I know how it feels to want to “solve” your thoughts. I, too, have often attached heavy weight to every thought I have. And I know that just like it’s exhausting to pick up literal heavy weights, it’s also exhausting to deal with heavy thoughts.
At my biggest flare-up of intrusive thoughts, I figured I must be a horrible, disgusting person. I didn’t know that intrusive thoughts actually don’t say anything about who we are. The very nature of them is that they go against our values, beliefs, and desires.
For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), recognizing thoughts as intrusive and untrue is extremely challenging. It feels urgent to “solve” the thoughts, to understand what they “mean.” We perceive them as heavy, whereas people without OCD can usually recognize them as weightless.
If you’re scared of and exhausted by intrusive thoughts about murder, you’re not alone. Continue reading for further explanation of intrusive thoughts, why they don’t mean anything about you, and more information on how OCD weaponizes your thoughts against you.
Do these thoughts mean anything about me?
Intrusive thoughts also include unwanted mental images, urges, sensations, or feelings. The phenomenon is usually shortened to “intrusive thoughts,” but know that it can include all those other experiences, too.
By definition, intrusive thoughts are ego-dystonic. This means that they don’t align with the individual’s beliefs, values, or characters. Put simply, they are unwanted, and the sufferer does not enjoy them.
Moreover, the fact that you’re worried about them meaning something is a good indicator that, in fact, they don’t. You are not wanting your thoughts to come true or intending to have them—you are afraid of your thoughts being meaningful.
Intrusive thoughts can latch onto just about anything that we value, including not being a murderer. In fact, since most people value the fact that they’re not violent or murderous, intrusive thoughts of this nature are much more common than you may think.
In fact, in a 2018 study of more than 4,000 people with OCD across 90 countries conducted via the NOCD app, harm OCD was actually found to be the most common theme of the disorder. Contamination OCD, or the fear of germs/contracting and/or spreading an illness, is what we see most commonly portrayed in media, often stereotyped as “neat freaks.” However, harm OCD was actually found by this study to be 66% more common.
Being unique is often a good thing, but in this case, what a relief: you’re not unique! Millions of others share your experience—it’s just that harm OCD is much harder for people to talk openly about, likely because they fear being judged the wrong way for thoughts that are out of their control.
Intrusive thoughts are universal. Everyone has them. Most people are able to dismiss them as meaningless and not true to them. If you resonate with not being able to determine what thoughts are true to you and which aren’t, you might be experiencing OCD.
What is harm OCD?
The cycle of harm OCD begins with intrusive triggers related to hurting others—certainly including murder—or about hurting oneself. April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, a therapist who specializes in OCD and anxiety, provides some examples of what intrusive thoughts (or images, urges, sensations, and feelings) about murder might sound like.
Examples of intrusive thoughts about murder:
- A mental image of stabbing a loved one with a kitchen knife.
- What if I reached over and choked my partner?
- An unwanted urge to push a stranger in front of the train.
- An unwanted urge to drive your car off a bridge with your family in it.
- What if I secretly want to commit murder?
- What if I pushed someone down the stairs?
- What if I kill my baby?
- What if I’m a school shooter?
Because these incessant thoughts are so counter to the sufferer’s actual desires, and because OCD makes them feel unable to dismiss them, distress, anxiety, shame, guilt, or even panic ensue. To relieve these intense, uncomfortable emotions, people then engage in compulsions. Here are just a few examples:
- Rumination. For example, you might ask yourself repeatedly, What does it mean that I had that thought about murdering someone? You continuously wait for an “answer” that brings you relief.
- Mental review. You might think back to times when you didn’t have these thoughts and ask yourself, Were there warning signs that I wanted to murder them? Was I just repressing it? Did I do something violent that I don’t remember?
- Checking. Internally, you might “check” your body for physical or emotional signs of violence or psychopathy. Externally, you might check that you’ve put away the knives or that you didn’t hit someone with your car.
- Reassurance-seeking. You might be more likely to seek reassurance from yourself, as to not alert anyone else to your thoughts. You might repeat to yourself, I have never been violent. I would never do that.
- Avoidance. For example, maybe your intrusive thoughts about murder are triggered when you’re at the train station, so you avoid your usual commute to work.
- Distraction. Perhaps you find that your intrusive thoughts are quiet or nonexistent when you watch reality television. You may then become reliant on it to not experience your distress.
Compulsions bring only temporary relief. Ultimately, they feed the OCD cycle by reinforcing the idea that intrusive thoughts are dangerous and need to be taken seriously. The primary goal of OCD treatment is helping you learn to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty.
How is harm OCD treated?
No matter how distressing your intrusive thoughts about murder are, there’s good news:
the condition is highly treatable. As mentioned above, everyone has intrusive thoughts. Therefore, the goal of treatment is not to eradicate your intrusive thoughts, but rather to increase your tolerance of them.
All themes of OCD are treated the same: with exposure and response-prevention therapy (ERP). It’s the most successful form of treatment for OCD, backed by decades of rigorous scientific research. To begin the process, you and your specialized therapist will identify the nature of your intrusive thoughts and what places, people, situations, feelings, and/or memories trigger them. You’ll then go through therapy exercises that allow you to encounter your feared situations in an intentional, gradual way.
Kilduff offers some examples of exercises that she would use with a client with this theme of OCD:
- Thought exposure. Sitting with the thought, I may or may not be a murderer.
- Writing a “worst case scenario” about your feared outcome (i.e. What will happen if I stab my roommate with a knife?) and reading it out loud to yourself.
- Being in the presence of feared objects/situations, such as knives or standing on the train platform.
- Actually using feared objects, such as preparing food with knives or driving your own car.
The second key component of ERP is response prevention. This refers to avoiding the urge to engage in compulsion before, during, and after the exercise. Your therapist will give you tools to do so, such as:
- Thought diffusion. When you experience an intrusive thought about murder, you can say to yourself, “I am noticing that I’m having an intrusive thought about murdering my partner.”
- Attention vs. awareness. Trying not to think about or be aware of something often makes the thoughts stronger. Rather, say to yourself, “I am aware of this thought about pushing a stranger in front of the train, and it can be with me as I go about my day.”
- Non-engagement responses. Think of it like standing up to a bully. If you shout back to a bully, the conflict is likely to escalate. If you shrug your shoulders and say, “yeah, whatever” then OCD doesn’t have much to work with.
While ERP may increase your anxiety at first, it teaches you over time that your intrusive thoughts are not real threats, and therefore, that your compulsions are unnecessary.
Put yourself on the road to feeling better
No matter how scary your intrusive thoughts may be, know that there is a life where you are not dominated by them. You can learn to simply acknowledge your intrusive thoughts and move on with your day. You can let go of those extra weights.
If intrusive thoughts about murder are impacting your mental health, please know that you’re not alone, and you can access effective treatment. I recommend learning more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to treating OCD, and looking through our therapist network for a specialist who could be the right match for you.