Storying Sheffield

OCD and Trauma

It’s widely understood that intrusions caused by OCD produce distressing emotions. What I notice more and more is how traumatic this is.

Every time an intrusion (thought, idea, image- for me it’s a thought) ‘hits’ I feel trauma; real trauma. Racing heart, fear, terror even; everything becomes frozen while that thought makes itself heard. My body becomes very tense, I’m suddenly watchful. This sounds (and feels) like a panic attack. But there is another layer of experience occurring here; being suddenly presented with the catastrophic risk of doing what the thought suggests I can or must do; and a sense of ‘is this really me that could do such a thing?’, brings a separation or doubt of ‘self’ and is profoundly traumatic. There is the momentary, intense doubt of who I am as a person, and the idea of being detached from all I value. The thought takes total hegemony; it rules. And yet…this is my thought in my head, and I can do what I like with it- choose to ignore it or let it rule my life. So why do I choose the latter, and why is it do hard to choose the former?

Partly because, I think, despite therapy and learning that intrusive thoughts are passing meaningless mental events, for many years I thought they did have meaning and power. They have had a history of reigning, controlling and creating terror. So, my experience of them is hard-wired and the brain doesn’t like to change. Trauma seems to set feelings and beliefs in our mental space, and the brain keeps hold of them to protect us in some way. When I try to ignore the intrusions, the memory of the trauma they have caused comes back to me.

My own OCD developed alongside PTSD, and has been confused with it; the hypervigilance caused by an original trauma causing intrusive thoughts as my brain is on high alert most of the time, even as I sleep. OCD therapy can be stressful, but it can also be traumatic, as we face the ideas and thoughts we fear the most.

How to break out of this? It helps to see the feelings associated with OCD as trauma and to recognise the legacy it leaves. Not all OCDers will agree, or feel this, but many do, especially people who have suffered OCD for many years. It’s not just fearing the content of the unwanted thoughts, but fearing thoughts themselves- any thoughts- and the process of thinking. For some of us who experience this condition, it’s learning to live with the effects of that trauma.

Wendy Allen