Got Anxiety: Breaking down the anatomy of obsession
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the first in a two-part series from the Barmanns breaking down the anatomy of an obsession (i.e., how intrusive thoughts turn into obsessions). Look to SierraSun.com later this month for Part 2.
Everyone has intrusive thoughts, and some of them can seem pretty horrific, depending on how you interpret them. And that’s the key — the manner in which you ATTEND to these thoughts or images.
We experience thousands of thoughts each day, many of which we are not consciously aware of, while others briefly gain our attention and are immediately dismissed.
Unfortunately, for those who suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and other types of anxiety conditions, certain intrusive thoughts and images evolve into OBSESSIONS. So, how does this process occur?
Recent psychological research has focused on discovering the factors most responsible for determining why intrusive thoughts can be quickly dismissed by some people, while others spend several hours each day obsessing on a specific thought.
Studies indicate it is the manner in which a person ENGAGES (reacts) with their intrusive thoughts, as being most responsible for why unwelcomed thoughts develop into obsessions.
The following types of reactions appear to be most relevant in helping better understand this process:
Anytime we truly believe that an intrusive thought possesses a high degree of importance, it becomes very meaningful.
An individual with OCD experiences several intrusive thoughts every day, just as those who do not have this diagnosis. However, the person with OCD will tend to become hyper-vigilant regarding particular thoughts, and then looks for any special “meaning” possibly associated with the thought.
The thought is then further overanalyzed, resulting in a strong belief that threat or danger is somehow associated with the thought itself; triggering a sense of anxious arousal concerning the need to somehow find a way to help prevent a horrible outcome from occurring.
As a result of the great deal of importance placed on a particular thought, there emerges a strong need to find some way of controlling the thought that triggers a high degree of anxiety.
Attempts at control typically take the form of distraction methods designed to avoid the anxiety-producing thought itself; thought suppression (“I’m not going to think about that particular thought today”); and thought substitution (replacing a threatening thought, with a calm thought).
When engaging in these strategies, the person soon realizes these attempts only serve to increase the frequency and intensity of their intrusive thoughts.
As mentioned earlier, everyone experiences intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can be grouped among various themes such as harm, aggression, sex, doubt, etc.
Intrusive thoughts which evolve into obsessions, are typically relevant to one’s sense of self — that is, how a person views themselves.
For example, a woman who considers herself to be a kind, gentle, loving person; someone who is particularly fond of children, might feel horrified once she experiences an intrusive image related to seeing herself performing an aggressive act with a baby, such as using a knife to stab the baby to death (which, by the way, is one of the most frequent intrusive thoughts held by the general public, void of an OCD diagnosis)!
4. Thoughts vs. Actions
An essential factor responsible for intrusive thoughts evolving into obsessions, is the belief that having a recurring disturbing thought or image, increases the LIKELIHOOD that the thought will result in an action related to the thought itself; a thought process referred to as “Thought-Action-Fusion” (i.e., the thought and action become fused together, as if they were one in the same).
For example, consider the individual who frequently uses air travel due to his job duties. One day, while passing through airport security, he has the intrusive thought, “What if I blurt out, I have a bomb”?
Due to the serious consequences (threat) of making such a statement, he attempts to control this thought. Remember, efforts at thought suppression only serve to increase the frequency of the thought.
As a result, this person finds himself experiencing the intrusive thought the night before his trip, when entering the airport, and as he begins to approach the security check point.
His belief that this thought will result in the action of stating he has a bomb, now triggers anxiety. Also, doubt emerges as he begins to question the possibility that he may actually possess a “hidden” aggressive side to his personality.
In addition to the factors discussed within this article which are responsible for the evolution of an obsession, there remains another very important aspect which is also accountable for this process — the various types of cognitive errors (misinterpretations) a person makes concerning the meaning of an intrusive thought.
Part 2 of this series will outline the most common misinterpretations which surface when unwelcomed thoughts enter our awareness.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.