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by Michael Stein, PsyD
Michael Stein, PsyD

My OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) clients often ask me at some point early in therapy, "Why do I have OCD? Why is this happening to me?" While many environmental factors can play a role and a predisposition to OCD is certainly hereditary, the ultimate answer to this question is quite simple.

To answer it, we need to know what is different about people who develop OCD compared to people who do not develop OCD.

Most people with OCD think that the difference is that they are having these horrible intrusive thoughts that most people don't have. They would say that the thoughts are the cause of the OCD and that having the thoughts is what is different about them.

But did you know they've actually done studies on this? There have been studies, like this one, where they survey people in the general population (not just people with OCD) and ask whether they have had certain types of typical OCD thoughts (e.g. fears of being contaminated with germs, thinking something sexually deviant, thoughts about hurting other people, religiously blasphemous thoughts, etc.). 

They find that about 95% of people have OCD thoughts. Yes, really, 95%! 

And personally I think the other 5% either don't realize they have the same thoughts or they just don't want to admit it.

So if almost everybody has OCD thoughts, why do only 1 to 2% of people (the estimated prevalence rate) develop OCD?

The answer is because when most people have an OCD thought pop into their head they think "huh that was weird", shrug their shoulders, and move on with their day. But 1 to 2% of people have that thought and say to themselves "Oh my God, that's horrible, how could I possibly think that? What does it mean that I thought that? Did I really like that thought? Am I really going to do something horrible? This is terrible, I should not be thinking about this and I'd better never think that thought again."

Unfortunately, we all know what happens when you try to not think a thought… It becomes all you can think about. So by trying not to think about it and resisting the thought, they end up thinking about it more.  What you resist persists.

The good news is that this is a choice, and you can turn it around: you can decide right now to start treating your OCD thoughts as no big deal. 

If your mind says "Maybe you want to kill someone!"...Say "Okay, cool, whatever"and move on with your day.

If your mind says "You're a pedophile!"... Say "Sure, sure, that's nice" and move on with your day.

If your mind says "You just washed your hands but you're still not clean!"...Say "Yeah maybe" and move on with your day.

It's all about not treating the thoughts as if they are important...because they're not. Literally ANY thought is okay to have. 

There is no such thing as a bad thought.

When you have these thoughts, it means absolutely nothing. If you treat it like it means something and something needs to be done about it, then you'll have OCD. If you treat thoughts like they mean nothing and nothing needs to be figured out about them or done about them, that's how OCD gets better.

And if you're on the fence about this and think your thoughts really do matter and really are dangerous, just try it for a week. Go one week ignoring your thoughts rather than taking them seriously and see if it actually makes your life better or worse. You'll find that if you stop attending to your thoughts, they stop mattering to you so much.


About the Author

Dr. Michael Stein is a licensed clinical psychologist who has spent 14 years specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders and OCD using Exposure Therapy and other evidence-based behavioral interventions. He is the founder and owner of Anxiety Solutions, a group private practice that serves clients with anxiety and OCD both online and at its offices in Denver, CO; Reno, NV; and Boise, ID. He is also the author of "How to Stop Overanalyzing", a self-help video series. He sees clients, teaches, and supervises other therapists from Anxiety Solutions' Denver office. He is passionate about both helping his own clients overcome anxiety and OCD and expanding access to quality care for these problems.  

Read Dr. Stein's other ADAA blogs:

Thoughts Are Just Thoughts: How to Stop Worshiping Your Anxious Mind
So You've Decided to Start Therapy for Your Anxiety…Here's How to Make It Work
Therapists Switch to Online Therapy Because of Coronavirus Shutdowns: How You Can Still Get the Therapy You Need

 

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