Why do some people develop compulsive thoughts and OCD?

Are you plagued with compulsive thoughts or uncomfortable unwanted thoughts? You’ve probably wondered why you have these thoughts and what they mean. It is possible to get inappropriate and unpleasant thoughts you do not want to have, without developing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). So what is the reason why some develop a persistent problem, and others don't? In this text you can read more about it and get advice on how you can understand and deal with your compulsive thoughts.

Why do you get obsessive or compulsive thoughts?

'Sick' and unpleasant thoughts are common, and don’t necessarily lead to anxiety

Research indicates that the average person has about 70 000 thoughts each day, and one

therefore reaches a large number of thought topics in the course of a day. Some of the thoughts that arise in our heads can appear as "sick" and create a discomfort in us.

However, it’s normal to get sick thoughts from time to time, and research shows, among other things, that about 80-90% of the population have had thoughts of injuring their own mother with a knife at some point in life. This does not mean that 80-90% of us have wanted to hurt our own mother with a knife, but that the thought has appeared among the swarm of random thoughts that arise in our head.

You can imagine that many of those who have had this particular thought experienced it as uncomfortable and were a little taken aback by it, but the majority still went on with their lives without dwelling any more on the thought.

In a small proportion of the population, on the other hand, such a thought can cause so much discomfort and disgust that they try to force it away or begin to dwell on things like "what does this thought say about me as a person?", "what if I thought this because I subconsciously actually want to stab my mom? ”. Often, these people also begin to worry about whether they may get this thought again.

Who develops issues with compulsive thoughts and OCD?

So who is likely to develop a problem here? Those who go on with life as if nothing has happened and treat the thought like any other random thought, or those who end up spending a lot of time and effort dwelling on the thought?

The answer is that those who devote the most attention and time to the thought are the ones who are most likely to develop a persistent problem. The reason for this is that the more cognitive capacity you spend on a thought, and the more attention and time you devote to the thought, the more likely it is that the thought will return.

Why is that so? Well, it’s because the more time and attention we devote to a thought, the more importance we illustrate to ourselves and our brain that the thought has. And the more important our brain thinks the thought is, the more frequently our brain will retrieve it.

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An example

Imagine the following scenario: Two new fathers go down a hill as they push each their own stroller. As they go down the hill, both fathers get the following thought; “What if I suddenly

let go of the stroller ? ”. We can probably all agree that this can be a scary and unpleasant thought for both fathers, but it turns out that they each relate very differently to the thought anyway.

One father is stunned by the thought and admits that it is uncomfortable, but still continues his train of thought and does not pay much attention to the "let-go-of-the-stroller-thought".

The other father also admits that it is uncomfortable, but instead of continuing his train of thought, he begins to ponder a number of things. Among other things, he begins to ponder things like "why did I get this thought", "what does this thought really say about me and my abilities?", "does this thought mean that I don’t love my son?" and so on.

He also becomes very concerned that he must not get this thought again, and he tells himself the rest of the way down the hill that "I definitely must not think about letting go of the stroller", and when the thought still appears then he tries to push the it away as hard as he can.

He also begins to ponder whether it’s the case that the more he thinks about it the more likely he will be to actually let go of the stroller. He is very relieved as he and his son can lock themselves in the apartment after the walkt, but because he is worried about having a similar thought again on a later occasion, he decides to change the route next time.

The purpose is to avoid slopes. However, he is unable to stop thinking about what this may have meant, and begins pay attention to signs that may help him assess whether he really is a good father or not.

After several trips on flat ground, he also comes to think that the kid probably can be injured during a trip without slopes as well, if he should be so unlucky as to fall while holding the stroller so that it overturns (or if he should decide to overthrow it on purpose in a moment where he loses control).

To make sure this does not happen, he opts out of going for walks at all. The husband's wife is now responsible for all the family's stroller trips.

This example clearly illustrates that it is not the thought itself that is the problem. After all, both fathers got the same "let-go-of-the-stroller" thought. What made the big difference was the way they chose to deal with the unpleasant thought.

We can’t control which thoughts appear in our head and when they appear, but we can choose how we want to relate to them. If we choose to deal with our unpleasant thoughts in the same way as the father in this story, we can quickly get caught in a vicious circle that is feels impossible to get out of, and some will need professional help to able to get out of it.

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Some tips

If, like the father in the story, you are struggling with intrusive and unpleasant thoughts that you are struggling to get rid of, you could benefit from the following points: 

  • A thought is just a thought. It can be uncomfortable, but not dangerous.
  • Avoidance is the strongest sustaining factor for anxiety, across all anxiety disorders.
  • Thought suppression does not work well, and in some cases may even increase the problem.
  • It is impossible to control which thoughts come to mind. If you learn to control this,  you will be probably receive the Nobel Prize in Psychology.
  • You choose which thoughts you want to spend time on and what you focus your attention on.
  • There is a difference between trying and pushing a thought away, and choosing to shift the focus to something else.
  • All people have sick thoughts sometimes. It is more normal to have sick thoughts than not to have them.
  • To ruminate over things like "why did I get this particular thought" or "what does it mean that I thought this?" is wasted energy. You will probably not find an answer, but may risk being both sad and exhausted in your search for it.

Want to learn more?

If you liked this article and want to learn more then consider downloading our free PDF '3 steps to less worry and anxiety' where we present our favorite strategies on how to reduce anxiety.

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