OCD Living With OCD How Can I Stop OCD Thoughts? Why suppressing obsessive thoughts can actually make them worse By Owen Kelly, PhD Owen Kelly, PhD Owen Kelly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professor, and author in Ontario, ON, who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders. Learn about our editorial process Updated on December 17, 2021 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Daniel B. Block, MD Medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD LinkedIn Twitter Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Are OCD Thoughts? Compulsions & Obsessive Thoughts Why Suppression Backfires Separating Thought From Identity Handling Guilt and Shame Getting Help If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you may find yourself trying to figure out how you can stop having OCD thoughts. You are not alone. However, what many people with OCD don't realize is that the distressing thoughts they experience are not necessarily something that they have (or can have) control over. While this fact might initially make you feel stressed, understanding how your OCD thinking works and why it happens will help you develop more effective ways to cope. Alessandro De Carli / EyeEm / Getty Images 10 Things You Might Not Know About OCD What Are OCD Thoughts? A 2014 study published in the Journal of Obsessive Compulsive and Related Disorders interviewed 777 college students in 13 different countries and found that around 94% of them had experienced at least one unwanted intrusive thought during the previous three months. While many experience these odd or even disturbing thoughts, most people don’t register them as an issue in their daily lives. The problem is when they become not just intrusive but obsessive. A person with OCD can experience intrusive thoughts relentlessly and with an intensity that can seriously affect their well-being. Rather than having a neutral response to a passing thought, a person with OCD experiences a response in their mind and body. The more they perseverate on the thought, the more anxiety they experience. The cycle can be distressing and may impact their ability to function. You may not be able to control whether an intrusive thought pops into your head, but you can control how you react to it. If you have OCD and struggle with intrusive thoughts, here is some key information about why these thoughts happen and how you can learn to cope with them. What Is an Obsessive Thought? Thought-Action Fusion People with OCD may believe that simply thinking about something disturbing (such as molesting a neighbor or killing their spouse) is morally equivalent to carrying out the act. They may even believe that if they have a thought (such as getting into a car crash or contracting a serious disease), it means the event will happen—unless they do something to prevent it. This is called thought-action fusion, and it is one reason that intrusive thoughts are more distressing for people with OCD. Instead of letting their thoughts come and go, people with OCD often take personal responsibility for the thoughts they have. They also tend to interpret these thoughts as being more significant than they really are. Thought-Action Fusion and OCD Compulsions & Obsessive Thoughts Perceiving thoughts as being urgent and important makes a person feel that they must immediately act on or respond to them in the "right" way. A person with OCD may develop compulsions in response to their obsessive thoughts. Behavioral Compulsions Behavioral compulsions are actions and behaviors that are used in an attempt to alleviate the distress intrusive thoughts cause. Compulsions can be a little like superstitions for people with OCD. Often, the person recognizes that the behaviors are not rational (this is known as insight), but the fear of what they believe will happen if they don't perform them is compelling. Completing a ritual temporarily relieves the anxiety but keeps a person stuck in the cycle because it reinforces the obsessive thinking. For example, a person who obsesses about their home burning down while they are at work might compulsively check that the stove is off before they leave the house every day. When they return home at the end of the day and their house has not burned down, it reinforces the belief that their ritual (for example, checking a certain number of times or checking in a specific order) "worked." Mental Compulsions Compulsions can also be mental. For example, a person might believe that if they do not "think through" or analyze a thought sufficiently, it will become a reality. Thinking about a "bad" thought can also be an attempt to neutralize it or "balance it out." Repeatedly giving attention and mental energy to an intrusive thought can initially feel like productive problem-solving. In reality, the obsessive pattern of thinking doesn't usually give someone with OCD any helpful insight. In fact, it's more likely to make a person's anxiety worse. Perseverating also keeps the cycle of intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors going. Why Suppression Backfires If a person with OCD believes that their intrusive thoughts are dangerous, they may try to closely monitor them. It may feel like necessary vigilance, but the intensity with which someone monitors their own thinking can easily become hypervigilance. Once a person labels a certain thought as dangerous and becomes hyperaware of it, they can become overwhelmed. When this happens, they might respond by trying to push the thought away. While it might seem like a good solution, it’s not easy—and it doesn't necessarily work. Research has shown that thought suppression in people with OCD can lead to the development of more intrusive thoughts. Accepting the thoughts does not mean you are giving up. Understanding that you don't have control does not mean you are giving the intrusive thoughts control over you. Thought Stopping and Controlling Obsessive Thoughts What to Do Instead You can be aware of an intrusive thought without trying to stop it. You can start by trying to recognize that the thought is trying to control you (for example, by making you feel the need to perform a compulsion) and consciously challenging it. The first step you take might be to simply pause when the thought comes up rather than immediately responding to its urgent demand. It might be uncomfortable to consider the thought from a distance and resist the urge to perform a ritual. Over time, defusing your obsessive thoughts this way can actually help you feel more in control. Once you are able to put some space between you and your thoughts, you can start to look at them more objectively. Then, you can figure out what triggers the thoughts and take a closer (but non-judgmental) look at how you react. Try not to be too hard on yourself or get discouraged during this process. It takes practice to distance yourself from your thoughts. Obsessive thinking is intense and persistent by nature. Sometimes, instructing yourself not to think about a thought only brings more attention to it. Cognitive Distortions and OCD Separating Your Thoughts From Your Identity Even if you don't experience thought-action fusion, you likely have to deal with obsessive thoughts on a daily basis if you have OCD. You may feel so overwhelmed at times that you would give anything to stop the cycle. Although it is easier to say than to believe, thoughts are just strings of words and are not inherently dangerous. You are not obliged to take a thought seriously just because your brain generated it. You Are Not Your Thoughts The