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Thought Control & OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)

OCD & Unwanted Thoughts, & 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.




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19 Comments

  1. Hi Dr. Seay. You make a good point that our brains cannot accomplish thought control. I found that it took a while for me to even accept that reality, however, and I was quite the “unhappy penguin.” Thankfully, over time, many of the thoughts have lost their power over me and some have almost disappeared altogether. It’s just that sometimes our mind seems to work in the opposite way that we think it should.

    • So true! OCD is quite the paradox. The acceptance part can be the hardest step of all…but as you said, once you’ve managed it, there’s often much light at the end of the tunnel.

  2. Oh, I just love this article! You explain, so simply really, what treatment for OCD is really all about. Thank you once again for your wonderful blog.

    • Thanks, Janet. Certainly the hardest part of treatment is taking risks and following through with exposures. However, I think having the right conceptualization can make it an easier pill to swallow.

  3. This artcile has arrived to me like an ambulance! Thank you good sir. My current obssesions may repeat themselves in other days but i’ve learned to focus to “now”.And i feel perfect.

  4. I can understand what you are saying, and in the earlier days when I was told about my pure O, this sort of advice was very helpful. The unwanted & intrusive thoughts I encountered tehn, often involved people who were close to me, but were nonetheless just negative thoughts.

    However, these days I have the problem that the repetitive thoughts are of things I feel guilt or shame over from when I was younger…My head then tells me that this is different than before, since the thoughts are about real life events, so I am ruminating for many hours, it’s starting to get too much….

    the worst part is that my head has managed to associate anytime where I would normaly experience happiness as a trigger…For example if I walk out side, and the sun as shining, for a second or too I start to enjoy it, then my head comes in with, “too bad, you can’t enjoy it, and will never enjoy anything that should garner happiness because of such & such…

    ….then I begin to run over the thoughts of past events, trying to solve it, trying to justify my actions, then once I feel I have done so, another way of looking at it pops up & the cycle starts all over again….

    The thing is I while this is all going on in my head, I am at work or out with friends and it can be very unpleasant….I dont know what to do…Even though it was horendous to experience the unwanted thoughts of the past, I would almost prefer to be back there again, since this time it feels more real …since I am latching on to mistakes I have made in my past…adolesence mistakes which may seem trivial to anyone else, but are made out to be huge and damning in my mind….

    Have you heard of anything like this before with any of your patients???

    • Hi Lewis,

      Yes, this can certainly happen. If you haven’t already, I would recommend reading Dr. Jonathan Grayson’s Freedom from OCD. He talks about these types of symptoms in his book and his treatment approach can be adapted for your symptoms. The comparison-making/solving/analyzing/”wishing” is part of your mental ritual. These types of symptoms are often addressed through imaginal exposure and using recorded exposure scripts. These types of symptoms are also frequently associated with avoidance behaviors in the present (e.g., why bother spending with friends if I’m going be stuck on these thoughts?). Part of your recovery is going to involve re-engaging in these activities, even if you feel that they don’t bring you as much happiness as they “should.”

      I also wonder if there are other aspects to your symptoms. For example, are you afraid of making mistakes in the present? Do you go out of your way to avoid hurting other people? Sometimes over-control of behavior is another subtle ritual that maintains symptoms. Part of your recovery will likely involve accepting the possibility that you could make mistakes again.

      Given the complexity of your symptoms, I think it’s wise to work with a therapist on these issues. The OC Foundation can give you recommendations for local therapists who are trained in ERP.

      Good luck in your recovery!

    • This is exactly what has happened to me. I have suffered ocd since i was a child. I used to worry and fret that my parents would not come home from work since when i was very young, these are some of my earliest memories. In my teens i developed strange irrational obsessions that always involved losing or hurting my family. These were purely thoughts but they were extremely guilt and fear inducing. Now i am in my mid twenties and i seem to be able to dismiss irrational thoughts (though i have been medicated a few times which has always helped), but now the ocd has taken a nasty turn and picks up on real life events from my adolescence onwards. i feel guilty about indiscretions and anything that i think that if those close to me knew would make them hate and leave me. i find it difficult to not respond to or become accepting of these thoughts. i feel i have been completely selfish and irresponsible in the past and now that realisation is driving the ocd into overdrive. I think my story seems very similar to yours lewis.

  5. I used to have more panic with my “Pure-O” thoughts. But now they just continue on and on and one wanting me to answer them, although the panic is lower, they still are not good feelings and in the background I never feel happy, it’s like something is always wrong but the thoughts also tell me that maybe I want to be OCD and this is normal because I choose it to be for me. But the fact I answer one question only to have a million more pop up, I think I realize this is not normal. I can’t explain it, it’s like my thoughts go on to infinity. I feel like no one has really had this kind of pure O? So I think it is more of a depression, but is this pure O or OCD spectrum is it called? Where people have OCD but don’t really think there is anything wrong?

    • Hi Sue,

      Sometimes repetitive questions do not represent internal triggers but instead are figuring out rituals. These rituals might reflect efforts to better understand what’s happening or to view the situation from the “correct” angle. Answering these questions and/or going onto the next question simply reinforces the OCD cycle.

      Also, many individuals with Pure-O experience similar doubts to what you’re describing: 1) What if I don’t really have OCD? 2) What if I secretly want to have these thoughts? 3) What if part of me wants these thoughts to be true?

      I would recommend talking with your therapist about differentiating your OCD symptoms from your depressive symptoms. That issue can be complex, and it’s helpful to have the guidance of a professional.

