Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Can people hear my thoughts?

By Grant Stoddard

May 10, 20246 min read minute read

Reviewed byApril Kilduff, MA, LCPC

If you’ve ever worried that others can hear your thoughts, you’re not alone. “Thought broadcasting,” as this phenomenon is known, is associated with several mental health conditions. These conditions typically share the common thread of paranoia, and include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and even depression. 

However, thought broadcasting isn’t necessarily a sign of paranoid thinking at all, and may often be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) instead. It can be tricky to tell the difference between delusional symptoms and obsessive thinking in OCD, but learning what you’re dealing with is the first step to getting the help you need.

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Do I have thought broadcasting OCD?

Paranoid delusions and thought broadcasting OCD both involve the fear that others can hear your thoughts, but they’re different in a few key ways. People experiencing paranoid thinking tend to lack the ability to distinguish paranoid thoughts and delusions from their real experiences and perceptions. This is often a defining feature of schizophrenia or certain personality disorders. 

If you’re struggling with thought broadcasting OCD, on the other hand, it’s likely that you have a level of insight into what’s going on—that is to say you probably do understand, on some level, that other people can’t truly hear your thoughts. Often, people with OCD are plagued with doubt and worry that others could hear what they’re thinking, even after telling themselves over and over that this is entirely impossible.

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 is probably not a delusion, but rather an obsession—one of the key symptoms of OCD.

The basics of thought broadcasting OCD

As the name suggests, OCD is a condition characterized by two groups of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. These symptoms work together to form the OCD cycle, and they tend to get worse when they’re 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:

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 compulsively praying dozens of times in a row, persistently asking their partner for reassurance, endlessly researching testimonials about mind-reading, or intentionally distracting themselves with music or substances when they’re around other people.

Your thoughts don’t always mean anything about you

It’s crucial to note that intrusive thoughts are not aligned with your 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. 

In fact, this is precisely what makes them intrusive. As a rule, if a thought is unexpected and goes against your actual beliefs, values, or wishes, then it’s an intrusive thought, and it doesn’t mean anything about you. 

Our OCD specialists can help you learn new ways to respond to intrusive thoughts. Book a free call to get started.

When is thought broadcasting a symptom of 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 so much anxiety that they are compelled to engage in safety behaviors or compulsions to relieve their discomfort.

“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.” 

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.

Dr. Patrick McGrath

Compulsions performed 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 is so effective in doing.

Dr. Patrick McGrath

ERP therapy for thought broadcasting OCD

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy alleviates OCD symptoms by guiding you to actively change the way you respond to intrusive thoughts and fears. It’s a highly active form of treatment, and it’s backed by decades of OCD research demonstrating its effectiveness. It’s the main form of therapy we offer here at NOCD, and we’ve seen thousands of people just like you get their lives back.

It’s important to seek truly specialized treatment for OCD, because the wrong type of therapy can actually make OCD symptoms worse. If you were to address thought broadcasting in traditional talk therapy, for example, your therapist might spend your sessions investigating why you might be so worried about others hearing your thoughts, or reassuring you that you have nothing to worry about, since people can’t actually hear your thoughts. 

The problem with this approach is that it reinforces OCD by introducing new compulsions, like rumination or reassurance-seeking. OCD is never satisfied with any amount of certainty or reassurance, and these compulsions only keep you stuck in the vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions.

ERP works differently, teaching you new ways to respond to the real-life situations that cause you so much fear and anxiety. In your sessions, you might intentionally think about an intrusive thought you’ve had before, resist sharing it with your therapist, and simply sit with the worry that they could sense the thought. 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 are capable of going along with your day, even when your thoughts are uncomfortable. 

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.

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