Obsessional Thoughts or Genuine Risk?
In terms of volumes, I think I respond to questions about obsessional thoughts at least 3 times more often than other mental health related topics. As the priest in our Mind and Soul Foundation quartet I can see that there is a very grey area between many people’s spiritual self-understanding and the extent to which they see these issues as more medically driven.
Because obsessions (or negative intrusive thoughts) tend to target the values and principles that a person holds most dear, it is not hard to see why their origins might seem to be spiritual or character related: The new mum who imagines herself hurting her new baby, the priest who fears he will shout obscene words during a service, the family man who imagines burning his house down… The list is endless and I have heard hours and hours of variations.
Pastorally you may be wondering how on earth you can discern between a genuine ‘risk’ and a simple intrusive thought. Ironically, it is this very dichotomy which drives the suffering of a person who is plagued by these sorts of thoughts.
What actually are obsessional thoughts?
So is having ‘that’ thought just the first step towards performing the act? One of the UK’s leading experts on OCD Dr David Veale writes, “At its simplest, this need never be a concern: there are no recorded cases of a person with OCD carrying out their obsession. By definition, such intrusions are unacceptable and ego-dystonic, and the person is no more likely to act on their intrusions than a person with height phobia is to jump off a tall building.” (https://www.oxfordahsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Risk-Assessment-in-OCD.pdf)
My experience of people with obsessional problems has always been that I am far more convinced of the innocence of their concerns than they are. That is the beauty of objectivity. Ironic, since in 2005 I was diagnosed with obsessive problems by Dr Veale, and struggled to assess the significance of my own intrusive thoughts. At the time I had no idea at the level of co-morbidity between anxiety disorders and obsessional problems. I remain concerned that the shame of obsessional problems leaves them hidden and untreated whilst the physiological aspects of anxiety are directly addressed.
A recent study by psychologist Naomi Fineberg reported in the NewScientist identified the core issue in obsessional problems, not as the thoughts themselves but the inability to accept their safety: “The new findings may explain why people with OCD find this approach so difficult and it can take so long” says Fineberg. “The bit of their brain that should be telling them it’s safe isn’t working. Now we can say to them: this is why it’s taking so long and we should stick with it.” (https://www.newscientist.com/article/2123613-brains-inability-to-see-that-something-is-safe-causes-ocd/)
For Christians struggling with obsessive thoughts, assessing the risk or significance can be particularly hard. In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." For many Christians, their faulty interpretation of this standard leaves them believing that their thoughts are far more risky than they truly are.
To go back to Dr Veale; intrusive thoughts are ‘Ego Dystonic’. That is to say that they oppose the ego ideas of the individual and they take no pleasure in them. In fact, the sufferer feels only dread, fear, guilt and doubt. ‘Lustful’ thoughts however, are thoughts that are entertained, enjoyed and embellished. Being able to label and discern the difference between the thoughts that we want to have and those that are intrusive and obsessional is a key part of the journey to greater freedom.
Intrusive thoughts are not a sin
Having intrusive obsessional thoughts is not a sin, it is a suffering. In Hebrews 4:15 it says of Jesus, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things just as we are, yet without sin.” If Jesus were really tempted in every way, that means that he must have had thoughts about all sorts of horrific possibilities, yet despite the existence of these thoughts he had not sinned.
Obsessional thoughts are not the risk they propose to be, but they are still a risk: a risk to the peace, joy and contentment of the person who endures them. Shame says that you cannot talk about your thoughts in case someone misinterprets the risk. However, talking your concerns through with someone knowledgeable about OCD or obsessional thinking is a first step towards revelation and recovery. My encouragement today is to take the risk, you may not be able to stem the flow of intrusive thoughts, but you can become skilled in labelling and interpreting them in a way that disempowers them and frees you.
Will Van Der Hart, 29/10/2021