If you or someone you know struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you’re probably aware of intrusive thoughts. These are those unwanted, stress-provoking thoughts and urges that seem to come out of nowhere and prohibit you from thinking straight or performing certain tasks.
For example, you might be running late for a meeting because you had to turn around three times to triple-check that you locked your front door. Even if you know you locked the door the last time, your brain keeps nagging and makes you feel like you haven’t. These intrusive and obsessive thoughts are essentially what make up OCD.
Living with OCD can be burdensome and intrusive thoughts don’t make it any easier. Recently, social media influencer Lele Pons opened up about her OCD, explaining that she had been hiding her disorder from the world but felt like it was time to be open and honest about her struggles. Her goal was to help educate her young audience on what OCD looks like and how it can affect someone’s life.
“I want them to understand that OCD is serious if you have it. It’s not an adjective. It’s a disorder,” Pons says. “I want people to know that if they have it, they can succeed. They can do whatever. It doesn’t define you.” Intrusive thoughts can control your life. However, there are ways that you can start combating those thoughts. With a little time, patience, and practice, you can find great relief.
An Overview of OCD symptoms
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, otherwise known as OCD, is when someone has intrusive thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). One of the most challenging aspects of living with OCD is wanting to stop your thoughts but failing to do so. Usually, this ends up making matters worse.
Emily Simonian, MA, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist of Thriveworks Counseling in Washington, DC—specializing in family issues, stress, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues—says it’s important to understand that intrusive thoughts are essentially a symptom of anxiety. The reaction to these thoughts is what harms your mental wellbeing, not the thoughts themselves.
“When we recognize intrusive thoughts as part of a common thought stream in the fear region of the brain, we can normalize their occurrence and learn to respond in healthier ways instead of feeling fear or shame,” she explains.
Sometimes people don’t recognize that their compulsions and obsessions are more extreme than the average person. Some examples of OCD symptoms include:
- Cleaning obsessively
- Counting in specific patterns
- Repeatedly checking to make sure the lights are turned off
- Turning the water faucet on and off until you feel like it’s been done correctly
- Silently saying words or phrases
- Arranging items to sit a specific way
- Washing your hands until your skin becomes raw
The severity of OCD varies from person to person. OCD can also develop in childhood and gradually increase in severity throughout life. The types of compulsions you have may also change and evolve as time goes on. While OCD is considered to be a lifelong condition, there are ways to effectively manage your symptoms and go on to live a happy, successful life.
Understanding Intrusive Thoughts: Can You Control Them?
Intrusive thoughts fall under the obsession side of OCD. They are persistent, unwanted thoughts that just don’t seem to leave your mind. They may center around worry, fear, relationships, decision-making, inappropriate actions, or violence. Some signs and symptoms of intrusive thoughts can include:
- Thoughts about yelling inappropriate words or sayings when in public
- Unpleasant sexual images
- Fear of being contaminated by other people or by objects that may have been touched
- Feeling unpleasant and stressed when items aren’t the way they should be
- Doubts that you have closed the garage door, turned off the iron, touched the corner of your dresser before heading out, etc.
Combatting Intrusive Thoughts
When you want those intrusive thoughts to leave, chances are the first thing you think is, “How can I get these thoughts out of my head?” Immediately, all you can think about are those thoughts you’re trying to avoid. “Thought-stopping or forcing the mind in this way usually doesn’t work, and it sets us up to spiral mentally and emotionally,” says Simonian. Instead, she recommends trying the following:
- Cognitive shifting: “When you recognize an unwanted intrusive thought, first, try not to judge yourself for having the thought, and then refocus your attention elsewhere without engaging with the intrusive thought,” Simonian explains. “Refocusing your attention might look like reading, watching TV, calling a friend, or going back to what you were doing before the thought occurred. You might need to refocus a few times, and that’s okay. It takes practice!”
- Identify your triggers: Another tip for combating intrusive thoughts is to identify what your triggers are. You can start keeping a small journal with you to record when you start having an intrusive idea and what interactions may have caused them. You can also write down what kind of mood you were in that day. Over time, you can start to notice patterns and better predict a situation that might cause stressors for you. This will help you feel better prepared.
- Consider talking to a therapist: One of the very best ways to learn how to better manage or beat these intrusive thoughts and compulsions is by talking to a therapist. Therapists can provide you with a supportive and comfortable environment to talk about your concerns and the feelings you’re having. Therapists and psychologists are trained mental health professionals who have the experience and expertise to provide you with tools and tricks to manage your OCD better.
“Don’t be afraid of having intrusive thoughts,” says Simonian. “The more you worry about it or focus on whether or not you’re going to have unwanted thoughts takes away your power over the thoughts and decreases your sense of self-control. Remember that your inner OCD voice is not you. These thoughts aren’t factual—they’re just thoughts. You can lower the intensity and frequency of these thoughts with some cognitive practice!”
A Final Thought for Those Who Are Battling OCD Symptoms
Having OCD symptoms isn’t something to be ashamed of. Every year, over 2 million adults battle OCD. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone, you’re not broken, and you are capable of living the life you want. With a little practice and time, you can accomplish the goals you set for yourself.