Most people probably encounter things that trigger disgust nearly every day. Uncomfortable feelings are a part of everyone’s life, and some people may barely even notice when they arise. But for many with OCD, feelings of disgust feel impossible to tolerate, and even the slightest sensation can seem overwhelming. If there is even a minuscule possibility that something is dangerous, dirty, or disgusting, then OCD insists that it must be avoided at all costs.
For example, if you bump your leg against a toilet seat, the possibility that it will cause serious contamination may be next to nothing. However, for people struggling with Contamination themes in OCD, even that minuscule possibility can feel painfully real. You don’t have to see any contaminants. You don’t even need to feel that anything is contaminated. The mere chance of contamination might trigger a strong reaction.
The emotion of disgust can be extremely difficult to recognize, yet it is often highly prevalent in people with OCD. Let’s examine some of the ways that feelings of disgust are central to people’s OCD experience.
Although the specific things that trigger disgust differ from person to person, their response to these objects or situations is often similar: avoidance. And if these triggers cannot be avoided, people may adhere to a certain set of rules or compulsions in an attempt to manage the feelings of disgust that arise.
Some people may even report feeling disgust, but cannot really pinpoint its source. They might have a very general sensation of being unclean—sometimes involving magical thinking, where they feel mentally or spiritually unclean, triggering very real feelings of disgust. The underlying belief is that they cannot tolerate the feelings. Although no one likes to feel uncomfortable, people who suffer from OCD go to great lengths to avoid discomfort at all costs. Sometimes, this can sometimes lead to something known as anticipatory anxiety, or anxiety about having anxiety, causing people to feel disgusted by their own worries about contamination or disgust.
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These feelings may not only exist in relation to physical items or situations, but can often be linked to emotional intrusive thoughts as well, as in the cases of emotional contamination. Many people who have OCD display something referred to as thought-action fusion, or the belief that if they think something, it is the same as doing it. As a result, when someone experiences intrusive thoughts that they find distressing or disgusting, they can become disgusted by themselves, as well.
Disgust tied to specific items
Someone I worked with once shared that their feelings of disgust kept them from wearing several pieces of clothing for years. They eventually shared with me that the clothes they wore when they had certain especially disturbing intrusive thoughts felt unclean or contaminated, no matter how many times they washed them or tried to move on from their feelings. This was a perfect example of how disgust can latch itself onto not only physical contaminants but also thoughts that are shrouded with shame.
Another person I worked with would not wear clothes that they wore to the funeral of a loved one. The idea of transferring death, although they knew was illogical, felt like too great a risk to take. I have also worked with many people who avoided wearing clothes with certain colors for years because they have intense feelings that the colors are “bad”—often, they cannot put into words why certain colors carry that connotation, but their disgust feels too powerful to tolerate. This can go on for years and years before ever really being addressed, and most are unaware that their magical thinking and avoidance are even symptoms of OCD.
You can learn to tolerate feelings of disgust
If OCD causes you to feel intrusive disgust in response to certain stimuli, situations, or even your own thoughts, you don’t have to live by its rules. You can learn to enjoy your life without avoiding discomfort at every opportunity. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a specialty-trained therapist, you can learn to tolerate feelings of disgust, and maybe even feel decreased disgust in response to triggering situations.
ERP teaches people with OCD that their thoughts, feelings, and urges do not have to have meaning, and helps them learn to sit in anxiety and discomfort without relying on compulsions that only reinforce their fear and disgust. You can learn that although it may not be comfortable, you can actually tolerate things that trigger distress or disgust. Eventually, the feelings do pass, but it takes consistent practice. Retraining your brain takes time, commitment, and perseverance.
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If you’re struggling with OCD, 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.