How OCD turns your anxiety against you
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 hereLearn 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 hereLearn 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.
Stacy Quick LPC, is a therapist at NOCD, specializing in the treatment of OCD. She has been working in the mental health field for nearly 20 years. Her goal is to help members achieve skills to help them live a more fulfilling life without letting OCD be in control. Ms. Quick uses ERP and her lived experiences to help her members understand it is possible to live a life in recovery. She is a mother of 3 children, 2 of whom are also diagnosed with OCD. Ms. Quick is also a writer and content creator. Learn more about Stacy Quick on Instagram: @stacyquick.undone
NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCDView all therapists
Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapy, LMHC
I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.