More threads by Daniel E.

Daniel E.
OCD Isn't a Thought Problem, It's a Feeling Problem
Stronger than Fear blog
by Kevin Foss, MFT

The real culprit of OCD may not be what you originally thought.

It is not uncommon to hear an OCD sufferer make a comment such as "OCD thoughts are ruining my life," or "I have to get rid of these thoughts!" This refrain is echoed by many of my clients who lament their unwanted, intrusive thoughts and the seemingly endless struggle to suppress, neutralize, and explain away their thoughts.

The common belief, whether explicit or implicit, is that the presence and content of the thoughts are the problem, and getting rid of them will restore hope, confidence, and happiness.

But OCD is not a thought problem - it's a feeling problem. In other words, if the thought did not have the accompanying painful feeling, you would ignore the thought, call it "weird," and simply move on without compulsions or a second thought.

Allow me to unpack this as it may seem like what I'm saying is controversial or missing some important point about OCD.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a condition marked by a pattern of unwanted, intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, sensations, or urges that take the form of a Feared Story. This story tells the sufferer of a potential, and as of yet fictional, outcome or truth about their actions, intentions, character, or future. This story, being completely unwanted, makes the sufferer feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety.

To deal with this anxiety and to get back to a sense of normalcy, confidence, and comfort, the OCD sufferer will then engage in overt or covert compulsive behaviors as an anxiety management strategy. Compulsions can include avoidance, reassurance seeking, mental review, rituals, and other repetitive acts. Once done, the sufferer gets a false sense of security that unfortunately reinforces the anxiety cycle.

OCD's deception is that you have to struggle with and resolve the content of the thought. You have to clarify, rectify, and examine the thoughts to determine whether they are true or false. For example, the contamination OCD sufferer believes he must be sure that his hands are fully clean, or at least clean enough, before they can interact with anyone.

In the brief overview of the OCD cycle above, you likely noticed that I mentioned thoughts and feelings. Wouldn't this suggest that OCD is both a thought and a feeling issue? Yes, but in practice not really. People with OCD often get wrapped up in three potential issues; the trigger, the feared story, and the feeling. Ultimately, freedom from OCD requires you to face down the feeling, because OCD is a feeling problem.

The Trigger

OCD can be triggered by almost anything, including things we see, random thoughts we have, sensations we experience, and objects we encounter. Everything that you and I will ever encounter, think, feel, or experience is neutral until we place some value upon it. Meaning it is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. Is a knife good or bad? It can be used to open to letter, but it can also be used to open a person. How about therapy? It is both good and bad. It can bring about profound positive life transformation, but it can also be emotionally draining, time-consuming, and costly.

Likewise, triggers to one's fears are also neutral. Yet those with OCD and anxiety disorders exaggerate the meaning and importance of triggering thoughts or images as they relate to the Feared Story.

Each fear has any number of neutral associations. Remember the knife example? It doesn't have just one meaning or significance. A knife can conjure thoughts of cooking shows. It can cause someone to think of their dad's fishing knife or Julius Caesar. The thought of a knife can also spark thoughts of suicide, harm, or crime.

If you blame the trigger (i.e. the feared thought or object) and label it as the problem, you are being misdirected. OCD, and the history of repeated compulsions, exaggerate the importance of a select number of mental associations. Over time, the other neutral or positive associations are downplayed or ignored leaving the feared associations as seemingly the only associations for these thoughts or experiences.

When you scapegoat the trigger as the problem, you believe minimizing your contact with it will make the obsession about it go away. Unfortunately, avoiding the trigger leads to isolation and reinforces the false notion that the trigger is the problem, resulting in greater fear of the trigger and the feared story it spawns.

The Feared Story

Our brain tells us stories all day. Some we like. Some we don't. OCD tells us stories too, and they are catastrophic, threatening, and at odds with who we are. These Feared Stories are a combination of distorted thoughts and mental images about the result of actions, one's character, or an inevitable future that concludes in something terrible.

Some people blame the Feared Story as the problem within OCD. They think that if they were to simply get rid of the thoughts, think the opposite of the thought, prove that the thought is wrong, or simply "just think right" that their OCD would evaporate. They believe OCD is a thought problem.

