I Can’t Control My Evil Thoughts

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Reader’s Question

I am 27 years old, and I have had OCD since I was in 6th grade. I can be cooking and bad thoughts just pop into my head about people I love. The thoughts are horrible; I’d never do any of it, but I can’t help these horrible thoughts. I cry, thinking I am evil and I am going to go to hell for thinking these things. They make me feel so depressed, guilty and worthless. I feel like I’m evil and don’t deserve to be happy. I also do compulsive actions, and I have anxiety, depression and social anxiety. Is this normal?

Psychologist’s Reply

Disturbing thoughts of harming others can be intensely unsettling. Although you recognize that you would not follow through with these mental impulses, the fact that they can “just pop into your head” can create a sense of feeling out of control of your thoughts. Many people have unwanted thoughts or impulses on occasion; however, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — while aware that their thoughts or actions are excessive or irrational — cannot easily stop the obsessions or compulsions.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by repetitive, unreasonable thoughts and/or rituals that become distressing, time-consuming and interfere with daily functioning (such as work, school or relationships). Obsessions are the persistent thoughts, images, or impulses that can intrude into a person’s thinking and cause excessive worry or anxiety. Compulsions are the repetitive behaviors or mental acts in response to the obsessions that aim to relieve the anxiety. The compulsions can seem like a strategy to prevent or avoid a dreaded catastrophic outcome. Compulsions can be behaviors (such as hand-washing or checking) or mental activities (such as repeating words, prayers or counting). One common OCD type involves obsessive worry about contamination by dirt, germs or viruses, followed by ritualized and/or excessive washing. Another type of obsession is intrusive, unwanted thoughts or images about harming someone or putting them in danger. While some only experience the disturbing thoughts of harm, others will also engage in mental compulsions such as repetitive checking for safety, prayers or repeated phrases to ward off the anxiety.

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Researchers are still working on understanding the cause of OCD, but different possibilities include biological factors (deficiency of the neurotransmitter serotonin), genetic heredity, certain autoimmune disorders, or trauma that may underlie the disorder. OCD symptoms may increase during times of stress or transition, such as leaving home for the first time, starting a new job or school, experiencing health problems or grief and loss.

According to OCD Action, OCD is more common than you might think — some research suggests 2-3 percent of the population experiences OCD. However, many people keep quiet about their symptoms due to intense feelings of shame; OCD symptoms can make sufferers feel they are losing their minds or worry that others may think they will act on their dangerous thoughts. Feelings of shame or fear of judgment can also prompt social withdrawal and isolation. Thus it is not uncommon for individuals with OCD to experience additional symptoms of social anxiety or depression.

The good news is that there are many avenues for treatment for OCD. Typically a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy are used to modify the disturbing thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors. A therapist who specializes in OCD can develop a treatment plan that is specific to your individual patterns of intrusive thoughts and behaviors. Local or online support groups are another way of reducing shame around OCD symptoms and promote understanding that you are not alone, and that it is a medical disorder and not “evil” that causes those unwanted thoughts.

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