The OCD Paradox (and how to solve it)



I’m Eva, a wedding photographer who’s had the privilege of capturing countless beautiful moments. That joy was tainted when I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. My version of OCD manifested in a unique way, and it turned my professional world upside down.

My obsessions took shape as incessant, intrusive thoughts about ruining the happiest day of a couple’s life. Thoughts about deleting precious, once-in-a-lifetime photos or damaging my equipment, which would inevitably spell disaster. In my heart and mind, I knew I was cautious, that I had multiple backup systems in place to prevent such catastrophes. But that didn’t matter to my OCD. It magnified these fears until they cast a large, looming shadow over my passion for photography.

To combat these fears, I developed a set of compulsions. I began checking my camera and my equipment repeatedly, often in the middle of a shoot. I would constantly reassure myself that I hadn’t inadvertently deleted any pictures. The constant checking disrupted my workflow and fueled my stress. Even after the event, I would spend hours rechecking my work, driven by the lingering fear of having missed something important.

This paradox between my logical mind and my irrational fears began to invade my life. My work hours grew longer due to my compulsions, and my personal life suffered. Before every shoot, I would become anxious, anticipating the avalanche of intrusive thoughts and the urge to perform my checking rituals.

Eva, NY

What is the OCD Paradox?

The “OCD paradox,” as some people refer to it, is the contradiction between what people with OCD logically know and what they emotionally feel. Despite understanding logically that their obsessive thoughts are irrational or that their compulsive behaviors are unnecessary, individuals with OCD feel a compelling emotional need to engage in these thoughts or behaviors to alleviate anxiety or prevent feared outcomes.

For example, a person with OCD may have an obsessive fear of germs (obsession) and feel compelled to wash their hands excessively (compulsion) even when they logically understand that their hands are clean and that excessive washing can be harmful.

This paradox can be particularly frustrating because it often feels like a battle between two parts of oneself – the logical part that understands the irrationality of the obsessions and compulsions, and the emotional part that is driven by intense fear or anxiety.

4 Examples

The paradox inherent to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can have a significant impact on people’s lives and thought patterns. Here are a few examples:

  1. Fear of Contamination: A person with OCD might understand logically that touching a doorknob won’t result in immediate serious illness, but they might still be overwhelmed by thoughts of deadly viruses and bacteria. They may then wash their hands excessively to the point of causing skin damage. This action gives temporary relief, but ultimately reinforces the fear, creating a cycle of obsession and compulsion.
  2. Doubt and Checking: A person may repeatedly check if they locked the door or turned off the stove, despite knowing logically that they’ve already done so. This behavior stems from an intense fear of what might happen if they don’t (a break-in or a fire, for example), even if they understand logically that the likelihood is minimal.
  3. Symmetry and Order: A person may spend hours arranging objects in a specific way, knowing logically that having items out of order or asymmetrical does not have actual negative consequences. However, they may feel intense anxiety or discomfort if things are not “just right,” which compels them to arrange and rearrange.
  4. Intrusive Thoughts: Some people with OCD might have distressing intrusive thoughts (about harming someone, for example), even though they understand logically that they do not want to hurt anyone and would never act on these thoughts. However, the anxiety and guilt from having these thoughts can be so distressing that they develop rituals (like repeating a phrase or counting) to neutralize or counteract them.

These paradoxical thought patterns can cause a lot of distress and can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. They often lead to time-consuming rituals, avoidance of certain situations, and even influence decisions about jobs, relationships, and other aspects of life. Fortunately, treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) can help people manage these thought patterns more effectively.

How to deal with the OCD paradox?

The paradox inherent in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, where there’s a dissonance between one’s rational understanding and one’s emotional reactions, can be challenging to navigate. However, cognitive strategies can be an effective way to resolve this paradox.

  1. Cognitive Restructuring: Cognitive Restructuring is a technique often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It involves identifying and challenging the irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions that fuel obsessions. For example, if a person fears that they will cause harm to others if they don’t perform a particular ritual, cognitive restructuring would involve questioning this belief, looking at the evidence supporting it, and considering alternative interpretations. Over time, this can help reshape the thought patterns that contribute to OCD symptoms.
  2. Mindfulness: Mindfulness involves cultivating an awareness of the present moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment. By adopting a mindful approach, individuals with OCD can learn to observe their intrusive thoughts without engaging with them. This can help reduce the emotional weight of these thoughts and make them easier to manage.
  3. Thought Disengagement: This strategy involves recognizing when an obsessive thought is occurring, then consciously commanding the mind to “disengage.” While this technique might not be effective for everyone, some individuals may find it helpful as a temporary strategy to disrupt the obsessive thought cycle.
  4. Habituation: The cognitive perspective of habituation involves understanding that the anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts will naturally decrease if the thoughts are not reinforced by compulsive behaviors. This understanding can motivate individuals with OCD to resist performing their compulsions.

The success of these techniques may vary between individuals. They are most effective when guided by a trained mental health professional who can personalize the approach based on the individual’s unique experiences and symptoms. Furthermore, these techniques may be combined with medication in some cases to optimize treatment outcomes.

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