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Dealing with the Intrusive Thoughts of OCD and Anxiety

October 11, 2018 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Intrusive thoughts that can occur with OCD and anxiety cause stress, but you can learn to deal with them. Move forward no matter your intrusive thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts can sometimes accompany obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Intrusive thoughts are disturbing to experience, and they can cause extreme stress and heightened anxiety. They can invade the mind without warning; further, they can be dark and downright terrifying. The previous post examined what the intrusive thoughts of OCD and anxiety are and are not. (Quick review: intrusive thoughts are not a sign that you or someone you know is a terrible person.) Now let's explore how to deal with these intrusive thoughts so you can reduce anxiety and discomfort. 

Intrusive thoughts that can become obsessions in OCD and can cause excessive and life-limiting fear and worry in GAD aren't something that people like to talk about. These thoughts are horrifying to the person who has them, such as the father who has thoughts of hurting his children or the woman who is sitting in a meeting and suddenly has disturbing sexual fantasies about the people around her. 

Such thoughts can make people feel scared, ashamed, worried, and full of self-loathing. If you've experienced intrusive thoughts, you might notice that you've become hooked by them. Perhaps you've found that you can't stop thinking of these horrific thoughts, and the more you think about them, the more they stick and the more anxious you become. It's time to let yourself out of that vicious cycle. 

Dealing with Anxiety and OCD's Intrusive Thoughts: Separate Yourself from Your Thoughts

The very first step in reducing the effect of intrusive thoughts is to learn and internalize this fact: If you were capable of doing what you're thinking, these thoughts would not cause you distressThe reason you are struggling with the ideas and images that invade your mind is that you don't want to act on them. Your thoughts go against who you are at your core. Rest assured, the dark, intrusive thoughts are not who you are. 

A way to start to believe this truth is to gently shift your thoughts. When you catch yourself worrying about what kind of person you are for having intrusive thoughts, take some time to journal, sketch, or even text yourself your positive qualities and strengths. Don't argue with your intrusive thoughts. Simply turn your attention to the good in yourself. 

Other concepts to keep in mind to  help you separate yourself from your thoughts:

  • We don't always have control over the thoughts that pop into our head. No one knows where many thoughts come from, and it really doesn't matter. They're just there. 
  • Thoughts aren't tangible. They aren't real. You can think about a cow jumping over the moon, but that doesn't mean it will happen.
  • Thoughts are powerless. They need your actions to become reality. Without your action, thoughts are nothing. You have control over your actions; therefore, you intrusive thoughts will remain nothing more than words and images in your mind. 

In addition to separating yourself from intrusive thoughts, it's important to accept those thoughts. 

Practice Acceptance to Reduce the Intrusive Thoughts of OCD

Accepting the thing that is causing you agony probably seems odd, but it is effective ("Accept Yourself with Anxiety to Reduce Anxiety"). The more you think and worry about intrusive thoughts, the more persistent they become. They become your focus, and you become tangled in them as you struggle. Gradually, intrusive thoughts become all-consuming as you fight them. 

Rather than struggling against them, let the intrusive thoughts just be there. You don't have to embrace them, but don't try to push them out of your mind. Simply accept that these thoughts show up uninvited and gently turn your attention to something else. Mindfully focusing on a tangible object you can see, touch, smell, or hear can ground you in reality and diminish the unreal, intrusive thoughts. 

Sometimes, intrusive thoughts diminish over time. Other times, they hang around as a stubborn part of OCD or anxiety. Either way, when you separate who you are from the content of the thoughts and accept that these thoughts are there but aren't real and don't have power, you can move forward into your life rather than remaining stuck and stressed. 

APA Reference
NCC, T. (2018, October 11). Dealing with the Intrusive Thoughts of OCD and Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, June 24 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2018/10/dealing-with-the-intrusive-thoughts-of-ocd-and-anxiety



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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