A new study finds that most people experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts, and that the behaviors are not isolated to people diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
In fact, according to research from Concordia University and 15 other universities worldwide, 94 percent of people experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images and/or impulses.
So, if you are one to check whether your hands are clean, imagine your house might be on fire, or worry that the gas or propane has not been turned off, you are not alone.
Researchers clarify that the often devastating diagnosis of OCD is not a result of the thoughts, but the actions that follow or result from the thought.
For the international study, investigators examined people on six continents with the findings published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.
Concordia psychology professor Adam Radomsky and his colleagues found that the thoughts, images, and impulses symptomatic of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are widespread.
“This study shows that it’s not the unwanted, intrusive thoughts that are the problem — it’s what you make of those thoughts,” Radomsky said.
“And that’s at the heart of our cognitive and behavioral interventions for helping people overcome OCD.”
This means therapists can focus on applying effective treatments that will work cross-culturally.
As Radomsky pointed out, “Confirming that these thoughts are extremely common helps us reassure patients who may think that they are very different from everybody else.”
“For instance, most people who have an intrusive thought about jumping off a balcony or a metro platform would tell themselves that it’s a strange or silly thing to think, whereas a person with OCD may worry that the thought means they’re suicidal.
“OCD patients experience these thoughts more often and are more upset by them, but the thoughts themselves seem to be indistinguishable from those occurring in the general population.”
For researchers developing effective evidence-based mental health treatments, recognizing how widespread these intrusive thoughts are can also offer encouragement to use cognitive and behavioral therapies cross-culturally.
“We’re more similar than we are different,” says Radomsky. “People with OCD and related problems are very much like everyone else.”
For the study, researchers assessed 777 university students in 13 countries across six continents. In Canada, participants were from Montreal and Fredericton. Internationally, research was conducted in Argentina, Australia, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Iran, Israel, Italy, Sierra Leone, Spain, Turkey, and the United States.
Participants were questioned about whether they had experienced at least one unwanted, intrusive thought in the three months prior.
To ensure participants reported intrusions, researchers worked with them to distinguish between lingering worries, ruminations about previous events, and unwanted intrusions.
These can be a phrase (“Did I lock the front door?”), an image (a mental picture of the subject’s house on fire) or an urge (for instance, a desire to hurt someone).
Contamination, aggression, and doubt were among the many types of intrusive thoughts reported by participants.