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Coping with intrusive thoughts caused by OCD

Intrusive thoughts are something that many people experience. They can be unwelcome, unpleasant and involve saying or doing something violent, sexual or taboo.

For some people, these intrusive thoughts quickly appear and disappear, and leave no lasting impression. But for others, they can linger and occur time and time again, leading to a great deal of stress and anxiety.

For someone struggling with an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), intrusive thoughts can cause extreme worry and are followed by compulsions, which can be mental or physical.

What are examples of intrusive thoughts in OCD?

A person with OCD may experience intrusive thoughts that are related to one of the following:

  • Violence – thoughts about harming themselves or others
  • Religion – thoughts that are against their religious beliefs
  • Relationships – thoughts about the strength of their relationship
  • Sex – thoughts about sexuality or sexual harm

What causes these intrusive thoughts in OCD?

Intrusive thoughts are a common symptom of OCD, and someone suffering with the disorder will place great significance on them.

A person with OCD will often worry that an intrusive thought means that they want to act on that particular thought. They may fear that the thoughts could lead to them carrying out harmful behaviours or that the thoughts are evidence that they have terrible urges existing deep inside their mind.

These beliefs can then cause the person to struggle with intense anxiety and worry, leading to their intrusive thoughts becoming more frequent. They will then carry out compulsions in an attempt to put a stop to their intrusive thoughts and neutralise their anxiety.

Some examples of the compulsions that a person with OCD may carry out include:

  • A person may count in their head so that they can fill their mind and get rid of the intrusive thought in order to stop something bad from potentially happening
  • A person may check their body to make sure there are no signs of arousal if they have sexual intrusive thoughts
  • A person may seek constant reassurance from their partner if they have intrusive thoughts related to their relationship

The intrusive thoughts and compulsions that someone with OCD experiences will typically differ from person to person. They will often be incredibly debilitating, taking up many hours of the day and causing immense emotional turmoil.

How do you overcome OCD and its intrusive thoughts?

For anyone who is having intrusive thoughts, it is important to remember that these thoughts are normal. Everyone experiences them.

But if they are frequent, incredibly overwhelming and you find yourself carrying out compulsions in an attempt to cope, you may need professional support in order to overcome the challenges they are causing you.

We understand that the idea of reaching out and asking for this help may be difficult. Here at Priory Group, we’ve worked with many people who were initially worried about accessing support because of the nature of their intrusive thoughts. However, our team are experienced in helping people with OCD and they understand that intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of you, your personality or your morals.

I have never had an OCD diagnosis

When you first speak to a healthcare provider or psychiatrist, like those who work at Priory Group, they will want to talk to you about your symptoms and the impact that they have been having on your life. During this appointment, they will be looking to carry out an initial evaluation in order to determine what the next steps should be.

During this time, they will also be looking to rule out other conditions, as intrusive thoughts can be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, dementia and Parkinson’s disease. As part of this ruling-out process, it may require you being referred to further specialists in order to determine the cause of your intrusive thoughts.

I have an OCD diagnosis

If you have received an OCD diagnosis and have had treatment before, but are still struggling with intrusive thoughts, remember that you can still access support. There are a number of treatment options, so you may not have found the one that works for you.

Also, it may be that you need a slightly longer or more intensive programme, which is something that you should be able to access.

Get in contact with your healthcare provider or a mental health team like Priory Group to help you work out what your next steps should be.

OCD treatment

If you are looking into treatment programmes for OCD and intrusive thoughts, some of the common options include the below:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – CBT is a treatment programme that is commonly used to help people struggling with OCD. It gives you an opportunity to discover ways to process and respond to intrusive thoughts differently, so that they have less of an impact on you
  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) – often used within CBT for OCD, this involves taking carefully controlled steps where you are slowly and safely exposed to your worries and intrusive thoughts. You work with your therapist to avoid carrying out the accompanying compulsive behaviours, with the aim of breaking the cycle of having obsessions and carrying out compulsions. At Priory Group, ERP is an important part of the CBT programme that we have for OCD
  • Medication – certain medication can be prescribed for OCD symptoms, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Your psychiatrist will be able to work with you to determine if medication is appropriate for your needs

If you would like to find out more about the treatment options that are available for OCD here at Priory Group, please use the details below to get in contact with our team, who will be happy to provide you with further information.

Blog reviewed by Dr Andrew Iles (MBBCh, MSc, MRCPsych), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford

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