Take chances and do something different every day is what I always remind myself, as well as my clients. Take risks that you normally don’t take. That doesn’t mean I want you to go train dodging or base jumping. I want to encourage you to engage in something that you regularly avoid. If you don’t take that vacation because of a fear of flying, take a chance and get on that plane. If you get stuck on a compulsive behavior like checking the door lock seven times, check it once and walk away.
People who are prone to high levels of anxiety and particularly Obsessive-compulsive disorder tend to find a strange comfort in their rituals. They give us this false sense of security. It feels like they must be completed to perfection before we can move on to something else. The problem is, the more we engage in compulsions, the more difficult it is to stop doing them.
Do you ever find yourself looking at the stock market, at your particular stocks, only to find yourself looking at them again two minutes later to see the price changes? Do you find it hard to stop thinking about something to the point of needing to check and recheck? This is extremely common today more than ever. In these challenging economic times I am seeing a tremendous spike in anxiety disorders. There is so much uncertainty in the economic and political environments that our personal well-being feels greatly at risk. So often I hear, “I feel on edge and I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
Some amount of anxiety is a good thing. It motivates us to work hard, study hard and accomplish goals that we set. Too much anxiety gets in the way of our ability to think clearly, to be productive, and to enjoy life. Therefore, I challenge you to challenge your anxiety. Imagine if every day you did something a little different. What would happen if you didn’t check the stock market every two minutes? Would you lose everything? No, but you would feel anxious. And if you can sit with that anxiety without checking, then you are going to find that this anxiety you are feeling will eventually decrease. It takes practice and consistency but over time this process of habituating to our anxiety actually helps us to gain the ability to tolerate anxiety. Sitting with uncertainty and resisting the urge to ritualize, will over time give you greater ability to deal with unpleasant feelings and give you greater confidence. You can tolerate more than you think!
Sit with the anxiety and even keep track of how you are feeling. Keep a journal and write down when you resisted the urge to check the stove before leaving the house. How strong was the urge to go back and check? See how long you can resist washing your hands after touching a dirty doorknob, if that is a compulsion you engage in. Tolerate the unpleasant feelings bubbling up inside of you. Get back to life. The “what if’s” will keep nagging at you but the longer you resist, the weaker those “what if’s” will become. Try it and experience what I do every day. Exposure and response prevention is a great tool for life.
Sometimes our compulsions and our obsessive thoughts can get pretty bizarre. I once had pretty debilitating anxiety around germs. I hated touching public restroom door handles, I would cringe when someone sneezed near me, and I couldn’t stand holding pennies because of the metallic smell they left behind. To overcome these obsessive thoughts I had to hold on to door handles for minutes at a time and leave without washing my hands. If someone sneezed near me, I would not turn away but actually force myself to breathe normally, instead of my compulsive behavior to hold my breath until I was ready to pass out. With the penny dilemma, I did a final exposure where I placed a handful of pennies in my mouth for five minutes. Talk about anxiety. No rinsing or brushing until my anxiety level had reached a manageable level. Sometimes we have to do some pretty unusual exposures to overcome some pretty bizarre obsessions and compulsions.
Challenge yourself every day. Whether it’s OCD, specific phobias (such as spiders, airplanes, elevators) or anything that feels like avoidance behavior, ritualizing or obsessing, I challenge you to face your anxiety head on. If you’re afraid of germs, go shake someone’s hand and don’t run to the bathroom to wash. If you can’t stop thinking about your stock portfolio, see how long you can resist the compulsion to check and recheck. You’re most likely in the market for the long haul, right? So what will happen if you don’t check the market for a few hours? Get out of your head for a little while and break away from the routine.
Find new ways to challenge yourself. I’m sure there are hundreds of exposures you can come up with. It’s not an easy thing to sit with anxiety, but neither is getting stuck on a compulsion or obsessing about a thought until your heart is racing. Fight back and show yourself how much you can actually tolerate. What is the worst that will happen? You will get anxious. Anxiety is part of being alive. The fight or flight response (or adrenaline rush) keeps us on our toes. But when we misinterpret the fight or flight, as is the case with OCD, we overreact to our own mental noise and take it as a real threat. Then we engage in a cycle of thought-anxiety-reaction. If you can stop overreacting to an anxiety-provoking thought (such as doing a compulsion), you actually are taking the power away from the distressing thought. With practice and perseverance, these thoughts (obsessions) lose their ability to trick you.
What is the worst thing that will happen if you don’t recheck the stove before you leave the house? Will you be the cause of your home or apartment going up in flames? I can tell you from experience that people who obsess about leaving the stove on or leaving the house unlocked are the people who are least likely to make those mistakes. We are probably the most careful people on the planet. But we doubt ourselves to the point of total uncertainty and feel compelled to go back and check one more time. Don’t do it. Take a chance and just walk away. I want to hear you say it out loud and with conviction. Repeat after me: “I will lock the door once and leave and I will feel anxious.” That constant second guessing is a trick. It will keep entering your mind and I encourage you to call it out and say, “I know that is a false thought and I will sit with the anxiety but in no way will I get tricked again.”
OK, so you can’t stop obsessing that the bump in the road must have been a person that you just ran over. Are you going to turn around in your car and go searching for that body in the road? Are you going to zoom home and turn on the news to make sure there isn’t a manhunt for a motorist who ran over a pedestrian? Are you going to get out of your car and inspect for dents and evidence that you actually did hit someone? Or will you keep driving while accepting that the probability is that you ran over a pot hole or hit a bump in the road? Will you sit with the anxiety that comes with refusing to buy into the obsessive thought, even though it feels terrible? I encourage you to just try the latter. You might find that with just a little more time and resistance, your mind moves on to something else.
If someone you care about is stuck in a constant loop of obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors, I encourage you to assist in finding help. Resist the urge to say, “Stop worrying so much” or to “just get over it.” The sufferers likely know that what they are doing is irrational and yet it is so difficult for them to just stop. Let them know you are there to support them in identifying obsessive thinking. Remind them that these are irrational thoughts, but feeding into them only makes them stronger. Urge them to hold off from doing the compulsion for as long as possible.
Sometimes the sufferer is not ready to accept the help as the anxiety just feels too overwhelming. It often takes time to treat an anxiety disorder. It almost reminds me of stepping off a cliff with a dark lake at the bottom. We know it’s going to be very cold. There is that thought, “What if there are jagged rocks that we can’t see?” In my battles I have stepped back from the edge when I wasn’t ready to believe I could overcome this. Eventually I found that I couldn’t take being stuck up on that cliff any longer. It really is a leap of faith. “What if all of those obsessions are real and your instincts are right?” “What if I don’t do a compulsion and my worst fears come true?” “Then, I was right all along.” But what if all those distressing thoughts and constant rituals are really like mental tics? What if these unwanted obsessions and time-consuming compulsions are caused by a brain disorder that is actually treatable? Would you then be a little more willing to take that leap?
To those suffering from an anxiety disorder as well as the families that suffer with them, I encourage you not to give up hope. The OCFoundation.org is a great place to start on the journey to overcoming these debilitating but treatable disorders.
As Doc Rosen reminded me, “Get Back to Life.”
— Jon Lukas MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy. He is in private practice and runs The OCD Treatment Center of Santa Barbara, working with adolescents and adults with anxiety disorders. Click here for more information or call 805.453.2347.