With all the misinformation about vaccines and health risks, you would think people might think twice about looking to the internet for diagnostic advice about their mental status. Sadly, this is not the case.
Despite the many credible sources (including this one) dispelling the myth of “pure O” OCD, I still get frequent queries from people who have diagnosed themselves as having “pure O” and are looking for treatment to help them get rid of their disturbing thoughts.
If you think you suffer from Pure O, you probably have been stuck in a repetitive thought loop about a distressing event or belief. You think you have obsessions without compulsions (such as the stereotypical ones like hand-washing and checking). But I guarantee you are engaging in rituals even if they are not readily apparent to an outside observer or only exist in your head.
Here are some common obsessional thoughts that may masquerade as Pure O:
I am a pedophile.
I have violent thoughts and may kill someone.
I might kill myself.
I have an underlying mental illness and will go crazy.
Let’s do some unpacking:
If you worry about having these types of thoughts, you are falling prey to a common OCD cognitive distortion: thought-action fusion—the belief that thinking about an action is the same as actually doing it. Thought-action fusion can also cause you to believe, superstitiously, that having a thought will make the event more likely to happen.
Thoughts of committing a violent or repugnant act can feel very real. Such obsessions often lead to repeated attempts (compulsions) to push them away in order to relieve distress. Some common rituals are: mentally reviewing the past for signs of the feared action; seeking reassurance from friends and family; repeating a phrase or mantra (“I would never do that,” “I’m a good person”); praying; doing research about people who have committed the feared action and comparing yourself to them.
Trying to control thoughts only makes them more tenacious, as countless experiments on thought suppression have shown. Contrary to what the false notion of Pure O would have us believe, thoughts are not the problem!
OCD worries gain a foothold from the efforts to suppress thoughts, not from the thoughts themselves. The most effective way to deal with unwanted mental intrusions, then, is to allow them. In fact, if you stop trying to barricade the door against the unwelcome cognitive intruders and invite them in, they will lose their power over you in time. Little by little, you will find it easier to realize they are not evidence of a deep-seated pathology or predictions of future actions.
They are just products of an over-active imagination, nothing more.
So remember: “Pure O” is never pure, and don’t trust those who tell you otherwise.
The term “gaslighting” is so widely used today that most people, aside from classic film buffs, don’t know its origin–most famously from the 1944 movie Gaslight. The story revolves around a woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, whose husband tries to convince her she is going insane by repeatedly dimming the lights, making loud noises and talking to himself in the attic while insisting she is hallucinating.
In the psychological literature and in popular culture, gaslighting describes efforts to manipulate someone’s perception of reality in order to gain control over the person. Successful gaslighters make their victims question their memories and experiences and, in extreme cases, even doubt their sanity.
OCD is a master gaslighter. Sometimes called “the doubting disease,” it manipulates by causing the sufferer to question every action, thought, and recollection. A person who is trapped in an OCD spiral will wonder, “Can I trust I am remembering the situation accurately?” “Did I really lock the door/turn off the stove/unplug the hairdryer?” “Did I ask for consent in that sexual encounter?” “Did I say something offensive?” “Did I cheat on that test?”
OCD is a sly, creative, and very destructive manipulator.
People with shaky self-esteem and low confidence may find it especially hard to stand up to gaslighters and assert their own assessment of reality. OCD undermines self-confidence and leads to excessive questioning, which feeds doubt.
In an interview for the podcast The Psychology of, I discuss the traps OCD sets, particularly in relation to moral scrupulosity and doubt, with psychologist Zac Rhodenizer. Check it out to learn more about how to stop OCD from gaslighting you.
With vaccine distribution increasing and states relaxing restrictions on indoor gatherings, many of us are contemplating the prospect of resuming activities long abandoned over the last year. Some people can hardly wait to board a plane for a Hawaiian vacation or gather at a favorite restaurant with friends; others are feeling, as one patient of mine put it, “not ready for things to go back to ‘normal.’”
And what does “normal” even mean in the current context?
We know from studies conducted after the quarantines imposed during the SARS epidemic that the mental health ramifications of even short (more than 10 days) periods of enforced isolation are not trivial. Reactions included post-traumatic stress disorder, avoidance behaviors, and anger, lasting in some people for several years. Research conducted in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic is already uncovering similar—and even more pervasive, given the duration—patterns.
The absence of in-person social interactions over the last year may make it especially hard to go back to seeing people face-to-face (or, mask-to-mask, as it likely will be for quite some time) for those prone to social anxiety. Avoidance is a prevalent coping mechanism, albeit not a healthy one. It might relieve anxiety in the short run but over time, avoiding triggers backfires because it prevents practice.
Returning to the office or seeing friends in the flesh might feel awkward because social skills have grown rusty. And heightened body awareness might add to the uneasiness. Wearing “hard pants” after a year of working from the couch in sweats can feel strange and uncomfortable, especially for those (22% by one estimate) who have put on some weight during the pandemic.
People with OCD may fear seeing even fellow vaccine recipients unmasked and cling to washing and decontamination rituals adopted early in the pandemic, even if they are no longer deemed necessary. The over-estimation of danger is a thinking style common to all anxiety disorders. And as one recent study showed, news reported by media outlets in the US skewed overwhelmingly negative—87% of COVID coverage in national US media, compared with 64% in scientific journals, emphasized bad news—adding to the atmosphere of threat for those hypersensitive to it.
Even in the absence of preexisting mental-health issues, nearly all of us will experience some degree of post-traumatic stress, complicating our return to a BC (Before COVID) life. The trauma of actual illness and of losses—of lives and livelihood for many—have left deep emotional scars. Navigating the reentry into the world will take time, patience, and understanding, of others and ourselves. We all are grappling with a confusing mixture of emotions: excitement, fear, and even nostalgia for the early days of quarantine, when decisions were more black-and-white and unambiguous, and a sense of being “in it together” prevailed. Current times present a much higher level of uncertainty, making life far more complicated.
Acknowledging difficult feelings and allowing them to surface rather than trying to push them away are important strategies for coping with any challenge to emotional equilibrium. The road to the new “normal” will be rocky. But cultivating an attitude of acceptance will make the path less treacherous.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.