For folks with OCD, it’s important to be aware of thought-action fusion, or the belief that thinking bad thoughts is the same as taking action.
You probably have a generally good sense of what is right and wrong.
You believe stealing is wrong, for example. And you probably also realize that thinking about stealing and actually stealing are not morally equivalent.
But some people withobsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) believe that thinking about committing a harmful act and actually doing it are equally bad. This is known as thought-action fusion.
Awareness of this symptom is a solid first step toward managing its impact. Know that if you live with OCD, there are ways to challenge your thoughts and decrease the stress and worry associated with them.
Popular culture represents living with OCD as primarily obsessive or ritualistic behaviors. However, one of the main symptoms of OCD is having distressing thoughts that won’t go away.
Many of these ruminations are caused by cognitive distortions, or irrational patterns of thinking. Thought-action fusion is one cognitive distortion common to people with OCD.
Thought-action fusion is the belief that thinking about a negative or immoral action is equally as bad as actually committing the action itself. This is sometimes called moral thought-action fusion.
For example, you have a thought about punching your significant other and believe that thinking about it is as bad as actually hurting them.
This can lead people living with OCD to think they’re immoral or “bad” people. They might act on their compulsions for temporary relief, even when they don’t want to.
Likelihood thought-action fusion is the second component of this cognitive distortion. It’s the beliefthat thinking about a terrible, bad, or immoral thing will make it come true. For example, you think about your significant other leaving you, which makes you believe that having had the thought makes it more likely to come true, manifesting the negative event.
Thought-action fusion and OCD
Researchers have often associated thought-action fusion with OCD. According to a
Let’s say someone living with OCD thinks about their cat dying. Thought-action fusion then takes over to make them fear the thought will come true. Their compulsion might be knocking on wood to prevent the thought from happening in real life.
In a 2020 study, researchers noted that understanding of thought-action fusion originally came from OCD studies, but researchers have since shown it occurs in people living with:
OCD is made up of several thought processes, and thought-action fusion is only one possibility. As a result, you may be living with OCD and never experience it.
Everyone experiences shocking, bizarre, strange, or disturbing thoughts now and then. But if you are living with OCD, you may find yourself overreacting to these thoughts and attempting to suppress them.
In attempting to suppress thoughts, they can come back stronger, which can then lead to a cycle of suppression and then thinking more distressing thoughts.
Thought-action fusion can create a waterfall of these upsetting thoughts that results in a consistent sense of impending doom.
Some signs of thought-action fusion include:
- harsh judgement of yourself based on thoughts, regardless of actions taken
- the belief you’re a bad or immoral person
- feeling hopeless about not being able to prevent bad things from happening
- the belief that thoughts can manifest real-life events
- significant worry and distress over thoughts
- unable to stop persistent, intrusive distressing thoughts
- performing compulsions you believe prevent your thought from becoming reality
- feelings of impending doom
Thought-action fusion can make you believe that your thoughts hold more power than they do or even that they are dangerous to yourself or others.
This belief can make it difficult to cope with negative thoughts when they come up. You may feel like you’re an awful person. Perhaps your compulsions worsen.
Thought-action fusion is most common in the Pure O subset of OCD, also called harm OCD. People with harm OCD have strong, violent thoughts that they worry they’ll carry out. They often feel like they’re a danger to others, and like they can’t trust their own mind.
Living with this OCD symptom can feel like a burden, provoke anxiety, and lead to avoidance of situations where you don’t trust yourself to not cause harm. Without management, thought-action fusion can significantly impact your quality of life.
To assess and diagnose this cognitive distortion, a doctor uses what’s known as the thought-action fusion (TAF) scale. The scale assesses 12 items related to moral thought-action fusion and seven that relate to likelihood thought-action fusion.
When you take the test, you fill out the answers to the questions on your own. Your doctor would then score the assessment and provide a diagnosis based on the results.
Living with thought-action fusion can be difficult and scary. Fortunately, with treatment, you may find relief from your thoughts.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help you learn to cope with irrational thoughts. You’ll learn different techniques for accepting and moving on from your thoughts, rather than suppressing them or giving them power.
A type of CBT called exposure and response prevention (ERP) is the most common treatment for OCD. It can help you manage obsessive thoughts without turning to compulsions. Both types of CBT are guided by mental health professionals.
Talk therapy with a therapist can help you feel supported while discussing your thoughts and feelings.
You can also take steps at home to help combat thought-action fusion. Some ways to challenge persistent distressing thoughts include:
- keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings
- replacing negative thoughts and feelings with positive thoughts
- take steps to manage your stress
If you live with OCD, you may experience thought-action fusion. You can also develop it independent of OCD, as it can occur with anxiety, depression, and other conditions.
If you’re having constant distressing thoughts, they might be part of an irrational thought pattern. Consider working with a professional for a diagnosis or treatment.
While there’s no cure for OCD or its symptoms, there are ways to challenge your thoughts and manage the day-to-day distress they cause.
You might benefit from the following resources for people living with OCD: