Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Coping with triggers in the news when you have OCD

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Mar 06, 20239 minute read

We live in a time where it seems anything and everything “bad” is the feature of every news story. It can feel as though rarely do we see a heartfelt and uplifting story. I suspect this is not because these types of events do not occur; but rather, because they are not considered to be as “newsworthy.” From news to true crime documentaries, our society’s fascination with violence and mysteries are undeniable. 

It makes sense then that the media would cash in on this fixation. We live in an era where people are drawn to these stories—and it can seem as though the more tragic it is, the more coverage it gets. 

Of course, you don’t need a mental health condition such as OCD to be bothered by negative news stories. It can actually be quite common to feel distressed or even horrified by these stories, and we are often left with more questions than answers about why these crimes or scary things occur. However, if you do happen to have a mental illness or a condition like OCD, you are probably more likely to ruminate on these events. You may feel a need to know what led to these events and how they could have been avoided. You may even feel a sense of responsibility in some form or fashion. 

For the individual who suffers from OCD, the inevitable question pops up: “but what if…?” This is often something along the lines of “what if this could happen to me or someone that I love?” Or even worse, it might be “what if I am capable of this myself?” Both avenues of thinking can cause significant anxiety and distress. 

So why do people with OCD tune in to these stories if it bothers them? You may have heard the term “morbid curiosity.” Think of it like a car accident: Often these are tragic and not something you would want to be involved in or see, especially if there was a loss of life. Yet, when driving by, almost everyone’s first response is to slow down—some might go as far as to pull over—to check and see what is happening. 

It is conceivable that events like these activate our sense of empathy; and commonly, when you have OCD, you might try and conjure up ways in which they could have been prevented. That is to say that perhaps you are looking to ensure that this would never happen to you or a loved one. You almost certainly are looking for answers so that you can feel certain enough that you and your loved ones are safe, no matter what the disaster unfolding around you is. 

Do these experiences sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

Here at NOCD, we know how overwhelming OCD symptoms can be—and how hard it is to open up about your experience. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist who has experience treating OCD.

Learn more

Should you watch or read the news if it’s triggering? 

When people enter into OCD treatment, they might ask whether they should watch the news or read things that they find triggering. For me, the guiding questions tend to be, what is the purpose behind the behavior? Is this something that you would want to watch or read if you weren’t experiencing OCD? Are you watching or reading out of a sense of anxiety or urgency, in an attempt to “find answers”? These can identify red flags that may be tied to compulsions. 

I think it is important to find a balance between doing something as a compulsion versus as an exposure. Compulsions seek to relieve some form of anxiety or distress or to neutralize uncomfortable feelings. This might bring temporary relief but fuels the OCD cycle. Avoidance is an example of a compulsion. Exposures seek to trigger an obsession that the individual has. When you combine exposure with response prevention, it helps you resist compulsions, which only relieve anxiety temporarily, and teaches you to accept uncertainty, no matter how upsetting and distressing a thought, image, or urge may seem. By resisting compulsions as a response, you retrain your brain to recognize that you are not in actual danger. This is what leads to long-term relief. 

I also tell the people that I work with that if you find that the news is depressing or overwhelming, that doesn’t need to mean it is because of the OCD. Maybe you don’t actually like watching it—and that’s okay. It is about balance. Just because you have OCD doesn’t mean that we have to face everything you don’t like or that makes you afraid. It is essential to recognize that we are more than the illness. Yes, the disorder can impact the way in which you interact with situations, and it is important to expose yourself to ‘scary’ and stressful things that cause OCD to strike. At the same time, not every fear is due to OCD. That is why it is essential and helpful to work alongside an OCD specialist to help you determine the best course of action for you. 

People who suffer from OCD also tend to have an overestimation of danger. This will only be increased by the news. Of course, the news is often full of all the dangerous or alarming things happening in the world, as these are considered newsworthy events. However, when something is sensationalized or spoken of frequently and by multiple people, it can seem as if the threat is more prominent. In other words, the world can look much scarier than it actually is. Remember the news highlights often the worst-case scenarios, not all of the other things that happen that are not so scary on a day-to-day basis.

