A mother stands at the top of the stairs with her child, a child she loves and adores. As she begins her descent with the child in hand, she has a thought, a striking image of pushing her pride and joy down the stairs, with his body landing in a heap at the bottom. The image startles her, however, it’s nothing new, she has these thoughts about her child regularly. She thinks, ‘I must suppress the thought, think of something else, think of anything else, not this, not this.’
A successful businessman is waiting on a busy train platform, it’s the middle of morning rush hour, he’s listening to his favourite band. As the train approaches, he gets a thought of jumping in front of the train, he’s not suicidal, he’s more than happy with his life. He pays the thought no mind and just as quickly as the thought appeared it fades and is taken over by the thought of where he’s going to sit on the train.
It is estimated that we have around 50,000 thoughts per day, a constant stream of positive, negative, weird, and wonderful thoughts. It wouldn’t be naive to think that we are in control of every thought that we have, it’s our brain, right? Why wouldn’t we be?
Yet, many of our thoughts happen against our will – they are intrusive. Intrusive thoughts can be a thought, image, or urge which can range from stabbing your loved one to screaming something explicit in church. Everyone experiences these thoughts, they are perfectly normal. Just as I write this article, I had a thought of jumping off the balcony, laptop in hand, with my body landing on the cold concrete below.
Most people may not even realise they have such thoughts, it doesn’t hit their radar because there is no emotional attachment to the thought. Nonetheless, for the 1.2% of the UK population suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), these thoughts cause immeasurable distress and anxiety.
For many, the term OCD flashes up images of a super clean house or someone hunched over the sink scrubbing their hands vigorously. Hand washing has become the poster child for OCD, but it is only half the story.
OCD occurs when an individual is locked in a vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are thoughts that the individual finds disgusting, repugnant, and against their character. Compulsions are the actions one takes to eradicate such thoughts, this can be hand washing, cleaning, counting, checking, thought suppression, and avoidance.
Compulsions do bring about momentary relief, they decrease the level of anxiety the individual is feeling, only until the next thought arrives and the cycle begins again. Why can’t we just not think these thoughts?
Researchers thought the same thing, so much so that they did an experiment on thought suppression. They asked the participants the same thing I’m going to ask you: ‘Don’t think of a white bear.’ You can think of anything else, anything in the world just not a white bear. What happens? The only thing you can think about is a white bear. That’s how the brain works, the more you suppress a thought, the closer and bigger it becomes.
Both the mother and businessman experienced intrusive thoughts, the businessman had a thought that many people have had, he’s reaction is indifference. However the mother, after having many thoughts about her child, had an emotional reaction to the thought, it hits her to her core and as a result, she indulges in the compulsion of thought suppression, which only makes the thought bigger.
This is not to say that the mother’s thoughts are worse than the businessman’s. They are both intrusive, but the action taken after the thought differentiates a person with OCD from a person without the disorder.
We all have intrusive thoughts and they are completely normal. For anyone suffering from intrusive thoughts, try and see them as junk mail finding its way into the inbox of your mind. The next time you have an intrusive thought don’t react, flag it up as spam, and carry on.