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For many people one of the hardest things to deal with when it comes to OCD and anxiety is the intrusive thoughts that they experience. When taken seriously these thoughts can be very disturbing and can cause people to get stuck in a cycle of obsessive thinking that only leads in one direction, down. Today we’ll explore how to deal with intrusive OCD thoughts before they get out of hand.
It Starts In The Brain But We Feel It In The Body
Obviously, when we think about obsessive intrusive thoughts we think about the brain and our cognitions. This is where the problem is coming from right? Well actually it´s not that straightforward, the initial warning comes from the brain, but we feel the discomfort of the anxiety in our bodies. Science generally believes that the amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for the fear response. This ancient brain system is behind the famous flight or fight response that we all have hard wired into us.
It is believed that people who struggle with anxiety have an overactive amygdala that is constantly warning them of dangers, even when they don´t exist. Once the amygdala is fired the body begins to prime itself for action. The stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol are released, the muscles become tense and heart rate increases. Some of this probably sounds familiar right?
Anxiety In The Body
If you struggle with OCD or even generalized anxiety, you might be experiencing this multiple times a day, so much so that rather than having the occasional release of stress hormones, you might be experiencing a slow drip of adrenalin throughout the day, keeping you on edge and with that feeling that something just isn’t quite right.
So as you see, although fear may start in the brain, by way of an overactive amydala, we actually feel it in the body. This sense of unease causes us to think that something must be wrong. Normally a quick scan of our immediate environment shows us that there is no physical danger, so we go within to try and find the problem.
The Sense Of Unease
This then is where we begin to get problems with intrusive thoughts. The sense of unease gives rise to a search for the problem, we feel the need to attribute it to something. If in that moment we get an intrusive thought, we are likely to take it very seriously. In a normal positive state of mind we wouldn’t give the thoughts any more attention, but due to the discomfort we buy into them and believe that they must mean something about us.
Counter intuitively, the more that we don´t want to experience them, the more they come up. At this point we start to attribute the feeling of discomfort to the strange thoughts we are having. We may think to ourselves “If only I could stop thinking about this, then I will feel better”. But this is obviously not the problem. The thoughts in and of themselves are harmless, the thing we truly and deeply don´t like is the fear we experience underneath them. When seen like this, it is easy to see how an obsession could take a hold.
Intrusive thoughts are very normal. Research shows that just about everyone experiences them. The difference is that the person without OCD is able to not take the intrusive thoughts so seriously as they are not experiencing as much anxiety, as they don´t struggle with such an overactive amygdala.
The First Step Is Knowledge & The Next Step Is Action
When we truly understand the reasons for why we experience such distress at intrusive thoughts we can begin to relate to them differently. It´s important to remember though, that while understanding the issue and how it works is important, it won´t help you to overcome the problem on it´s own. To learn how to deal with intrusive OCD thoughts we have to take action.
How To Respond To Intrusive Thoughts
The first thing I would recommend doing is just to label the thought. You don´t need to tell yourself a whole bunch of stuff is this is just more mental chatter which is likely to keep you stuck. Avoid saying things like “This is just my faulty amygdala, I know this thought is not true as I have thought about it a lot in the past and it has never happened. I don´t need to think about it anymore and so that´s it”. This kind of thing turns into reassurance and can become very repetitive.
Better to have a short sentence that is very to the point, something like “This is OCD” or this is an obsessive thought about ….”. Whatever you do say, make sure it is neutral and try to say it to yourself in calm and casual manner. The next step is to work on acceptance of what is as it´s quite possible that this thought may keep coming up. So how do you do that?
My favorite way of practicing acceptance is through postponement. The thought in that moment is likely very urgent, the OCD whants you to solve it immediately. But we don´t have to do what the OCD wants. We can make a conscious decision to postpone thinking about it for a specific amount of time. You can decide on that time yourself. It could be 30 minutes, an hour or you could postpone until a specific time when you can worry about what you want.
The idea here is that you aren´t immediately doing what the OCD wants. You are making a decision to deal with the discomfort until a future time and therefore giving yourself the opportunity to learn to accept that feeling in the body. The more we are able to move towards that feeling, the less the intrusive thoughts are going to bother us.
Whilst you´re postponing, it´s also a good idea to focus on taking positive action. Get clear on your values and what´s important to you and get busy with those things. If we sit and do nothing, it is inevitable that our mind will drift to the thoughts, but if we get busy with things that are important to us, then we may even quickly forget about the thoughts and the uncomfortable feeling in the body might begin to pass.
Intrusive thoughts do not mean anything about you, as you can see, they are in fact a normal part of life. The issue is not the thoughts, but the underlying anxiety we are feeling when we experience those thoughts. In my experience responding to the thoughts with acceptance by postponing thinking about them can have a big impact on your ability to deal with OCD.