These symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involve the fear of harming or killing other people. In other cases, aggressive obsessions are directed at the self, such as when individuals experience unwanted, intrusive, and recurrent thoughts about hurting or killing themselves (suicide obsessions).
This post will focus on aggressive obsessions that involve the fear of harming or killing other people. Aggressive obsessions involving suicide and self-harm will be addressed in a subsequent post.
Fear of Harming or Killing Others
Aggressive obsessions often focus on violent, murderous (stabbing, shooting, choking, poisoning), or criminal (arson, bank robberies) acts and involve graphic mental images of blood, injury, and death. Individuals with violent obsessions may fear becoming serial killers or deliberately hurting someone they love. Aggressive obsessions affect individuals of all ages, including adults, adolescents, and children.
Common examples include:
- Fear of going on a murderous rampage, involving stabbing or cutting.
- Fear of grabbing a nearby policeman’s gun and shooting someone.
- Fear of choking your baby or partner to death.
- Fear of snapping your child or pet’s neck.
- Fear of pushing or throwing someone off a building or other high place.
- Fear of intentionally poisoning someone (e.g., putting rat poison into your loved one’s food).
- Fear of hitting, striking, or beating someone to death.
- Fear of pushing/throwing someone down the stairs (e.g., babies).
- Fear of walking up behind someone and slitting their throat.
- Fear of smothering your baby or partner while they are sleeping.
- Fear of drowning your child while swimming or giving him/her a bath (postpartum OCD).
- Fear of committing a bank robbery.
- Fear of committing arson.
- Fear of getting angry and shaking your child to death (perinatal OCD)
- Fear of side-swiping and killing a pedestrian or cyclist while you are driving.
- Fear of aggressively pushing your grocery cart into other shoppers who are in your way.
- When riding in the car as a passenger, fear of grabbing the steering wheel and causing an accident.
- Fear of putting your baby or pet into an oven, microwave, washing machine, or clothes dryer.
Similar to what occurs in the case of sexual obsessions, individuals with aggressive obsessions are often afraid of acting on unwanted impulses. However, sometimes violent obsessions are not associated with urges to act. In such cases, symptoms may consist of unwanted thoughts or vivid, disturbing mental images of violent behaviors. Individuals with these types of symptoms will often wonder why these unwanted thoughts keep occurring and may feel extreme guilt and horror over not being able to control their thoughts.
Some individuals have a very confusing form of OCD that causes them to be unsure about whether or not a thought actually represents a memory. These individuals may mistakenly believe that they have acted on their thoughts because their obsessions are vivid, detailed images that “feel” more like memories than thoughts. They may engage in a variety of checking compulsions to make sure that these “false memories” haven’t actually occurred.
Aggressive Obsessions & Compulsions/Rituals
As with all forms of OCD, violent/harm obsessions are reinforced through compulsive behaviors (rituals) and avoidance. Compulsions involving the fear of harming others include:
- Checking written items (forms, envelopes) to see if you accidentally wrote out your bad thoughts or to make sure that you haven’t written out a confession.
- Monitoring the news (TV, radio, internet) to make sure a violent crime hasn’t occurred nearby.
- Revisiting locations to make sure that nothing bad has happened.
- Trying to convince yourself that you would never act on your thoughts.
- Reviewing your past to see if you’re capable of murder.
- Asking other people for reassurance that you’re a good person.
- Mental rituals involving figuring out, undoing, resetting, or trying to clean your mental slate.
- Analyzing your thoughts to determine if they reflect the “real you.”
- Trying not to think unwanted thoughts.
- Holding onto handles, belt loops, or other surfaces to make sure that your hands don’t perform an unwanted act.
- Praying rituals designed to keep you from acting on an unwanted thought.
- Neutralizing unwanted thoughts or images by mentally flipping them upside down, replaying them backwards, or converting them into something “good.”
Aggressive Obsessions & Avoidance Behaviors
Avoidance behaviors involve limiting exposure to places, situations, people, or objects that might trigger your unwanted thoughts. Here are some avoidance behaviors that are common for individuals who are afraid of killing or harming other people.
- Removing all “weapons” from the house – sharp items, blunt objects, poisonous chemicals, ropes, guns, etc.
- Over-controlling your body (keeping overly rigid) when around others.
- Keeping your hands in your pockets or keeping them far away from other people.
- Delegating cooking or food preparation responsibilities to others.
- Avoidance of sex, intimacy, and other situations involving physical vulnerability.
- Avoidance of child-care responsibilities.
- Avoidance of being alone with children, pets, the elderly, or other vulnerable populations.
- Avoidance of television shows or newspaper stories featuring violent themes.
- Avoidance of the police and other security personnel.
- Avoidance of physical contact with others, especially the neck area (avoiding hugs, neck rubs).
- Avoidance of scary/horror movies.
- Avoidance of church and confession (alternatively, may have rituals involving compulsive prayer or confession).
- Avoiding knives, scissors, or razor blades.
How to Tell if You’re Secretly a Serial Killer
Many individuals with aggressive obsessions worry about losing control and acting on their unwanted thoughts. Many interpret their thoughts as proof that they are, in fact, secretly murderers or serial killers. However, in actuality, these thoughts are simply a consequence of OCD, a neurobiological condition. The occurrence of these thoughts is a stressful symptom of OCD, but it doesn’t reflect a defect of character or a predisposition to violence. In fact, as I discussed in my previous post, it more likely reflects the opposite.
The following questions can be a helpful litmus test for individuals with violent obsessions.
Do you enjoy the thoughts you’re experiencing? Are your violent thoughts pleasurable?
Many individuals with aggressive obsessions are extremely distressed when they have thoughts about harming or killing others. However, this “test” won’t work for everyone. Because OCD involves debilitating doubt and uncertainty, there are many of you out there who are now probably saying, “Well, then I definitely don’t have OCD. I’m worried that I actually like my thoughts and want to act on them.”
If that sounds like you, you might ask yourself a different question:
If you could, would you choose to have your violent thoughts occur MORE OFTEN?
Treatment of violent obsessions is based around developing a new relationship with these unwanted, intrusive thoughts and learning that these thoughts are not dangerous or predictive of the future.
Questions? Comments? Struggling with aggressive obsessions? Sound off below.