Do I Have OCD Intrusive Thoughts? How Can I Stop Them?
By Sarah Fader
Updated December 20, 2018
Reviewer Laura Angers
The human mind's ability to string together complicated thought processes is what sets us apart from other species. Over the course of a day, it is estimated humans have between 50,000 and 80,000 thoughts. This ranges from mundane thoughts like what to wear or have for dinner, to tackling more complicated tasks like handling grief or running a household. For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), some thoughts may become intrusive and affect their well-being. While many people can handle uncomfortable or stressful thoughts, those struggling with OCD have difficulty regulating intrusive thoughts which can lead to obsessions and compulsions.
What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
According to the Mayo Clinic, obsessive-compulsive disorder "features a pattern of unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). These obsessions and compulsions interfere with daily activities and cause significant distress." Though the causes of OCD are not fully understood, it is believed that biology, genetics, and the environment may play roles in this disorder developing.
There are four categories related to OCD:
- Constant checking
- Fear of contamination
- Intrusive thoughts
Intrusive Thoughts (OCD)
When persistent, invasive thoughts impact a person's ability to function in everyday life, their OCD falls under the category of intrusive thoughts.
Types of OCD Intrusive Thoughts
Although intrusive thoughts could be about anything, they typically fall into these categories:
It's normal to worry about relationships from time to time. OCD Intrusive thoughts about relationships could dominate a person's mind. These include obsessions about one's sexuality and the suitability and fidelity of one's partner. These thoughts put significant strains on relationships. Also, the person suffering from these thoughts may jump from relationship to relationship in hopes to find someone to diminish these fears.
- Over-analyzing every aspect of a relationship.
- Needing constant validation or reassurance from a partner.
- Constant worrying about a partner's faithfulness.
- Questioning one's sexual orientation.
- Fear of unintentionally cheating on a partner.
Body Focussed Obsessions (Sensorimotor OCD)
A person with OCD can have a hyperawareness of certain bodily sensations. This can include obsessing about if these sensations are normal or abnormal.
Some typical bodily obsessions include:
- Obsessive awareness of certain body parts
Sexual Intrusive Thoughts
These obsessions include unintentionally causing inappropriate sexual harm to loved ones or others, including children. One also questions their sexuality and desires as wrong or deviant. People with these thoughts often avoid public places or showing affection to younger people-even their children.
Symptoms of these thoughts may include:
- Fear of being sexually attracted to children.
- Thoughts about touching a child inappropriately.
- Fear of being sexually attracted to family members.
- Fears and doubts about being attracted to someone from the same sex (or opposite sex if one identifies as being gay.)
- Intrusive sexual thoughts about authority figures, God, or other deities.
Magical Thinking OCD Intrusive Thoughts
Many people cling to a few superstitions like having a favorite color or outfit. A person with magical thinking OCD, however, fully believes their superstitions and thoughts can control events or others' lives. They often become obsessed with performing rituals-sometimes elaborate and time-consuming-to dispel their intrusive thoughts.
- One's thoughts could make disasters occur.
- Certain numbers or colors are good or bad luck.
- Thinking of harming someone could cause them injury.
- Performing "protection" rituals when they hear a certain word or see a certain object.
- Imagining a disaster or accident will make it more likely to happen.
Religious Intrusive Thoughts
Having religious or spiritual beliefs are often helpful for one's well-being. When religious thoughts become a fixation, these obsessions may cause a significant strain on one's beliefs. These intrusive thoughts may cause someone to stray from their religion or live in constant fear of angering God.
Symptoms of intrusive religious thoughts:
- Fearing their sins or actions will never be forgiven by God.
- Obsessively repeating prayers.
- Constantly feeling sinful and unworthy.
- Repetitive blasphemous thoughts.
- In constant fear of unintentionally breaking religious laws and rules.
- Intrusive "impure" thoughts while praying or during religious services.
These types of intrusive thoughts are often very disturbing for those struggling with them. A person fixated on these thoughts feels like they are a horrible person. Like intrusive sexual thoughts, a person experiencing violent obsessions may withdraw socially and avoid public places.
Common violent obsessions:
- Killing innocent people.
- Poisoning the food of loved ones.
- Harming children or family members.
- Jumping in fronts of vehicles like trains or cars.
- Believing they will uncontrollably act on their violent impulses.
- Using objects to inflict harm on others thus avoiding these objects.
