Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

How OCD turns your anxiety against you

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Apr 19, 20234 minute read

I know it may seem hard to believe, but anxiety is actually useful. It’s an important feeling to have. Anxiety serves to warn us of danger and should work as a protective agent. When the anxiety system in your brain is working correctly you can be alerted to potentially threatening situations and react accordingly. This helps you to survive things more effectively. This is often referred to as the fight, flight, or freeze response.

For example, if I am hiking in the woods and stumble across a bear, I’d better hope that my anxiety kicks in. Otherwise, my chances of survival may not be so good. In this situation, I need to make quick decisions to help ensure my safety. 

The faulty alarm system

The problem is that when you have OCD, this part of your brain—your anxiety response—can go a little haywire. It doesn’t work the way it should. I like to think of it as a faulty alarm system: the alarm goes off too much when we are not in actual danger. When you have an intrusive thought, for example, the alarm goes off and brings waves of distress and anxiety. You feel like you have to do something to rid yourself of the feeling, and you actually do feel temporary relief. Unfortunately, this inadvertently teaches your brain that there was a danger in the first place, when there wasn’t. Intrusive thoughts and other obsessions pose no danger whatsoever. But the faulty alarm system keeps going off more and more, with greater strength.

Effective, specialized OCD therapy is here

Learn more

Anxiety is just a feeling, like any other. When you find something funny, you don’t laugh forever. You don’t need to do something to stop laughing. The feeling passes. The same is true for anxiety, but OCD wants you to believe that you cannot tolerate the discomfort caused by your obsessions. We call this distress intolerance. The truth is that you are able to handle anxiety—you may not like the experience of it, but it will pass on its own. 

The thoughts are not the problem

One of the most common requests that I hear as an OCD therapist is “I just want the thoughts to go away,” or “if I could just get rid of the thoughts, I wouldn’t be anxious.” My response is always the same: the thoughts are not the actual problem when you have OCD. Believe it or not, everyone has intrusive thoughts. The difference is that these intrusive thoughts don’t trigger the same “alarm system” for people with OCD. Their brains can recognize these experiences as random and non-threatening, while people with OCD get “stuck” on their obsessions, bringing anxiety and distress that they feel incapable of tolerating.

One of the hardest things I had to learn on my own OCD journey has been that intrusive thoughts on their own are neither good nor bad. They are not the same as actions. This is called thought-action fusion: the belief that thinking about something is equivalent to actually doing it.  And they are not the same as your actual values or beliefs—in fact, that’s part of why they cause so much distress. 

Most people without OCD can have an intrusive thought—even one that goes starkly against their values and identity—and easily shrug it off. They might say “that was odd” or “I didn’t like that!” and then they go about their day, paying little to no further attention to it. They do not feel the need to try and neutralize this thought, because they recognize that these intrusive thoughts do not have any relation to their own beliefs or actions.

People with OCD experience this very differently. They can become consumed in “figuring out” their thoughts, neutralizing them, avoiding them, or urgently preventing something they perceive as a threat. Because the alarm system in their brain is screaming at them that they are in danger, they will do almost anything to feel safe again.

Retraining your brain

ERP teaches people with OCD that thoughts, feelings, and urges do not have to have meaning. ERP helps them learn to sit in the anxiety and discomfort of their obsessions without relying on compulsions to rid themselves of perceived danger. They learn that eventually, the feelings of anxiety do pass. When you don’t give into a ritual or a compulsion, your brain relearns that there was no danger in the first place, thus correcting the faulty alarm over time. But it takes consistent practice. Retraining your brain takes time, commitment, and perseverance.  

Effective, specialized OCD therapy is here

Learn more

If you’re struggling with OCD and want to take the power away from your intrusive thoughts, NOCD can help. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs—and that means the best care for our members. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with one and get started with OCD treatment.

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