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So what do you do for fun?

This is such a loaded question. “Fun” is an innocent thing. But if someone asks us, ‘So what do you do for fun?’ and we can’t think of something quickly enough or if our idea of fun is Netflix, playing on our phones in bed, and going to bars, we feel like pieces of shit.

This is an area where having OCD is an advantage over the rest of the population.

When you have OCD, your OCD thoughts/worries can sneak up out of nowhere. Your plans for the evening may have been to watch a hockey game/ see a movie/ have a nice Italian dinner with a friend, but in your peripheral vision, it’s as though your OCD worry is perched on a stationary bike, working up a sweat, and yelling, “Hey! I’m going strong over here! How’s the piccata? Are you remembering to worry about ‘x’?”

When you have OCD, sometimes things that you intended on being fully relaxing aren’t relaxing at all. As said before, OCD has ruined many a Saturday. When OCD elects to join you during what was supposed to be a fun activity, and you do your best to enjoy whatever it was that you were doing and you keep living your life, you get an A+. But that doesn’t mean that it was relaxing. To the contrary, it’s a mental workout to be present when your brain is thinking itself in circles around a problem that doesn’t exist.

So, people with OCD need to be a little more proactive about having fun, because every now and then OCD crashes the party.

For people with OCD, fun is for a mental release, to experience joy, to develop mastery around a new skill or hobby, and, of course, to press re-set when we’re anxious.

Consider this: Ways to Have More Formal Fun

  1. Make a Google Map of restaurants where you want to eat and work your way down your list
  2. Ditto for movies
  3. Make a list of “culturally important” movies you want to watch (that can be Casablanca or it can be Fight Club—both count)
  4. Cut pictures out of magazines and decoupage them onto wine bottles or old furniture around your house
  5. Go hiking.
  6. Read books. You use Amazon Prime for everything else, so splurge on some really good books. Here are three “fun” recommendations (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Heart and Brain, and Bossypants) and three “thinky” recommendations (Superbrain, The Happiness Project, and Come As You Are).
  7. Join an ultimate Frisbee league
  8. Take a class. It can be cake decorating, Spanish for beginners, or a weekly drop-in yoga class. Either way, you’ll create new fibers in your brain.
  9. Research recipes and cook an elaborate dinner for you and a friend
  10. Go to a hockey game. Seriously, they’re riveting.

How can you make this list your own?

Consider the Fun You Already Have

If you approach the things you do with a more formal mindset, you can see that you have fun way more often than you think you do. You just aren’t noticing it or categorizing your fun as fun.  Eating at restaurants can be a hobby, especially if you are trying different cuisines, appreciating the interior architecture, or trying to find the best fish tacos in the city.  Taking showers can be fun—entire careers are built around the pleasures of grooming.  Upgrade to using a set of scented bath products and your showers will feel like spas. If you like watching movies, great! Structure the activity so you’re working through a list of “Movies to Watch.”

The distinction is mindfulness: when you’re doing an activity, take pause and notice when it’s fun.  Then, you can recognize, “Oh, this is fun! This is how I have fun!”  You have more information for the future, when someone asks you what you do for fun or if you need to do something to cheer yourself up.

Schedule time for fun.

If you do have clear-cut hobbies—like playing an instrument, browsing at thrift stores, or reading business magazines—but the issue is that you can’t find time to do these things, schedule them.  Use the “Saturday” and “Sunday” pages in your planner, and block out an hour or an afternoon to enjoy your hobby.  Observe the time commitment the way you would an appointment with a personal trainer or a mentor.  As in, you can’t miss it.  If you do this enough consecutive weekends, you’ll find yourself drifting towards your more active, engaging hobbies, instead of crashing onto the couch with your laptop and grappling with decision gridlock while staring at your Netflix home screen. When you think about it that way, the way we use Netflix doesn’t sound like fun at all!  Let’s be more proactive about better alternatives.

You Can’t Go Home Again, Part II

Often,  young people who have just been diagnosed with OCD—or are dealing with a flare-up—”go home again” and move in with family to regroup. My strong opinion is that this isn’t a good idea. Going home again can often undo the progress that you’ve made in your life, such as having a good job, having a nice apartment, having a social circle. When you go home again, you risk dismantling your life. More crucially, going home again usually allows OCD to fester.

