Anger and OCD – Getting Mad…
“I hate having OCD! Why can’t these thoughts just stop?!?! How can I be the person I was before?!?!”
Anger can be a mobilizing emotion, but too much anger directed at OCD can give it unnecessary power.
Many people with OCD are extremely familiar with the anxiety-related aspects of the disorder. OCD is an anxiety disorder after all, so it’s not terribly surprising that anxiety is often core to its experience.
But anxiety is certainly not the only emotion that shows up in OCD. I’ve discussed briefly how some people with OCD have symptoms of guilt, shame, disgust, and depression, and how treatment may sometimes need to be modified when these emotions are primary aspects of the disorder.
Today, though, I’d like to comment briefly on anger and OCD, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned explicitly in previous posts. Anger can be a powerful force in many people’s OCD.
What’s the relationship between anger and OCD? Actually, the relationship between OCD and anger is complex, in that it’s mediated by obsessions, compulsions, or even reactions to developing the disorder.
Anger and OCD: Anger as a Trigger for Obsessions
Anger is sometimes entwined with anxiety and contributes directly to some types of Pure-O OCD. For example, anger can be a trigger for some people who have harm OCD (e.g., What if getting mad means that I’m capable of harming my family members?). Individuals with violent OCD obsessions may fear becoming angry, because they may fear that it will lead to them “snapping” or losing control.
Anger is also sometimes present for those who have OCD with suicide obsessions. For example, “If I feel that I hate my life or am angry with myself, that might mean that I’ll end my own life.” In this context, anger also signals danger and is linked to fear.
OCD and Anger: Examples of Anger Triggering OCD Obsessions
- I felt really mad at my parents, and then I almost felt like I wanted to hurt them. Does that mean I’m a dangerous person?
- I was arguing with my mom, and I felt an urge to punch her in the face, and I think I actually wanted to. What does that mean?
- I felt really mad and frustrated at my children, and I wanted to lash out at them. Does that mean that I could actually physically hurt them?
- I yelled at my kids, and I KNOW I enjoyed it. How messed up is that? Does that mean I really want to hurt them? Am I sadistic?
- My baby was crying and I couldn’t get it to stop. For a second, I felt like I wanted to throw my baby down the stairs. Does that mean that I’m capable of harming my baby? Does that mean that I ACTUALLY WANT to harm my baby?
- I screamed at my students today, and I think I felt a rush of enjoyment. What’s wrong with me?
- I got really mad at my dog today. He was taking too long to do his business, and I got frustrated and almost lost it. I wanted to yank his leash so hard. I really wanted to (and maybe I actually did).
Anger and OCD: Anger Linked to Compulsions/Rituals
Anger and self-hatred can also be associated with compulsive behaviors, such as compulsive self-harm behaviors. In such situations, self-harm may provide relief from anxiety and guilt. For example, if I’m worried that God is mad at me (or if I’m a bad person), then self-punishment may be (wrongly) rationalized as a good and proper thing. It may feel like the right thing to do. Response prevention in these cases (i.e., resisting self-harm or self-punitive behaviors) may initially result in intense guilt and anxiety. However, response prevention (and good CBT) can help remediate these cognitive distortions.
Every situation is different, which is why a comprehensive, function-based conceptualization of your symptoms is important. For OCD treatment to be effective, you must understand your obsessions thoroughly, as well as the functions that your compulsions serve. Understanding the functions of your Pure-O compulsions (i.e., mental rituals) is just as critical as knowing their forms.
Many Pure-O rituals related to anger involve analyzing the feeling to try to determine whether or not it’s dangerous.
OCD and Anger: Examples of Mental Rituals Related to OCD Anger
- If I get really mad, what does that mean about me as a person?
- Does feeling intense anger mean that I’m capable of hurting someone?
- What’s the difference between me and someone who actually would intentionally hurt other people?
- How can I know for sure that I’m not dangerous?
- What causes someone to finally snap and lose control?
- What makes me different from all those crazy people on TV who snap and hurt people?
Anger and OCD: Anger About Having OCD
One of the most prevalent (but often overlooked) manifestations of anger in OCD, though, is reactive anger. This anger is less primary to the disorder and is more of a secondary reaction to having OCD.
If you have OCD, you know this experience well.
“Why did I have to get this stupid disease?!?! I hate OCD!!! I’m so mad about having OCD!!!”
If you go back to its roots, the capacity to feel anger originated as an adaptive function. In other words, anger was designed to be a good thing. Anger is supposed to be a motivating emotion that serves as a catalyst for action and change.
Even in OCD, anger can be a healthy motivator — at least, at first. For example, “I’m so angry at OCD that I’m going to do everything in my power to stand up to it.” This can be a great motivator early in treatment.
Unfortunately, the positive, mobilizing aspects of anger can be temporary. When we stew in anger too long, it can have unintended negative side effects.
Too much anger directed at OCD gives it power. It labels OCD as the victor–the thing that stands in the way–blocking us from being who we want to be.
Too much anger directed at OCD results in “wishing away” compulsions. Comparing your current life to the life you “should’ve had” doesn’t help. It magnifies distress related to the current situation. Persistent, unmanaged anger makes you feel powerless against OCD and impedes acceptance of the situation you’re in.
This is also true for anger-related emotions like frustration and annoyance. Fan the flames of these emotions, and you may be giving up control to OCD.
I don’t expect you to not be angry about winning the OCD lottery. Nobody wants it. Nobody signed up for it. It just happened.
But I do want you to find a way to have OCD and be present in your life today, even if it’s not so easy. I do want you to find a way to choose to be you, under not so great circumstances, and to consider yourself heroic for making that choice. I want you to celebrate the best of yourself and be proud of yourself for embodying your values, even when it’s hard.
Choosing to live in this moment, and to work on accepting its imperfections, brings victory–even though it may not exactly feel that way at first.
I’ll leave you with a challenge today:
Find a small way to manage your anger in relation to your OCD. Use it, but don’t be held back by it.