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But It Feels SO Real: Understanding Emotional Reasoning in OCD and Anxiety

January 13, 2023

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If you have OCD or anxiety, you know how real your fears can feel in the moment. You can logically know all of the things and have all of the evidence in the world to say otherwise, yet it still feels so real. THAT is emotional reasoning.

The Impact of Emotional Reasoning

This feeling can pull us back from committing to ritual prevention, make us avoid exposures, and ultimately hold us back from living the life that we want and deserve. As a result, OCD and anxiety make our worlds smaller and smaller because we feel that everything is getting scarier and scarier. The more we avoid, the scarier things feel, and the more we avoid – and so it goes.

So why is it that it can be so easy sometimes to ignore the evidence and logic that we know to be true?

Emotional Reasoning: A Cognitive Bias

The answer is – emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual uses their emotions as evidence for the truth of a belief. In other words, it’s when you take your feelings as the ultimate truth and the sole interpretation of fact. Like other cognitive distortions, such as black and white thinking, all or nothing thinking, or disqualifying the positives, we all are vulnerable to these thought traps from time to time; however, emotional reasoning can be particularly problematic for individuals with anxiety and OCD, as it can lead to excessive worry, the perpetuation of obsessive thoughts, and avoidance of routine, enjoyable, and valued activities.

The Role of Emotional Reasoning in Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences in response to certain situations. As you know, though, when anxiety becomes excessive and interferes with daily life, it is classified as an anxiety disorder. While OCD and other anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), are no longer under the same “umbrella” in the DSM-V, I tend to interpret them similarly and do not believe there is truly a functional difference among these conditions. For the sake of what we’re talking about here, especially, fear is fear.

Emotional Reasoning in Anxiety and OCD

When one struggles with anxiety and fear, they may worry about certain events, activities, or concepts that bring additonal panic. Individuals with these conditions may use emotional reasoning to justify their excessive worry, believing that because they feel anxious, something bad must be going to happen.

“I feel guilty, therefore that must mean that I did something wrong.”

“I feel like a bad mom, therefore I must be a bad mom.”

Even when we know that’s not entirely the full story, it still feels like the full story.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Emotional reasoning can be particularly damaging for individuals with anxiety and OCD because it leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If an individual believes that their anxiety is a sign that something bad will happen, they are more likely to behave in a way that will make something bad happen. If you believe that your guilt is a sign that you did something wrong, you will likely apologize. This is a behavior that’s consistent with feeling bad and therefore reinforces these feelings later on. Similarly, if an individual believes that their obsessive thoughts are true and that they must act on them to prevent something bad from happening, they are more likely to engage in compulsive behaviors that reinforce the obsessive thoughts.

Overcoming through ERP

To overcome emotional reasoning, individuals with anxiety and OCD can benefit from Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). In my work, I emphasize education as well because it’s so important for individuals to understand the various tricks their mind can play on them in an effort to keep them “safe”. Simply understanding the concept of emotional reasoning can sometimes bring relief. It can remind you that you are not alone and that your brain is not broken – as so many people with OCD and anxiety tend to feel.

ERP: A Path to Recovery

In ERP, an individual with anxiety or intrusive thoughts may learn to go to a meeting despite nervousness. They may want to avoid a work meeting, emphasized by feelings of dread and doom as well as the coinciding thoughts that they will get judged or made fun of by their coworkers. Through an exposure, they go to the meeting and resist safety behaviors including avoidance, reassurance seeking, and mentally reviewing.

They realize that their dread and doom types of feelings were not an indicator of truth. While feelings are one part of the human puzzle, they are definitely not the only way to guide decision making. Over time, individuals may adopt more realistic thoughts. For example, “I am feeling anxious about this meeting, but that doesn’t mean it will be a disaster. I can handle whatever comes up.”

Conclusion

To learn more about OCD, anxiety, and ERP, be sure to check out my workshops. I go into even more detail about how behaviors, thoughts, and emotions all impact each other. The good news is that OCD and anxiety are both highly treatable, and it doesn’t have to be debilitating forever.

Head to the “masterclass” section of my website to learn more and download (instant!) my recorded workshops. Let me know what you think. These cognitive distortions can be tough and tricky, and emotional reasoning is definitely one of the more stubborn ones. Feelings are not facts, and they are, by no means, the sole indicator of truth. Keep this in mind next time you start to feel that dread or those difficult emotions pop up. You can’t help the feelings, you can only help the behaviors you engage in as a response to those feelings.

You’ve got this!

– Jenna

This blog post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as mental health or medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional advice of your own professional mental health or medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical or mental health professional before trying or implementing any information read here.

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