Instead of going home again, plant your feet in your life and take advantage of every support system around you.  Here’s how you stay:

Brush up on OCD basics.

When you’re having a prolonged tussle with OCD, make sure you have what you need in your toolbox. Remember mantras like, “Okay, so I’m having that thought” and “I’m just gonna ride it out.”

Tell your boss.

Please don’t leave your job. Instead, have a conversation with your boss about what’s going on and that you may need time to go to doctor’s appointments. You can say you’re struggling with a health problem (that’s true—it’s just your brain wiring misfiring) and it’s personal.  Legally, your boss can’t ask, “What is it?” If she persists and you don’t want to tell her, you can say, “I’m struggling with a common mental health issue and I’m getting help. I would appreciate having some flexibility in my schedule in the coming months.” Propose strategies you’d like to put into place so you can keep working while you work on you.

Make this point first: “I care about my career, I care about the company’s success, and I care about growing with the company. But right now, I can’t give 130%.  I need to slow down for two months while I take care of my health.” Then, you can propose solutions such as, “I’d like to have a hard stop at 5pm two days a week” or “I would like to establish that I’m not accessible by email after hours.”

Your boss probably really likes you. Or at the very least, your boss wants to keep you. Replacing employees, or figuring out staffing needs while an employee takes medical leave, is an extremely expensive aspect of running a business. It’s likely that your boss will want to work with you on this.

If you’re scared of this conversation, don’t be. If you were considering “going home again,” that means you were probably considering leaving your job anyway!  So, say what you need to say.  Also, tell your boss that you want to have an open dialogue: encourage her to tell you if she senses your performance is flagging at any point, so you’re aware of it, and so you can make adjustments.  (Then you don’t have to worry about it.  If there’s a problem with your performance, someone will tell you).

Reframe the way you think about work.

It’s also important to stay at your job because work provides a place to refocus and practice your OCD coping skills. When you feel your OCD flaring up, you can say to yourself, “I have OCD. I have some thoughts or sensations that I find really uncomfortable or frightening. I’ll just nod at these thoughts and acknowledge them.  Then I’m going to focus on work, and focus on doing my best, and nod at the thoughts whenever they pop up again.”

Tell your roommates.

Frequently, OCD thoughts and fears revolve around the home: fear of leaving the water running, fear of someone messing with the way the contents of your room (or the refrigerator) are perfectly arranged, fear of not flushing the toilet, etc. You could even be struggling with irrational, looping thoughts about your roommates “catching you” performing a ritual or acting strangely.

Here’s how to get in front of the story: tell your roommates. You can make it super casual: “Just so you know, I’m really struggling with anxiety. So if you see me acting odd, or if I seem distressed, that’s why.  I wanted to tell you, so you know that I’m getting help, and also so you don’t think I’m losing it.”

Then, it’s out in the open, and you can make your home your sanctuary

Create a sanctuary.

Find a place where you can be fully, completely comfortable.  An easy option is your bedroom (especially if you have your own room). Buy a few things to make this space comfortable, like a soft blanket, attractive art for the walls, or a new pillow. Consider other places where you can easily go to feel safe. Make a list of places that can be your “happy place.” This could be your favorite grassy spot in the park, your favorite chair in your local coffee shop, your favorite elliptical at the gym, or your favorite nook in the library or the bookstore.  When you feel like curling up into a frightened, anxious ball, know there’s a place where you can safely uncurl and spread out, cuing your brain into feeling totally at ease.

Whatever you do, just keep living your life. When your OCD flares up, instead of dismantling your life, focus on building your life. Instead of taking shelter, show yourself that you have the strength to handle the storm.

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An OCD Crash Course

When you’re struggling with OCD, your experience probably falls somewhere on the spectrum from uncomfortable to terrifying.  You may have bizarre or frightening thoughts. You may believe that because you had a thought, it reflects reality.  Or you may have assumed that you need to act on everything that your brain tells you to do.

You may have thought to yourself, I wish someone would save me from my mind!

