character based on symptoms.
3. “Having disturbing thoughts is just as bad as acting on them.”
If this line of thinking resonates with you, you may be suffering from something called thought action fusion, the belief that simply thinking about an action is equivalent to actually carrying out that action. For example, you might believe that thinking about harming a child is just as bad as actually harming a child. As a result, you may attempt to push away your seemingly unsafe thoughts. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the OCD cycle. The truth is that thinking about something and doing something are two very different things. Having disturbing thoughts is normal, and tolerating such thoughts is necessary for overcoming OCD.
4. “I can and should exercise control over my thoughts.”
As mentioned, trying to push away or control one’s thoughts only strengthens OCD symptoms. The more you try to control specific thoughts, the more likely they will be to come up. Controlling one’s thoughts is simply not possible. The moment you surrender to your thoughts, the closer you will get to recovery. Surrendering to your thoughts means confronting and embracing your thoughts, rather than avoiding and resenting them. You can achieve this stance by actively trying to bring up your upsetting thoughts, and paying attention to the thoughts when they naturally arise.
5. “I cannot tolerate sitting with my thoughts.”
Perhaps the biggest myth that can prevent you from succeeding in ExRP therapy for intrusive thoughts is the idea that you would be unable to cope with your anxiety without doing something to neutralize it in the moment. While physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety can certainly be challenging, the symptoms are tolerable and will subside on their own eventually. The more you practice tolerating your thoughts and your anxiety, the easier this skill will become over time — and the more you’ll see your OCD symptoms improve.
If you suffer from intrusive thoughts, ask yourself whether you have fallen prey to any of the above myths and see if you can challenge them. If it is difficult to challenge your beliefs about your intrusive thoughts on your own, consider consulting with a CBT provider who can provide tips on how to do this successfully.