The Thought Police
By Matthew Loeb, World of Psychology
July 4, 2016

Embrace the thoughts.

I have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like you, my mind burps out intrusive, unwanted thoughts. They are real, striking at my core. I would banish them immediately. They would return with a sinister vengeance. Languishing in bed, sheets draped over me, I pleaded for divine intervention.

As my anger and frustration swelled, the thoughts crashed into me. I was drowning in a tsunami of negative thoughts and feelings. Shuffling out of bed, my eyes welled with raw emotion. My mind, I concluded, rejoiced in tormenting and terrorizing me. The downward spiral nearly consumed me.

The following maxim preserved my sanity: thoughts are just thoughts. They may or may not be accurate. They may or may not be rooted in reality. And just as quickly as we succumb to them, they float away, if we let them.

Why do we attach so much significance to our thoughts? Because we attach meaning to them. We have a horrific thought about our families. Most would shrug and dismiss the random, intrusive thought; our mind degenerates into personal purgatory. Trying to make sense of the nonsensical thought, we fire off more questions than Judge Judy. What does this mean? Why would I have such a bizarre thought? Do I want to hurt my family? Am I a terrible person?

The thoughts evoke anxiety and dread. They attack your vulnerabilities, preying on your fundamental beliefs. As they pummel you with self-loathing and trepidation, you recoil. The mental onslaught seems too much to bear. You will do anything to stop the overwhelming feelings. And this, sadly, is the problem. We crave immediate relief. For long-term improvement, the prescription calls for short-term sacrifice.

Reassurance, not the individual thought, kills. Succumbing to the understandable need for reassurance, we are co-conspirators with the deceitful, malicious thought. Our unquenchable thirst for relief — and a logical explanation — penalizes us. Beseeching a higher power for relief, we grovel, medicate, and disavow the thoughts; none overcomes the chill of self-doubt.

The paradox: Resistance is counterproductive. You cannot “logic out” a non-logical thought. You have an unwanted, intrusive thought about harming your family, committing a heinous crime, or shoving a friend into a barreling subway. So what? We choose how we manage the distressing thoughts. We can stew, berating ourselves, or reclaim our crumbling lives. I accept the challenge, and the disturbing thoughts.

Retraining your cunning mind requires persistence and patience. But it is doable. Whenever an intrusive thoughts grips you, I want you to immediately label the thought (brain trick, nonsense, OCD), smirk at it, and redirect to your daily goal(s). No rumination, no elaborate rituals, no self-loathing. We are retraining our minds to automatically reject false alarms.

Practice redefining the random, bizarre thoughts as nonsense and redirecting your attention to the task at hand. You, not your mind, determine your focus. You, not your mind, determine your actions. And you, not your mind, determine your happiness.