Thinking Errors in OCD

If you have OCD, your thoughts and images that cause you so much distress are more than likely not correct. You are probably making mistakes in your thinking, known as thinking errors or cognitive distortions. If you have OCD, your thoughts and images that cause you so much distress are more than likely not correct. You are probably making mistakes in your thinking, known as thinking errors or cognitive distortions. 
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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.

Correcting these mistakes in your thinking is part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and a good first step to helping you with your OCD.

Your thoughts on OCD

Your thoughts are all those obsessions we talk about in OCD. It is usually as a result of having these intrusive thoughts that you carry out rituals or compulsions.

If you have never undertaken Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, you might never have questioned the validity of your thoughts that occur before you carry out compulsions. This post is a good starting point then to look at your thoughts.

Example thoughts that may trigger compulsions

Did I lock the door? Someone could break in and harm my family, steal my stuff, and it will be my fault.

If you typically react to this type of thought and believe there is a chance that it could happen, it will make you feel anxious and trigger you to go back and check the door.

You go back and check as you do not want to be responsible for harm to your family. But what if the thought was wrong?

You might accept that it could be wrong, but why take the chance and check anyway.

These anxious feelings that lead to compulsions, in this example, checking, arise from your interpretation of the event, not the event itself and is, in fact, a cognitive distortion, a thinking error.

There are common cognitive distortions used in CBT, but I want to talk to you about mistakes in your thinking that are more relevant if you have OCD.

Thought-action fusion: You believe that thinking the thought means it must be true. Having the thought itself is just as bad as carrying it out.

Responsibility exaggeration: In your mind, you overestimate your role in things. You exaggerate how accountable you would be if harm occurs or how much to blame you would be if others come to harm. In the example of the door, you would believe that it would be your fault if something happened to your home or family.

Threat exaggeration: In this cognitive error, you exaggerate how likely it is that something terrible will happen; you overestimate the danger in seemingly everyday occurrences. In the example of wondering did you lock the door, you overestimate the threat that something terrible will happen.

Importance of thoughts: Believing that your intrusive thoughts mean something terrible about you as a person. See also Am I a bad person for having intrusive thoughts?

Need for certainty: Believing that you need absolute certainty that nothing wrong will happen about your thoughts. In the above example, you would need to have complete confidence that you failing to return to check the door would not cause any harm to your home or those you love.

In the example I used above, someone could break in, harm my family, steal my stuff, and it would be my fault; please take a moment and test the validity of that thought using the above thinking errors.

You can see that the following cognitive distortions occur.

  • Responsibility
  • Threat exaggeration
  • Need for certainty

Yes, someone could break in, but it may not be your fault, they may enter through another way that is not related to the door, and the door probably is locked, remember it is your doubting that the door is locked. This does not mean that you forgot!

More than likely, no one will break in; nothing will happen, but I can almost hear you saying, but how can I be sure? That’s your need for certainty.

You are not expected to read this short post on thinking errors and think great; that’s my OCD sorted! Instead, I am guessing it might make you feel a little anxious or thinking, what good will this do me?

Talking about thinking errors in OCD is only one tiny part of how CBT helps with OCD, but if you start to look at your thoughts using the example thinking errors above, you are beginning to break down the hold OCD has over you.

Next time you feel the urge to carry out a compulsion, stop and check the thought or worry you had first and see what thinking errors you are making.

Further reading: Verywellmind

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