This is a question that used to plague me a lot when my Pure O was flaring up. The thoughts were so horribly disturbing and I would often wonder where such evil imaginings were coming from.
I’ve been on many Christian forums and websites where I would read that the presence of these thoughts in my mind were evidence of some kind of demonic assault. These articles would insist that Satan was planting them in my brain. (Just here; in order to get the full effect of how the name “Satan” affected me when I’d read these things; you might want to picture Dana Carvey’s church lady character: “And who’s to blame for this?! SATAN!!! …echo….echo…echo…”)
The insistence by many Christian’s that Satan or demons were either planting thoughts in my head or controlling what I was choosing to think pretty much freaked me out. I remember when my first episode of Harm OCD took an ugly turn after sitting in a church service and listening to a missionary’s sermon. I think a good title for his sermon might have been: “All about Demons and why you should be afraid of them.” If his intention was to scare the lot of us, he thoroughly accomplished his goal with me. I went home that morning with a new obsessional theme to add to the one I’d already been battling with for months. My thoughts went like this: “What if the reason you’ve been having these horrid thoughts is because of some kind of demonic activity?” I had a hard time shaking that notion because the speaker had insisted that being a Christian provided zero protection from demon possession. And, it did seem plausible to me because the thoughts had been so hideous, violent and had made my stomach turn. So then, my new goal in regard to reassurance was to find out whether or not I might be demon possessed. (Ah…the memories…) I actually called up the pastor who had shepherded me for most of my life and asked him: “Can a Christian be demon possessed?” He started to chuckle which I’m pretty sure was because he knew that I knew better than to even ask that. But being the patient, loving and sweet man he’d always been, he set about to put my mind at ease teaching me from the scriptures why this wasn’t possible. And that just laid the whole thing to rest……. NOT! Although my logic told me that my pastor was correct my emotions wouldn’t validate that logic. That’s the really rotten thing about OCD; emotion trumps logic. It FEELS threatening so therefore, it surely must BE threatening.
Anyhow, getting back to the question: “why do I get these thoughts?”; I believe the answer lies in our brains capacity to store up and remember a huge amount of information. We just know a whole lot of stuff and as we age our brain stores up more and more of it. Our memory banks are just chock full of information, some of it pleasant and some of not so pleasant. We know that there were actual cases of demon possession as recorded in the scriptures, we know that people who seemed to love one another get divorced, we know that sometimes people jump off very high building or bridges, sometimes adults molest children, sometimes mother’s kill their children, sometimes people choose atheism and sometimes people get horrid diseases. To put it very bluntly there’s just a whole boatload of crap in our brains; stuff we wish we’d never heard of or had to know about. Right alongside of the “crap” there are good memories, happy thoughts and even some pretty useless and nonsensical things. Just to make my point, I get the song “There are Chickens in the Trees” from Sesame Street stuck in my head all the time. Not that my OCD latches onto that because what danger is there in thinking that chickens might have decided to hang out in trees. And what danger or threat is there in regard to the happy and pleasant things that our brain knows, like in a couple months Spring will be here. “YES!!!” (Cue: “Here comes the sun… doot- n- do- do, here comes the sun….….”)
It’s been proven that the vast majority of people experience unpleasant and unwanted intrusive thoughts even without having OCD. These thoughts are not in keeping with their true desires or character; they are in conflict with their true ego or self-image. Psychologists refer to these kinds of thoughts as being ego dystonic. And yet, most people are just able to recognize that an intrusive thought is irrelevant and not in keeping with their real character and therefore they just ignore it and allow it to pass on through the mind without becoming horribly anxious about the fact that they thought it in the first place.
An ego dystonic thought will just float up to the surface of our consciousness without our actually choosing to think it in the very same way that annoying chicken song crops up in my mind. Yeah… I’m probably going to be hearing that irritating little ditty all day long now that I’ve thought of it. But that’s all it is, just annoying, not at all threatening. But what if the thought is of a disturbing or troubling nature? And, what if my brain is already in this perpetual state of feeling anxious, even anxious without a target to be anxious about? This will make all the difference in how my brain reacts to an ego-dystonic thought. In OCD the brain is already primed to over react to these kinds of thoughts. People with anxiety disorders will often feel very anxious even without something to be anxious about. I experience this as “free floating anxiety.” It’s just this overall sense of doom or dread. I get panic attacks out of the blue, not because I’ve been worrying myself up into a tizzy about one thing or another, they just happen; sometimes even while I’m sleeping. Therefore if my brain is already in an anxious state, then when an ego dystonic thought crops up my perception of that thought is going to be a hugely exaggerated anxiety response. It’s like my brain has just been searching for a target, something to actually BE upset about and so when the thought comes floating in it’s like: “Thank you very much. Now I have something to chew on!”
This exaggerated anxiety response to these thoughts is what makes them seem so threatening and scary and it’s what keeps those of us with OCD trying to find some kind of reassurance that the thought doesn’t present a real threat. But the thoughts themselves are really of no importance or consequence at all. Having them does not mean they are valid. The problem with OCD is that because we feel so anxious about them we begin to treat them as being valid and when we do that our brain begins to perceive them as being valid which, in turn serves to reinforce the anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle. So what can those of us with OCD do to stop this vicious cycle? That’s a topic for another blog on another day.
Just know this; everyone experiences these kinds of thoughts but only those of us with OCD become obsessed with them. It’s the disorder that makes them seem so urgent, so devastating. And, as it turns out, this has more do to with how our brains operate than it has to do with “SATAN!!!” (Cue the church lady.)