How Sufferers of OCD Process Information

Sufferers of OCD interpret data from their environment in a different way. This could explain why they experience obsessions and compulsions. In this article, we explain how they process information.
How Sufferers of OCD Process Information
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by the psychologist Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 10 March, 2023

Sufferers of OCD experience extra difficulties when they want to act quickly and efficiently. In fact, they can end up investing a good deal of their resources, essentially time and energy, in purposes that are totally unproductive.

Indeed, cases have been recorded of sufferers dedicating in excess of eight hours a day to issues related to their obsessions and rituals. This gives you an idea of the influence these kinds of behaviors can have in their daily lives.

Some experts differentiate between full-time and part-time OCD. They claim that the interference of intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and derived actions (compulsions) are much more intense in the former.

“An overwhelming sense of perfection is common, and the reporting of discomfort until things seem right to them.”

-Amparo Belloch-

Woman with obsessive ideas
People with OCD feel that they have to focus their attention at all times on their thoughts.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Sufferers of OCD manifest compulsive responses. This is how they momentarily end the anguish caused by their obsessions.

“If I don’t pray five times an hour, there’ll be an earthquake at the train station where my husband works”. OCD sufferers might experience these kinds of thoughts for years and even decades. They produce intense suffering.

By behaving in this way, OCD sufferers are seeking to reduce the probability that the negative situation will occur. However, their behavior is far from realistic and often excessive.

“The compulsions are not done for pleasure, although some people experience relief.”

-Amparo Belloch-

Obsessions can take many forms. They can be thoughts, like the one we described above, but they can also be images. For example, “Every time I see my uncle Peter in my mind I have to call him so he doesn’t lose his job”. Alternatively, they can be impulses. For instance, “Idiot. Idiot. I’m so sorry, I don’t know why but I just say this word every time I start talking to someone”.

The deterioration produced by this disorder is extremely disabling. In fact, the interpersonal, academic, work, and family areas of the sufferer can all be greatly affected. This multiplies the frustration, anxiety, and discomfort they experience. It’s hypothesized that OCD is a depressogenic clinical entity which means it causes depression in sufferers.

How sufferers of OCD process information

As a consequence of certain educational styles when they were young, sufferers of OCD can make errors in information processing when they’re older. When parents are perfectionists, are focused on transmitting the values of responsibility, or suffer from OCD themselves, their children are likely to end up developing the disorder (Belloch, 2020).

“They make an unrealistic assessment of threats or disasters that are given by erroneous or irrational thoughts or patterns.”

-Amparo Belloch-

This clinical entity is characterized by three types of alterations in information processing. Firstly, sufferers have difficulty “sorting the wheat from the chaff”. This means they have a hard time identifying what’s important in a large body of information. Secondly, they struggle when it comes to categorizing the data. Thirdly, they want to control all the information, both the relevant and the irrelevant.

Consequently, there’s a hyper-structuring of information. This hinders them from being able to make predictions about their context. In fact, they possess so much information that their mental system becomes overloaded. To compensate, they resort to extremely rigid processes, such as rituals (Belloch, 2020). Among the information processing errors that have been found, the following are worth a mention:

Exaggerated responsibility

OCD sufferers believe that they’re capable of preventing a catastrophic event from occurring. In effect, they overestimate their ability to influence or control. They consider that the possibility of it happening depends on them. Thus, they feel responsible as to whether or not the event occurs.

They also believe that it’s as bad to omit as to commit. For instance, “Even though I stopped myself from hitting John, it’s just as bad as if I did hit him”.This is an example of impulsive obsession. It feeds excessive responsibility. Consequently, sufferers of OCD feel more guilty about errors of omission as compared to those without the disorder (Belloch, 2020).

Therefore, there are situations in which a sufferer of OCD would feel extremely responsible, while an individual without the disorder would feel little or no responsibility.

“Excessive responsibility can lead to extreme behavioral consequences, such as prompting a person to confess to crimes or accidents of which they are barely aware.”

-Amparo Belloch-

Man thinking that worries are more intense on Sunday nights
Sufferers of OCD overestimate their ability to influence and control.

Overestimation of the importance of thought

For OCD sufferers, a typical phrase might be: “It’s my duty to prevent something bad from happening”. They feel extreme discomfort due to their obsessive thoughts and do everything possible to reduce it. However, when trying to exert a tight grip on the content that’s broken into their mind, it becomes even more intrusive.

To illustrate this case we suggest an exercise: Don’t think of a green dog. If you think of a green dog, there’ll be an earthquake. It’s vital you don’t think of a green dog. Being told not to think about the green dog though, tends to make it constantly appear in your thoughts and it becomes intrusive. Something similar occurs in this disorder.

“This is known as the rebound or recurrence effect of a thought when you consciously try to suppress it.”

-Amparo Belloch-

The need to control their thoughts

OCD sufferers feel they have to constantly monitor and focus all their attention on their thoughts.  Since claiming such a degree of control is impossible, they often lose it. Losing control means they’re unable to submit the flow of their thoughts to their will and they feel like a failure. Therefore, they resort to compulsions.

OCD sufferers exhibit different errors when processing information. First, they tend to want to monitor all information in case something important might pass them by. This overwhelms their processing system.

In addition, they feel extraordinarily responsible for what they think. In fact, they believe that by thinking about it, it might happen; or that thinking about it is just as bad as doing it. This makes them attach outstanding importance to their thoughts.

Thanks to research, psychological treatments have been developed that are effective and safe in this clinical entity. For example, CBT, acceptance and commitment therapy, exposure with response prevention, and metacognitive therapy. That said, further research is still required.

“Obsessions are caused by catastrophic misinterpretations of the meaning of thoughts.”

-Amparo Belloch-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Pérez Rodríguez, R. J., & Armas Tracy, J. D. (2021). Eficacia de las técnicas contextuales en el TOC.
    • Borda, T., & Mazás, S. El Trastorno Obsesivo Compulsivo (TOC) es sustancialmente un trastorno emocional
  • Belloch, A. (2023). Manual De Psicopatologia. Vol. Ii (2.a ed.). MCGRAW HILL EDDUCATION.
  • CIE-11. (s. f.).
  • Carrobles, J. A. S. (2014). Manual de psicopatología y trastornos psicológicos (2a). Ediciones Pirámide.
  • First, M. B. (2015). DSM-5. Manual de Diagnóstico Diferencial. Editorial Médica Panamericana.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.