An OCD Crash Course

OCD makes commonplace activities an uphill climb; doing mundane things can often be paradoxically challenging for people with OCD. At its worst, OCD keeps people in a suspended in a state of electrified worry, feeling hunted by problems or threatening situations that may not even be real (that usually, overwhelmingly, are not real). OCD holds people back from living their lives. OCD has been known to ruin many a Saturday.

What is OCD?

In short, OCD is disturbing thoughts or uncomfortable physical sensations (obsessions).  People with OCD often do things to try to make themselves more comfortable after they have an obsessive thought, like wash their hands or check things (compulsions).

The obsession is the thought or sensation.  The compulsion is the activity performed in an effort to make the obsession go away or disprove the obsession.  Usually, a compulsion provides momentary relief, and then adds fuel to the fire.

Obsession + compulsion= obsessive compulsive disorder.

The Wiring Behind OCD

OCD is the brain’s error and danger detection center (the amygdala) sending out messages that there is a problem, when there is no problem.  The amygdala is the size and shape of two almonds and is nestled deep in the core of the brain.

Someone with OCD processes these error-and-danger messages and does something in response to the perception that there is danger.

This creates a circuit.  After someone with OCD takes action in response to the perceived threat coming from the amygdala and performs a compulsive ritual, the amygdala receives validation that there was indeed a threat, because the person with OCD did something in response to the error message.  The amygdala receives confirmation that its alarm bells will be listened to and acted on, and it learns to send more of them.

Brain scans of people with OCD are really interesting.  The amygdala “glows” from substantially higher than average activity.  The frontal lobe of the brain, which controls judgment and focus, is also substantially overactive. This is because after the amygdala sends out an error message, the frontal lobe decides there is a problem, and then devotes attention to it. People with OCD tend to focus disproportionately on perceived problems (“Did I leave a candle burning?” or “Did my boss scowl at me earlier? Oh my God, did she?”); hence, the frontal lobe also appears to glow in brain scans.

This heightened brain activity explains why some people with OCD perceive that there is conflict around them when there isn’t any; or that their world is dark, unfriendly, or even menacing.  The part of the brain in charge of detecting when there is an emergency or problem is sounding, for no real reason, without warning.

All those fears, phobias, aversions, and obsessions: all it is, is faulty wiring.

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That’s the good news: it’s just faulty wiring.

There is comfort in understanding the brain science behind OCD. If you grasp that the thoughts, fears, and physical sensations you have are just sections of your brain misbehaving, the thoughts, fears, and physical sensations you have may seem less intimidating.

There’s more comforting news: you can rewire your brain. That’s how people with OCD get better. The same worry circuit that is activated when you act on an obsessive thought can be powered down by learning how to react to your thoughts and continuing to life your life, even when you feel anxious.

Sound confusing? Don’t worry: read my illustrated guide on how to keep living your life when you’re experiencing an OCD storm.  Or, contact me to learn more about my Glowing OCD Brain training.

Get Yourself Back to Normal

When you’re upset, stressed, or anxious, do you know how to bring yourself back to normal?  Whether you consider yourself an anxious person, whether you have OCD, or whether you have an above-average ability to think yourself in circles until you’re sweating from stress, we all occasionally feel outside ourselves with stress. Sometimes a mood takes over. Sometimes we’re just plain agitated. When this happens, do you know how to bring yourself back to normal? Do you know what you specifically can do that helps you shake it off?

Having some self-knowledge and knowing what specific things you can do that act as a re-set button is empowering.  In fact, it may even be helpful to write down a list of what calms you down:

Tried-and-True Reset Button Remedies:

-Take a walk

-Get into nature

-Go running and listen to songs I have a happy, carefree association with

-Lose myself in my favorite comedian’s Instagram account

-Go somewhere where I know there are dogs, and ask to pet peoples’ dogs

-Watch an episode of a suspenseful, sucks-you-in TV show (like Breaking Bad or House of Cards) or a silly, escapist TV show (like Bob’s Burgers or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

-Put my phone on airplane mode and read a book

Tidy my apartment

-Swiffer my apartment

-Clean out a junk drawer

-Fold all my clothes and reorganize my dresser drawers

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Seriously, Make Your Own List

When your brain is spinning out of control, it’s hard to go from sixty to zero (like if you were to try meditating at a moment you felt like screaming). What’s helpful about a list like this is that these activities are active and refocus your attention. What’s helpful about having a list like this is that when you’re having a freak out, if you try one of these activities and you feel better, great! If you’re still feeling agitated, you can try another activity, and then try another until you’re back to normal.

