... with a look at some tricky pitfalls
By Corey Harrilal
Glancing at the kitchen knife, an image of a stabbing scene popped into my head. The thought of stabbing my mother struck me with immense fear and guilt. OCD couldn’t let this opportunity pass it by and decided to transform what should have been a fleeting intrusive thought into something sticky and permanent.
This was long before I learned how to manage my OCD, so every attempt to escape was like serving the OCD troll a Michelin-star meal. Overcoming an OCD intrusive thought is an Olympic-level feat.
Here are some tips for overcoming intrusive thoughts, including some of the trickiest pitfalls.
Pitfall #1: The Ritual Trap
My rational mind: Look at that knife over there. What if I used that to hurt my mom?
That’s pretty dark. Moving on …
Scheming OCD: Wait, hold on a minute … normal people would feel terrible if they thought that. I’m not so sure you did.
My rational mind: Yes … I did.
Conniving OCD: Prove it.
My rational mind: So you want me to rethink the scenario that you’re saying makes me a terrible person, to prove I’m not a terrible person?
Impish OCD: Yes.
And that’s what I did. Again. And again. And again.
And after each ritual, I carefully analyzed how large my guilt, fear, and regret were. It diminished each and every time because, to nobody’s surprise, I’m not immune to desensitization. The less I felt, the more fuel OCD gained to persuade me to do it again.
If it weren’t so tragic, I’d be tempted to admire the artistry in the negatively reinforced flywheel that OCD crafted.
Pitfall #2: Looking the Other Way
If giving into the compulsion directly feeds the OCD troll, then avoidance ensures it’s well-rested and ready to thrive. I avoided it by spending as little time in the kitchen as possible and turning to a popular vampire show that shall not be named.
OCD doesn’t like to be ignored and took this betrayal personally. The obsessional thought popped up again and again in what seemed to be 10-second intervals, making watching a 42-minute show a daylong endeavor.
Avoiding the intrusive thoughts didn’t help at all. In fact, they came back even stronger. And whatever activity I was doing to avoid them in the first place became that much less enjoyable.
Intrusive Thought Playbook
Now that we’ve gone over the pitfalls, what do you do when you encounter them? Thankfully, after months at the OCD Institute followed by years of therapy, I have a much better strategy for tackling intrusive thoughts.
When an intrusive thought comes knocking on your door, you first have to figure out if it’s OCD or not. Kudos to my therapist for blessing me with this golden rule of thumb:
If you’re debating if it’s OCD, then it probably is.
If it turns out to be OCD, then deploy one of these coping statements. You can say these inside your head or aloud. They help you accept the uncertainty that comes with OCD and resist ritualizing.
💡 I must sit with the uncertainty.
💡 Analyzing my thoughts will only make things worse.
For this following coping statement, imagine that you’re a scientist in a laboratory setting. Except, instead of mice, you are the test subject and your goal is to observe what happens when you resist giving into OCD’s demands.
So, when OCD delivers you an ultimatum like if you don’t check the stove again, your house will burn down, you can say (in your nonchalant scientist voice):
💡 That’s interesting. I guess we’ll see what happens then.
After the coping statement(s), then focus on a different activity like taking a walk or watching a show. Chances are OCD will come back around, but when it does, rinse and repeat the steps above.
Take a look at the reference image below that compares the toxic OCD cycle and our new strategy, the Intrusive Thought Playbook. Unlike the OCD cycle, following this playbook should reduce distress and compulsive urges over time. Eventually, you’ll get better at resisting compulsions, helping you live the life you want despite OCD!