OCD and Unwanted Thoughts, and Thought Control

A penguin obsessed with flying is an unhappy penguin. Resist efforts to suppress unwanted thoughts.

OCD & Thought Control

Can I learn to eliminate my OCD thoughts?

I hear this question all the time from new patients who are searching for ways to suppress their unwanted thoughts. When I answer this question with a resounding “no”, there is often much surprise and grief. After all, this is why they’re coming to see me.

Many people with Pure-O OCD imagine thought control to be the only way to improve the quality of their lives. Unfortunately, thought control conceptualized in this way is not an attainable goal in OCD treatment. Our brains just don’t work like that.

I explain it like this, “A penguin obsessed with flying is an unhappy penguin.”

Expecting thought control to work is a little bit like a penguin flapping its wings and expecting to fly. It may work for the other birds, but it won’t work for the penguin. The penguin’s wings are not designed to work this way.

This doesn’t mean that penguins can’t be happy. It simply means that a penguin who becomes preoccupied with an unattainable goal is likely to experience a lot of unnecessary suffering.

Our brains are not equipped to simply ignore situations we perceive as threatening. If you were walking in the woods and noticed a snake slithering up next to you, your brain wouldn’t allow you to just ignore it. Instead, it would come up with solutions for surviving the situation. Fight-or-flight is biologically-based. Because survival is critical, our brains are hard-wired to act quickly and aggressively to guarantee it.

As much as you might wish to never have bad thoughts, you can’t change the way the human brain fundamentally works.

There is a solution, however.

It does not involve suppressing the thought or never having the thought in the first place.

Instead, it involves becoming less afraid of your thoughts and learning to correct any threat misappraisals to which you might be vulnerable.

If you’re a snake trainer, you have logged enough hours with snakes so that you’re much less afraid of them. You could even be around a whole nest of snakes and not break a sweat.

Exposure and response prevention for OCD is a bit like becoming a master snake trainer. Your fear won’t evaporate overnight, but with practice you will learn to be more comfortable and less distressed by your thoughts. You’ll also get better at tolerating doubt and uncertainty. This, in turn, makes the thoughts less newsworthy and thus less likely to stick to your sticky OCD brain.

Unwanted thoughts are normal. You can’t reprogram your brain to work in a way it wasn’t designed to work. Maybe someday when we’re all cyborgs, we’ll be able to delete the code in our brains that represents OCD-related fear. Until then, the next best thing for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP).

Questions? Comments? What is your opinion on thought control? Share below.