It’s also helpful to know what activities don’t help when you’re feeling agitated or make you feel worse instead of better. Personally, I find that going to the gym only has a 50% chance of being helpful. Half the time, if I show up cranky or anxious, I leave doing the shuffle. It’s exactly what I needed. The other half of the time, being in a loud, echo-y space with tons of people in my personal bubble and forcing myself to try to change my mood makes me seethe. So, the gym is not on my list; I go to the gym when I feel okay and don’t try to use the gym to change my mood.

When you can successfully self-soothe in healthy ways and come back to normal on your own, it makes having a slightly volatile temperament feel a lot more manageable.

So, what’s on your list?

In Praise of a Seasonal Bucket List

For those in the northeast, winter means staying inside, watching the snow through the windows, cozying up with a blanket, and reading a book while you listen to the whirr of your spaceheater. That is, it’s like that if you make a conscious effort to feel that way and create that scene. Realistically, winter looks like this cozy scene for sixty seconds while you take a photo for Instagram (#sundaymorning), and then you go back to being cold and coping with mild seasonal affective disorder. For most people in climates where winter is really a challenge, there’s a way to make the most of every season of your life: having a seasonal bucket list.

Let’s rewind: this past summer was the best summer I’ve ever had, and potentially one of the happiest periods of my life. It’s not because I was in a great new relationship (I actually swore off dating for the summer) or because I took a thrilling international vacation (I spent most of my free time hiking in western Massachusetts).  It’s because I sat down and wrote out a “sand pail list,” or rather, a summer bucket list.  I made a list of the specific things I wanted to do that summer, like go to art museums, go to the ballet, go see live music, read certain books, take a weekend vacation by myself, and start and finish a pleasant professional project. I kept my summer bucket list on my desk where I could see it every day. I bought tickets to shows, I wrote down on my calendar when I was going to which museum, and I carved out time to read. When that time came, I read or went to museums or I went to shows.  It was astounding to me how pleasurable it was to take all the things that I enjoy doing or wanted to try but “never got around to” and made plans to actually do them.

Excluding those who are avid skiiers and those who really, really love Christmas, winter isn’t most peoples’ favorite season. For those who struggle with mental health issues, the dark afternoons and cold temperatures aren’t helpful: the setting foments staying inside and isolating.

So, send a surge of power to your happiness circuits and make a winter bucket list (we can call it a “salt bucket list”).

If you’re not sure where to start, consider all the times you say to yourself, “I love ‘x,’ I just don’t seem to do it that often anymore’ and put them right on this list. If there is an activity that you enjoy, but it tends to require a bit of planning or a bit of outside-the-Saturday-night-box thinking, like going to live comedy shows or live jazz, it belongs on this list. If there’s a hobby you want to try, put it on the list!

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If there are big tasks you want to accomplish and you sense that you’d feel amazing once you got them done, put them on the list, too. But, try to avoid letting your seasonal bucket list become a to-do list or full of resolutions. Instead, it’s about the sheer pleasure of identifying the things you really want to spend your free time doing, the meaningful fun, and finally doing them. To make finally doing them actually happen, schedule them. Once you have your list, sit down with your calendar and etch out what you’ll actually do when. Then knock down the walls of your comfort zone and go have fun!

