If you’ve ever had the relatively common experience of thinking that others can hear your thoughts, you’re not alone. “Thought broadcasting,” as the phenomenon is known, is associated with several conditions that cause paranoia.
Paranoia is the persistent feeling that people are out to get you, despite little to no supporting evidence. Some of the most well-known paranoia-inducing conditions include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, delusional disorder, paranoid personality disorder, and, to a lesser extent, depression.
However, another condition affecting an estimated 2.5% of people globally can also lead people to think others can hear their thoughts—though it doesn’t actually mean they’re paranoid. It’s called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Do you have insight into your fears?
The primary difference between paranoid delusions and other mental phenomena that can involve thought broadcasting is something called insight. People who are experiencing delusional thinking tend to lack the ability to distinguish paranoid thoughts and delusions from their real experiences and perceptions.
If you’re reading this article, though, it’s likely that you have a level of insight into what’s going on—that is to say you probably understand, on some level, that other people can’t truly hear your thoughts.
But if the mere possibility that another person could hear your thoughts puts you on edge or makes you worry “What if they could tell I was thinking that? How can I know for sure?” then your irrational fear might not be a delusion, but rather an obsession in OCD.
The basics of OCD
As the name suggests, OCD is a condition characterized by two groups of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. These symptoms work together in a cycle that tends to get worse when it’s left untreated.
The cycle starts with an unwanted, intrusive trigger—it could be a thought, image, feeling, sensation, or urge. In an instant, they find themselves fixated on and distressed by it, and it becomes an obsession:
Why did I just imagine pushing that person onto the train tracks?
Did I enjoy that crime documentary the right way? Or am I a dangerous person?
People with OCD will respond to this anxiety by engaging in compulsions—repetitive behaviors or mental rituals intended to ease their anxiety and/or prevent something bad from happening. Compulsions associated with the obsessions above might include asking their friends for reassurances that their partner isn’t cheating, avoiding traveling by train, endlessly researching the psychological profiles of murderers, or retracing your drive to feel certain that you didn’t hit anybody.
It’s crucial to note that intrusive thoughts are not aligned with one’s true thoughts, feelings, values, or beliefs—they’re what psychologists call “ego-dystonic.” That’s why someone who’s madly in love with their spouse might have obsessions about the possibility of cheating, or the person committed to being kind might have intrusive thoughts about shoving others onto the train tracks.
That’s why the mere thought of others hearing thoughts like these can be so distressing.
How can thought broadcasting appear in OCD?
As we discussed earlier, people with OCD are unlikely to fully believe that someone else can read their thoughts. That’s because people with OCD often have some degree of insight into their condition and realize their fears aren’t rational. However, the slightest shred of uncertainty creates such anxiety that they are compelled to engage in safety behaviors or compulsions to relieve their fear or anxiety brought on by thinking of the possibility that someone could read their mind.
“The fear is really about people discovering the content of their obsessions,” says Dr. Patrick McGrath, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. “Being afraid that someone could read your mind is just one expression of that fear. People with obsessions, particularly taboo obsessions, will feel uncertain that others aren’t picking up on their obsessions. The main reason is simply because the idea that others could know about those thoughts is so terrifying.”
This can take many different forms: a person in a new relationship might worry that their partner could sense their intrusive thought about an ex while they were having sex; a religious person might fear that their preacher was aware of a disturbing image that popped into their brain during a service; someone at the train station may think, “What if that man was aware of my intrusive urge to push him onto the tracks?”
Compulsions done in response to fears like these might be particularly tricky to pick up on, unlike more stereotypical compulsions like handwashing or repeating things a specific number of times. People may exert themselves to drown out thoughts they don’t like, distract themselves, avoid situations where they’re around other people, or closely monitor others’ reactions out of fear that they could sense a disturbing intrusive thought.
Unfortunately, like all compulsions, these responses backfire, only making their fears worse. Take thought suppression, for example, which involves attempting to drown out, control, or stop unwanted thoughts from happening. There’s a classic example used in therapy, in which the therapist tells their client, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!” Without fail, they’re unable to suppress the image that pops into their head: a pink elephant.
So, if your thoughts and worries can’t be avoided or stopped, what is there to do? Dr. McGrath explains: “Rather than stopping unwanted thoughts or fears from occurring, changing your response to your obsessions—including those to do with others knowing your thoughts—is what exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is so effective in doing.”
Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP)
ERP alleviates OCD symptoms by carefully exposing you to your fears (exposure) and providing opportunities for you to resist engaging in your usual compulsions (response prevention).
First, you’ll work with a therapist to create a hierarchy of feared situations, starting with milder triggers and progressing to more distressing ones. In subsequent sessions, you’ll confront these situations while resisting performing your compulsions—or performing them less or differently—effectively breaking the OCD cycle. Throughout the process, you’ll develop a tolerance for uncertainty, which is likely a driving force behind your fear that others can hear your thoughts.
Your exposure exercises might involve something like intentionally thinking an intrusive thought you’ve had in the past, not sharing it with your therapist, and sitting with your worry that they could sense the thought. Outside of your sessions, exercises will involve the situations that are most likely to trigger your fears. By not avoiding these situations or trying to suppress intrusive thoughts, you can actively learn that your intrusive thoughts aren’t heard by others, don’t mean anything about who you are, and that you can go along with your day, despite uncomfortable thoughts.
The bottom line is that you can never fully control your thoughts, nor can you control the irrational worry that others know what’s going on in your brain. What you can control is what you do to give these thoughts and fears power—and there are highly trained professionals out there who can help you do so. If fears about others hearing your thoughts are causing you distress or interfering with your life in any way, book a free call with the NOCD Care team to learn more about doing ERP therapy with a licensed specialist.