Mischaracterization of Intrusive Thoughts on Social Media Damages Individuals With OCD

Editors’ Note: This article contains discussion of potentially harmful OCD compulsions.

One of the most popular genres of videos on social media can be described as “people doing stupid things and filming it.” Whether it be someone spontaneously giving themselves choppy bangs or deciding to jump into a pool fully clothed, these videos quickly go viral and can be found on every platform imaginable. This, on its own, is obviously not an issue, as shocking videos are essentially the backbone of the internet. The real problem behind these seemingly innocent posts can typically be found in the caption or comments.

The phrase “I let my intrusive thoughts win” is something almost anyone who has spent some time online has seen before. People will often excuse their poor decisions shared via social media apps by saying that it was simply their so-called “intrusive thoughts” taking over. They seem to characterize intrusive thoughts as quirky urges they secretly want to succumb to and not as the debilitating ruminations that plague people with certain mental disorders.

Intrusive thoughts are defined as “an unwelcome, involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate.” When people online describe their actions as submissions to intrusive thoughts, what they almost always mean to say is impulsive thoughts. An impulse can be defined as a strong and sudden desire to act in a certain way. This is the key difference between impulsive and intrusive thoughts. Someone with intrusive thoughts has zero desire to act out their thoughts, which is what then causes them so much pain and distress. 

Intrusive thoughts can happen to anyone, but frequent occurrences of intrusive thoughts that cause significant distress to the individual can be a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Additionally, though less commonly, they can be a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and anxiety, among other illnesses. However, as someone who has suffered from OCD for as long as I can remember, I am familiar with its effects. I am therefore no stranger to intrusive thoughts. There have been times where I have spent eight or more hours virtually unable to move, being held prisoner by my own mind. 

OCD is often referred to as the “doubting disorder,” as it makes you question everything about yourself, the world around you, and reality itself. It forces painful thoughts and images into your mind, then makes you believe that you are an evil person for having those unwanted thoughts. These thoughts stem from your brain finding the idea that causes you the most mental pain and using it against you. When someone equates impulsive thoughts to intrusive thoughts, they promote the idea that people with OCD secretly want to act on their intrusive thoughts. This could not be further from the truth. 

In order to avoid these intrusive thoughts, people with OCD will often resort to any number of compulsions or rituals. These can range from washing one’s hands until they are raw, crossing one’s eyes, hoarding, or even hitting oneself to rattle the negative thoughts out. Personally, when I have certain intrusive thoughts, my mind forces me to perform a number of different compulsions. I struggle with trichotillomania, or hair-pulling disorder, and skin picking. I spend hours praying for forgiveness from a God that I’m not completely sure is real. These compulsions provide temporary relief, but eventually end up being the only way someone can relieve their anxiety. People with OCD often become ruled by their compulsions.

As a whole, OCD often causes those who suffer from it a considerable amount of distress. According to a study by the International OCD Foundation, “risk of suicide is roughly 10 times higher in the OCD population as compared to people without OCD.” Due to the taboo nature of certain intrusive thoughts, people are very hesitant to share them with others out of fear of ostracization. This can lead to a lack of willingness to share important information about their mental disorder with anyone, even medical professionals. If someone with OCD is online and sees that the majority of references to intrusive thoughts are relatively harmless urges, they might feel as if theirs are monstrous in comparison. Then, because the person is trying harder to dispel their intrusive thoughts, the thoughts become even stronger as a response. This then can turn into a vicious cycle of self-hatred and mental distress.

In general, the misrepresentation of mental illness through social media is not uncommon. It can be very difficult to explain the harmful nuances of certain phrases and trends, especially when you only have a certain number of characters to do so. By simply noticing false rhetoric, educating ourselves on the truth, and subsequently changing the way we use certain phrases, the spread of damaging misinformation can be stopped.