In case you want some inspiration/ a place to start, here’s my 2017 Winter Bucket List:

  1. Go to the movies once a month
  2. Practice one new kind of self-care once a month, like getting a facial, going to the mineral baths in Saratoga, or sitting in the dry sauna at the gym)
  3. Practice a low-key form of self-care once a week, like doing an detoxifying face mask, taking a bubble bath, watching a movie (something I never do–I usually can’t sit still at my own home long enough to watch a movie, so this counts)
  4. Cuddle up with a blanket and a book for an hour once a week
  5. Outline Core Desired Feelings/ Goals with Soul for 2017
  6. Winter hike at White Rocks in Bennington, VT
  7. Go skiing as soon as soon as it’s sufficiently snowy
  8. Make epic New Year’s plans
  9. Go to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
  10. Plan 2017 trip to California

 

What stories are you telling yourself?

We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves. Unfortunately, much of the time, these stories don’t make our lives bigger or better. Sometimes our stories limit us in small ways (“I don’t eat Indian food” or “I’m not the kind of person who goes hiking for fun”). Other stories act as a lens through which we see the world (“I never should have left Los Angeles and given up on acting” or “I don’t know what I’m passionate about and it’s driving me insane!”).  These stories influence our lives to an extent beyond imagination.

Here’s a sampling from some people I’ve talked to:

I’m a city person; I couldn’t live anywhere but a large city. I’m going to be  a director. I’m an artist. I’m an entrepreneur. I like asking for things. Netflix is my boyfriend. I’m a workaholic. I don’t like going to classes at the gym; it’s one more thing to be late for. I’m a morning person. I’m a night owl. I’m not the kind of person who goes to India.

I dated my soulmate two years ago, but I screwed everything up. I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way about anyone again. I don’t know my passion is and it’s driving me crazy. I have to get married by the time I’m thirty. I am so behind the people I went to high school with. If I’m not interested in a task, I’m incapable of doing it.

I’m annoying. I’m a bitch. I’m a failure. I’m a screw-up. I am not living the kind of life I planned on. If I had the opportunity to go back in time, I would do so many things differently. I suck at life. I fully suck. I’m such a fuck-up.

 

We frequently tell stories about ourselves that serve as the “elevator pitch” that we repeat to ourselves, about ourselves.  We all have a self-concept, and it becomes the lens through which we see the world. That story can be positive (“I’m a graphic designer in Boston. I’m known for wearing bright colors”) or glass-half empty (“I live in Boston. I left a corporate job to become a full-time freelance web designer. You wouldn’t believe how little money I make”). These stories—even if we don’t often consciously think about them—can greatly affect the way we see the world around us.  It could be a difference as drastic as living in full color or seeing the world in sepia.

For people with anxiety and OCD, it’s especially important to be aware of your “story,” because we have the tendency to get “stuck” on a thought that we believe to be true. If that thought is your story, you’re going to be repeating it to yourself a lot.   It’s in your best interest to make sure it’s a true story, and a good one.

 

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This is what’s game changing.

It is entirely possible to change your story. In writing a new story, we can design the way we want to show up in the world. This includes, but is not limited to: how we want to feel, how we want to make others feel, how we express our talents, and how we experience our own company. We interact with ourselves in new ways: we experience more self-compassion, we learn to soothe ourselves, and we act with greater self-efficacy.

With the new year in mind, let’s unearth our stories, deconstruct our stories, and replace them with better stories. This is a process that can help everyone, but it’s especially important for people with anxiety and OCD, who can be especially self-critical.

For now, here’s a starting point to do some brainstorming. Ask yourself these questions and see if anything interesting comes up:

What is a story that’s problematic in my life right now?

When and where did I get this story?

Was it true then? Is true now?

Why am I holding on to this story?

Am I willing to trade this story for something better?

Want Self-Esteem? Do Something Esteemable

When we think about self-esteem, often we think in terms of how to change the way we feel about ourselves. But my favorite fast-acting strategy to boost self-esteem takes an outside-in approach. If you want to experience higher self-esteem, do something that makes you feel strong, competent, compassionate, self-compassionate, brave, and upstanding. If you want self-esteem, do something esteemable.

Whatever the problem is—you want to be more confident at work, you’re worried that you’re coming off needy in a relationship, you’re feeling anxious, you’ve been feeling anxious all the time, you’re hungover—start by doing something that will make you feel like you’re in an upward spiral. The desired feelings may come sooner than you think.

