Three common OCD traps that keep symptoms going and how to cope with them
When you experience OCD, it can feel like you are trapped in a never-ending loop of intrusive, obsessional thoughts and compulsive behaviours that take your time, energy, and inner peace.
OCD is characterised by repetitive, intrusive thoughts, doubts, and repetitive behaviours that the OCD sufferer feels they need to engage in. OCD is a complex mental health problem with a wide array of differing themes and types. But whether it be fears around contamination, harming someone, or needing things to be in order, there are particular OCD traps that help pull a person deeper into obsessions and compulsions.
This article will outline three traps that tend to be a common experience for people living with OCD. When you are trapped, you feel stuck, raising anxiety because you don’t know how to escape it. Often, this is when people tend to seek professional help. Alongside professional help, being aware of the traps and what you can do to get out of them can be a helpful first step in tackling OCD symptoms.
Trap # 1: Thought-Action Fusion (TAF)
TAF is a particular unhelpful cognitive thinking style that can occur in OCD. It is the belief that a thought is linked to or fused with an action or outcome. There are two types of TAF: moral TAF and likelihood TAF. Moral TAF is the belief that unacceptable thoughts are morally equivalent to overt unacceptable actions. For example, thinking of physically harming someone is the same as actually harming someone. Likelihood TAF refers to the belief that certain thoughts cause or increase the likelihood of particular events occurring. For example, thinking about a loved one getting cancer and dying means that this will occur or increase the likelihood of it happening.
TAF is a particularly sticky trap because it tends to be an underlying belief that guides your thinking, and it may not be something you are particularly aware of. Essentially, they are ‘meta’ beliefs (thoughts about thoughts), and you need to be aware of them in order to change them.
Try taking a more observational approach to your mind and thoughts rather than buying into everything your mind says. The aim is to defuse from your thoughts. So, having a thought about hitting someone with your car (or maybe it shows up as an image) just means you have had a thought/image pop into your mind about hitting someone with your car: nothing more and nothing less.
Trap # 2: Avoidance
Avoidance is not just specific to OCD and can be a feature of many other mental health difficulties. Avoidance in OCD usually manifests as an attempt to reduce anxiety/obsessional thoughts/compulsions or reduce the likelihood of obsessional thoughts/compulsions from occurring in the first place. For example, a person with contamination fears may avoid preparing food for others because doing so triggers intrusive thoughts about the possibility of them somehow contaminating what they have prepared. Or the person who experiences intrusive thoughts about offending someone in social situations may avoid socialising where possible.
Avoidance is a trap because although it might relieve anxiety temporarily, it does not last as the obsessional thoughts, compulsions and urges tend to return. Your life then gets smaller and smaller as you do less and less of the things you enjoy.
Write a list of all the things you are avoiding doing because of the OCD. This may be challenging for you, especially if there are many things you have stopped doing or do differently because you are avoiding them. It’s ok if it feels difficult; you are taking a step towards not letting the OCD dictate what you want to do in your life. Once you have the list, choose the least anxiety-provoking one and write down the smallest step you could take towards actually doing that thing. For example, if you avoid going out socially because it tends to trigger OCD, and therefore you haven’t seen your friends in a while, you could try messaging someone to get a conversation going.
Trap # 3: Reassurance seeking
Excessive reassurance seeking in OCD becomes a trap because, like avoidance, it temporarily relieves anxiety. Reassurance comes in two forms: self-reassurance and seeking reassurance from others. For example, self-reassurance for someone with contamination fears may reassure themselves that they have not stepped in dog poo because if they had, it would be on their shoe, they would be able to smell it etc. In contrast, reassurance from others lulls the OCD sufferer into a false sense of security: they feel they have reduced the risk of harm or negative consequences by having someone else confirm whether they have, for example, locked the door or washed their hands enough.
The difficulty with reassurance is that it can become a compulsion, creating a reassurance trap whereby the person experiencing OCD feels they need it to cope or feel better after having an intrusive thought. Being stuck in a reassurance trap means you are not exploring other ways to cope with the OCD; for example, being curious about the thoughts and feelings; noticing and naming the different elements of OCD that are showing up; learning to sit with the difficult thoughts, and letting them come and go.
Talk with your partner/family member about the downsides of reassurance, and discuss how it could be handled without you both becoming succumbing to it. Rather than suddenly stopping reassurance seeking (which is hard to do in practice), one suggestion is to use it as an opportunity to notice the different elements of OCD that are showing up and explore other ways to manage them. For example, your partner might say, “Did you notice that you asked me for reassurance? Ah, ok, we know that just keeps us both stuck - what would be more helpful to you right now?”
OCD can be a debilitating mental health problem with many symptoms. To cope, people experiencing OCD tend to engage in avoidance and reassurance seeking, which only reinforces the fear and anxiety associated with the OCD.
Underlying beliefs like TAF can also keep symptoms going and can trap people in the idea that their thoughts can somehow influence an external action or outcome.
Being aware of and starting to change these traps is essential in dismantling the myriad of vicious cycles that can get set up when you experience OCD.