I first came across the term “harm OCD” when I was in my third year of university.
I clearly remember how it started. It was a particularly stressful time for me, with my relationship falling apart, friends drifting away, and exams looming ahead.
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How Did Harm OCD Start?
My fear of exams had been present since elementary school. There have already been signs since then! I can get so terrified by exams and my mind would go all wild during one.
I remember when I was sitting in a maths exam in fifth grade. Instead of focusing on the exam, I start to get panic from feeling overwhelmed by the thought of wanting to scream. I couldn’t focus on anything else but that one thought. I worried that I might actually scream out loud, causing everyone to look at me strangely. That’s when the fear took root within me.
Since then, Exam = Panic = Fear = I want to run away from it.
Returning to the hectic semester in my third year of university, my anxiety reached a new level during one of my end-of-semester exams.
As I sat in the exam hall, my palms began to sweat, and my heart raced. I couldn’t focus anymore, and a sense of detachment washed over me. I felt like I was in a separate space, unlike everyone else in the room. I was on the verge of losing control, wanting nothing more than to run away from that exam hall.
Did I actually run?
Did I finish the exam?
Did I do well?
No. I did horribly.
And this only heightened my fear of exams.
Once winter vacation started, I initially felt relieved and forgot about the exam experience. However, one casual afternoon during the break, the memory of the exam came rushing back to me. I was suddenly overwhelmed with fear as if I were back in that exam hall.
The anxiety crawled up inside me, and I felt powerless and out of control. I started thinking, “What if the same scenario happens again?”
From there, things got worse. The initial “What if” turned into an endless loop of intrusive thoughts. I began questioning everything around me and anything that could potentially cause harm. Thoughts of harming others or myself flooded my mind.
Every little thing I saw became a trigger for harmful thoughts. I felt anxious, guilty, and scared. What if I actually acted on these thoughts? What if I harmed the people I loved? What if I committed a crime?
I found myself locking myself in a room, crying hysterically. I was afraid to be around people, afraid of the thoughts that could emerge.
In desperation, I turned to the internet for answers. I had mixed emotions as I searched online, wondering if I had gone crazy or if I would become a psychopath. With limited knowledge about OCD, anxiety disorders, or panic attacks at the time, my mind raced with various thoughts and fears.
That’s when I stumbled upon the term “harm OCD.”
Learning about OCD and specifically harm OCD provided a sense of relief and reassurance. I realized I wasn’t alone in this experience. If information about harm OCD was available online, there must be a solution.
Getting to Know Harm OCD
I understand that Harm OCD is a common subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Before that, I associated OCD with repetitive behaviors like hand-washing or a need for order. However, I learned that OCD can also manifest as intrusive thoughts.
The 4 most common types of OCD include:
- Contamination symptoms or worries about germs.
- Doubt about accidental harm.
- Symmetry, arranging, counting, or pursuit of perfectionism.
- Unacceptable taboo intrusive thoughts of religious, violent, or sexual nature.
I found myself ticking 2 of the boxes. Harm OCD can belong to both the second and fourth types, involving intrusive thoughts, images, or urges to harm oneself or others. Alongside these thoughts, there is a constant fear and worry about acting on them. I vividly remember the overwhelming panic and anxiety I experienced every day, as the impulse to act on my thoughts was incredibly strong.
In addition to obsessive thinking and engaging in compulsive behaviors to alleviate the associated anxiety, many of us with harm OCD engage in avoidance behaviors. These may involve distancing ourselves from loved ones or hiding items that could trigger harmful thoughts, such as knives or scissors.
How Did I Help Myself with Harm OCD?
I turned to reading as a source of comfort, hoping to find answers. However, at that stage, it didn’t provide much help. Since my knowledge of mental health was limited, most of the books I read were filled with medical jargon and terms that only intensified my anxiety. I eventually gave up on reading.
During this time, I discovered that distraction was the fastest way to reduce the anxiety caused by intrusive thoughts. I started studying more and watching videos to divert my attention away from my thoughts. While this approach provided temporary relief, the intrusive thoughts would resurface whenever I wasn’t fully focused on something else.
However, while reading a book on happiness written by a monk, a new perspective began to form in my mind.
I realized that harmful thoughts are something everyone experiences at least once in their lives. More than half of the population has had aggressive or harmful thoughts towards others. The problem lies not in having these thoughts but in how we handle them.
Most people, myself included before the onset of OCD symptoms, never dwelled on these thoughts. I might have occasional thoughts about doing unspeakable things to someone who annoys me, but they never bothered me. They came and went without causing distress.
Do you see the issue here?
Our thoughts are the same, but our relationship with them has changed. Instead of letting go and moving on, we have become overly fixated on these harmful thoughts.
Our usual relationship with thoughts is understanding that they are just thoughts. Yes, they originate from us, but we know they don’t fully represent who we are or reflect reality.
For instance, we all have fantasies of being superheroes or superstars. We daydream and imagine ourselves as the main character in our favorite movies or possessing special powers. Are these fantasies real?
No, they are not. Thoughts are not reality. Just because we think something doesn’t mean it will come true.
