The thing that has surprised me the most about OCD is that OCD doesn’t go away. When I was diagnosed four years ago, I had an initial gritty determination to “beat OCD.” This has evolved into an acceptance that I will always have OCD. Today, I know how to manage it, and it bothers me less. I am happy and healthy, and OCD is simply part of my lifestyle.
When you have OCD, you always have to keep working at it and building your skills. The goal is to “get good at having OCD.” This takes ongoing practice. OCD is an affliction that tries to trick you into thinking you have real-life problems to tackle or that danger is imminent. On a challenging day, an OCD veteran can feel like a beginner.
I have eight strategies/ mantras that I call upon regularly to keep irrational thoughts and worries in check. I’ll expand on each of these strategies in future blog posts, but for now, here’s a condensed look. They’re quirky, but they really work. These are the basics that I wish I had known when I was first diagnosed, around this time of year, four years ago. I affectionately call this list, OCD for Beginners.
- “This is just my brain.”
When you are suddenly hit by a wave of anxiety or a disconcerting thought, you can say to yourself, This is just my brain.
Sometimes, organs malfunction. See if you can look at OCD like a migraine; it’s something array happening in your brain. There’s no reason to panic; you can just say, “Ugh, my head hurts,” as casually as you might say, “Ugh, my stomach hurts.”
It’s just your brain—specifically, your amygdala, which detects danger and error—malfunctioning. The sirens can be summarily ignored. The worry or sense of impending doom is just your brain misfiring. The worry—and the content of the worry—is totally irrelevant. What matters is how you react to the thought. 99% of the time, that means going back to whatever it is you were doing.
- “Okay, so I’m having that thought.”
When you have intrusive thoughts, acknowledge them and accept that they’re there. Don’t push the thoughts away—that makes them swing back like a wrecking ball. Instead, say, “Okay, so I’m having that thought.” The thought can hang out in your peripheral vision, while you go about your day, doing your best to be unperturbed.
- “Don’t start.”
When you try to mentally resolve or disprove an OCD worry, the problem will dependably pop back up with an extenuating circumstance that keeps it relevant. Or, your brain may snag on new worries all day. This is especially true if you start “arguing” with OCD in the morning. It’s better to “not start” and to settle into feeling a little uncomfortable. Don’t start, and let the thought fade.
- “Okay, so I feel really anxious.”
When you feel gripped by an obsession or a worry, lean into it. Accept that you’re anxious, and remind yourself that you want to practice living your life, even when you’re anxious. Sometimes this approach makes the discomfort dissipate faster. More importantly, it creates wiring in your brain so you can dismiss irrational thoughts and train your focus on whatever it is you want to be doing.
- “I guess I’ll just ride this out.”
The comedian Marc Maron has a joke where he describes how he once ate too much Chinese food and his hand went numb. Because he had “drug wisdom” as a recovered cocaine addict, he said, “I’m just gonna ride it out.” That nonplussed attitude can be useful in hanging on during an especially anxious day. It’s powerful when you can say, “Eh, I guess I’ll just ride this one out.”
- “If it happens, I’ll deal with it.”
The best way to defang a fear is to accept that it could happen. Picture it in HD and act nonplussed. This one takes practice (and draws tears).
- “This is actually really funny.”
If you have an obsession—whether it’s a new one, or one that has bothered you for years—imagine sitting across from your most level-headed, no-nonsense friend, and explaining the obsession to them. Perhaps you’d see that the thought that could bring you to your knees… is so ridiculous, that it’s actually really funny.
- “99 Problems.”
I met a woman with OCD who put things in perspective for me. She had a chronic, frightening obsession so extreme, it required restraint not to ask her about the sordid details of her dark days, out of morbid curiosity. Her take on OCD: “We all have 99 problems, and I prefer having this one. Because at least I have the power to manage it.”