How to Overcome OCD Intrusive Thoughts
Last Updated: November 27, 2023
The term “OCD” has become popular in everyday language. It stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder, a distressing mental health disorder involving intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Its casual use diminishes how disruptive OCD can be to a person’s life. Saying that you are obsessive about checking social media or OCD about your morning routine is not the same thing.
For a person living with OCD, symptoms like intrusive thoughts are a part of everyday life. While symptoms may feel worse at times, treatments and consistent self-care can lessen the impact. Many people with OCD live fulfilling lives, but it can take time to understand the condition and get diagnosed.
What Is OCD?
OCD is a mental health condition affecting 2–3% of the population. OCD is defined by patterns of compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts, usually a combination of both. Obsessive thoughts intrude on a person’s mind without warning. A person performs compulsive behaviors as a response to manage the emotional distress caused by these thoughts.
The random nature of intrusive thoughts can be upsetting, but sometimes the thoughts are also about disturbing subjects like sex and violence. This condition often shows itself as odd behaviors like tapping, checking or extreme cleaning rituals. There is no cure for OCD, but there are several effective treatments for OCD symptoms.
Types of OCD
Each person with OCD has a unique experience with the condition. In most cases, a person performs compulsive behaviors to either prevent or stop harm from occurring. Some of the more common types of OCD include the following:
A person with checking behaviors may repeatedly examine alarm systems, locks and stovetops. Or they may believe something is medically wrong with them even when doctors don’t find any evidence.
A person concerned with contamination may fear anything that makes them feel dirty. They may clean themselves or areas of their home again and again. This can also develop into concerns about mental contamination (when someone feels like they have been stepped on or treated like dirt).
Symmetry and ordering
A person bothered by anything looking untidy will spend a lot of time rearranging and ordering things. They may only feel like things are right when every label in their kitchen is lined up a certain way. They may need to keep books and papers straightened at all times.
Ruminations and intrusive thoughts
Rumination is a mental behavior involving repeated thought patterns. Rather than manipulating physical objects, a person tracks over the same thought pattern again and again. This behavior can be particularly upsetting when the thoughts themselves are about violence, trauma or sex.
Possible Causes or Triggers for OCD
Experts are not clear on the exact causes of OCD. They do believe that hereditary, environmental and major life events may be risk factors. Mental health conditions tend to run in families, and OCD is no different. Though it’s not clear whether nature or nurture has a stronger influence, both elements may play a part. Symptoms may start off manageable, so it may take years to get a clear diagnosis.
COVID’s Effect on OCD Symptoms
The pandemic has created added stress across the board for people around the world. Because OCD is rooted in anxiety, the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has put people with OCD under more pressure than ever. Symptoms can be triggered more frequently, harder to manage and feel more distressing than usual.
The pandemic checks all the boxes for fears about contamination, things being out of order and uncertainty. Even if you do not have an OCD diagnosis, you may feel extra emotional distress about these issues.
Getting Help for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
OCD cannot be cured or eliminated from a person’s life. However, research supports therapy treatments and several self-care approaches to address symptoms. Medication can keep symptoms more manageable, particularly a class of medication called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Specific types of counseling therapy can teach a person to cope with OCD symptoms and manage their lifestyle. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a well-supported therapy focused on gradual exposure to anxiety triggers and coping skills. Attending therapy appointments online is also a possibility for OCD.
Tips for Coping with OCD
Distorted beliefs and behavioral habits can interfere with a person’s quality of life without treatment and self-care. Untreated OCD can lead to isolation, social rejection and a sense of despair (See: Social Anxiety & Addiction). In addition to seeking out a therapy consultation, these tips can help you cope with OCD:
Caffeine can amplify anxiety symptoms, so it helps to avoid it. Your mind can seem scattered, your muscles may feel tense and you may have difficulty sleeping.
Avoid alcohol and other drugs
drinking alcohol can feel relaxing temporarily, but when substances leave your system, the body’s adjustment can leave you feeling even more anxious and jittery. Nicotine can have a similar impact. Substance abuse can become an additional problem that worsens OCD symptoms. Continue reading at OCD and Substance Abuse →
Get more sleep
Sleep is an essential part of everyone’s self-care routine, and it’s especially true for people with mental health disorders. Lack of sleep can leave you feeling overwhelmed, more emotional, and less tolerant of stress.
Physical activity is one of the more effective ways to keep anxiety under control. It promotes the release of “feel good” hormones through your body, releases tension in the muscles, and gives you a natural energy boost. When done regularly, exercise keeps your overall anxiety levels more manageable. Even something as simple as a regular walk can give you these benefits.
FAQs About OCD
How common are obsessions and compulsions?
Obsessions and compulsions are common human experiences. Most people only struggle with intense thoughts and behaviors once in a while. As long as a person can cope with them and the disruption is minor, obsessions and compulsions do not turn into a long-term problem. When these two components seriously disrupt a person’s life, OCD may be a possibility. Many cases of OCD go unseen, with less than 3% of the population getting a diagnosis and even fewer seeking treatment.
Do people with OCD really believe those irrational thoughts?
Many people with OCD understand that their thoughts and behaviors are out of the norm. Just knowing this can be stressful, feeling tormented by thoughts they cannot control. Symptom awareness is not enough for effective management. Without treatment, people with OCD live through many moments of embarrassment, isolation and shame. They often have a sense of hopelessness about their situation. Even knowing that their thoughts are irrational, they may have difficulty discarding them. For example, they may understand that rechecking the fire alarm one more time won’t make any difference. But their fears about their house burning down may be so convincing that they can’t ignore the urge to check again.
Is OCD treatable? Can I get better?
Yes. OCD is treatable with medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and many self-care practices. OCD is not curable, but it can be well-managed with a good treatment plan.
Is it true that infections can cause OCD?
In rare situations, a streptococcal infection can trigger an autoimmune response in children and young adults that mimics the symptoms of OCD. This syndrome is called PANDAS, Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections. Inflammation temporarily targets the area of the brain that can produce these symptoms. This condition is being studied, and little is currently known about it.
Do the obsessions in OCD lead to aggressive or violent behavior?
Thoughts of aggression and violence are alarming, but people with OCD typically do not wish to act out on them.
Once you recognize the signs of OCD, getting treatment and support is the next step. If you have more questions or believe you or someone you care about needs help, reach out to these local resources. Therapy, support groups, and professional guidance can make it easier to manage OCD symptoms and savor life again.
If you or someone you love is struggling with OCD and a co-occurring substance use disorder, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper offers co-occurring disorders treatment that can treat both issues simultaneously. Contact us today to discuss treatment options that can meet your needs.
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Yale School of Medicine. “Frequently asked questions about OCD.” Updated July 25, 2019. Accessed February 24, 2021.
Zucker, Bonnie; et. al. “What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?” Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center, Fall 2017. Accessed February 24, 2021.
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