Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) usually takes feared scenarios that could take place in the future, then torments you with impending doom in order to get you to carry out compulsions to (allegedly) save the day. However, not all OCD is future-oriented. “Real Event OCD” takes something that actually happened in your past and twists it into an all-or-nothing game about how awful or harmful it was in OCD’s classic winner-take-all fashion.
As Dr. Lynne Gots notes in this article, “Even though the content and focus of the obsessions differ, the underlying thought processes driving them are identical; an extreme sense of responsibility, an overestimation of danger, and a poor tolerance for uncertainty.”
In the end, Real Event OCD is just OCD rearing its usual ugly head, just with a different type of trigger. What can make the trigger so powerful is that these real-life events are often ambiguous in nature — an ideal scenario for OCD to exploit.
Below, Dr. Lynne Gots shares several examples of Real Event OCD she’s encountered as an OCD therapist.
Event: I talked my college roommate into taking LSD with me. He became paranoid. A few years later, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Obsession: It’s my fault he’s schizophrenic.
Compulsions: Researching the causes of schizophrenia, reviewing the event to remember if I pressured him, asking friends who were there if they thought he had been reluctant to try the drug, reviewing conversations had with him prior to the event for signs of mental illness.
Event: I caught the flu when I was pregnant because I didn’t get a flu shot. I had a high fever and took Tylenol for a week. My child has dyslexia.
Obsession: If I’d gotten the flu shot, I wouldn’t have had a fever and wouldn’t have taken Tylenol, and she wouldn’t have learning issues. She won’t do well in school; she won’t get a good job; her life will be ruined. I’m a bad mother.
Compulsions: Asking my husband if he thinks I’m a bad mother, researching the causes of dyslexia, asking other moms if they had fevers during their pregnancies, checking several times a day to see if my child can read simple words, self-punishment
Event: When I was in law school, I made extra money helping high school students write college admission essays.
Obsession: I didn’t think about it until recent news about college admission standards and now I think I committed a crime.
Compulsions: researching criminal statutes about fraud, reading the news and comparing myself to Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, confessing to trusted friends, mentally reviewing the past to be sure no fraud was committed
As you can see from these examples, the integrity and responsibility of each person gets called into question by OCD. The ferocity with which these memories about real events shows up convinces you that something bad must have happened — or else you wouldn’t remember it with such uncertainty and guilt, right? (Wrong, that’s just a game OCD likes to play.)
Sure, we all have done some questionable things or things we wouldn’t do again — we’re human. Humans make mistakes. But those mistakes are meant to be learning opportunities for us, things to inform our future, not grounds for a life sentence of compulsions, self-punishment and unrelenting guilt about not being a “good person.”
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OCD expert Stacey Kuhl Wochner, LCSW, frames the issue with Real Event OCD quite well: “It is really not about the life event that is the problem. It is also not the thoughts or feelings about the life event that is the problem. The problem is your reaction to the thoughts and feelings about the life event.”
Because this is just OCD with a twist, exposure and response prevention (ERP) remains the gold standard treatment of choice based on numerous academic research studies. In ERP, you will likely be doing scripting where you take the real event as the basis for a worst-case scenario that you play out to the worst possible end. In this counterintuitive approach, you are being exposed to your fears and the intense reactions you have in order to eventually habituate to them so they become less triggering overall.
You may also practice hearing your worst fears confirmed on a loop tape as a way to desensitize yourself to them. At NOCD, we typically see a 40% to 45% reduction in OCD symptoms after successful completion of our nine-week “Get Better” program.
In addition to standard ERP, a healthy dose of self-compassion and acceptance also helps. You have to go back to that “Hey, I’m only human after all” mindset and accept that you may have made a mistake or engaged in some morally ambiguous behavior when younger, as pretty much everyone does. We deserve to have those experiences and learn from them, not to live under a life sentence of suffering. That does no one any good. You can make mistakes and still be a good person. (Watch out for that all-or-nothing thinking error that says one mistake makes me an entirely bad person.) In fact, thinking of yourself as a “good person” may actually be a bit of an exposure after buying into the fact that you “must be a bad person” for so long!
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