Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Does Anxiety Cause Arousal?

5 min read
Leeron Hoory

If you’ve ever tried not to think about something, you probably know how difficult it is to control your own thoughts—especially when they’re embarrassing or inappropriate. Maybe you find yourself thinking a stranger in class is attractive, even though you’re in a committed relationship and have no intention of being unfaithful. Then, before you can help it, you experience physical arousal at the thought. You feel like a bad person. Making matters worse, you’re in public. Is there something wrong with you?

First of all, what you’re experiencing is very common. Sure, it can feel unsettling when unwanted physical arousal goes against your true values. But arousal is not always a sign of what you believe or even desire, nor does it indicate how you will act in the future. If you have OCD, however, the experience of unwanted arousal can send you down a spiral of obsessions and compulsions. 

This can be particularly alarming for people with OCD subtypes that fixate on unwanted sexual interest or behavior, like pedophilia OCD or sexual orientation OCD. For someone with OCD, intrusive thoughts about their physical arousal can compound until it feels like their fears take on a life of their own. 

The person may become consumed with finding concrete evidence that they are “innocent,” but view their arousal as proof they are “guilty.” They may think, “I just became aroused thinking about an under-age high school girlfriend. What else could it mean, other than that I’m a pedophile?” 

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OCD, Anxiety and Arousal: Here’s the Truth

OCD fixates and latches on to uncertainty. In the search for evidence, any physical response can be used as proof—both for or against your deepest concerns. No topic is off-limits for OCD, from pedophilia to sexual orientation to harming yourself or someone else. OCD attacks what you value the most and can make you question your character and who you are as a human being. This can make the feared scenarios scarier and more anxiety-provoking—especially when they’re already taboo.

But it’s a losing battle to fixate on physical—or more specifically, groinal—responses as evidence your worst fears may be coming true. It’s just another way your OCD traps you. 

“You’ll never be able to tell the difference between actual arousal and the groinal syndrome, except that one of them is fueled by anxiety,” OCD advocate Chrissie Hodges shares with people who are dealing with this. 

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ERP Therapy Is a Safe Space to Discuss Taboos

People who experience arousal as a response to their unwanted intrusive thoughts are often embarrassed to share this experience with anyone, including a mental health professional. They may worry, “What if I tell my therapist and he says this means I actually am a pedophile?” They may be convinced they are the only one with this response, and if they share their fears, their therapist will judge them, or even worse, report them to authorities. 

It’s important to remember that a trained therapist who specializes in OCD will be familiar with all the various ways OCD can take hold of someone’s life, including groinal responses and an ongoing obsession with what they might mean. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold standard for treating OCD, is a safe space to work toward OCD recovery without concern of judgment. In the right therapy setting, there’s no need to  fear that your intrusive thoughts imply anything about you as a person. 

During treatment, you’ll work to accept the groinal responses you may experience as a result of intrusive thoughts. Maybe you can’t stop asking yourself, “Are erections part of OCD or are they not?” “Does this mean I’m gay, or does it not?” Instead of trying to answer these questions, you’ll work to become familiar with the uncertainty. Of course, this is an uncomfortable process, and your first impulse may be to ask your therapist for reassurance that you’re not guilty of anything. But when you have OCD, reassurance can often function as a compulsion.

In fact, if you’re reading this and seeking reassurance that your groinal response is not a cause for alarm, then it’s important to remember that the best way to recover from OCD is to become OK with uncertainty. This is a large part of what patients work on in ERP therapy. 

Where to Get Help for OCD

Given the nature of taboo obsessions and compulsions, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional who specializes in OCD and ERP. This way, you’ll be able to work through your OCD without fear of being judged or misdiagnosed. 

The good news is that ERP therapy has been found to be very effective for people with OCD. If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment. They’ll be able to match you with a therapist who’s right for you. All NOCD therapists specialize in OCD and receive training in ERP therapy. 

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Leeron Hoory

Leeron Hoory is a writer based in New York City focusing on health, culture and politics. Her work has appeared in Quartz, the Village Voice, Gothamist, and Salon, among others. 

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