Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Effective ways you can respond to unwanted thoughts

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Dec 14, 20226 minute read

People often feel that anxiety is inherently “bad”—especially people with OCD. Really, anxiety is just an emotion like any other. Sometimes, it helps us make decisions to keep ourselves safe and happy, but other times, it can lead us away from the life we want to live.

It can be difficult, but we can readjust our feelings towards anxiety by changing our response to it. Anxiety can propel us into action. It can be a motivator. It can prevent harm. It can surround things that may be exciting or the unknown. Anxiety, when working correctly is useful, it is actually beneficial and protective. 

In OCD, the problem is not the thoughts, images, urges, or feelings that you have. The problem actually lies in the way you respond to them. OCD demands that you engage in compulsions like avoidance, distraction, reassurance-seeking, and others in order to feel safe, but these behaviors only make OCD worse over time, causing even greater distress when unwanted thoughts occur. I’ll go over various response methods that will help you learn to manage OCD, rather than giving into compulsions.

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Doing nothing is actually helpful

Sometimes the best response is no response. This can be a powerful revelation for people with OCD. This is referred to as non-engagement. When unwanted thoughts come up, try to passively acknowledge them, then continue with whatever you are doing. Continue towards value-driven activities. 

Remember, the more you try not to think about something, the more you think about it. Try not thinking about a bright pink elephant. Don’t think about its big floppy ears. Don’t do it. Now of course, what has happened? Did you think about the elephant? Of course you did. That is human nature. You draw your attention to something by trying to avoid it. That’s why acknowledging unwanted thoughts without engaging with them further is the most effective way to take away their power.

When you have OCD, the problem is that you get “stuck” on these thoughts. You probably ask yourself constantly why you had that thought or feeling, and what it might mean. You likely continue to try to solve it or reason with it. But the more attention you give the obsession, the bigger it grows, and the more anxiety and distress it brings.

Unwanted thoughts are just that: thoughts. They do not have any intrinsic value or meaning. We cannot control any initial thought, image, urge, or feeling that pops into our head, but we can choose how we respond to it. Remember that everyone, even those without OCD, have the same types of thoughts. The only difference is that they are generally able to filter these thoughts out. They don’t attribute any meaning to them or try to figure them out. Often, they are almost entirely unaware of them. 

Healthy ways to respond to unwanted thoughts

Notice it: Acknowledge that you have had the thought. Don’t bring your attention to it, but passively notice the thought. By trying to push it away or ignore it, we still see intrusive thoughts as a threat and a danger—it’s better to accept the thought without giving it any meaning. This technique can take away the power from intrusive thoughts, without seeing them as “good” or “bad.” Like passing someone on the street, you don’t stop and turn toward it or away from it, but notice it and go on with your other thoughts.

Allow yourself to be uncertain: No matter what the content of your thoughts is, no matter how graphic, how violent, how disgusting they may feel, this doesn’t mean it’s true or that it has any meaning at all. In fact, these thoughts don’t contain any useful meaning or information at all. But OCD doesn’t like not knowing things for certain; when intrusive thoughts bring fear or anxiety, OCD demands absolute certainty and assurance about them. But this is impossible. In other areas of life, you are able to tolerate uncertainty about things and accept normal levels of risk, going through life despite not having perfect knowledge and assurance. But OCD makes it feel like you simply cannot trust your own judgments about intrusive thoughts and fears. 

When OCD demands 100% certainty and assurance, tell yourself “maybe, maybe not.” No matter the content of your thoughts, no matter how much distress you feel or how intolerable it may seem, allowing yourself to feel uncertain will weaken OCD’s grip. You can tolerate difficult emotions, and you don’t have to do anything to feel perfectly certain about difficult thoughts or feelings.

Live a value-based life: You may hear this frequently, but it’s easier said than done. We know that OCD attacks the things we value. The thoughts that people with OCD often get “stuck” on are the ones that they find repulsive and unacceptable, the very things that bother them the most. They feel as if the things they value most are being threatened. 

Intrusive thoughts in OCD are ego dystonic, meaning that they go against one’s values, desires, goals, and intentions. They keep you from living a life based on your values and intentions. To fight back against OCD, you need to refocus on your own values and wishes, in spite of all of your fears and obsessions. When OCD urges you to do compulsions in an attempt to feel safe, don’t give in, but live life on your own terms. It is often instrumental in OCD treatment to strive for things that fulfill and motivate you, rather than merely avoiding behaviors that make OCD worse.

Learning to disengage with thoughts through ERP

Although it might seem difficult right now, you can learn to sit with the discomfort that comes with unwanted and intrusive thoughts, rather than responding in a way that only makes them worse over time. By practicing exposure and response prevention (ERP), you will find that eventually, those uncomfortable feelings dissipate and occur less frequently. ERP teaches you to tolerate these difficult feelings. You will see that anxiety, like any other feeling, eventually passes, and you don’t have to do anything to make this happen.

With time, you will be able to sit with uncertainty around even your scariest thoughts. Through ERP, you can learn to accept them and move forward with your life. You’ll learn to accept that, despite what OCD is telling you, we cannot know with 100% certainty what tomorrow holds and we cannot control everything that happens. 

If you are struggling with how to respond when uncomfortable intrusive thoughts occur, the best way to overcome it is to practice ERP therapy with a specialty-trained therapist. At NOCD, our therapists specialize in OCD and ERP, and they will provide you with a personalized treatment plan designed to meet your unique needs. Your therapist will teach you the skills needed to begin your OCD recovery journey and will support you every step of the way. They will guide you in taking small steps to reach your goals.Our therapists at NOCD are passionate about the treatment of this debilitating disorder and are trained by world-renowned experts. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment.

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