Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) can make it hard to distinguish between a true threat and an exaggerated one. The anxiety and unrelenting doubt of OCD can make everything feel threatening, even if you understand on some level that a fear you’re having might be irrational or imagined. These nagging feelings of “What if it really is dangerous?” can seem so powerful that you feel like you have to do something “just in case.”
OCD also has a frustrating habit of finding or creating evidence that seems to “prove” your fears. What may just be a coincidence can suddenly take on a deeper meaning. OCD wants you to believe that you can keep bad things from happening, or that if something bad does happen, it’s somehow your fault. Why, you ask? Because if you believe this, you’re more likely to keep feeding OCD by performing compulsions and interpreting fears as facts.
Fortunately, we can learn how to spot OCD’s lies, and how to respond in a way that can break its pattern.
Lie #1: Emotional contamination
Emotional contamination doesn’t necessarily involve contamination in the physical sense. This OCD symptom involves feeling “unclean” or “unsafe” internally, which can lead people to associate their discomfort with certain experiences and people, places, items, or anything at all.
Obsessions involving emotional contamination can be triggered by many things. In some cases, they may be caused by contact with something that a person considers to be “wrong,” “dirty,” or “bad luck.” Someone who fears cheating on their partner, for example, may worry that if they spend any time around someone who they know has cheated in the past, it could cause them to cheat. In other cases, these obsessions may stem from a person’s own thoughts or actions. Someone else experiencing emotional contamination may worry that because they had a disturbing thought while jogging in the park, they can no longer jog there.
While many different compulsions can result from emotional contamination obsessions, avoidance is a common one. Because OCD often latches onto what we value, emotional contamination may cause individuals with OCD to avoid places or people they love, which can be particularly difficult. This can affect people’s relationships and lead to feelings of isolation, shame, or guilt.
Here’s an example of someone experiencing emotional contamination:
A few months ago, Kimmy* was out on a date at a seafood restaurant. Later that evening, she became very ill and ended up in the hospital, where she was told that she had food poisoning. She was treated and recovered fairly quickly. However, after that incident, Kimmy started to associate the food poisoning with the person she went on the date with.
Part of her thought that maybe her date’s personality was somehow “sick” and she hadn’t picked up on it. She felt like the food poisoning may have been a “sign”—like it was the universe’s way of helping her.
On one hand, she knew this idea was absurd and that there was no connection between her date’s personality and her getting sick from the food they ate. On the other hand, she couldn’t shake that feeling of “what if.” So, she decided she could not go out with this person again. Perhaps the sickness meant that he was a bad fit for her. She did feel sad about this decision, though, because she had really enjoyed his company.
If Kimmy had known at the time that she was suffering from OCD and that this behavior was a form of emotional contamination, she may have responded differently. With the right knowledge and effective treatment, she could have practiced sitting with the discomfort OCD caused her to feel, continuing to pursue her values by spending time with her date. This could have helped her learn that in time, those uncomfortable feelings would pass, and that the thoughts she was having did not need a meaning attached to them.
Lie #2: Magical thinking
Magical thinking, which can be another common feature of OCD, involves the belief that your everyday actions or thoughts can influence random, unrelated events. People with OCD who experience magical thinking may struggle with intrusive thoughts that they need to perform specific actions, or compulsions, to prevent something awful from happening. These thoughts can take many different forms, but may involve emotional contamination or superstitious beliefs.
Even if the person with OCD logically understands that their fears are unlikely, or that the compulsions they’re doing don’t have any influence on what they fear, the distress OCD makes them feel can be so intense that it overpowers logic. Magical thinking may lead a person to avoid certain places, people, or situations that they believe are “unlucky,” or to engage in other ritualistic behaviors like counting, performing tasks in highly specific ways, or praying for someone at a certain time each day.
A sense of hyper-responsibility often accompanies magical thinking. If an individual with OCD who struggles with magical thinking hears about a tragic event, they may feel as though it’s somehow their fault that the event happened—like they could’ve prevented it if only they’d performed specific compulsions. If they engage in a compulsion and nothing bad happens, they may falsely believe that they’ve influenced that outcome. This hyper-responsibility can increase feelings of anxiety and reinforce the urge to engage in compulsions, keeping people stuck in the OCD cycle.
Here’s an example of magical thinking in action:
One night, Mateo*, a college student, went to one of his school’s football games with a couple of friends. They had all been having a great time. Following the game, they began to walk back to their dorm rooms, which weren’t far from the field. As they turned the corner onto their street, a car went flying by the group and hit Mateo’s friend, David. David was injured and needed extensive medical care. He was lucky to have survived.
Following this incident, every time Mateo sees a white car (the color of the car that hit David) he feels as though he needs to repeat a certain prayer in his head five times. Sometimes, if he thinks that he’s missed a part or been interrupted, he’ll start the prayer over, repeating it until he’s said it “perfectly” all five times. Because white cars are so common, Mateo can spend what seems like hours lost in these prayers. He’s scared that if he doesn’t say the prayers, something bad will happen to someone else he cares for.
To make matters worse, it seems to Mateo that every car accident or crime he hears about involves a white car. His fears have become so severe that he refuses to ride in white cars at all. He would rather walk than ride with anyone who has even a partially white car. A part of him recognizes that this is illogical, but there is another, louder part of him that says that it’s safer to avoid his fear altogether, “just in case.”
What Mateo is unaware of is that he is inadvertently strengthening the belief that he can prevent dangerous things from happening by performing the compulsion of avoidance. If he was receiving effective OCD treatment, Mateo could learn that as traumatic as his friend’s accident was, he had no control over it. He could learn to allow feelings of uncertainty and distress surrounding white cars to exist without engaging in compulsions.
Over time, this could help him see that it was unlikely for anything bad to happen when he rode in a white car, and that if, by chance, anything did happen, it wouldn’t be a result of his thoughts or compulsions. It would take time and practice, and he would have to allow anxiety to be present and pass on its own. But by doing so, he could loosen OCD’s grip on his life.
You can take the power back from OCD by responding differently
Emotional contamination and magical thinking can become serious burdens, impacting your ability to function and holding you back from enjoying your life. But as frustrating as they can feel, these symptoms of OCD can be treated and managed.
The key to addressing emotional contamination fears and magical thinking is to find a licensed therapist who specializes in OCD and is specialty-trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the most effective treatment for OCD. All NOCD Therapists receive specialized training in OCD and ERP.
NOCD Therapists will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan and manage your symptoms in the long term, helping you understand how OCD operates and how ERP works to manage it. Through ERP, you will learn how to sit with uncomfortable feelings and resist the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors, like avoidance.
When you practice ERP regularly, it can help you recognize OCD’s distress and anxiety as false alarms. ERP can teach you that these feelings will only ever be temporary, and that there’s nothing you need to do for them to pass—they’ll go away on their own.
Remember that you are not your OCD, and that getting better is possible. If you’re struggling with OCD, we’re here to help you take the first step toward conquering it. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to learn more about getting matched with a NOCD Therapist and getting started with OCD treatment.
* Names and personal details have been changed.