Intrusive thoughts are an aspect of OCD, causing the sufferer to experience unwanted reoccurring thoughts or images of the things they find most disturbing. The subject matters they tend to revolve around are generally “taboo”-unacceptable, shocking and shameful.
So what do you do, exactly, when you’re lying awake in bed at night, and suddenly-seemingly out-of-the-blue, you have the image of a naked child run through your mind? You distrust not only your worth as a human being, but more crucially, your ability to evaluate the situation logically.
I mean, you remember thinking that the child on the beach was pretty, but that doesn’t mean you’re attracted to them…right? But then, maybe you’re just denying yourself the truth? And then, what if, when you went to get an ice cream, you touched them inappropriately, but now you’re home, you’ve forgotten about it? The images in your head are causing you great guilt, to live out the situation as if it had actually happened. What if I’m a paedophile?
That is the biggest mind-fuck of Intrusive thoughts. OCD, by nature, demands to know the unknown. Our minds want to feel certainty in a world full of doubt. We’ll do anything, and we won’t stop dwelling until we can “know”, for sure, that we’re 100% not a paedophile, or that we don’t want to harm others, or have sex with our family members. Whatever the excessive fear, the drive remains the same.
Our brains, the lump of matter inside our skulls that inspire our perception of the outside world, are comprised of billions of neurons, all communicating with each other through a vast network held together by synapses, sending electrical impulses back and forth through all areas of the brain.
As you can imagine, the more you practise a skill, or try to memorise a song, the pathways connecting these neurons related to these specific subject areas strengthen. This is why, of course, “practice makes perfect”. By attempting something over and over again, you are literally changing the structure of your brain, shedding neural pathways that you no longer use and forming new ones. During our entire lives, from birth through ’til death, these neural pathways that are constantly malleable.
To demonstrate the complexity of the world inside our heads, there are a specific type of neurons-called Mirror Neurons-that even become active and stronger simply by watching somebody else complete an action. Then, when we attempt to do the same thing ourselves, the task is performed at much greater ease.
The bad news, when it comes to OCD, is that every thought, every image you have, is becoming more and more ingrained into the fabrics of your very being. But this does not make the thought itself any more true or a realistic reflection of who you are as a person-that’s important to remember. It simply means that the thought has become “better” at controlling you. For absence of a better way of phrasing it, the thought has become more dominant, more of a “bully”.
But this doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line, which is where, in my opinion, many therapists have their downfall. They tend to diagnose the problem; but not treat it. Medically, it is the equivalent of sending someone for an X-ray to discover they have a fractured wrist, but then leaving it without a cast. It wouldn’t happen if you had a physical disorder or ailment; and mental ailments should be treated no differently. After all, the brain is a real, visible body part, too!
I believe that knowledge is power when it comes to mental health. Having access to the network that fuels your every move, does, by definition, put you in the driving seat. For most, it is not enough to “talk your way through the OCD”. It just doesn’t work-in fact, it’s likely to make it worse. As OCD is a chemical/structural imbalance, you cannot simply question its logic-because they’re non-existent. There is no logic behind this disorder. In fact, by examining it under a microscope, you give it more power. A stronger pathway in your neural network. It does all harm and no good.`
Instead, it is important to recognise what is physical happening inside of you in the midst of the turmoil, to catch yourself out whilst you’re questioning your own morality as a result of these thoughts. You need to realise, and embrace, the science of what’s happening within you. Write it down, if it helps, over and over again-put down on paper the details of the neural activity.
It might be a right pain in the arse initially, repetitive and seemingly pointless, but it’s something that I’ve found helps over time. In terms of therapy, I’ve heard that ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) is in itself an incredibly useful method of controlling the symptoms of Intrusive Thoughts-its method aims not to get rid of the horrors in your mind, but to learn to accept them for what they are-fleeting thoughts that have become stuck on a record.
I’ve known many a person who is disturbed, above all else, not particularly the thoughts, but the feeling of “arousal” they get as a result of having a sexual thought. But it is very much a trick of basic human instinct. Medically, this feeling is described as “Groinal Response”-which is a highly mortifying and embarrassing phrase, and, likewise, a mortifying and embarrassing feeling.
I got to a stage with my own OCD where I’d managed to ignore the Intrusive Thoughts of incest and paedophilia, probably as a result of using my learned knowledge of how OCD acts within the brain. I dismissed the images that ran through my mind, for the first time seeing them as symptoms of a mental illness.
And just as I started to become more confident, my world came crashing down again as I laid in bed one night. I had a though of harming a child-but this time, it was different. This time, I felt something which I mistook for a sign that I was excited by the thought. I panicked, retracing the image in my head, and how I reacted to it. The same feeling occurred. I’m turned on by this. There’s no reasoning my way out of it now.
I saw it as the conclusive evidence that I was, in fact, a paedophile.
But it is just another one of OCD’s cruel and spiteful character traits. Often, Intrusive Thoughts and Groinal Response go hand-in-hand.
Here’s the catch, and here’s the reason why you’re not a sexual deviant: ever since the beginning of our species, our bodies evolved to react to any vaguely sexual thoughts or situations we experience. The brain does not differentiate, as a subconscious process, the difference between sex with a child and sex with an adult, or sex with a stranger and sex with a family member. It simply sees it as the most basic human instinct of sex-and not sex with a specific person. So therefore, when you’re having the sensation of Groinal Response whilst having an absurd sexual thought, it is not to be confused with arousal. It’s how every single being is programmed-and naturally, the more anxious you are about the response, the more focus it is given, the more you will notice it compared to somebody who is oblivious to the details of an unimportant and fleeting thought.
It’s why we can have dreams about making love to Boris Johnson and wake up concerned that we enjoyed that particular fantasy a little too much. But the good news is, it really has nothing to do with Boris Johnson at all-it’s just that our body reacted to the idea of sex. Which comes as a relief to all of us.
On a more serious note, it is also why victims of rape and sexual abuse sometimes report feeling confused and distressed about the response they had to the attack. Some rapes have resulted in orgasm for the victim. Does this mean they enjoyed the experience, or somehow wanted it? Certainly not. It is a trick-a basic, totally unpreventable physical reaction to sexual stimulation, and something which we have no say over.
It says nothing about who you are, or what you desire to happen.
Which is, in itself, the summary of OCD.
Further Help/Resources Relating Specifically to OCD
“Pure-O” (which sounds as if it could potentially be the sequel to 50 Shades of Grey! 🙂 ), is also an incredibly insightful and relatable book written by a young woman called Rose Bretecher that explores overcoming-and ultimately learning to accept-her Intrusive Thoughts.
Obviously I don’t know everything about my subject area yet! I’m just a teenager writing from the kitchen table, I’m not a professional. I’m just hoping to use my personal knowledge and experience to write to the best of my ability. 🙂