To their point, treatment for OCD and anxiety disorders commonly begins by challenging the feared story using rational thought to develop a broader, reality-based view of the fear. This exercise helps the sufferer develop confidence that their intrusive thoughts are likely irrational, overvalued, and not deserving of excessive and exhausting compulsive responses.

When I challenge the Feared Story in session, my clients are quick to point out how their Feared Story is wrong. They usually say, "I know this doesn't make sense," then proceed to point out all the reasons why it doesn't make sense, and they are right!

For example, a client with Pedophile OCD (POCD) might say, "I'm not a pedophile because I've never been attracted to a child in the past. I've never wanted to do anything sexual with a child. Whenever I have the thought about molesting a child, I always get anxious and have never felt feelings consistent with my typical feelings of attraction when I think about adults."

Generally speaking, people with OCD are capable of combating their feared thoughts with rational alternatives. However, compulsions exist because a feared thought comes with, or takes the form of, an uncomfortable and unwanted feeling that overwhelms the sufferer.

Despite developing a list of rational observations and objections to the Feared Story, it does nothing long term because the issue has never been a matter of "right thinking," but of an intolerance of the feeling brought on by the Feared Story.

The Feeling

Here is the actual problem of OCD. The feeling. More specifically, it is the feeling that makes you engage in compulsive behavior, which subsequently reinforces the OCD cycle. Chasing down and embracing that feeling with a welcoming and accepting posture desensitizes you to the feeling over time. Conversely, if you are unwilling to feel the feeling, but instead rely on compulsions and avoidances, desensitization cannot happen.

Remember, we are able to acknowledge that the trigger is neutral, and has a number of alternative associations. Additionally, we are very capable of telling ourselves why the Feared Story is irrational and wrong. However, we are unable to convince ourselves to not feel something because feelings are largely out of our control.

While not bad or wrong, feeling anxiety in an OCD moment is unwanted. Typically speaking, we say anxiety feels bad, but it by itself is not "bad." It is an unwanted feeling state at the moment you're feeling it. When we ride a roller coaster or see a horror movie, we expect to feel butterflies in our stomach, feel our heart racing, and feel jumpy. You know, anxiety feelings. But in this context, we paid good money for the experience! So, the feeling itself is not bad, just unwanted at that moment and inconsistent with the level of actual risk.

Similarly, when it comes to OCD, sometimes the feeling isn't just anxiety, but sadness, loneliness, anger, apathy, or emptiness.

The goal of Exposure and Response Prevention treatment is to intentionally feel this feeling, acknowledge this inconsistent emotional response, and let it remain without compulsive behaviors until it passes. Remember, it will always pass.

Counterintuitively, your job in Exposure and Response Prevention is to engage the feeling. It's the enemy and the problem. The solution is to show that you're stronger than it by calling its bluff that the feeling is heralding in something terrible and that you are not strong enough to shoulder the uncomfortable experience. You are strong enough, and the terrible outcome probably is not coming. Stand firm and let the storm pass.

Feel the Pain, See the Results

If you are not ready to do this, you are going to have a hard time overcoming your anxiety. But you can start small, and progressively work up. If you are consistent and keep pushing yourself, you will eventually find more mental and emotional strength and freedom.

Daniel E.
By the same author:

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT helps clients to mindfully acknowledge (accept) what they are feeling and thinking without running from it. Clients soon learn that anxiety is not the enemy. Anxiety is just a fleeting, albeit annoying, feeling that doesn’t actually have any power unless given to it...

In the grips of anxiety and OCD, people do things they don’t care about (compulsions and avoidance) instead of doing things they actually want (living your life). Once they learn that they don’t have to do anything their thoughts and feelings say, then they are free to pursue their true passions. After all, getting back to their life is why they (and perhaps you, the reader) are seeking therapy in the first place!

Daniel E.
Once they learn that they don’t have to do anything their thoughts and feelings say, then they are free to pursue their true passions.

