OCD and fearing who you really are

It’s not the content of the persistent, unwanted thoughts experienced by sufferers of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that is particularly abnormal, it is their interpretation of these thoughts. Now Sue Ferrier and Chris Brewin have shed new light on what’s different about the way people with OCD interpret their thoughts.

“Cognitive therapy may have in some cases to address deep-rooted beliefs about the self…”

First they found OCD sufferers, more than anxious and healthy controls, tended to feel more responsibility for their thoughts, agreeing with statements like “If I don’t resist these thoughts it means I am being irresponsible”. Secondly, OCD sufferers were more likely to draw negative inferences about themselves based on their intrusive thoughts, agreeing with statements like “Some of my intrusive thoughts make me think that deep down I am a bad person”. Finally, the researchers asked the participants to describe the person they fear being; here the assumption was that this actually reveals something about how that person sees herself. OCD sufferers tended to describe a dangerous person who was bad, immoral or insane. In contrast, anxious controls tended to describe a fearful or hopeless person, and healthy controls described more general character flaws.

“The data suggest that people with OCD are not just unwilling to give up their rituals because they would be responsible if bad outcomes occurred [if they didn’t perform those rituals], but because they additionally see themselves as a likely source of those bad outcomes, due to their dangerous characters”, the authors said.

“Cognitive therapy may have in some cases to address deep-rooted beliefs about the self, rather than simply targeting people’s beliefs about their intrusions”, the authors advised.

The results were obtained by asking 24 OCD sufferers, 21 anxious controls and 16 healthy controls to complete several questionnaires.

Ferrier, S. & Brewin, C.R. (2005). Feared identity and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 1363-1374.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.