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10 “Esteemable” Things You Can Do Right Now:

  1. Take on a longstanding nagging task, finish the task, and scratch it off your mental to-do list
  2. Look up that local organization that you’ve been wanting to volunteer with, and actually take five minutes to call them and get the process started
  3. Call an elderly relative to talk
  4. Text a younger cousin who could use a good grown up, just letting them know that you’re thinking of them
  5. Make a conscious effort to be friendly and warm hearted with literally every person you interact with today
  6. Go to the drive-thru—Starbucks, McDonald’s, whatever—and pay for the food for the car behind you in line
  7. Offer to give a coworker a hand if he or she seems swamped, even if you could totally get away with kicking back and playing on your phone right now
  8. Reach out to a professional you’ve recently met who is new to your industry or younger than you and offer yourself as a resource to them for career advice
  9. Catch up on email. Get as close as you can to hitting inbox zero.
  10. Sit down and read a book in print. If it’s not something you do regularly, reading will make you feel like an owl wearing glasses and a graduation cap.

What “esteemable” things could you do today?

OCD Awareness Week

 

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Today, October 9th, is day 1 of OCD Awareness Week.  OCD Awareness Week is an effort that is near and dear to my heart.  Many people live with OCD, and don’t know that they have OCD. The statistics on this subject are shocking. Most experts estimate that 1 in 40 Americans have OCD. Only 23% of people with OCD seek mental health treatment.  The lag time between when a person starts to experience OCD symptoms and when they receive professional help is a staggering 11 years.  Only 14 percent of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifests solely in the form of obtrusive thoughts (“pure obsession”) seek help.  When you digest these statistics, something becomes clear: if so many people have OCD but don’t know it or don’t seek treatment, that 1 in 40 figure is probably way higher.

The 14% figure is especially meaningful to me.  When I finally sought professional help, when I was 24, my main complaint was that I had a huge, intrusive worry that ate at me every day.  At the time, I believed that the voice in my head–we all have one–was accurate as it narrated the outside world for me and scanned for problems. I believed that everything I worried about was true, including this one big scary worry.  I wouldn’t have described myself as having OCD; I just thought I had a HUGE problem to deal with.

When I was diagnosed with OCD, it was a huge surprise.  I didn’t wash my hands incessantly and I didn’t need my possessions to be lined up symmetrically in my room.  When I learned that “obsessive thoughts” was a thing, my OCD diagnosis made much more sense.  I also learned that tons of my worries, quirks, and habits–that I thought were totally reasonable–were also manifestations of OCD.

Thus, in honor of OCD Awareness Week, I’m going to describe some manifestations of OCD that people may not think is OCD.  The more people are aware of the huge range of ways that OCD can manifest, our collective consciousness will empower people struggling with OCD to identify it and seek help sooner.


This is what OCD looks like: obsessive thinking.

When we think of OCD, we think of someone who repetitively washes their hands and checks things. But often, OCD is invisible to everyone except the person experiencing it. For some people, OCD can manifest itself entirely in threatening thoughts. A person with this kind of OCD (often called “pure O”) spends a ton of time thinking, trying to disprove the thought and wash it away in their head. These obsessive thoughts can be especially frustrating, because they’re usually irrational and thus, they don’t respond to logic. Often, they tend to become inflamed and seem even bigger and more menacing, the more one tries to solve them.

Here are some relatively common obsessive thoughts that someone with OCD may struggle with:

What if I get fired?

What if I blurt out swear words?

What if I throw up right now?

What if I say something that offends the person I’m speaking to?

What if the people around me are all robots?

(After all, do you know with complete certainty that the people in your life aren’t robots? No, you don’t. But that uncertainty wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t grapple with obsessive thoughts/ OCD)

The way to handle obsessive thoughts is to practice total acceptance of the thoughts.  Leaning into a barbed-wire worry paradoxically makes it fade away.  If you have a tendency to think yourself in circles or worry about things that you don’t sense other people worry about, you may want to poke around this site and learn more about OCD.  You can also learn more at the website for the International OCD Foundation.