This may reinforce the importance of that:

Promotion of Well-Being in Person-Centered Mental Health Care

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has a distinct personality configuration compared with that of healthy control subjects and of those with other anxiety disorders. Adult and child patients with OCD and their first-degree relatives have a methodical temperament with very much higher harm avoidance, lower novelty seeking, and lower reward dependence (designated as an nHr temperament profile) compared with healthy control subjects and first-degree relatives of control subjects (66, 67) and are high in persistence (68). In terms of character, patients with OCD usually are low in self-directedness and cooperativeness (65, 69, 70). Personality traits are differentially associated with severity and type of symptoms among patients with OCD: greater symptom severity is correlated with low self-directedness and low cooperativeness, whereas hoarding is associated with higher persistence and/or higher harm avoidance (6972). Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome have a premorbid personality configuration similar to that seen in OCD except that they are not likely to be low in reward dependence (73).

Daniel E.

Patients used parts of ERP such as: reminding themselves that bad emotions will eventually subside, comparing their behaviour to normal standards, recalling specific exposure exercises they undertook in therapy and using less formal exposures than in therapy...Surprisingly, none of the participants used formal ERP as they were taught.

[The last point is not surprising to me at all.]
Last edited:

Daniel E.

In plain and simple terms, think of the last thing you would ever want to think. For people with OCD, that thought pops into their mind all day long without their control. Because of the anxiety and distress that the thought (obsession) induces, they try to make it go away by doing something physically or mentally (compulsion) to make sure that nothing bad happens.

While the fear of contamination is the most well-known obsession, and handwashing is the most well-known compulsion, the reality is that contamination concerns make up a small percentage of obsessional themes...

Contrary to popular belief, obsessions of OCD are ego-dystonic: disturbing and inconsistent with the sufferer’s values and self-concept. The sufferer does not align with the content of the obsessions, finds them distressing, and tries to get rid of them by performing compulsions. A person with OCD goes out of their way to make sure that nothing bad ever happens to anyone...

Daniel E.

The energy of surrender accomplishes much more than the energy of control.​

I suspect it’s slightly different for everyone, but here’s what control mode looks and feels like for me: My vision gets very narrow and focused, my breath is shallow, adrenaline is pumping and my heart rate increases.

My mind shifts from topic to topic and from past to future very quickly, and I have little concentration, poor memory, and almost no present-moment awareness.

In surrender mode, I’m calm, peaceful. Breathing deeply, present in the moment. I see clearly and my vision extends out around me, allowing me to (literally) see the bigger picture.

So the great irony is that attempting to control things actually feels less in control. When I’m micro-managing and obsessing over details, I know I’m in my own way.

Daniel E.
OCD Isn't a Thought Problem, It's a Feeling Problem

The common belief, whether explicit or implicit, is that the presence and content of the thoughts are the problem, and getting rid of them will restore hope, confidence, and happiness.

But OCD is not a thought problem - it's a feeling problem. In other words, if the thought did not have the accompanying painful feeling, you would ignore the thought, call it "weird," and simply move on without compulsions or a second thought....

When it comes to OCD, sometimes the feeling isn't just anxiety, but sadness, loneliness, anger, apathy, or emptiness.

A related point:

The most important feature of these crowded or racing thoughts is that they afflict the patient not only through their meaning but also by the way they manifest themselves; there must be something unrelentingly painful and oppressive in their impact on the patient’s mind. A male patient said, "I felt attacked by them."
Last edited:

Daniel E.

Some persons with severe mental health conditions struggle with painful feelings of anxiety, fear, alarm, and dread. They may go to extreme ends to avoid and get rid of these feelings, including extensive substance abuse and self-harm. An array of clinicians and researchers have attempted to capture these types of fears using various constructs, models, and theoretical frameworks.

Hurvich (2003) used the term annihilation anxieties as a common denominator of dreadful feelings noted by many therapists within the psychodynamic tradition. He defined annihilation anxiety as fear of imminent mental or physical destruction and extinction, which included fear of being overwhelmed, losing control, suffocation, exploding, shrinking, being destroyed, fusion, dissolution, invasion/being overrun, loss of self-cohesion, and feelings of an impending catastrophe. Among this variety of experiences, Hurvich and colleagues considered the most central to be fear of being overwhelmed (Hurvich et al., 1993)...

Expressions that reflect catastrophic feelings or maneuvers to avoid them:

Last edited:

Daniel E.

The Fear Lies Deep

"The 1975 movie Jaws remains to this day a masterful exercise in demonstrating primordial fear, specifically because the source of that fear is much larger and deeper than initially thought and often remains unseen, far below the surface. We humans live with this day in and day out."
Replying is not possible. This forum is only available as an archive.