Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

4 Reasons Why OCD Can Make Your Thoughts Feel So “Sticky”

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Oct 09, 20234 minute read

Of all the ways OCD can significantly impact and interfere with an individual’s daily life, its ability to make intrusive thoughts or obsessions “sticky,” or difficult to stop thinking about, can be the most challenging. Dealing with the “stickiness” of these thoughts may have left you wondering: why does this happen in the first place? There are several reasons.

1. Your thoughts make you question who you are

OCD is rooted in anxiety, and the thoughts that it causes to get “stuck” are often ones that are ego-dystonic, meaning they go against your true desires, goals, or intentions. In addition to being unwanted and extremely uncomfortable, these ego-dystonic thoughts are often personally abhorrent, encompassing extreme fears related to harming yourself or others. OCD can also make these thoughts come in the form of images or urges, making them feel all the more vivid and real.

2. Your brain sounds the alarm

It can be helpful to look at the brain as an alarm system: It’s been wired to alert you to danger and potential threats in your immediate environment in order to protect you and help promote survival—a very important task. When this alarm goes off, the brain sends a signal that something is wrong and some form of action needs to be taken. You may recognize this as the fight, flight or freeze mechanism. The brain alerts you that there is a potential threat, and that you have choices to make. You can stand still and hope the danger passes, fight your way through the dangerous situation, or you can run like there is no tomorrow to get away from the problem. Again, in a non-OCD brain, this can be extremely effective and even helpful.

In individuals with OCD, this alarm system has gone awry. Research suggests that OCD can make your brain process some information inaccurately, leading to ‘false alarms’ going off and causing you to feel “stuck.” This, combined with hyperactivity in certain areas of the brain, can lead to a decreased ability to let go of intrusive thoughts, resulting in increased anxiety and distress. The areas of the brain thought to be involved are the ones having to do with decision-making, memory, and emotional processing.

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3. OCD makes you crave certainty

OCD creates a strong need for control and certainty, leading individuals to engage in repetitive behaviors and mental rituals. But these attempts at gaining certainty are feeble because OCD will never allow you to feel certain enough. The sense of relief that compulsions and rituals provide is only temporary and through performing them, you’re unwittingly telling your brain that it correctly identified a threat. This can lead the alarm system to go off more and more, continuing the cycle of OCD and perpetuating the “stickiness” of the obsessions.

4. You’re experiencing thought-action fusion

People who struggle with OCD often attach emotional meaning and significance to their thoughts, even when there is none. They may question why the thoughts were there in the first place, believing it must mean something about who they are. What they’re experiencing in those moments is thought-action fusion, or the idea that just thinking about something is the same as actually doing it.

Thoughts ridden with guilt and shame can trigger a strong emotional response. The attachment of meaning, alongside intense fear and other difficult emotions, makes it far more difficult to dismiss these thoughts. This leads the brain to associate these particular thoughts with feelings of heightened emotional distress.

The impact of “sticky” thoughts—and how you can unstick them

“Sticky” thoughts in OCD can have a profound impact, affecting relationships, impairing home and work life, and even making self-care difficult. Individuals who suffer from OCD attach meaning to thoughts and are more prone to believing their thoughts are unbearable or indicative of intent. To avoid the feelings of hopelessness, frustration, helplessness, and depression that persistent rumination over sticky thoughts can lead to, it is important that these beliefs are challenged.

If you’re struggling with intrusive and “sticky” thoughts, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy can help. ERP has been shown to effectively change the brain’s responses to OCD. The goal of ERP therapy is not to get rid of the thoughts, but instead to not engage them. Through ERP, you can learn to allow thoughts to pass without attaching meaning or emotional significance.

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Our licensed therapists at NOCD deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP therapy. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs to provide the best care for our members. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with a therapist and get started with OCD treatment.

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