I came across the term harm OCD when I was a third-year university student.
I clearly remember how it started. It was approaching the end of the semester and I was heavily stressed by a lot of things happening at once – a relationship that was fallen apart, friends that were drifted away, and, exams.
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How Did It Start
I have been scared of exams ever since I was in 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 the thought that I want to scream now. I can’t think about other things besides focusing on this one thought that ‘I want to scream now.’ I worried so much that I will actually do it and everyone would be shocked and looked at me weirdly. I guess this is when the fear has been planted in me.
Since then, Exam = Panic = Fear = I want to run away from it.
Back to the hectic semester in my third year of university. With all the emotional distress I had at the time, I went through my end-of-semester exam. That one exam changed all my life events afterward.
I was sitting in the exam hall. The exam has started.
Flipped open the exam paper. Ok, I revised this. I know how to do this.
This question worth 30 marks? Oh gosh. My palms start to sweat and my heart starts to race.
I start to panic. I can’t focus anymore. I am losing it.
I look around. Everyone is so focused on their own desk.
Am I at the same place as them? I felt a sense of detachment as if I were in a separate space.
I looked back on my exam paper, I am about to lose control. I want to run, run, run out of this exam hall right now.
Did I actually run?
Did I finish the exam?
Did I do well?
No. I did horribly.
I did horribly, and my fear of exams just heightened to a new level.
My winter vacation started after the exam. I did feel much relief after the exam and I forgot the whole experience for a while. Until it haunts me back at one casual afternoon during the vacation. I was just by myself, relaxing, and suddenly the scene during the exam flashed through my mind.
The fear came back instantly and it felt so real. My heart started pounding fast as if I were back in that exam hall. I can feel the sensation, the anxious feeling starts to crawl up on me. I felt so scared and it was a sense of powerlessness I felt at the moment thinking I have no control over myself. I recall how panicked and frightened I was at that exam hall and I start to think to myself what if the whole scenario happens again?
Things just got worse from there. From the first “What if” to the endless “What if”. I start to question everything around me and anything that could cause potential danger. Thoughts of harming others or myself start to appear one after another.
Everything I see around me can trigger a harmful thought. I felt so anxious, so guilty, so scared.
What if I actually do it? What if I actually act on my thoughts? What if I actually harmed the people I love? What if I did a crime? What if..?
I locked myself in a room by myself, crying hysterically. I was afraid of seeing people, afraid of all the thoughts that could appear.
I desperately looked up online with mixed emotions. Have I gone crazy? Will I become a psychopath? Is this schizophrenia? With little knowledge I have, my mind was just racing, and all the words I could think of popped up one by one. I do not know much about OCD, anything about anxiety disorder, or panic attacks at the time.
That’s when I came across the term ‘harm OCD’.
Getting to know OCD and harm OCD is a good start. It gives me a sense of relief and security. Thank god, regardless it’s a disorder or not, at least I am not alone. If it’s found online, there must be a cure.
Getting to Know Harm OCD
I understand that Harm OCD is a common subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Before that, I only associate OCD with people with obsessive behaviors such as washing hands often, being germophobic, and needing to keep things in a certain order or direction. Now I understand that OCD can be both thoughts and behaviors.
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. When you have harm OCD, you can have many intrusive unwanted thoughts, images, or urges to harm yourself or others. Besides having intrusive thoughts, you also constantly live in fear and worried you will act on your thoughts. I remember every single moment when I was struggling with harm OCD. I felt overwhelmed with panic and anxiety every day as the impulse to act on my thoughts can be so strong.
Besides dealing with obsessive thinking or engaging in compulsive behavior to reduce the anxiety associated with these thoughts. Many of us might also be having avoidance behaviors, such as hiding away from our loved ones or hiding the items that might trigger harmful thoughts such as knives or scissors.
How did I help myself?
I always read whenever I am troubled, so I looked up many books on anxiety and OCD.
It didn’t help me at this stage. As I was lack of knowledge of mental health, most of the books I read were full of medical jargon and terms. The repeating mention of ‘anxiety’, ‘OCD’, and the symptoms further triggered my anxiety. I decided to give up on reading.
Meanwhile, I discover the fastest way to reduce the anxiety from intrusive thoughts is to distract myself. I start to study more and watch videos to get my attention away from my thoughts. It worked but it’s only a temporary getaway. When I am not focusing on one thing, intrusive thoughts are popping up actively again.
While I was reading a book on happiness written by a monk, some new thoughts start to shape in the back of my head.
Firstly, everyone had harmful thoughts at least once in their life. More than half of the population had aggressive fantasies or harming thoughts toward others before. The problem doesn’t come with having harmful thoughts, but how we handle these thoughts.
Most people, including myself before having the OCD symptoms, have never dwelled on these thoughts before. I might occasionally have some unspeakable things I want to do to the person that annoys me, but these thoughts have never bothered me. They just come and go.
Do you see the problem here?
Our thoughts are the same but our relationship with our thoughts changed. Instead of letting go of the thoughts and moving on with our life, we start to overly pay attention to these harmful thoughts.
What’s our usual relationship with our thoughts? We know thoughts are just thoughts. Yes, they are from us, but we know that thoughts are not all truly representative of us and reality.
