Thought-Action Fusion In OCD and Anxiety, pt. 2
This article on Thought-Action Fusion in OCD thoughts and Anxiety Disorders is the second installment of a two part series. To read part one, please click here.
Thought-Action Fusion in OCD and the Law of Attraction
One way that Thought-Action Fusion has seeped its way into popular culture is through the popularization of New Age beliefs and New Thought Philosophy. In short, the Law of Attraction says that we not only can impact the world around us with our thought, but in-fact every thought, good and bad, does have an impact on the world around us.
An example of how the Law of Attraction works could be in trying to get a new job. The Law of Attraction would assert that to get a new job you should think positively about the exact job you want, exact income and benefits, and exact job environment. After earnestly imagining this, you will inevitably be offered this exact job because you manifested it in the world.
The downside of the Law of Attraction, and to continue the example above, is that if you don’t get that job it is because you didn’t want it enough or you deep down wanted to have a bad job.
This type of thinking is unfortunately, and obviously, flawed. While I am a firm advocate of positive thinking and upholding an optimistic worldview, in no way can I affirm that thoughts alone will make one thing happen or another not happen.
Positive thinking is not magic, and in the case of Anxiety and OCD treatment, engaging in Exposure and Response Prevention will not increase the likelihood of something happening. As an OCD/ Anxiety specialist, my job is to think terrible thoughts, so if the Law of Attraction were a fact, then there would be an inordinate amount of bad things happen to me and my colleagues.
All this to say, you are free to have your thoughts without the fear that they will happen, but we must have our thoughts and accept the possibility that they could happen (and could not happen).
Thought-Action Fusion and Thought Suppression
While many suffering with Thought-Action Fusion choose to respond in a compulsive effort for certainty and safety, some chose to avoid the thoughts entirely by suppressing the thought altogether.
Thought Suppression is a common compulsion in the world of OCD and anxiety disorders. It is the simple, yet ultimately impossible, effort of stuffing down, shoving out, and obliterating the presence of any unwanted thoughts. It’s a natural reaction, right? Don’t think about the problem. However, it does not work.
Don’t think about a white elephant.
It doesn’t work, does it?
Unfortunately, despite the natural urge to suppress the unwanted thoughts in order to avoid feeling the moral pressure or decrease the chances of the thought coming true, Thought Suppression only serves to increase the frequency and intensity of the thought.
Defusing Thought-Action Fusion
Breaking the Thought-Action Fusion bond is a key component of OCD and OC-spectrum treatment. Treatment for anxiety will always include components of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which will help you think differently about your thoughts and respond in a more rational and balanced manner. Below are a few techniques rooted in CBT that you can do to start defusing Thought-Action Fusion.
Awareness and acknowledgment
The first and most important thing you can do to start breaking the Thought-Action Fusion bond is to start building your awareness of your thoughts and acknowledging that not all your thoughts or mental connections are accurate and true. Noticing your thoughts as separate from you and only part of your momentary experience is a skill to build, but it can help you see how your anxious brain tells you stories and tries to influence you.
It can be hard for us to do this at first because our brain thinks that everything it does is right! However, you are not your thoughts and you have the ability to observe your thoughts from an objective stance, notice which thoughts are present, and decide what you want to do with them. Remember, just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to listen to it.
Keep track and look for patterns and commonalities
Keeping a log of your thoughts can help you begin to see how your thoughts are distorted and skewed can help you take control over your responses to them. When you start building your awareness of your thoughts, you will see that some thoughts show up at predictable times, and some thoughts, feelings, and feared stories come as a group.
You are smarter than your anxiety! So, start to outsmart it. This means that when you notice these patterns of thought, these distorted stories about yourself, your world, and your future, you can begin predicting when they will show up and how they will try controlling you. Seeing this patterns can give you the confidence to remind yourself of the truth, rather than the anxious lies.
Ground yourself in what you know (or can know)
Centering yourself in the present moment of reality is a powerful tool when fighting anxiety. Anxiety tends to pull us into the past or project us into the future. However, we cannot change the past and we cannot predict or control the future. The only moment we can enact any of our agency and power over is the present moment.
With your growing awareness in your patterns of Thought-Action Fusion, you can now firmly ground yourself in what is true about you and the situation you are in. Sometimes this is simple acknowledgements of who you have historically been, and sometimes they are factual statements about the causal relationships between two things.
Some examples of grounding yourself in what you can know are:
“I have no evidence that wearing a green shirt today will cause my dad to get an aneurysm.”
“I’ve thought lots of thoughts in the past. Some come true, and some don’t.”
“Thoughts about being alone does not mean I’m alone. I have people I can reach out to if needed, and I’ve handled being alone before without panicing!”
“I’m having the thought of a car accident, but a thought is not the same as an actual car accident.t”
“Wow, thinking about cheating on my partner makes me feel uncomfortable, but thoughts are not the same as actions.”
“Practice makes better, but practice won’t make me perfect because perfect doesn’t exist. I can take today off and not ruin my life.”
“If I discover that reality is not real, that would be terrible, but I don’t have that evidence right now so there is nothing to do about it at this very moment.”
Exposure and Response Prevention for Thought-Action Fusion
Anxiety is betting on you not calling its bluff. Instead, it is counting on you taking the suggestion that the irrational or highly unlikely story it is telling you is probable and reasonable causing you to avoid, check, ritualize, seek reassurance, google, or neutralize.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a therapeutic technique in which you work with your therapist to progressively get closer and closer to your fear while resisting anything that would help you avoid anxiety or “ensure” safety. In short, it is doing the opposite of what your anxiety wants you to do.
ERP helps you learn that the mental association and feared story is probably not going to happen, and that you don’t need to fear it nor avoid it. Through repeatedly challenging your anxiety by putting the Thought-Action Fusion to the test, all while resisting your compulsive routines, acts, or thoughts, you’ll start to see that the chances of experiencing the terrible outcome your anxiety suggests will happen is low. Moreover, you start to learn that you do not need certainty in life. Instead, you can stand confident that you can endure the momentary discomfort and ride out the uneasiness of the anxiety no matter the form it takes.