When you live with OCD, you go to great lengths to eliminate anxiety and bring calmness in to your life. You are adamant to get your power back; but OCD finds a way to be ahead of you. Its creative nature endlessly finds something to question in your life, whether it is your relationship, your health, or your religion. It relentlessly creates intrusive and bizarre thoughts that cause intense anxiety, fear and doubt.
When you constantly try to bring an end to these thoughts an fail to do so, you lose your hope and confidence that you can ever move on with your life. You might feel stuck and powerless. But in reality, OCD is manageable. When you learn to manage compulsions, you are one step closer managing the symptoms of OCD and regaining your sense of power. The compulsions may feel effective because it will give you a temporary relief from anxiety. When the intrusive thoughts return and you feel anxious again, you realize that the compulsions feed the OCD mind, strengthen the OCD cycle, and make the recovery unattainable.
While there are long list of compulsions you may have engaged in, I will challenge the 3 common compulsions that often looks innocent. These 3 compulsions offer the promise to lessen the anxiety when instead they are maintaining it. It may be difficult to read how your behaviors are reinforcing the OCD symptoms. It may sound even more difficult to read that the major part of the recovery is to discontinue these patterns. Don’t let that stop you!
Remember, you are strong and brave! You have the strength, resilience, and the potential to break the cycle of OCD. As long as you read this article until the end and reflect on how you can apply it to your unique struggle with OCD, then you have taken one big step forward in your recovery journey.
1) Google, Siri, Alexa is a friend of OCD; not yours:
You have intrusive thoughts about your relationships, so you Google signs of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships. You have intrusive thoughts about a mole on your arm, so you ask Alexa signs of skin cancer. You have intrusive thoughts about harming others, so you ask Siri personality traits of violent people.
When you have intrusive thoughts caused by OCD, you respond to the anxiety and discomfort by seeking reassurance. You try to combat the intrusive thoughts and prove them wrong by searching for facts either on Google, Siri, or Alexa. When you think about the popularity of these search engines, you can imagine how easily one can get lost in seeking answers.
The problem is not the presence of these search engines; it is the way they are used to deal with OCD. They become a tool that enables the vicious cycle of OCD. It’s a trap because even if you find a satisfactory answer, it will be temporary. More intrusive thoughts will follow.
To manage OCD, you need to start by recognizing that searching for answers is not helping you. It is making the OCD stronger. You need to accept that there is no perfect answer somewhere out there. Searching for the right or the perfect answer is what keeps you stuck. Once you recognize how you get caught in the vicious cycle, then you can break the cycle by avoiding the urge to search or seek reassurance. As you would with any compulsion that you avoid, you need to sit with and tolerate the anxiety and the discomfort of not knowing.
2) Positive affirmations can be a form of reassurance seeking:
When you suffer from OCD, you attempt to manage your intrusive thoughts and the anxiety they cause by seeking reassurance from yourself. This type of self-talk can be easily mistaken for positive self-talk or positive affirmations that we know to be effective when we are dealing with anxiety. However, the anxiety in the cycle of OCD is unique; hence, the typical positive self-talk can be harmful instead of helpful.
For example, if you have intrusive thoughts about harming others, such as the fear that you may run over someone, responding to the thoughts and the anxiety by saying “I am a good person” and “I would never hurt anyone” would be reinforcing the OCD. If you have coping statements like “everything is going to be Okay,” then you are also attempting to seek certainty through positive statements. These types of self-talk actually functions to reassure you that your intrusive thought is false. As a result, positive self-talk becomes another form of compulsions.
When managing OCD, the goal is not to engage with the intrusive thoughts or finding ways to reduce the anxiety caused by the thoughts. The goal is to learn to observe the thoughts, not attach meaning to them, and sit with the anxiety.
This doesn’t mean that you can never speak to yourself kindly, positively and compassionately. You just have to be very mindful of how and when you do it. If you are engaging in self-talk in the midst of the OCD cycle, meaning right when you had an intrusive thought and anxiety, then you know that the self-talk is not helpful.
The type of positive self-talk that would not get in the way from your OCD recovery is for example, you are engaging in daily self-care activities, such meditation or walking. And during this activity, you repeat positive affirmations such as “I am proud of my efforts to deal with my anxiety” or “I can handle the anxiety and tolerate the unknown.” Not only these mantras are not performed in the midst of a trigger, but they are worded to praise and celebrate your efforts. These healthy mantras do not address the content of your OCD thoughts; but simply encourage and honor you.
3) Avoidance is not a safety net or a preventive tool:
When we are faced with a threat, our body’s natural system has a fight or flight response. The body will either release hormones to fight the perceived threat or create enough energy to flee the scene. When you suffer from OCD, the brain is malfunctioning such that it turns on the emergency signal and perceives a threat when there is none. When you perceive a threat, you rely on your flight response and avoid. When you have intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety, you decided to avoid the triggers, whether it is people, places, or things, in the hopes that it will reduce the anxiety and more importantly “prevent” the intrusive thought from happening. As all compulsions go, avoidance behavior temporarily works by reducing the anxiety and giving you a sense of safety and control. But sooner or later, the intrusive thoughts appear again and come along the anxiety and fear.
The avoidance behavior is effective temporarily because it gives a false illusion of control. Every time you avoid the trigger, it sends your brain the message that the trigger, whether it is a doorknob or a knife, is worth to be afraid of. Your avoidance legitimizes the fear your mind has created. As a result, avoidance feeds the anxiety and OCD, not prevents it.
Since the avoidance is powerful in reinforcing the OCD, the ERP treatment is very effective in engaging in the opposite actions. Instead of avoiding, in ERP, you engage in an exposure. You learn to walk towards your fears rather than running away from them. By learning to discontinue the avoidance, you are exposing yourself to the trigger and learning to sit with the discomfort and the unknown. You may never get the reassurance that the fear scenario will not come true. The key here is to learn that you can tolerate not knowing. For example, when you have thoughts of harming your partner, you may hide all the kitchen knives. The opposite action plan would require you to do ERP by having the knives visibly around and gradually use them near your spouse, let’s say cook while he is standing next to you. The ERP will be anxiety provoking and also guilt-triggering. You will have to accept that for you to recover, you will have to “risk the safety” of those you love. Just like the anxiety, you will learn to tolerate and overcome the guilt feeling as well and continue to challenge your OCD.
The three compulsions discussed so far can be so subtle that even those around you can fall into its trap. While you gained the awareness to challenge these compulsions, you will also need those around you to support you. Family members and friends cannot engage in compulsions by offering reassurance or accommodation. You will need to communicate with those you live or close to you all the specifics on how you engage in your compulsions. Think of it as telling on OCD and sharing all the tricks up its sleeve with others.
Recovery from OCD means that you move towards your doubts, anxiety, and uncertainty. You need to commit that you are changing the rules of the game on OCD and the new rule says: THIS TIME, I AM NOT DOING THE RITUAL!
If you would like to learn to break the cycle of OCD and regain your power and strength, please call Dr. Menije for a free phone consultation. When you schedule a session with me, we will work together to tolerate the discomfort, the unknown, and the uncertainty. CALL 818-575-6148 today!