Taking the Power Away from Intrusive Thoughts

6 min read
Stacy Quick, LPC

Some people talk about being bullied as a child. It’s not uncommon to hear about the kid at school who was feared the most by the other kids. The kid who would take your lunch money or who would corner you in a hallway and demand that you do his homework. I never knew this bully; my aggressor was named obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). We met around kindergarten, and unfortunately, it was an ever-present companion. It was my bully. 

Like a schoolyard bully, OCD demands attention. If you try to ignore it, it will get louder and more irritating. It is known for being manipulative and cunning. It tries to tell you how to live your life. It knows your fears and will exploit them at the slightest opportunity. OCD takes the truth and twists it, but wants you to believe the lies it tells. It tries to isolate you, attempting to keep you distanced from the things you cherish the most, from the qualities you value the most, from the people you love the most.

But there is hope, because you are not defined by OCD – you are more than OCD. OCD cannot overpower who you are as a person, your true identity, or your values. It cannot dictate your choices. It will not tell you your good qualities or things about yourself that others find endearing; instead, it will insist that you pay attention to anything that distracts you from moving forward with what you want to do. You can stand up to this giant and fight back.

The Journey Towards Recovery 

When you start to see OCD as the deceiver that it is, you are beginning the journey towards managing it. When you are able to identify its voice versus yours, that is when you start to regain your power over it. Of course, OCD will put up a fight. It is, after all, the messenger of doubt and uncertainty. It would have you question the very core of who you are as a person. It tells you that you need to know things for sure, things that no one can know with 100 percent certainty. 

People who have been diagnosed with OCD have a low tolerance for anxiety and the feelings that this brings. They often don’t like it and would like to avoid it at all costs. This is not so different from someone who doesn’t suffer from this disorder. I have never heard anyone say that they love feeling anxious or uncomfortable. Yet, the majority of people who are not diagnosed with OCD may tolerate everyday feelings of discomfort more readily. 

When you have OCD this becomes much more difficult. OCD causes a faulty alarm to go off in your brain that signals danger. It wants you to believe that something really bad will happen to you, or possibly to a loved one. It wants you to believe that you have the power to control things and to determine what happens to others. OCD makes you believe that you have a sense of responsibility for others that is unreasonable and excessive. 

But it doesn’t just stop there: OCD then demands that you respond to this feeling in an effort to control it from happening. For those with this disorder, it can feel like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. 

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Alas, there is good news! You are not in control of scary things happening to others just by what you think and feel. Sure, everyone can take certain precautions and safety measures – those are wise things to do. 

But at the end of the day, life is unpredictable (I can almost feel the angst and anxiety brewing in readers with OCD as I type this). That’s okay. These are just feelings. It’s true, you cannot control everything. It is a difficult and beautiful thing to accept this. To lay down that burden of carrying responsibility for everyone and everything. OCD is not that powerful. 

Taking Back My Power

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) helped me understand this. ERP gave me the ability to take back my power. I began to no longer accept what OCD said as the truth. I would allow the intrusive thoughts to be there and I would not pay attention to them. I would not try to push them away because that would only bring more attention to them. The thoughts could hang out and I would go about my life, no matter the content of the thoughts. 

I realized that the content of the thoughts didn’t matter. Thoughts and feelings do not have to be “good” or “bad.” I may not like experiencing them, but I do not have to give them any meaning. For someone with OCD, it is normal to have an intrusive thought and want to know why it is there in the first place and try to figure out what it means. When this happens, you may begin the spiral of doubting yourself and who you are, what you are capable of, your very personality, and identity. Remember, OCD lies.

It’s imperative that you recognize your ability to choose your response to OCD symptoms. You cannot control what pops into your head, nor can anyone (even those without OCD)! But you can control what you do with these thoughts. You can control how you respond or whether you respond at all. You have the power and ability to “do” nothing. Yes, you heard me correctly, nothing

You can sit with anxiety and discomfort and you will get through it. You will teach the faulty alarm system in your brain, that there is no real danger. Your brain will begin to recognize that you can get through this and nothing catastrophic will occur: this is when something called “habituation” occurs. This happens when someone’s physiological or emotional responses to something start to diminish. 

For example, if you are afraid of being attacked by a Great White shark (like me), you may have the tendency to avoid going in the ocean. Now there is a reasonable amount of precaution one would likely take when going swimming in the ocean, such as avoiding swimming at certain times of the day, or avoiding spots where sharks are known to be. 

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Then there are excessive amounts of precaution, like never going in the ocean at all – not even to wade in the water – or avoiding any news stories about shark attacks. It is here where OCD makes itself known: it wants you to think that the risk is much greater than it is. But the more I swim in the ocean and I am not attacked by a Great White shark, the more I develop habituation and am able to see that the danger I feel is not real or is excessive, and that the actual risk is manageable.

You can learn to stop letting OCD control your life. You can make choices to starve the monster that is OCD, to sit with discomfort and anxiety, and to experience tough feelings so that you can see yourself through OCD episodes. Your brain can learn that perceived danger is minimal, and you can manage uncertainty rather than avoid it. 

When I decided to change my response to OCD is when I stopped making excuses for not living the life I wanted to live. I made myself a promise that I would not let OCD stop me from doing anything that I truly wanted to do. It is a promise that I remind myself of daily, and one that has led to a life that can be uncomfortable at times, but always free. 

I want to tell you that it’s possible for you to live free, too. 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.

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

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.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

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.

Tamara Harrison

Tamara Harrison

Licensed Therapist, MA

I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.

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