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intrusive thoughts; the monster on our shoulder

“It’s like you have two brains – a rational brain and an irrational brain. And they’re constantly fighting.”

Emilie Ford

 

Trigger Warning: This post will include subjects such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and intrusive thoughts. If this is a trigger for you, please read with care.

Hi friends. I’ve had anxiety for over a decade and through that time I have tried explaining it people, but also tried understanding it myself. It can be hard to describe but everyone at some point in their life has had some type of anxiety and has felt the uncomfortable feelings associated with it. Because people have experienced it, it makes it easier to explain because people understand it to a point. The thing I want to talk about today is something I have had the most difficult time explaining to people, and honestly, understanding myself.

I have talked about in previous posts that I have OCD and that the form I have is associated with intrusive thoughts and my compulsions to get rid of them. This is something I want to dig deeper into in order to help others get a better understanding of it and maybe to help myself have a better grasp on it. It’s something that is difficult to talk about for me but something that I think is very important to discuss.

Since my OCD is related to intrusive thoughts, I wanted to share a better understanding of them. The technical definition of ‘intrusive thoughts’ is, “unwanted thoughts that can pop into our heads without warning, at any time” (iesohealth.org). I’ve come to learn after talking to others, that everyone does in fact have these kinds of thoughts. It’s something that many people can just shake off and think, “wow that was crazy thought”, and then let it go and go on with their day. But, people who have OCD have a very difficult time letting it go. As an example of how everyone has these types of thoughts, I watched an interview with Jennifer Lawrence once (I absolutely adore her) and she was doing a polygraph test where they asked her questions and she had to answer truthfully. I can’t remember exactly what the question was, but she openly admitted that sometimes when she is down in the subway and she sees someone standing on the platform, a thought pops in her head to push someone down on to the track. After admitting that, she stated that she doesn’t want to do it nor does she have any intention of doing it, but it was a thought that popped in her head and then she just goes on with her day as if she didn’t think about it. If I were in that same situation as her and I had that same thought, I would start to obsess over it. I would start to think, “am I a murderer? Why would I want to push someone in front of a train? Am I actually psychotic?” and I would start to attach an emotion (fear/worry) to that thought. Two similar situations, but two completely different reactions. Although everyone has intrusive thoughts and it is considered ‘normal’, when we attach an emotion to the thought or obsess over the meaning behind it, it can turn into a form of OCD.

An intrusive thought can be basically anything. It can be related to something violent, sexual, or anything completely out of character for us. That’s why they can be so bothersome or disturbing because it’s something that is the opposite of what we think or feel normally. If you are a very gentle, calm person and all of a sudden you have a random thought about running someone over, that would most likely feel uncomfortable or disturbing to you. When someone has a thought like this, adds an emotion to it, and feels uncomfortable or obsesses over it, sometimes they will form a “compulsion” to allow them to let go of the thought and feel relief. This leads into the next part of OCD.


Along with obsessions, people can develop a compulsion to help ease the discomfort they get with a certain thought. The definition of a compulsion is, “repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession” (psychiatry.org). As an example, say you were out driving and saw someone on the side of the road and a random thought popped in your head of “run them over”. (Also, if anyone understands the “evil Kermit” memes that are out there, it would fit this perfectly) Instantly, you start obsessing over it thinking, “Am I crazy? What’s wrong with me?”, and the uncomfortable feeling you have amplifies into panic and you try to think of a way to let go of the thought, so you decide to focus your energy on something you can control and end up scratching your thumb three times. After the third scratch, you feel instant relief. You’ve let the thought go and can move on. This is relieving for a bit, but only until the next intrusive thought hits and you remember, “When I scratched my thumb 3 times last time, I felt relief. I better do it again”. And now your mind becomes wired to think, “if I do a compulsion, it will relieve the stress I feel from having an uncomfortable thought”. It quickly becomes a vicious cycle and that’s where OCD comes from.


Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand that this may not make any sense and it may be easy to say, “just let the thought go”. And as someone who has these thoughts/compulsions daily, I agree that the logical thing is to just let go of the thought. This is the part of OCD that I can’t explain to people. I can’t explain the urge to do a compulsion after having an intrusive thought. It’s a very strong emotion that, in the moment, is easier to do the compulsion and feel relief than to go on being uncomfortable. But that’s where the cycle sets in and rewires our mind. “Have the intrusive thought, feel uncomfortable, do the compulsion, and then feel relief.” It’s a cycle our OCD feeds off of and is very hard to end.

In some cases, OCD compulsions aren’t that invasive and don’t cause a disruption in our daily life. We can have the thought, do the compulsion, and move on. Sometimes, however, the OCD can be very debilitating and affect the way we live. My OCD thoughts are related to my health or God. OCD related to God and religion is called Scrupulosity and is more common than people think. This is also something I will have to discuss in another post because it is very complex, but I did want to talk a little bit about how my OCD works.


My OCD started developing about ten years ago when I was in high school, but I didn’t know what it was back then. I had a violent intrusive thought during English class and it made me extremely uncomfortable, so I started to panic slightly. Back then, I didn’t do any compulsions along with the thought, but the obsessions had already started. I started trying not to think of the thought, but the more I tried not to, the more I would, so I attached fear/worry to that thought. Eventually, I started adding a compulsion to it. My compulsions varied from scratching, making certain head movements, or saying certain words. And if I’m being honest, I’ve had one compulsion that has stood the test of time and I have had consistently for many years. but many others have come and gone. As I stated, a lot of my OCD is related to my health and what I mean by that is, if I have a certain thought, I am afraid something bad will happen to me health wise. One example of my OCD I can share is something that occurs daily. My grandmother who I was very close with died of a stroke back when I was in high school. Now if I am picking out a shirt to wear for the day and I think of my grandma at the same time I picked one out, I fear that I will have a stroke like she did if I decide to wear that shirt I picked. So, in my mind, it’s easier to just pick a different shirt than risk the possibility of me having a stroke. And some days I will pick 3-4 different shirts before I decide on one because of that fear. Hence, the vicious cycle of a disorder that is complex and difficult to understand, even for those of us experiencing it.


There are so many different forms of OCD that can be related to different things, such as counting, cleaning, order/symmetry, and many others. The treatment for OCD most likely varies from person to person, but for mine, I have to make just myself uncomfortable to get past it. If I pick a shirt out in the morning and have a thought about my grandma, I have to wear that shirt regardless of the worry I will have about having a stroke if I continue to wear it. This is supposed to “rewire my mind” and show my mind that, “you didn’t have a stroke because of a shirt you picked”. Although it makes me very uncomfortable to continue to wear the shirt, my therapist informed me that the uncomfortable feeling I have just means my brain is being rewired and that is how I am supposed to feel until it gets easier and easier. It seems like such an easy thing to do, but some days it feels impossible.


barreling in, unwanted

bringing with them chaos and discomfort

these thoughts intrusive, never invited

why do i have them, i wonder

these thoughts are not me


As I am writing this out and reading it back, I understand how much none of this makes sense. When I explained this to a someone close to me once, she had stated that it sounds almost like superstition. “If I do this, this will happen.” I think she is definitely right. My type of OCD is like a superstition. And as much as I logically understand how this doesn’t make sense, it’s like I react in a way that makes it feel real to me. This is just one example of how my OCD impacts one part of my day. There are many other times during the day that my OCD plays its part, but I wanted to give a glimpse into a part of it so that others can get a better understanding of something that is difficult to grasp or explain. I think it is helpful, not only for the person experiencing the OCD, but also those close to them to get a better insight into why someone may act a certain way or seem distressed. It’s very difficult to explain, but I really want people to just understand that it is real. I also want people to believe it can get better because I have definitely had days where I didn’t think it would. If you struggle with OCD, just know that you are not alone. For those who don’t experience it and may have a loved one with it, please be patient with them and understanding. It’s a very complex disorder that the person with it may feel crazy and may not understand why it is happening, so as confusing as it is for others, it can be equally confusing for the one going through it. Thank you for continuing on this journey with me. Stay tuned, friends.


References

iesohealth.org

psychiatry.org

Picture: drquintal.org





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