intrusive thoughts you experience are not necessarily a reflection of who you are, but when they become obsessive, they can be influenced by the things that cause you the most worry and anxiety. Moreover, your thoughts do not necessarily say anything about you. Having a "bad" thought does not mean that you are a "bad" person. Try to remember that intrusive thoughts don't always align with your core values, beliefs, and morals. In fact, OCD thoughts tend to attack and focus on the things that offend you. The same can be true for intrusive thoughts that cause fear, which tend to be based on what you are most concerned about (for example, the health and safety of your family). Handling Guilt and Shame People with OCD can feel an overwhelming amount of fear and guilt about the intrusive thoughts they experience. They may also experience deep shame, embarrassment, and even self-hatred. Try to be kind and patient with yourself. Remember that everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at times, and they are not something you are expected to be in control of. It is a good practice to recognize the intrusive thought or feeling you are having, but that does not mean you have to identify with it. Once you accept that you cannot completely control your thoughts, you can start building the habit of acknowledging them without letting them take control. People with OCD can also experience depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and other mental health conditions. Getting Help If your OCD thoughts are making it hard for you to function at home, school, or work, and you feel that you cannot cope with them, talk to a doctor or mental health professional. While it can be difficult to ask for help, there are treatments for OCD that could help you feel better. How OCD Is Treated Medication Many people with OCD take one or more medications to help them manage symptoms. They may take antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or other commonly prescribed drugs for mental health conditions. Some people with OCD also use herbal or natural supplements to help manage their symptoms. However, it is not always safe to take these products with prescription medications. If you want to try an alternative remedy, ask a doctor. Therapy Several types of psychotherapy can be used to help someone with OCD manage obsessive thoughts. The most common is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically an approach known as exposure therapy. People with OCD are often treated using an approach called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). In ERP, you and a therapist will work directly with your obsessive thoughts as well as any associated compulsions. You will use techniques like role-playing situations that cause you distress and talking through your thought process with your therapist. It might feel overwhelming or frightening to think about confronting your thoughts, but keep in mind that exposure work is done slowly, gradually, and with plenty of support. The Best Online Therapy Programs We've tried, tested and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, Betterhelp, and Regain. Mindfulness If you have OCD, mindfulness techniques may help you develop a more objective perspective on your obsessive thoughts. Mindfulness exercises might already be part of your therapy, but you can also try them on your own. There are even apps you can use to track your progress. Many people with OCD ultimately need more than one type of treatment to effectively manage their symptoms. A doctor or therapist can help you find the combination that works best for you. Deep Brain Stimulation May Help People Deal with OCD Symptoms A Word From Verywell Everyone experiences occasional intrusive thoughts. While they can be odd or even disturbing, most people don’t think too much about them—the thoughts simply come and go. If you have OCD, however, these thoughts can become obsessive. You may find it difficult to cope, and they may make it hard for you to function in your daily life. Try to resist the urge to push the intrusive thoughts away. Suppression might feel like a logical solution, but it can actually intensify, rather than lessen, the obsessiveness and distress you experience around them. Your thoughts are real, but make it your goal to acknowledge them without identifying with them. It can help if you avoid analyzing or questioning these thoughts too much, which will only keep the cycle going. If you are struggling to cope with intrusive thoughts, talk to a doctor or a mental health provider. If you have OCD, there are treatments that can help you manage your symptoms. If you or a loved one are struggling with OCD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database. Strategies for Living With OCD 10 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Radomsky AS, Alcolado GM, Abramowitz JS, et al. Part 1—You can run but you can’t hide: Intrusive thoughts on six continents. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. 2014;3(3):269-279. doi:10.1016/j.jocrd.2013.09.002 Bouvard M, Fournet N, Denis A, Sixdenier A, Clark D. Intrusive thoughts in patients with obsessive compulsive disorder and non-clinical participants: A comparison using the International Intrusive Thought Interview Schedule. Cogn Behav Ther. 2017;46(4):287-299. doi:10.1080/16506073.2016.1262894 Levine AZ, Warman DM. Appraisals of and recommendations for managing intrusive thoughts: An empirical investigation. Psychiatry Res. 2016;245:207-216. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2016.08.040 National Institute of Mental Health. Obsessive-compulsive disorder: When unwanted thoughts or irresistible actions take over. Jungmann SM, Vollmer N, Selby EA, Witthöft M. Understanding dysregulated behaviors and compulsions: An extension of the emotional cascade model and the mediating role of intrusive thoughts. Front Psychol. 2016;7:994. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00994 Ferreira S, Pêgo JM, Morgado P. A systematic review of behavioral, physiological, and neurobiological cognitive regulation alterations in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Brain Sci. 2020;10(11):797. doi:10.3390/brainsci10110797 Clark DA. The Anxious Thoughts Workbook. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications; 2018. Pallanti S, Grassi G, Sarrecchia ED, Cantisani A, Pellegrini M. Obsessive-compulsive disorder comorbidity: Clinical assessment and therapeutic implications. Front Psychiatry. 2011;2:70. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00070 National Institute of Mental Health. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Clark DA. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for OCD. Guilford Press; 2012. Additional Reading American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington, DC; 2013. Barrera TL, Norton PJ. The appraisal of intrusive thoughts in relation to obsessional-compulsive symptoms. Cogn Behav Ther. 2011;40(2):98-110. doi:10.1080/16506073.2010.545072 Benzina N, Mallet L, Burguière E, N'Diaye K, Pelissolo A. Cognitive dysfunction in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2016;18(9):80. doi:10.1007/s11920-016-0720-3 Goodman WK. Obsessive Compulsive and Related Disorders, An Issue of Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Elsevier Health Sciences; 2014. By Owen Kelly, PhD Owen Kelly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professor, and author in Ontario, ON, who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders. 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