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The prison within our own mind

Ever thought about jumping off a high building? Well apparently even the best of us are afflicted with this type of disturbing thought. Such thoughts persist to such an extent that they have the potential to lead to mental illness, says Elham Ostad - Saffari

Many people at some point in their lifetime experience a disturbing thought. Winston Churchill was famous for his disturbing urges to leap from balconies as well as his urge to walk into the path of oncoming trains.
Surprisingly in a recent global study of 700 students, 90% of those surveyed showed similar tendencies. In fact the impulse to leap or jump from a high place is so common it actually has its own psychological term: the high place phenomenon. Psychologists believe that our brains have an ‘idea generator’ which under normal conditions aids in problem solving, where we can consider all potential options to a problem however far-fetched these may be. While this is not a proven theory, some evidence does support the idea that intrusive thoughts appear more often in certain situations, for example during instances of stress.
While there is still some uncertainty regarding where these thoughts come from, what we do know for certain is that we can have intrusive thoughts without the desire to act on them. For example having an unwanted urge to hit or even kill someone does not make you a criminal or murderer.
Importantly while most people have intrusive thoughts, they are invariably disregarded and dismissed. However in a small proportion of people this does not happen and such strange thoughts cannot be switched off, leading to potential mental illnesses such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or schizophrenia.
OCD is often thought of as a ‘behavioural quirk’. Indeed while this may be true in its mild form, sever OCD can be a life crippling illness defined not only by the mental aspect of continual intrusive thoughts but also by the repetitive physical aspect and rituals which can include repeated movement of certain objects or repeated hand-washing for example.
Some also believe being plagued by unwanted thoughts closely mirrors government advertisements and pressures as well as mass media coverage which leads to fears and anxieties amongst people. For example during the 1960’s and 70’s there was a considerable irrational fear of asbestos which coincided with the dangers of the material being brought to the attention of the general public by the government.
Similarly in the 1980’s and 90’s this fear had moved onto HIV and currently reports of climate change have triggered a new era of obsession. Hence as cultural concerns change in line with public health concerns, the intrusive thoughts of an OCD individual can also change. For example with the current trend in climate change obsession, some OCD sufferers worry about the rising temperature having such an effect that it could evaporate the water or milk they leave out for their pets causing them to check bowls over and over again.
Interestingly, approximately 2-3% of people who experience intrusive thoughts are believed to have had OCD at some point in their lives. But considering that intrusive thoughts are common and can lead to OCD, how is it that OCD does not affect more people? Psychologists believe this could be a result of the way people ‘think’ or the dysfunctional beliefs they have picked up often in childhood, which converts their harmless intrusive thoughts to OCD. Indeed the different types of dysfunctional beliefs could account for the wide range of OCD symptoms. As an example, if one is a perfectionist this could potentially lead to a compulsive need for symmetry. Similarly if one overestimates levels of threat within the environment this too could lead to anxiety within outdoor spaces and lead to the compulsive need to check for dirt and disease.
Overall the general dysfunctional belief in all OCD sufferers is an exaggerated sense of responsibility, often believing that if they can influence the outcome of an event, then by association that makes them responsible for it too.

Psychologists believe that our brains have an ‘idea generator’ which under normal conditions aids in problem solving, where we can consider all potential options to a problem however far-fetched these may be.

While OCD suffers may initially try to force their intrusive thoughts away, many studies have shown this to be extremely difficult, with similar thoughts resurfacing at a later time. Hence with the struggle of unwanted thoughts, OCD sufferers often change their behaviour, developing repetitive actions or compulsions. Such repetitive actions can help an OCD sufferer answer a simple question. For example if they were worried about a door in their home being unlocked, their natural compulsion could be to repetitively check the door and settle their thoughts. People with OCD can also use their compulsions to stop their intrusive thoughts in the first place. For example if someone is worried about being infected by a disease, their compulsion could be to avoid such a threat by choosing to never leave their home or speak to anyone while their notion of a threat is still present.
Intrusive thoughts could also have a role within other mental disorders and perhaps the transition from one disorder to another is indeed not as clear cut as some may imagine. For example consider the thought of stabbing someone in the street. If a person is to take the responsibility for that intrusive thought, then perhaps they may develop OCD. However if that person was unable to resist their intrusive thoughts and attributed them to another person, the devil, the government or indeed MI5 or the CIA, then this person’s thoughts may develop into schizophrenia.
Indeed people with intrusive thoughts have been seeking help ever since the first reports of these thoughts centuries ago. Current therapies with anti-depressants appear to significantly relieve the symptoms for 40% of OCD sufferers. Interestingly psychologists are also exploring cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for OCD where they aim to break links; identifying dysfunctional beliefs and then making sufferers literally ‘think differently’. Currently scientists believe that this form of therapy is more effective than doing nothing.

From an Islamic perspective perhaps these unwanted thoughts are the whispers of the devil called waswaas and that perhaps they a role in such psychological disorders.

Some also argue that perhaps psychologists and scientists do not acknowledge the ‘extra-dimensional’ influences on our lives. From an Islamic perspective perhaps these unwanted thoughts are the whispers of the devil called waswaas and perhaps they play a role in such psychological disorders. Interestingly the Qur’an reminds us that we should seek refuge in God from this enemy which is invisible to us all: “Say I seek refuge with (God) the Lord of mankind, The King of mankind, (and) The God of mankind. From the evil of the whisperer who withdraws, who whispers in the breasts of mankind, of jinn and men” (114:1-6).
Similarly the Qur’an mentions: “And if an evil whisper from Shaytaan (Satan) tries to turn you away (O Muhammad) (from doing good), then seek refuge in God. Verily, He is the All Hearer, the All Knower” (41:36, and 7:200).
Looking into these verses a little further, perhaps one should look at seeking refuge in God as a sword in the hand of a warrior or medicine in the hand of a doctor; if one’s hand is strong, then the sword or medicine can deal the fatal blow needed to destroy the enemy.
However if the sword or medicine is not held strongly, it will not harm the enemy despite being made of iron or the most sophisticated medicine/technology. Analogous to this, if seeking refuge is done by one who is pious and fears God, this is like fire, which will burn the devil. Alternatively if this is done by one who is weak within their faith, will result in little impact on one’s enemy. •

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