Why Intrusive Thoughts are so Persistent
Those with OCD and intrusive thoughts often suffer silently. They are unaware this is a neurobiological problem. This means the brains of those struggling with OCD operate differently than "normal" brains. OCD brains create a "fear network" alerting an individual something is potentially wrong and needs to be addressed immediately. The obsessions and compulsions commonly revolve around issues someone deeply cares about. For instance, a loving mother may become obsessed her children getting killed in a car accident. This leads to her avoiding vehicles and driving.
Those trying to control or repress intrusive thoughts on their own often fail. Focusing on not having intrusive thoughts only makes them more frequent. The only way to know when no intrusive thoughts are present is by realizing "I am not thinking about this." This thought, of course, causes one to think about the thought.
This is why those suffering from OCD intrusive thoughts need assistance from a professional.
When Are Intrusive Thoughts Considered a Serious Issue
When repeated thoughts lead to obsessions and compulsions impacting the well-being and daily functioning of an individual, they are considered intrusive thoughts (OCD).
The components of a clinical diagnosis of OCD:
- When the intrusive thoughts and resulting behaviors consume excessive amounts of time (an hour or more a day).
- The unwanted thoughts cause significant distress and anguish for the person.
- Thoughts and resulting obsessions and compulsions interfere with daily functioning including home, school, work, and interpersonal relationships.
How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts
Unfortunately, OCD is a chronic condition with no known cure. Luckily, there are interventions to lessen and manage intrusive thoughts. These help those struggling with the disorder gain control over their lives. The interventions often require the assistance of a trained professional.
There are no known laboratory tests to identify OCD. The disorder is often diagnosed when a trained mental health professional interviews a client and uses an assessment tool to determine the severity of the symptoms. Also, a professional can also determine if any other mental health issues are co-occurring with OCD. Some typically co-occurring psychiatric disorders could include:
- Mood and anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Impulse control disorders
- Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Suicidal thoughts and ideation
- Somatoform disorders such as hypochondriasis (feeling physical discomfort with no known physical issues)
Once diagnosed with OCD, a doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe an antidepressant to help reduce the symptoms. The most common types of antidepressants used are serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, sertraline, and paroxetine. Though these drugs rarely put intrusive thoughts into complete remission, about half the patients may experience significant symptom reductions.
One of the keys to stopping intrusive thoughts is learning to recognize when they occur and not acting on the obsessions or compulsions used for temporary relief. Although this seems like an easy step, anyone suffering from OCD intrusive thoughts would say otherwise. It's not that a person lacks the smarts, determination, or willpower, but sometimes a person struggling with OCD needs external support to "get out of his/her head."
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common method therapists use to help those with OCD stop or reduce intrusive thoughts and the resulting obsessions and compulsions. CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and reactions, not the external triggers like people, situations, or events.
For a person struggling with OCD, their automatic thoughts and subsequent reactions to personal fears, consume their lives. Cognitive Therapists help those with OCD accept their symptoms as part of their illness. They guide patients to realize their obsessional thoughts are irrelevant and unfounded and teach ways to stop compulsive reactions. This is achieved through behavioral experiments to direct a person towards their intrusive thoughts while working through the anxiety of not following through with compulsions. In time, the intrusive thoughts reduce in frequency and become more manageable.
Cognitive Therapists also use guided discovery and Socratic questioning to help decrease the believability of automatic intrusive thoughts, incorrect assumptions, and dysfunctional core beliefs. By working through these issues, the person with OCD can experience a decrease in anxiety, guilt, shame, and sadness about the disorder.
Education and Family Interventions
The more the person suffering from intrusive thoughts OCD knows about the disorder, the better equipped he will be able to deal with it. Also, a strong support network is essential to the recovery of someone with OCD. Family members and close friends may attend educational seminars, support groups, or workshops to understand better their loved one's disorder and how to help their recovery.
Take Your Life Back and Stop Unwanted OCD Intrusive Thoughts
If your intrusive thoughts are impacting the way you live your life, it may be best to seek professional help. Treating OCD on your own may lead to your intrusive thoughts worsening. By speaking with a therapist specifically trained in OCD and cognitive-behavior therapy, you may be taking the first brave steps in fighting this disorder. If seeking a traditional therapist is a difficult due to lack of funds or appropriate medical insurance, you may want to consider Betterhelp.com and their supportive network of licensed, accredited online therapists. Find out more how Betterhelp.com can help you regain control of your life.