Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Fears about cannibalism

By Arielle Speer, LCSW

Sep 8, 20226 minute read

Reviewed byTaylor Newendorp

Obsessional themes of cannibalism in OCD often include intrusive thoughts, images, urges, or fears about accidentally or intentionally ingesting one’s own flesh or the flesh of others, or doubts about whether one has a desire or urge to do so. People who experience fear of cannibalism in OCD may spend large amounts of time thinking about or avoiding situations that might lead them to consume flesh, or performing rituals that they believe will prevent this from happening or reduce their anxiety. 

They may engage in various mental and physical acts to attempt to avoid, neutralize or keep their fear from happening. Mental acts can include avoidance, neutralization (trying to replace “bad” unwanted thoughts and images with more positive, pleasing ones), distraction, and mentally reviewing past acts to “check” to see if they have somehow committed an act of cannibalism. Compulsions may include both mental and physical actions to provide the individual with reassurance, a sense of safety, and temporary comfort about the feared situation.
  • Am I a cannibal if I accidentally consumed some piece of my own or someone else’s flesh (e.g., inadvertently ingesting a flake of skin)?
  • Could I lose control and try to consume flesh?
  • Will someone consume my flesh unknowingly?
  • Will I consume someone’s flesh unknowingly?
  • I must make sure I always wear gloves, so my skin does not flake into anyone’s food.
  • I did something immoral because I had a thought/image of consuming flesh or causing someone else to consume flesh.
  • If I bite my fingernails, does that mean I actually want to be a cannibal?

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Common triggers

People with obsessional fears of cannibalism in OCD may be triggered by situations involving their skin or others’ skin encountering their mouth. These persons might also worry about other individuals eating their skin or the skin of others. 

Activities like cooking, handholding, washing hands, licking fingers, biting fingernails, and acts of intimacy may be triggers for individuals that experience intrusive thoughts and images related to cannibalism. Individuals with this theme frequently report that when their own skin is dry or when they have to come into contact with things that are frequently put into their mouth (or another person’s mouth), they feel their OCD is triggered.

Other triggers for people with obsessional fears of cannibalism include:

  • Dry lips
  • Placing parts of their body in their mouth or in another individual’s mouth
  • Kissing
  • Certain types of weather
  • Flaky areas of skin
  • Other themes of their OCD, including fears of harming themselves or others and/or contamination-related fears
  • Feeling hungry

How can I tell if it’s OCD and not anxiety?

OCD is distinguished by intrusive thoughts, urges, doubts, or images that come into one’s mind, often outside their control or desire, as well as compulsions done in response to the distress caused by these thoughts. While OCD does create a great deal of anxiety and results in compulsions to alleviate anxiety, it is different from generalized anxiety disorders. 

Individuals that experience OCD typically report certain actions to decrease their anxiety related to OCD, including suppressing their intrusive thoughts, neutralizing these thoughts, and seeking reassurance from themselves and others in relation to their fears. They frequently experience a great deal of distress in relation to their obsessions/fears and compulsions/behaviors. In addition to distress, individuals often share spending a great deal of time thinking about, avoiding, or attempting to prevent their fears from coming true. Commonly, OCD obsession and compulsions can impact an individual in multiple areas of their life, including relationships, work, social life, health, and overall life satisfaction.

Common compulsions

When people with OCD experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges related to cannibalism that cause distress, they may avoid touching people or objects with their skin. Some people use barriers such as gloves, their sleeves, tissues, or other objects to avoid the possibility of leaving their skin on things that could then be ingested. Some individuals may avoid certain types of intimacy all the time or during certain times when they feel there is a risk of flesh being consumed. They may even avoid social or physical contact whatsoever. 

People experiencing cannibalism fears in OCD frequently report compulsions of avoidance, self-care (especially regarding skin care) that is meticulous and time consuming, and a great deal of time ruminating about their perceived fear.

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with cannibalism fears in OCD include:

  • Using barriers on skin
  • Avoiding putting flesh in/near their mouth
  • Avoiding cooking
  • Avoiding eating around others
  • Avoiding putting things in their mouth after they have been directly touched
  • Using copious amounts of lotion and lip balm
  • Mentally “reviewing” past actions/encounters to “check” if they engaged in acts that could be considered cannibalistic
  • Mental self-reassurance 
  • Thought/Image Neutralization (mentally “replacing” unwanted thoughts/images of cannibalism with other safe or pleasant thoughts/images)

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How to treat fear of cannibalism

As with any manifestation of OCD, obsessional fears of cannibalism and the corresponding compulsions can be debilitating, but all forms of OCD are highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with an OCD specialist, you can learn to tolerate uncertainty and anxiety, and reduce the amount of time you spend ruminating on thoughts, avoiding day to day situations, and performing compulsive behaviors. 

ERP uses planned exposures—exercises where you and your therapist purposely trigger your fears and anxieties—to give you opportunities to resist the urge to respond with compulsions, which only reinforce your fears over time. Over time, this teaches you to tolerate the uncertainty and distress you feel about cannibalism themes, and allows you to manage OCD in daily life with less distress. 

ERP therapy is the gold standard for treating OCD and can provide you with significant relief and empowerment. Your ERP therapist will be with you through the highs and lows of therapy to encourage you, challenge you, and celebrate with you. ERP is scientifically proven to work for people who are struggling just like you.

If you’re struggling with OCD, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

We look forward to working with you.

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