What to Do with Intrusive Thoughts that Won’t Go Away

Most of us have had the experience of having intrusive thoughts.  They’re the thoughts that “snag” in your brain and won’t go away.  When you finally shift your focus to something else, the thoughts periodically pop back. If you push the thoughts away, they may pop back faster. You feel hunted. The best way to deal with intrusive thoughts is to not push them away, but rather to have an unphased reaction to them. Acting like you don’t care about these electrified thoughts powers them down.  Most of us have had the experience of being stuck on a thought, sleeping on it, and finding that in the morning, we have the distance to say, “Wow, that thing that I was so upset about was really irrational.”

But what to do if you wake up in the morning and the thought is still there?

Invite the thought to stay awhile.

Having an intrusive thought that won’t go away and survives a good night’s sleep is unnerving.  The way to deal with it is an even more involved version of how you would deal with any other intrusive thought. Accept that you’re having the intrusive thought. Let it hang out in your peripheral vision. It may feel uncomfortable, but just let it be.

I like to visualize a “long term intrusive thought” this way: imagine that your token friend who drives you really crazy but you’re still friends, has shown up unannounced on your doorstep. Your friend is ringing the doorbell incessantly; she knows you’re home!  If you try to leave her out there, odds are good she is going to keep ringing the doorbell and she may start texting you or start calling you!  But if you go downstairs and say, “Oh, hey, come on in. I’m pretty busy right now, but if you want, you can sit on the couch and read a magazine.”  That pesky friend is going to get bored quickly and maybe think twice about showing up unannounced again.

If it sounds hard, that’s because it is hard. Not giving a shit when you have an unsettling, intrusive thought is like a muscle; if you have OCD, it’s a muscle you want to focus on strengthening.

I’m taking on this topic because it feels like my brain is on fire right now.

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An intrusive thought has taken up residence in my head. It’s a thought I’ve had before. It’s disturbing, it’s really visual in nature, and it’s intertwined uncomfortably with my real life experience.  And I can’t sleep it off. It’s been five days of discomfort.

The good news is, I know this is OCD. I know this is OCD because it feels like there is an enormous problem.  But I logically know there is no problem.  I have shelter, I have food, I have friends, and everything is okay.  It’s just my brain. The issue is, when I react to this train of intrusive thoughts with anguish and fear, it’s like fanning a fire.  If I acted like I cared less, they would fade away.

So, I’m doing my best to embrace the thoughts.  I’m taking a positive affirmative approach: “Yeah, maybe I did make a huge mistake. And maybe I made the same mistake a second time. I screwed up majorly. Oh, well. I’m going to keep living my life.” I say this with affection, for the thought, for my glowing OCD brain, and for me.

I’m also making an effort to do things to get the feel-good chemicals flowing in my brain:

  1. Whenever I’m having a rough patch, I have a policy that I go into a get-exercise-everyday routine.  It’s the most surefire method to feel better.
  2. I’m doing little things that make me happy, like decluttering my apartment and listening to new music. A friend of mine recently introduced me to Glass Animals and Cillie Barnes, and I’ve been listening to any music that YouTube recommends based on my listening to these artists. I really enjoy listening to new music and getting familiar with new bands and new music gives my brain something novel to process.
  3. I’m upping my self-care game. Occasionally, this thought in my head feels like white-hot pain. So, I need to do everything I can to make myself comfortable. I’m getting lots of rest. I’m keeping my apartment crazy clean. I have my favorite super soft Ralph Lauren blanket at the ready when I want to cuddle up. I am drinking tons of cucumber water (putting fresh cucumber slices in a pitcher of water is the easiest way ever to get yourself to drink more water. It’s goddamn delicious).  I bought a bunch of dried lavender and put them in a vase in my living room; I bought a lavender aromatherapy candle and a lavender air freshener from Whole Foods. The smell in my house is inherently soothing. I bought fresh flowers for my desk. I got a manicure. Proactively doing these things makes me feel like the designer of my own life… even when it feels like my brain is a toddler having a meltdown.

 

OCD for Beginners: 8 Tips for Thriving with OCD

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.

 

  1. “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.

 

  1. “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.

 

  1. “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.

 

  1. “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.

 

  1. “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.”

 

  1. “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).

 

  1. “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.

 

  1. “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.”

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