For example, we all have the fantasy of being a superhero or a superstar. There must be times when you were daydreaming and fantasizing about yourself being the main character of your favorite movie or having certain superpowers. Are these real?
Thoughts are not reality. Just because we’re thinking of them does not mean they’re going to come true.
Why We Are So Bothered By Our Thoughts?
From my personal experience, being in an anxious and stressed state increases our attention to these intrusive thoughts – all the alarming, harming, or unacceptable taboo thoughts.
When you are anxious or stressed, your nervous system is activated and the stress response – fight or flight response is triggered. Everything around you becomes alarming. You either fight head-on or flee from the scene. The stress response is the automatic physiological reaction that kept us – humans, surviving since ancient times.
When you are in a stressful state, all these harmful intrusive thoughts will further trigger your stress response as you already can picture the catastrophe and consequences by acting on the thoughts. You lost the ability to think rationally. Instead of recognizing these are just thoughts and not real danger, your nervous system continued to be in the alarmed mode. You let the emotion take over and panic-stricken by the false alarm.
Yes, the fear we sensed, the anxious feeling we felt of acting on our thoughts are just false alarms. They are not based on any real threat but based on the imaginary world in our heads. The stress response was supposed to keep us stay alarmed from danger, but now it’s falsely triggered.
Now, with the new understanding of harm OCD, how should we better handle the situations and other intrusive thoughts?
4 Ways to Stop the Harm OCD Intrusive Thoughts
1. Reframe Our Cognitive Thinking
We need to understand that thoughts do not represent reality. We have thousands of thoughts appearing in our heads per day. It doesn’t mean we need to dwell and act on any of those. Just like when you are having nightmares, the fear you feel is real but the horrific scenes you see in the dream are not real. Same as the intrusive thoughts.
Morita therapy is commonly used to treat anxiety disorders and OCD. It is a psychotherapy developed in Japan by Dr. Shoma Morita in 1919. Different than most therapies that strive to reduce symptoms, Morita therapy focused to move patients to accept and live in harmony with nature, including the emotional fluctuations and our thoughts.
As explained above, these intrusive thoughts are often triggered by stress or anxiety. The more we tried to avoid it and suppress it, the harder for us to stop these thoughts. The reason is simple.
Firstly, when you try to suppress or control your thoughts, your brain is getting more stressed, which further triggers your nervous system and the stress response. The vicious cycle continues.
Secondly, the more we try to suppress certain thoughts, the more likely they will surface. The famous “white bear” experiment from Professor Daniel Wegner just proved this theory for everyone. When you are asked to not think of a white bear, what are you thinking of now?
A white bear!
We need to first understand to not suppress our thoughts. The harmful and catastrophic thoughts are not real. Let them come and go. You are struggling with an imaginary world created by yourself. This imaginary world deviates far away from reality.
Next time when your thoughts are here. Instead of suppressing them, think of them as the passers-by in a park. You are sitting on a bench comfortably, and just observing. People come and go, but you are just looking at them from a distance.
2. Calm Down and Reduce the Stress Response
As explained earlier, the harmful thoughts we have are often triggered by stress or anxiety. When you are feeling all anxious, or having racing thoughts, or feeling you are losing it, the last thing you want to do is to get yourself more stressed.
I have previously shared 3 steps to calm down from a panic attack, and you could also use these methods to reduce the stress response as well.
3. Train Your Brain By Changing Daily Lifestyles
Instead of putting your attention and energy into fighting the thoughts, let’s put our focus on self-development and strengthen ourselves.
I highly recommend practicing meditation on mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is a great way for us to train our brain to focus on the present moment, instead of being distracted by intrusive thoughts.
Practicing mindfulness has allowed me to place a distance from my thoughts. As the name suggests, being mindful is to be more aware of your action. Whenever I am distracted by my thoughts, I will notice I am being distracted, and gently bring my attention back to the stuff I am doing again. Mindfulness can help you to manage your obsessional thinking as well.
There are many videos on Youtube on mindfulness meditation. You can start with a short 3 minutes of guided meditation first, slowly increasing the time and making it into a daily routine.
4. Keep Moving Forward And Share With People Who Understand
When I was battling with my mental health conditions, I lost all the motivation to do things or I started to hide away and retreat to my comfort zone at times.
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. Many times our fear is of the unknown. We lack knowledge of mental health and know too little about how our brain works.
We need to help ourselves and be the captain of our ships. There are always solutions to problems, and we all can be better by learning more, incorporating new habits, and using different ways to train our brains. Do not stop learning and never stop moving.
Lastly, I understand that we all feel deep shame from harmful thoughts. I always felt so much guilt about the condition and did not dare to share it with my loved ones. To my surprise, all of my close ones are so supportive, and even looking up resources to help me. This was such a surprise as I was picturing how shocked and scared they will be when they know all the harmful thoughts I have. Instead, I receive nothing but patience and support from them.
I know that not everyone would understand, but share with your close or trusted ones your struggle. It’s not as scary as you think. Everything is in our minds.
If you want a definitive answer or you want to consult a therapist for your condition, do not hesitate to visit a local clinic. The therapist could guide you on psychotherapy which could help as well.
Trust me, there is always light at the end of the tunnel and you will fight through it and live a more fulfilling life from this experience.
Do not be afraid of the condition, it is the start of self-healing.
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