How do you tell a legitimate fear from OCD?

Telling the difference is easy. Using it is not. One of the “slogans” that has become standard in OCD circles comes from Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s Brain Lock: “If it feels like OCD, it is.”

Think of the last time you realized that something real and healthy in your life needed your attention and should be acted on. Think of how that felt. Think even if a reasonable, rational fear that you had. Compare your emotional reaction to that reasonable fear with what OCD feels like. See what I mean? They’re not even remotely alike.

If it’s vague and creepy, it’s OCD. If it’s reasonably specific and prompts you to reasonable action, it’s healthy. “I’d better not date that married man because adultery and even coveting my neighbor’s husband violates the Ten Commandments” will produce an entirely different emotion from “If I eat a half-ripe banana I’ll go to hell.” Check it out. Reasonable and healthy fear of displeasing God leads you to behavior that will avoid doing so, or, at least, pushes you in that direction. OCD simply produces fear. If there is any impetus toward action, it’s vague and nebulous and irrational.

The problem is training oneself to recognize the difference without too much dithering (aka “obsessing”) about something.

One thing I’ve found useful and highly recommend is mindfulness. I have ADHD as well as OCD and my thoughts are always flying wildly around bouncing off walls. This feeds into my OCD because sometimes I get distracted and can’t remember what thought produced the fear reaction! So what I do is concentrate on what’s going on around me at the moment rather than on my thoughts. If the problem is real it will return to my mind in a way that enables me to address it calmly and rationally. If it’s not, it won’t.

If you cultivate that habit of observing the external world around you rather than living inside your head you’ll discover that God has designed us in such a way that if we simply relax and let the human mind He designed work, it will do what it needs to when it needs to without our messing with it. You may have noticed that if you obsess even about a real problem the solution will elude you. Or if you can’t remember somebody’s name (something that happens to me more and more often as I get older), the worst thing you can do is to ransack your memory. That will only drive the answer away. But if you relax and think of something else, sooner or later the answer will simply pop into your mind.

Repentance works that way too. If you try to make yourself repent for something, you can relax, because you already have. All that’s lacking is to accept God’s forgiveness. But if we torture ourselves and try to make ourselves feel bad (it’s amazing how many people think that repentance is an emotion!) we stop ourselves from accepting God’s forgiveness and short-circuit the whole process.

God knew what He was doing when He designed your brain. It’s designed to respond to what’s going on around you, in the world- not to what’s going on inside your mind. When you need to address a thought or a deed or an emotion, you won’t have to make yourself do it. The Holy Spirit will bring it to your attention if it’s a spiritual matter. Or if it’s not, the mind will do the job on its own if you just don’t get in the way.

So the impulse to ransack your brain is almost certainly OCD. A response to something in the outside world which results in a reasonable and appropriate thought or emotion is healthy fear. If you make a mistake somehow (which is unlikely), so what? You’re a sinner. You sin every day. But you’re also a believer, covered with the mantle of forgiveness purchased by Christ’s blood.

Another thing that might help is to bear in mind that in itself- apart from Christ- even our most selfless and charitable thoughts fall short of God’s minimum standards of holiness. Considered in ourselves, we cannot not sin in our every thought, word and deed. It’s only in Christ that even our good works are good! So why not take Paul’s “advice,” and rely on His having “gotten it right” instead of panicking at the thought that you haven’t, or aren’t?

Again, I strongly recommend Dr. Osborn’s book. In it, he’ll show you how Martin Luther, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, John Bunyan, and other Christians who had OCD dealt with it. And despite the different theological traditions they represent, you’ll be amazed to discover that the answer they hit upon was pretty much the same!


  1. Good post!

    Any thoughts on mindfulness as a meditative practice, where you just concentrate on your breath (for example ) to practice bringing your thoughts back to the present (no chanting or mantras or anything like that, though.)


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