Anger and rage are often overlooked emotions in OCD. It’s been said that anger is the flip side of the emotional “coin” of fear—and since so much of OCD is based around feelings of fear, it makes sense that people with OCD may suffer from pent-up anger and frustration.
But what causes that anger—and how someone releases it—can differ from person to person and from moment to moment.
Ways Anger and Rage Can Manifest for Someone with OCD
Sometimes the causes of anger and rage in OCD aren’t easily identified. Examples of this can be seen when someone is trying so hard to stop the intrusive thoughts and images that it causes a build-up of extreme frustration, which might manifest in fits of violence or rage. This can be especially noticeable in younger children who may not be as adept as adults are at controlling or hiding their responses.
For example, I can clearly remember a time when I was about 6 years old. I would have scary images and thoughts in my mind, and I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone about them. I remember that I would actually hit my head on my couch (it had a wooden strip across the top) in a desperate effort to somehow physically “knock” those thoughts out of my mind.
Another cause of anger and rage in OCD is when compulsions are interrupted. Many times, compulsions happen inside an individual’s mind and cannot be seen. They may feel upset and lash out when their compulsions are interrupted, even if the other person has no way to tell that the compulsion is happening.
Take Molly, for example. She is ten years old and feels that she needs to say a very specific phrase many times throughout the day to keep the people she loves safe. Those around her do not see this activity or how often she feels she must engage in it. They cannot know that this is taking place. Sometimes her parents become upset with her because she seems to be spacing out and not paying attention to what they’re saying. This can throw Molly into an instant panic, causing her to become very angry. She knows that she has to start the process of her compulsions all over again and feels like she cannot tell her parents what’s going on because they might not believe her. Instead, she lets them think she’s just not paying attention to them on purpose, even though feels that the phrases she says are incredibly important. Feeling responsible for all of her loved ones makes her exhausted. If only people knew how hard she tries to keep them safe, maybe then they would understand why she’s so upset.
Not feeling heard or validated in their experiences, even by those closest to them, can also be a major cause of distress for someone with OCD. They may feel isolated or alone in their struggles, and that anger can often turn inward. Many people with OCD become frustrated with themselves and irritated that this condition is something they have to deal with at all.
5 Tools to Help You Through an Angry OCD Outburst
When you have OCD, it can make you angry at the world. You believe so strongly that the fears at the root of your OCD are real because they feel so real at the moment. You may have been fighting this condition for years and years, or have gone without a proper diagnosis or treatment for a long time. You may feel exhausted and overwhelmed. That’s why it’s so important to recognize that you are not the disorder. There is so much more to you. Separating your own identity and emotions from what OCD tries to make you feel and believe is imperative.
It can be helpful to see the ways in which OCD attacks your values. Recognize that it gets stuck on the very things that are important to you. These thoughts are ego-dystonic, meaning they go against your values, your goals, and your nature. Be compassionate toward yourself.
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Thankfully, there are many tools that can help you when you feel that sense of anger mounting:
1. Non-engagement with intrusive thoughts, images, and urges
You don’t need to give attention to every single thing that pops into your mind. It can be there and you don’t need to do anything with it. Let it be background noise, but it doesn’t need to be front and center stage.
Recognize and plan ahead for situations or experiences that may be triggering. Know what internal factors may lead up to growing frustration. Learning to identify these patterns will be crucial. Identify your triggers and come up with a way to manage them beforehand.
3. Walk away
When you sense your anger rising and start to feel like you may have an outburst, just walk away. Take a breather. Go somewhere else and allow the feelings to be present. Permit the emotions to exist and hold off on responding. Sit with the feelings. It will be difficult but it can be done. Remember that OCD will always tell you that you cannot tolerate certain feelings, so you have to teach it that you can.
4. Turn your frustration towards the OCD, not yourself or others
It can be tempting to become upset at those around us or to internalize our anger at ourselves. Remember that the true enemy is OCD—not us, and not others. OCD is a disorder, but you are not the disorder. It may be a part of your life, but it is not the whole picture. Getting mad at the OCD can turn anger into effective energy that you can use to help you work through your symptoms.
5. Do something else
Find healthy ways to express emotions. Exercising can be an excellent form of stress relief. Some people prefer less active things, such as reading a book or journaling to help reduce anger and cope with difficult emotions. Many people find using ice cubes or ice packs to be a good way to quickly and effectively calm the physiological feelings of stress and frustration. Find what works best for you. Hobbies can be beneficial. Do something that allows you to take a step back when things feel intense or too overwhelming. This isn’t to say you should avoid hard feelings, but rather that it’s important to recognize when you need to take a break, refocus and recenter, then move forward.
How to Support Your Loved Ones Through an Angry OCD Outburst
Sometimes individuals who have OCD can seem to lash out at those around them. Please know that their frustrations likely have very little, if anything to do with you. Try and remember that they are fighting an internal dialogue that can be very loud and overbearing. It’s okay for you to take a break, a step back and gain perspective. You can set boundaries with your loved ones. Boundaries are important, as are consequences for dangerous or unsafe actions. Even if OCD is behind the rage, it’s important that we recognize that we are still responsible for our actions and choices. No matter what our emotions are, we still get to control what we do with those emotions. It’s okay for someone to show anger but it is never okay to cause harm to others while expressing your frustrations.
It can also be powerful to just allow your loved one to know that they are seen and heard. Maybe you don’t understand their experience with OCD or perhaps you can see how illogical their symptoms are, but you can still show the person that you hear them. You can validate how difficult this is for them. You can be with them while they process their emotions.
It’s okay to give yourself permission and know that you don’t have to fix this. You don’t need all of the answers. You can simply be supportive and remind your loved ones to use the tools they’ve learned to show themselves the same compassion that they would show to others. You can suggest a breather or a cool-off time period before pursuing a compulsion. Help them to see that they are not their OCD. It may feel real to them at this moment but they may feel different later. Allow them time to work through their own feelings.
ERP can help with feelings of anger and rage associated with OCD
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy can help people improve their quality of life, manage OCD and reduce their OCD symptoms, including symptoms of anger and rage. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. If you have questions or think that you may need ERP therapy for your OCD, speak to someone on our care team on a free 15-minute call.
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If you’re worried or uncomfortable about discussing your symptoms and thoughts with anyone else, keep in mind that a therapist won’t judge you, and a trained OCD specialist (like the ones at NOCD) will deeply understand all themes of OCD. You don’t have to suffer in silence or live with debilitating OCD symptoms forever, and many people find relief in sharing their experiences. Over time, you can learn how to manage your OCD and regain your life.