Compulsions make your intrusive thoughts worse

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Dr Elaine Ryan
Written by Dr Elaine Ryan Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith® Elaine obtained her Dr in Psychology from the University of Surrey and has worked in psychology for 20 years. Dr Ryan specialises in Intrusive Thoughts, OCD and anxiety-related conditions.

Many people with Intrusive Thoughts mistakenly think they do not have compulsions, but they will be there.  The compulsions not only make your intrusive thoughts worse, but they serve to keep it going.

Intrusive Thoughts have also been termed Pure O, which stands for Pure Obsessional.  If you have Pure O, I can see why you think you do not carry out compulsions, as you may only notice the obsessions; the obsessions are another word for your unwanted thoughts.

In this article, I will not discuss how intrusive thoughts also have compulsions, as you can read more about it in detail here.  Rather I want to show you how the things you do to make yourself feel better can, in fact, make things worse for you.


Examples of Compulsions in Intrusive Thoughts

  • Analysing the thoughts inside your head looking for evidence that they are either true or false
  • Any reassurance-seeking; which can include going onto Google
  • Avoiding things that you think might trigger your thoughts
  • Avoiding things or changing your behaviour to make sure you do not carry out your thoughts

Why you carry them out

People carry out compulsions to help them cope with their thoughts (or images) in their heads.  They can serve to neutralise the thoughts if you like.  If you delve deep enough, you will generally find that you carry them out to keep things safe, make sure that the thoughts do not come true, and make sure that something bad does not happen.

I have just given a brief overview above, but you can read more detailed examples on the following pages should you need to and come back to this article.

How carrying out compulsions make things worse for you.

They do not help.  If they helped, your unwanted thoughts would go away, and your life would be back to normal!  The difficult thing with compulsions is that they help short term.  When I say ‘help’, I mean that they can settle your thought processes a little and reduce some of the anxiety you initially experience when the thought pops into your head.

How Compulsions keep your intrusive thoughts going

I will introduce you to a psychological concept that shall help me explain this to you; it is called Operant Conditioning.  Operant Conditioning is the work of a behaviourist BF Skinner, and his ideas are food for thought in terms of the compulsions you might carry out.  I am not going to detail his whole theory here; pull out points of interest.

What is Operant Conditioning?

At its most basic level, operant conditioning is how you can acquire learning through a series of rewards and punishments.  You might find it useful to think of how a teacher encourages a child in school; they are rewarded for good behaviour and punished or ignored for the bad behaviour.

But what is of interest in terms of this article are ‘schedules of reinforcement’ in particular, partial reinforcement.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Schedules of reinforcement are important in terms of how you learn.  There are different schedules of reinforcement, and each one has a different impact on how you learn.

Continuous reinforcement is where you are rewarded (or punished) each time you do something.  Think of a child being praised or given their favourite treat each time they do their homework.

Partial reinforcement is where you get the reward only sometimes.  An example of this would be the child getting a reward only sometimes when they do their homework.  This type of reinforcement is of interest to you in relation to the compulsions you carry out with intrusive thoughts, and I shall explain this to you now.

The problem with partial reinforcement is that it can take a lot longer to learn to repeat a particular behaviour. Still, once you learn the behaviour, it is powerful and tough to stop.  If I use the child example again, if they only reward them sometimes when they do their homework, what tends to happen is this,

  • They tend to keep repeating the same behaviour (the homework), hoping that they get the treat.  The child wants to get the treat, so they will continue with the homework in the hope of getting their reward again, as they got it a few days ago and a few days before that.

A good example of this is to think of someone sitting in a casino at a one-armed bandit.  Even though it has been hours since they got a payout, they keep going hoping that they will get it again. It has to happen sooner or later, right?

The important point to note is that once you get rewarded for something, even if it does not occur every time, there is always the memory that it worked before and could work again.

Partial reinforcement in terms of your compulsions

If you have a very uncomfortable intrusive thought (or image), it will understandably make you feel very anxious and worried, maybe ashamed or disgusted at yourself.  If you carry out a compulsion such as seeking reassurance, avoiding things or undertaking an analysis of the thought in your head, you might reduce the anxiety you feel and get some relief from the thought.

This lowering of the anxiety you feel and the reprieve from the thought that is your reward.  I know it sounds ridiculous to think of this as a reward, but it momentarily makes you feel a bit better than you did before.

Your brain is quick to pick up on this.  Next time you have an uncomfortable thought, you try the same thing again – you carry out the compulsion.  If it doesn’t work as well as before, you are still left with the difficult thought and anxiety, so you try again or try a different way to get the thought out of your head.

It works again!

What you are doing is setting up learning in your brain.  When you get the thoughts, you are learning that getting rid of them is to carry out a compulsion.  The problem with this is that.

  • It never makes the intrusive thoughts go away; it only helps in the short term
  • it is setting up a pattern of learning that carrying out compulsions can help.  This is important as the compulsions do not help long term.

The effect of long terms compulsions on your life.

If your brain has a pattern of carrying out a compulsion each time you get an intrusive thought, it will not help you recover long term.  If it did, it would have worked by now, and you would not be reading this article!

Carrying out compulsions only help short term in reducing your anxiety and getting a short term reprieve from your thought, but more importantly, they can start to restrict your life.  If you notice that you are avoiding things that you believe may ‘trigger’ your thoughts, you start to miss out.

Depending on the nature of your thoughts, this could include;

  • missing out on aspects of your child’s life if your intrusive thoughts are to do with children
  • missing out on your social life
  • not being able to carry out day to day activities in the way you used to, if your intrusive thoughts are related to, for example, harm.

I do understand, though, why you carry out your compulsions, but you might find the following articles helpful as they shall introduce you to more effective, long term solutions to your intrusive thoughts.

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