The internet simply loves seizing on to a grabby phrase and over the last couple of years, I’ve seen more people throw around the idea of “intrusive thoughts”. But as someone with OCD, it can be frustrating when folks online don’t grasp how debilitating intrusive thoughts can be.
Living with OCD means navigating some truly heinous intrusive thoughts on the daily. And yes, while everyone has intrusive thoughts, for people with OCD and PTSD the experience is slightly different.
When you have OCD, your intrusive thoughts aren’t just stuff like giving yourself a spontaneous fringe. They can be violent, or sexual: in short, more fucked up than a bad hair cut.
So to get a better understanding of intrusive thoughts, I enlisted the help of Dr David Berle, an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sydney.
First things first: what are intrusive thoughts?
Dr Berle told PEDESTRIAN.TV that intrusive thoughts, as you might be able to guess from the name, are thoughts which “intrude on our day-to-day activities and the things that we’re concentrating on”.
He explained that they aren’t inherently upsetting, but they can be. Intrusive thoughts can take the form of “words in our heads”, an image or “sometimes even a sudden impulse to do something”.
“The key thing is that they’re intrusive, so they tend to interfere with what we’re otherwise doing.”
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How do people with OCD experience intrusive thoughts?
Dr Berle explained that what appears to be different for folks with OCD “is the meaning and interpretation they make of an intrusive thought”.
He used the example of someone without OCD having a thought about whether they’d locked the house that morning.
“[They might] be easily able to dismiss it as a silly random thought that probably doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
“But for someone with OCD, that same thought might be interpreted in a very, very kind of serious way as indicating that they may have forgotten to lock the house, that the house may get broken into — things like that.”
One of the tricky things about living with OCD is that interpreting intrusive thoughts can be really distressing. For example, the thought might be understood as “reflecting a potential catastrophe” which is now more likely to happen because you’ve had an intrusive thought about it.
People also might “interpret the thought as being a reflection of their own intentions and wishes”. Not fun.
“We all get a bit frustrated at other people at times, and [a person] might have an angry thought of ‘I wish they weren’t here’ or something,” Dr Berle said.
“But for someone with OCD, a thought like that can lead them to worry that they actually truly wish that that was the case.”
Actually though, that’s not what intrusive thoughts are.
“An intrusive thought is not necessarily a sign of our opinions or our attitudes, or our intentions. It’s instead just a relatively random thought that has arisen in that situation,” Dr Berle said.
What are some common intrusive thoughts for people with OCD?
There’s a bloody ‘yuge range of intrusive thoughts people with OCD might have.
Dr Berle did highlight some common themes which often pop up.
“People with OCD often describe intrusive thoughts of harm to themselves or other people,” he said.
“So they might be having unwanted thoughts that they themselves might actually instigate harm to someone else… either through doing something or through not doing something, through forgetting to turn off an appliance or lock the doors.
“Intrusive thoughts about germs and contamination are also very common.”
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Obviously not everyone with OCD experiences all the same intrusive thoughts.
Part of the reason I didn’t realise I had OCD for such a bloody long time is because I don’t really experience contamination OCD. But alas, many of our pop culture stereotypes of OCD are exclusively focused on cleaning and organising.
Will we ever come back from the Monica Geller-fication of OCD? One can only hope.
According to Dr Berle, it’s really important for folks to understand the massive breadth of intrusive thoughts.
“It’s partly for that reason that people with OCD can start to really feel that they’re unusual or different, because they might be having a very unusual thought,” he said.
The more you know!
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Dr Berle also mentioned that people with OCD tend to have intrusive thoughts about the things they fear most. This may sound like an Albus Dumbledore quote but in real life, it can be very distressing.
“By its nature, OCD leads the person to be very vigilant for the occurrence of thoughts about those sorts of horrible or catastrophic things,” Dr Berle said.
Not only are you getting thoughts about the shit which upsets you the most, you’re also hypervigilant of those thoughts. This can mean you’re more highly aware of those thoughts when they do happen — which in turn can lead to you questioning yourself.
“[They might] think, ‘Is the very fact that I’m having these thoughts all the time a sign… is that proof that I really want this to happen, or that this really will happen?'” Dr Berle said.
Now of course, it’s not. But that can be really hard to process.
“It’s really important for people with OCD to remind themselves that thoughts… occur, and that they don’t necessarily mean anything about us, or our intentions or the likelihood of things,” Dr Berle said.
So the next time you’re having a scroll through Twitter and see someone joking about intrusive thoughts, just remember how wildly different our experiences can be.