How Do You Know If Your Intrusive Thoughts Are From OCD?
Almost everyone experiences unpleasant thoughts they would rather not have. But how can you tell when intrusive thoughts are an everyday part of life or a component of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?
What is an intrusive thought?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that pop into your head and can occur out of nowhere. They can be brief fleeting thoughts such as “What if I drop this glass of water?” or more distressing ones like “I’m an awful mom” because you aren’t 100% interested in playtime with your child, or “I’m contaminated after touching that public bathroom door with my bare hand!” These thoughts might be about a hypothetical violent scenario, for example, you might find yourself wondering, “What if I pushed this guy next to me in front of the oncoming train?”
Intrusive thoughts can be about relationships, such as wondering if you’re a good partner, safety, fear of death, or protection of a loved one. Everyone has intrusive thoughts, and usually, they leave your mind as quickly as they come, and you don’t identify with them as something that makes you a bad person.
For people with OCD, it’s more complicated. People with OCD may experience intrusive thoughts more often and may become more worried by them than people without OCD. The thoughts latch onto your mind, and you often fear they won’t cease until you can find a way to relieve yourself of the anxiety. You start thinking more and more about this initial thought, and suddenly it grows in your head. What if I really am a bad mother? What if I never want to play with my own child again? Generally, the thoughts center around something that matters deeply to you where the consequences are devastating, which is partially why it can feel so distressing.
When you have OCD, these thoughts become distressing to the point where you feel you must find a way to eradicate them through taking action.Here’s where compulsions come into play. For someone with OCD, it can feel impossible to let these thoughts go, no matter how irrational they seem, and they lead you to engage in compulsions in order to alleviate the intrusive thoughts. For example, you might find yourself spending hours on Google trying to figure out how to know whether you’re a good mother. What makes a good mother? How can you tell if you are a bad one or a good one? This might lead to a downward spiral that won’t stop until you have enough reassurance against what you’re afraid of.
The compulsions could also be mental, where you find yourself thinking about particular anxiety for hours on end about something that happened in the past. For example, you can’t stop remembering all the times you babysat kids and gave them baths but not being 100% certain you didn’t touch them inappropriately. You might replay these memories for hours until you feel reassured enough for these thoughts to temporarily loosen their grip on your mind.
What characterizes an intrusive thought as a component of OCD is how much emotional distress these thoughts cause you and whether you try to neutralize these thoughts via compulsions.
How do you treat intrusive thoughts from OCD?
Even if it might seem like these intrusive thoughts will always be running your life, fortunately, there are treatment options available to people suffering from them. Exposure Response Prevention (ERP), a type of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, can help you gain some distance from these thoughts so that they no longer control your actions. Rather than trying to get rid of the intrusive thoughts completely, which isn’t possible, ERP can help you alleviate the distress these thoughts cause.
An ERP-trained therapist can help by reviewing which intrusive thoughts are causing you anxiety and then work with you to come up with a specialized treatment plan to help alleviate them through gradual exposure. For example, a therapist might have you write down an intrusive thought that is causing you anxiety, and work towards exposure until these thoughts are no longer as triggering or the urge to use compulsions lessens.
If you’re interested in learning more about ERP, you can schedule a free call with the NOCD clinical team to find out how this type of treatment can help you. All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is considered the gold standard for OCD treatment and has been found to be 90% effective.
Keara E. Valentine, Psy.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine in the OCD and Related Disorders Track, where she specializes in the assessment and treatment of OCD and related disorders. Dr. Valentine utilizes behavioral-based therapies including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) with children, adolescents, and adults experiencing anxiety-related disorders.
- ERP Therapy
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- OCD Symptoms
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.