The Truth About Scary Obsessions
Obsessions can be frightening, but unpleasant thoughts do not lead to actions.
Posted January 9, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- It is irresponsible of the media to link OCD with harming others.
- Almost everybody experiences intrusive thoughts, which are random and meaningless thoughts that pop into one's head.
- Obsessions develop when people give more meaning to their intrusive thoughts by trying to avoid, get rid of, and/or neutralize them.
Some news outlets recently reported in their headlines that the suspect in the Idaho college student murders has "OCD-eating tendencies." While he might have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), an eating disorder, or both, headlines like these are very harmful and stigmatizing to those with these issues. Plus, his mental health diagnoses are entirely irrelevant, as there is no relationship between OCD or eating disorders to committing murder.
Linking OCD to harming others is particularly problematic, as there is a subset of people with OCD whose obsessions center around a fear of harming others. Interestingly, people with harm-related OCD are often highly kind and caring people. Nobody with harm-related OCD would intentionally hurt people in the way they fear they will.
How Obsessions Develop
To understand why people are not likely to act on these obsessions, it is helpful to learn why obsessions develop in the first place.
Virtually everyone experiences intrusive thoughts. These are random, often meaningless thoughts that seemingly pop into your head from time to time. Most people dismiss these thoughts and easily let them go.
Sometimes intrusive thoughts can even be disturbing and "ego-dystonic." Ego-dystonic refers to thoughts that are utterly inconsistent with your belief system. For example, it's common to drive over a bridge and think, "What if I drove off this bridge?" even when you don't want to do so. (This differs from someone with suicidal intent who might want to drive off the bridge.) Or, you might be at a stop sign, and a person hobbles across the walkway in front of you, and you have a brief urge to run them over. It is also very prevalent for new parents to have thoughts about intentionally harming their newborns. I, for one, have had all of these types of thoughts pass through my head, but I know I will never act on them.
Click here to see a list of 52 common intrusive thoughts from people not diagnosed with mental health problems. You can see that many are pretty horrific, but it is very common for people to experience them.
Obsessions develop when these thoughts become "sticky" in a person's head. Because the thoughts are so opposite to their personality, the person starts to worry about them. They think they are more likely to act on something horrible because they have a thought about doing it. As a result, they might do something to try to get rid of the thought or counteract it. For example, they might try to push away or suppress the thoughts. Or, they might start performing compulsions to counter the thoughts or ask people for reassurance that they aren't a terrible person. Some people avoid things they fear will make them more likely to act on the obsession.
Because of all this attention and effort, what started as a random, intrusive thought has now become an entrenched obsession. This obsession causes a lot of distress, shame, and guilt and can significantly impact their life.
What to Do if You Have Obsessions
- Normalize that it is ubiquitous for people to have thoughts like yours, no matter how horrific. Many people dismiss them as random, meaningless thoughts that say nothing about them as a person. The same is true for you.
- Analyze how you give the obsession more meaning than it is worth and inadvertently reinforce it.
If you are actively trying to push away or suppress the thought, move towards accepting it. You can say to yourself, "I am having a thought about ____________. It is a meaningless thought that will eventually go away without me trying to push it away."
If you are doing a compulsion in response to the thought or asking someone for reassurance, try to resist doing the behavior. Even if you can only resist for a few seconds at first, that's a win. Next time you have the urge, hold off for even longer.
Try to reduce avoiding things due to your obsession. For example, some people with harm-related obsessions avoid being around knives in the kitchen. A way to work on that is to start handling dull knives and work your way up to something sharper.
- If you feel like your obsessions are interfering in your life and struggle to manage them without support, consider finding a therapist who specializes in anxiety and OCD. There are also a lot of great self-help books written about OCD.
People Don't Act On Obsessions
For more reading about harm risk and OCD, check out this article by Veale and colleagues (2008). In it, they write, "there are no recorded cases of a person with OCD carrying out their obsession… The person is no more likely to act on their intrusions than a person with height phobia is to jump off a tall building." They explain that people will avoid carrying out their obsessions "at all costs."
Remember, there is absolutely no link between having OCD and causing harm to others.
Purdon, C. and Clark, D. A. (1993). Obsessive Intrusive Thoughts in Nonclinical Subjects. Part 1 Content and relation with depressive, anxious and obsessional symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy 31, 713-720.
Veale, D., Freeston, M., Krebs, G., Heyman, I., & Salkovskis, P. (2009). Risk assessment and management in obsessive–compulsive disorder. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 15(5), 332-343.