01 Like a phishing scam, OCD reels us in by making false promises and exploiting our fears.
02 It can be easy to be misled by intrusive thoughts, especially when they change and increase in complexity.
03 As we learn to identify intrusive thoughts, we can resist falling victim to them. Using these tips can help.
At the dawn of the internet, the world was thrilled with the possibility of connecting with anyone in the world. It was a world of optimism and hope. Altruism. Trust.
Then phishing scams came along.
Imagine you are sitting down at your computer with your modem chiming out its digital cacophony as you eagerly await to hear whether “you’ve got mail.” Then, you start reading an email from someone you don’t know.
The esteemed Prince of Nigeria needs your help! Just a small sum of money, or your social security number, will help him resolve a political conflict or pressing legal matter. In return, he will reward you with an obscene amount of money. Who wouldn’t just send $20 to get $20,000,000?
And that’s how they get you.
Phishing scams like these have been used for years to trick well-meaning people into giving up money and information in the hopes of receiving “fantastic and unbelievable” compensation.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is trying to pull an elaborate phishing scam on you. OCD wants to lure you into giving up a small freedom, entice you into performing a small action, or persuade you to do something just once more, and you’ll be rewarded with peace, safety, and certainty. And it does! But only for a moment.
Briefly, what is OCD?
Knowing one’s enemy is an important first step in defeating it.
OCD is a mental health disorder made up of unwanted and intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, sensations, and urges that tell someone a fictitious story about what may be true about them, their future, or their world. This story will make someone feel a host of equally unwanted emotions—anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, annoyance, resistance, or even numbness and emptiness.
A person living with OCD may work tirelessly to neutralize, suppress or combat these thoughts and feelings by using rituals, routines, thoughts, reassurances, research or outright avoidance.
OCD works in sneaky ways. It tests the waters to see what you’ll fall for.
OCD’s first contact: simple, easy, doable
It all starts with a simple request. “Hey, you don’t know what was on that door handle. It could be bad. You should make sure you wash extra well.” Or, “Are you sure you turned off the coffee pot? If it’s still on, it could overheat and start a fire. You should probably go make sure.” OCD seemingly looks out for your best interests. And when you wash or check, you get a sense of relief and assurance.
Eventually, these actions won’t suffice. The requests become more extreme, cumbersome and time-consuming. Sometimes, they aren’t requests, but demands.
OCD works in sneaky ways. It tests the waters to see what you’ll fall for. OCD finds a way to grab you so that you need to check, respond, think about it or question yourself for a little longer than you normally would. Better safe than sorry, right?
Boom. OCD’s phishing scam is a success.
Installing a spam filter
Wouldn’t it be nice to install a filter to nab all those unwanted thoughts? While that “brain-ware” does not exist just yet, many forms of treatment do.
Common treatment methods for OCD include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure and Response Prevention and mindfulness. When used together, this trifecta of therapeutic power can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, rationally question the legitimacy of their thoughts and overcome their influence.
The goal of treatment is to learn OCD’s tricks, recognize ways OCD can tempt you into action and build confidence that you can ignore the urgent messages it sends—without suffering some terrible calamity.
Dr. Steven Phillipson discusses recommended OCD treatment options
From time to time you may receive suspect emails, for example, claiming there’s an issue with your bank account that desperately needs to be resolved. Or, you get a phone call from an unknown number saying the IRS urgently needs you to call back with your personal information.
By now, you know those messages are far from legitimate. You’re smarter than that. But every now and then, that message might look close enough to the real thing to sufficiently convince you to click, answer or call back. A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf. OCD is still OCD even when it looks and sounds different than your previous obsessions.
Knowing how to identify some telltale signs that the thought creeping out of the shadows is OCD can help you save some time and energy. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Respond to the thoughts, don’t react.
When it comes to obsessions, remember that you are in control and can decide what you do in the face of fear. Instead of reflexively reacting to the fear that arises from a particular thought, take a moment to slow down and consider how you want to respond. Ask yourself, have you had thoughts like this before? If so, how’d they turn out? What would others likely do if they had this same thought? Is there any clear evidence that something terrible will happen, or is this urgency based in emotion and physical tension?
Don’t get misled by the same obsession if it looks slightly different.
Even if the email has different fonts or pictures, it can still be the same type of scam. “Your account has been hacked: click here to fix it” is the same whether it’s in a text message or an email.
OCD tries to spice things up and pull a fast one by changing little details, but OCD is only so creative. If you see that this new thought is similar to the others but has an added feature, feeling, location or person, then it probably belongs in the spam folder just like the others.
Being Mindful and Letting Go
Health and wellness expert Jaycee Gossett explains how mindfulness through meditation and yoga can help sufferers of OCD cope with their anxieties.
Ask a “one-and-done” question.
When we encounter something in life we have never come across, or something does not seem quite right, we seek the advice of trusted friends and loved ones. Of course, in OCD land, this can quickly become a compulsion of reassurance. However, if this is the first time you have had a particular thought, or you’re wondering if this is just another phishing scam, you can ask a “one-and-done” question.
“One-and-done” questions allow you to ask for guidance, but once you get your answer, you have to go with it. If you notice further doubt and want to ask the question again, ask another person or ask in a different way, then you are falling into the compulsion trap. Resist the compulsion trap because it’s the back door of OCD’s phishing scam.
When in doubt, delay.
Sometimes, when we are questioning whether the new thought is a genuine problem or just one of OCD’s new tricks, we can get confused and lost. That is exactly what OCD is hoping for!
Put off the decision if you’re in doubt. Just like it can be jarring to get a call from the “IRS,” it can be startling and anxiety provoking to have a new obsession. Let your cooler head prevail by taking a breath and allowing a few minutes to let your anxiety subside. By pausing, you let your rational and thoughtful side of your brain kick in. Remember, you don’t need to know the answer immediately to outsmart OCD.
Not all thoughts need a response.
Many of the letters we receive go straight into the recycling can. If you’ve had an email address for a while, you’ll know that most emails are junk mail that you can immediately delete.
Our thoughts are the same. If you focused on your thoughts for any amount of time, you’d find out that most thoughts are useless or inapplicable for the moment. Sure, they may be pertinent for tomorrow’s meeting, or a good question for the doctor’s appointment in a few weeks, or something you should have said 20 years ago, but not right now. If you notice a thought that seems out of place, or that has nothing to do with who you are and are trying to be, remember that you can let it go by. Your thoughts do not define you.
About the Author
Kevin Foss is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in both California and Montana, and is the Director of the California OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center. In addition to his practice, he is the host of the FearCast Podcast, a question and answer show about OCD and anxiety spectrum disorders. To read more, visit www.CalOCD.com, or listen to the podcast at www.FearCastPodcast.com.