So Why We Are So Bothered By Our Thoughts?
From my personal experience, being in an anxious and stressed state amplifies our attention to these intrusive thoughts—those alarming, harmful, or taboo thoughts.
When we are anxious or stressed, our nervous system activates the stress response, triggering the fight-or-flight mechanism. Everything around us feels alarming, and we instinctively choose to confront or flee from the perceived danger. This stress response has been crucial to human survival since ancient times.
When we are in a stressed state, these harmful intrusive thoughts further activate the stress response because we can already imagine the potential catastrophe and consequences of acting on them. We lose our ability to think rationally. Instead of recognizing these thoughts as harmless and not indicative of real danger, our nervous system remains on high alert. Emotion takes over, and we panic at the false alarms.
The fear and anxiety we experience from acting on our thoughts are unfounded. They are not based on any real threat but on an imaginary world within our minds. The stress response, originally designed to keep us vigilant to danger, is now falsely triggered.
With this new understanding of harm OCD, how can we better handle the situation and other intrusive thoughts?
4 Ways to Stop the Harm OCD Intrusive Thoughts
1. Reframe Our Cognitive Thinking
We must recognize that thoughts do not represent reality. We have thousands of thoughts passing through our minds every day. We don’t need to dwell on or act on all of them. Just like when we have nightmares, the fear we feel is real, but the horrifying scenes we witness in the dream are not. The same goes for intrusive thoughts—they are not real.
Morita therapy, developed by Dr. Shoma Morita in 1919, is commonly used to treat anxiety disorders and OCD. Unlike most therapies that aim to reduce symptoms, Morita therapy focuses on helping patients accept and live in harmony with nature, including emotional fluctuations and thoughts.
As mentioned earlier, these intrusive thoughts are often triggered by stress or anxiety. The more we try to avoid or suppress them, the more challenging it becomes to stop them. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, when we attempt to suppress or control our thoughts, our brain becomes more stressed, triggering our nervous system and the stress response. This perpetuates a vicious cycle.
Secondly, the more we try to suppress certain thoughts, the more likely they are to resurface. Professor Daniel Wegner’s famous “white bear” experiment proves this theory. When asked not to think about a white bear, what do we end up thinking about? A white bear!
A white bear!
Instead of suppressing our thoughts, we must understand that harmful and catastrophic thoughts are not real. We should allow them to come and go. We are struggling with an imaginary world we’ve created. This imaginary world deviates significantly from reality.
So, the next time these thoughts arise, rather than suppressing them, imagine them as passers-by in a park. Picture yourself sitting comfortably on a bench, merely observing as people come and go. Let the thoughts pass by without clinging to them.
2. Calm Down and Reduce the Stress Response
As mentioned earlier, harmful thoughts are often triggered by stress or anxiety. When you’re feeling anxious, experiencing racing thoughts, or losing control, the last thing you want to do is to further stress yourself.
I have previously shared 3 steps to calm down from a panic attack, and you can apply these methods to reduce the stress response as well.
3. Train Your Brain By Changing Daily Lifestyles
Instead of focusing all your attention and energy on fighting the thoughts, redirect your focus towards self-development and personal growth.
I highly recommend practicing mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness allows us to train our brains to focus on the present moment, rather than being distracted by intrusive thoughts.
Practicing mindfulness has helped me create distance from my thoughts. As the name suggests, being mindful means being more aware of your actions. Whenever I find myself getting caught up in my thoughts, I acknowledge the distraction and gently bring my attention back to what I’m doing. Mindfulness can also help manage obsessional thinking.
There are many mindfulness meditation videos on YouTube. You can start with short, guided meditations of three minutes and gradually increase the duration, making it a part of your daily routine.
4. Keep Moving Forward and Share with Understanding Individuals
During my struggle with mental health, I lost all motivation and sometimes retreated to my comfort zone.
This is definitely not helping. One way to keep us improving is always to move forward daily. We might have gone through so many struggles with this battle, but always keep in mind that there are many who have experienced the same or worse, and they are alright now. Fear often stems from the unknown. We lack knowledge of mental health and know too little about how our brain works.
We must help ourselves and take charge of our lives. There are always solutions to problems, and we can improve by learning more, adopting new habits, and utilizing different techniques to train our brains. Never stop learning and never stop moving.
Lastly, I understand the deep shame associated with harmful thoughts. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt about my condition and was afraid to share it with my loved ones. To my surprise, they were incredibly supportive and even sought resources to assist me. I had imagined they would be shocked and frightened upon learning about my harmful thoughts, but instead, they showed nothing but patience and support.
I know not everyone will understand, but sharing your struggles with close and trusted individuals is not as scary as you might think. It’s all in our minds.
If you seek definitive answers or wish to consult a therapist about your condition, don’t hesitate to visit a local clinic. A therapist can guide you through psychotherapy, which can be helpful.
Trust me, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. You will overcome this and live a more fulfilling life as a result of your experiences.
Do not be afraid of the condition, it is the start of self-healing.
- White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts – Good book on understanding mental control and intrusive thoughts
- Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind: How to Stop the Cycle of Anxiety, Fear, and Worry
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