Personally, I have found that sometimes I don’t want to watch the news or listen to stories that I find upsetting. This is not because I have OCD, but because I simply choose not to do so. It doesn’t serve a purpose for me. It doesn’t add to my life in a meaningful way. Other times, I may find a particular story fascinating and be glued to the TV. The important thing, I think, is that I can identify the difference between watching something from an OCD standpoint versus a non-OCD standpoint. Learning the difference typically involves guidance from a trained professional, time, and practice.

Why does the news tie mental health to violence?

It is a sad reality that violence is often tied to mental health issues in the media. When something tragic happens, people want explanations. They want to know the why behind the action. This makes sense, of course. Unfortunately, the go-to narrative seems to be “they must have been experiencing mental health issues.” This can be seen in a recent New York Post article that mentions a horrific crime and describes the suspect as having “OCD tendencies.” The article then goes on to explain that the suspect displayed some rigid behaviors in terms of their diet. While I have no knowledge of whether the suspect had a clinical diagnosis of OCD or not, the description given in this article in no way confirms this either. That piece of information they shared is as relevant as saying the suspect has brown hair. But again, we see that the news media wants to tie this idea of mental illness to violence. This narrative creates stigma and spreads more and more misinformation about a disorder that is already so misunderstood. It creates fear in the OCD community, where many sufferers already live in a constant state of hyper-awareness and anxiety. (You can also read our response to another recent New York Post article here, where harmful misinformation was spread.)

This in itself is a secondary tragedy. Many people who have mental illness are not violent. I would argue that there are many people who commit crimes who suffer from sociopathy, not necessarily mental illness. Those who experience sociopathic tendencies will lack conscientiousness, one of the primary characteristics of many who suffer from OCD. On the contrary, people with OCD are no more likely than the general public to commit violent crimes. From my experiences in treating people with OCD, I would actually contend that they are less likely due to their preoccupation with responsibility and avoidance of things that may be harmful. 

According to Psychology Today, only about 3% of people with serious mental illness contribute to violent crimes. It is important when reading or viewing news stories to recognize that the term ‘mental illness’ has become a catch-all phrase that has many meanings, many of which are highly inaccurate. OCD, particularly the more taboo themes, has been linked to several crimes through false media portrayals in recent years. This stems from misconceptions about what this illness really entails. 

People with OCD have ego-dystonic thoughts, or thoughts that go against their true nature and what they really desire to do. They are deeply troubled by these thoughts, feelings, urges, and images, and they try to neutralize them through rituals. In other words, those with OCD go to great lengths to not have these thoughts, feelings, or urges. They would have them go away completely if they could. These thoughts do not bring them joy and they do not fantasize about them or carry them out. Instead, these are painful thoughts they don’t want to even have, let alone do. 

Access therapy that’s designed for OCD

NOCD Therapists have used ERP therapy to help thousands of people regain their lives from OCD. I encourage you to learn about accessing ERP therapy with NOCD.

Learn about ERP with NOCD

Treatment for all OCD themes

Though the news as an OCD trigger is often associated with harm-themed or violence-themed OCD, the truth is it can really be a trigger for any subtype of OCD. But there is good news: regardless of the theme, OCD is treatable, and you can learn how to respond effectively when you’re triggered, rather than practicing avoidance, rumination, or other compulsions that keep you stuck in the OCD cycle. 

The key to addressing these compulsions and treating OCD effectively is by seeing a licensed therapist who specializes in OCD and is specialty-trained in Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). These qualified and licensed OCD specialists will never ask you to do things that go against your values or that will cause you or others harm, nor will they ever force you to do anything that you are unwilling to do. 

Instead, a true ERP-trained therapist will guide, support, and motivate you. They will come up with reasonable and creative ways for you to gradually face the fears that are holding you back from living the life that you want to live. It’s important to see an OCD specialist specifically because they’ll understand how to help you prevent compulsions, and they’ll teach you how to accept the uncertainty behind the OCD fears. They will give you the tools and knowledge needed to learn how to implement acceptance into your daily life.

I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment. We’ll assist you in either getting started with a licensed therapist at NOCD who has specialty training in OCD and ERP, or connect you to other resources that might be helpful. 

NOCD Therapy user on phone

Conquer OCD with NOCD Therapy

World-class OCD treatment covered by insurance

NOCD therapy can help you live the life you want to live, not the life OCD wants you to live.

Learn more

We specialize in treating OCD

Reach out to us. We're here to help.

Use insurance to access world-class
treatment with an OCD specialist