  6. I can totally understand. My thoughts used to be more typical Pure O…harming others with knves, etc. But they have now evolved to be pure “reasoning” and “resolving” huge issues like why did God create us as little “puppets”, and worse (I can’t really even explain them because they DO go back into infinity!). I also was wondering if maybe this wasn’t OCD because the typical religious rumination is fear of doing something wrong, a sin, and I am actually questioning God’s authority! But hearing that you also have thoughts “back to infinity” help me realize this isn’t just me. Even when I’m not actively resolving them, I almost get a headache from them circling in the background and create a feeling of “something’s not right.” all the time!

    • It can sometimes be helpful to carve out time to practice active exposures to these types of thoughts. Some people feel that if they’re having near-constant obsessions, there really isn’t a need for exposure…after all, they’re “practicing” response prevention all the time. I disagree with this. In my experience, response prevention alone — without purposeful exposure — often yields only limited benefit.

      Wishing you the best with this!

  7. I loved your article and reading through all of the comments here from others dealing with pure O. I went to a therapist earlier this year for something unrelated and he told me I have OCD.

    I didn’t believe him at first because I don’t check things 10 times and don’t have any physical manifestations. But I used to OBSESS over things that I would never share with anyone because I knew the obsessions weren’t normal. It was exhausting trying to figure out what the recurrent thoughts “meant” in the bigger picture of my life.

    One thing my therapist said when I finally began sharing some of these thoughts and expressing frustration with why these thoughts pervaded… he said, “so you have these thoughts, so what?”

    I sat with that for a minute or two absorbing it because I thought, your THOUGHTS were important and I had a constant sense of need to resolve, direct, or answer them.

    This is so freeing. It actually got rid of the majority of recurrent thoughts. Just interrupting them mentally and asking myself “so what” as I was mired in thought made the thought less powerful or attractive.

    I told the therapist I couldn’t believe I’d paid his handsome fees for the profound realization that asking myself “so what” was going to change my life. Why didn’t I think of that. 🙂

    Thanks for the articles, they are great.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Jen. It sounds like discovering the “so what” question was incredibly powerful for overcoming your figuring out rituals. Here’s to you and your continued recovery!

  8. Confronting the things you fear does indeed remove that specific fear. But what if the brain always finds new things to fear/dread (because of malfunction, as in OCD)?
    In other words, just how meaningfully can ERP help with Pure OCD, where innumerable and forever newer obssessions are involved? For instance, you remove the fear of cancer, and the patient starts dreading another disease/thing. You make the patient face his obsession about forgetting language, and the patient ends up doubting his ability to communicate in the language concerned.
    Definitely, ERP can not be forever or even chronic.
    Thanks for your answer.

  9. You’re the man doc!

  10. Hi Doctor Seay !! I’m Claudia from France, I’m 20
    What you said was very helpful ! But I’m really worried about what’s happening to me right now. I’m having pure o and i’m always scared that I might represent a danger for the ones I care about. It’s terrible, I can barely sleep at night because i’m always thinking about that and it’s true i used to have those mental rituals you’ve mentioned like “what if… what if, oh noo i can no longer live that way”.
    So, let me tell my story.
    I started having OCD when I was about 11 or so, my parents would punish me when they’d see me doing rituals so i found a way to hide it from them. Afterwards, my older brother stopped talking to me when I was 13 with no reason at all, he’s 23 now and we still don’t talk… When that began, i became anorexic and I really thought that I could control my life that way, i was really enjoying it even though it sounds crazy… whatever. I went to psychiatric institutions and obviously I had to eat again and when that happened I managed to get rid of OCD but pure O showed up. It’s like hell in my head really.
    I’m currently seeing a therapist, i’m taking antidepressants but it’s obviously not enough because the pure O are still there. My doctor wants to prescribe me antipsychotics, but i’m really afraid because of the side effects (especially weight gain) they could have, he also told me about electroshocks therapy…
    Well, I’m totally lost. Your method seems great and harmless, but do you really think that a human being is capable of accepting those horrible thoughts ? Don’t you think that acceptance could lead to act upon those thoughts ?

    • I can’t express all of my gratitude for these articles. I have had Pure O since the age of 6, which now, at the age of 21 it seems as though I have lived so much longer than I have. Treatments would vary from one on one when I could afford it to absolutely nothing during other times when I needed it. I’ve been trying to work on it on my own recently just to be more on top of changing my own mind and maintaining it

      In the past, I used to cry on every birthday after reflection of how far I had come and how much I had gotten over even though my Pure O obsessions are always manifesting and changing in different ways.

      Claudia, Sue, and Chris – None of you are alone. I’ve shared in the obsessions of hurting my family and my loved ones. These thoughts started appearing after the copious amounts of TV I was exposed to at a young age. The thoughts literally made me shameful and worried to the point of physical illness and made me feel like I was meant to never be loved or be around anyone, and that I would act upon them if “I surrendered to my thoughts.” I’ve had these terrible thoughts on and off for years but never have, and I know in my heart I never will.

      Unfortunately, they manifest at my happiest moments with my current partner. Even though I know that I would end my own life or run away or just do anything but hurt him emotionally or physically, they still occur.

      Claudia, much like yourself I had anorexia very very badly for a year and I almost wish I had that now at times instead of this terrible thought process that I know is stupid but can’t seem to shake.

      For Claudia, Chris, and Sue – I have hope though, that even though we suffer these thoughts there is something that is very comforting at the end of the day:

      1. I can tell that you are terrorized by these thoughts too, and you feel that they come from nowhere too. They are motivated by anything
      2. You feel shame from them, and from any novel I’ve ever read, anyone that actually wants to hurt someone and acts on it doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to care about anyone before the act or feel remorse afterward. Bad people don’t see themselves as bad people usually. I think that is probably the worst things about this illness is that I’ve always been an extremely loving person and care about others, and this illness makes me feel like I am a terrible person although it’s a plague of thoughts that aren’t “Mine” in the sense that I believe them or want to think them.

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