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What are ego dystonic thoughts & how do they relate to Harm OCD?

What are ego dystonic thoughts?

Ego dystonic thoughts are thoughts that are not in line with who we are and/or what we believe. This could refer to thoughts, impulses, and behaviors that are felt to be repugnant, distressing, unacceptable or inconsistent with who we are. Ego dystonic thoughts are a common way that obsessions manifest in the context of Harm OCD.

Some ego dystonic thoughts could include:

  • What if I harm a loved one?
  • What if I steal from someone I care about?
  • What if I offend the higher power in which I believe?

Here is a helpful lecture entitled: What Are Intrusive Thoughts and How Can You Deal with Them? Drs. Debra Kissen and Paul Greene discussed how to recognize intrusive thoughts, how they differ from other anxiety symptoms, and tools and techniques to move past them.

Learning how to manage ego dystonic thoughts will help on the journey of healing.

How do ego dystonic thoughts relate to Harm OCD?

People experiencing harm-related OCD often begin treatment with the unspoken belief that having a disturbing thought is as bad as engaging in a disturbing behavior. They have spent a lifetime trying to squash uncomfortable, ego dystonic thoughts.  Their extreme discomfort with ego dystonic thoughts kicks off a vicious cycle of constantly trying to avoid having those thoughts, leading to an increase in the very thoughts they are working so hard to not have. In other words, the more we try to not have a thought, the more we will have that thought.

Understanding Harm OCD’s relationship with your true values

What we enjoy so much about working with clients seeking to overcome harm-related OCD is how rapid a recovery they can make — once they begin to see their disturbing thoughts from a new vantage point. The flip side of any ego dystonic thought is a value.

 If you are ever unclear about what is important in your life, just see what material OCD chooses to terrify you about. OCD will never invade a territory that is irrelevant in your life. 

The goal of OCD is to alert you to potential danger and then have you engage in behavior to make things better immediately. OCD goes after what you care most about and what would be most devastating if things went wrong.

Some examples of individuals having Harm-Related OCD Thoughts:

  • The teachers we work with, who enter the field because they love children, often have harm-related OCD thoughts around losing control and engaging in inappropriate behaviors with their students. 
  • For a new mother who is so deeply in love with her newborn, OCD may show up with thoughts around losing control and harming her precious little baby. 
  • A newlywed may have intrusive thoughts around losing control and engaging in sexually inappropriate behaviors with someone who is not a spouse.

This is to say: If the teachers did not care about their students, the mothers did not care about her newborn, and the newlyweds did not care about their spouses, OCD would not waste its time with this material. So one thing you can remind yourself of — in the face of a harm-related OCD thought — is that there is some related core value in your life that OCD is ineffectively attempting to protect.

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Learn more about Harm OCD with this Webinar

Drs. Debra Kissen and Jon Hershfield discuss Harm OCD to help individuals better understand the terminology and how to treat their symptoms.

Effective Treatment for Harm OCD

Effective treatment  entails assisting clients in making contact with their scary thoughts (exposure) over and over again until their brains grow bored with them. This process is similar to watching a scary movie until it loses its shock value and shifts from being frightening to absurd. At the same time, clients learn strategies and receive support to give up all thought-control behaviors (response prevention). This treatment approach is called exposure and response prevention (ERP) for OCD.

Learn more about effective treatment with this seminar on How to Disengage from Harm OCD & Re-engage in Your Life featuring Debra Kissen, PhD, MHSA, and Ashley Kendall, PhD. This webinar shares tips and tools to: identify if you may be dealing with Harm OCD; make sense of why Harm OCD picks such painful themes and content; take the power away from Harm OCD, and re-engage in your life now.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for OCD

If you are struggling with these kinds of harm-related intrusive thoughts, we encourage you to seek out cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for OCD and inquire if your mental health provider offers exposure and response prevention (ERP). Be wary, though: An untrained clinician may take these intrusive thoughts to be actual desires. You may want to print out this article when starting a discussion with a clinician about harm-related OCD. And always remember that the net sum of your life is not what you think, but what you do. Live a life according to your values even if intrusive harm-related thoughts occasionally come along for the ride.

Light On Anxiety offers a CBT and exposure-based treatment approach.

We provide you with the tools to decrease anxiety and increase life satisfaction, including cognitive therapy to learn to “talk back” to worry thoughts, guided exposure therapy to all feared stimuli, and behavioral activation support to assist you in  engaging in valued living.

Break Free From Intrusive Thoughts

To learn more about CBT for Intrusive Thoughts, see below for free sample chapters from the Light On Anxiety book, Break Free From Intrusive Thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts are disturbing thoughts or images that appear out of nowhere and make it hard to go about your day, especially in tandem with other anxiety disorders. Break Free from Intrusive Thoughts is a sensitive, modern guide to developing a more accepting relationship with them so you can stop them from holding you back.

The truth about intrusive thoughts―Learn what intrusive thoughts are, what causes them, and what they really mean:

  • Different recovery techniques ― Explore a range of therapy techniques, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure and Response Prevention, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and mindfulness.
  • Hands-on healing―Get unstuck from unhelpful thinking patterns through exercises like writing out your fears and labeling your emotions, so you can accept your intrusive thoughts and let them pass.
  • Learn how to call a truce with your intrusive thoughts and get back to your life.

Learn how to work through Harm-Related OCD

Light on Anxiety is here to help you on this healing journey.

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