What are obsessions, intrusive thoughts and ruminations?

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Please note: Articles on lived experiences can be a trigger for those with tics, OCD and anxiety disorders. Articles are intended to show we aren’t alone, and that help can improve quality of life.

My earliest memory of an intrusive thought came from a road trip to the coast. I was ten years old.

His statement delivered with conviction. It’s hard to forget the anxiety and feelings of helplessness that intrusive thoughts can bring.

This personal account- from an OCD sufferer of more than 25 years- has been shared to help understand OCD and the more frequently used terms.

The road we were driving on passed these wind turbines. I became fixated on them. My fascination quickly turned to fear as I pictured myself being tied to one. Unable to break free, endlessly spinning until I blacked out.

This is an example of an intrusive thought

Intrusive thoughts are the specific thoughts on a topic or theme.

Common intrusive thoughts involve missing the morning alarm and finding an intruder in the home.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, impulses, or urges that can occur spontaneously or that can be cued by external/internal stimuli. Typically, these thoughts are distressing (hence "intrusive") and tend to reoccur.

The OCD and Anxiety Center describes these thoughts as unwanted and distressing.

In the sufferers account, being tied down and unable to break free is the unwanted thought, bringing on distress and anxiety that still resonates today.

Intrusive thoughts can be seen as individual sparks creating (or contributing to) the metaphorical fire. The fire being the obsession.

This thought didn’t leave as the turbines disappeared on the horizon. They remained just as vivid as I dipped my feet in the sea an hour or so later. And even today when I see a turbine, as crazy as it sounds, I still have this horrible memory.

The obsessions

Intrusive thoughts can repeat. And repeat. 

Frequent intrusive thoughts on a certain theme become obsessions.

An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease.

nhs.uk describes obsessions as repeated unwanted thoughts. The frequency of these thoughts becomes obsessional and problematic.

Intrusive thoughts vs obsessions

Intrusive thoughts are the individual thoughts that contribute to an obsession.

An obsession can be thought of as a storm cloud. A storm consists of individual raindrops, similar to how an obsession consists of many individual intrusive-thoughts.

Ruminations vs intrusive thoughts

The process of continuously thinking about the same thoughts, which tend to be sad or dark, is called rumination.

Healthline defines rumination as continuous thinking. 

Rumination is carried out as an attempt to reverse, solve or end the problems arising in the intrusive thoughts, often with negative implications.

Intrusive thoughts are the sudden, dark and unpleasant thoughts we experience.

Rumination is processing these thoughts after having one, in an attempt to end the arising anxiety.

Ruminating is our attempt to escape the mental suffering.

Is ruminating a compulsion?

According to this Dr. Michael J. Greenberg article, ruminating is a compulsion.

"when people say they are having intrusive thoughts, upon closer inspection it turns out they are ruminating. The distressing thought that occurs to the person is the obsession, but this event takes almost no time at all. Everything that follows, all mental engagement with that thought, is compulsive rumination."

It seems difficult to differentiate between the terms, making it difficult to heal without professional help.

Ruminations vs obsessions

Obsessing can be considered the whole cycle of intrusive thinking and ruminating.  

An obsession with being tied to a wind turbine against our will consists of individual intrusive thoughts, resulting in rumination.

Rumination is an attempt to figure out a way to prevent this thought or scenario occurring. This may change our behaviours, such as actively avoiding routes that pass wind turbines.

These behaviours are known as compulsions, and will be looked at in a dedicated article.

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DISCLAIMER: Articles contain lived experiences, but cannot be used to diagnose. Medical advice can only come from trained professionals. 

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Dealing with Disorder was created by a sufferer, struggling to find information to help manage the conditions.