When a distressful thought becomes an obsession: OCD
Our mind and our thoughts are not always under our complete rational control, even if we would like them to be. We can’t always decide rationally which thoughts or images are allowed to come to our mind. Indeed we produce constantly a very large number of thoughts, some of them pertinent to our lives, work, relationships, etc. and some of them not pertinent, sometimes even weird, which can pop up in our mind even when we are focused on something else. It happened to all of us, while working or studying, to start thinking about something else without being totally aware of it (e.g. the grocery list, weekend activities, etc. etc.).
Sometimes the thoughts that pop up may be “weird”; this means that sometimes we can make thoughts that are definitely not congruent and maybe opposite to what we normally think or how we usually behave.
It can happen for example to have an aggressive thought, or a pervert or a deeply heretic one, maybe a homosexual thought if we are straight (or vice versa), or to think something really bad about a person that we love or that something really bad could happen… The potential list is very long, but the main feature is that these thoughts imply a scenario that is deeply feared by the person.
Usually since these thoughts are so far away from our beliefs and lifestyle, we don't give too much importance to them and they tend to spontaneously disappear. But for some of us these thoughts cause intense anxiety and distress, they tend to pop up with a much higher frequency and they don’t disappear as fast as it happens for other people.
The anxiety caused by these thoughts is so intense that it interferes with the person’s daily functioning and he/she, in the attempt to find relief, may try to suppress them, to create rituals that can help to calm them down, to ask for reassurances or to avoid situations or people related to the thought. Also the list of rituals is potentially very long.
What is happening? And why?
If you recognise yourself or a person close to you in the dynamics explained above, it may be possible that you have developed an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is a serious and subtle disorder that tends not be recognised in the first place, as the person is often very ashamed of having these bad thoughts. In the long-term, OCD may make the person feel like a slave, controlled and dominated by obsessions and compulsions. If you think that this is your case, then consulting a specialist is highly recommended.
People with OCD, compared to others, tend to be very emotionally shaken by the bad thoughts described above, because these thoughts are totally incompatible with their core personal beliefs and the chance of these thoughts becoming “reality” is therefore to be avoided in every possible instance.
If however we can’t control which thoughts pop up in our mind, we can work on our attitude towards them and our consequent behaviours.
Cognitive behavioural psychotherapy is the form of therapy highly recommended to treat this disorder by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
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About Ilaria Tedeschi
Ilaria Tedeschi is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist in Marylebone, London, with several years of experience working with depressive, anxiety, sleep and relational problems.