Many of us can remember the sense of shock we felt when we learned Bruce Willis was dead at the end of the Sixth Sense. (Andy Samberg remembers. Google it. 😉 ) The end of the Sixth Sense is also a great metaphor for OCD recovery.
Throughout the movie, Haley Joel Osment was hunted by visions of “dead people” that only he could see. He was tormented.
In the end of the movie, nothing really changed. That kid still saw dead people. The only difference was that he reacted to them or interacted with them differently. In some cases, he quietly helped the dead people. In other cases, he just acknowledged that they were there, and that was enough for everyone to have some peace.
For a person who is struggling with OCD, it’s pretty similar. You see envision things that feel very real and menacing. Others can’t see what you see, although they feel for you if you tell them. (Sometimes, they’re quietly horrified if you tell them what you’re thinking or feeling!) Still, you cannot do anything to placate or push away the visions you have. Trying to make them go away irritates them and makes them stronger.
When your goal is OCD recovery, your job is to “be okay” with whatever visions you are having. Being able to say, “Okay, so I’m having that thought” or “Okay, so I’m having this sensation” to whatever OCD thoughts you are having is courageous. It’s courageous to the extent of facing down ghosts.
Of course, this approach to OCD recovery is really challenging, but it yields lasting dividends. This laissez approach rewires your brain in a positive way. When you don’t react to your frightening OCD thoughts, your brain receives no validation for sending you those thoughts–your brain learns that this information is ignored. So with enough repetition, your brain will send fewer erroneous warnings about danger (which is just OCD at work).
Can you be at relative ease with the thoughts and visions that you have?
It’s very normal for people with back pain to have some days where they feel practically limber and other days when their chronic pain is much more severe. For migraine sufferers, sometimes they have a day–or a long stretch of days–with no migraines. And other days, they have migraines that knock them off their feet. People with depression can have great days where the blue sky looks clear and gorgeous and all feels well in the world. And they can also experience days where they have no idea how to muster the energy, enthusiasm, or life force to pick up the takeout they just ordered. And it’s the same deal with OCD.
Whether you’re new to managing your obsessive-compulsive disorder or you’re an obsessive-compulsive disorder veteran, it’s normal to experience your symptoms to varying degrees on different days. Some days, your usual triggers may occur and you react to them as you usually do.
Other days, your brain feels like it’s full of knives. In the span of three hours, you may experience a trigger, get “stuck” on a thought, experience a steady sequence of irrational worries, and then have an intrusive thought that really disturbs you and pops into your head every three seconds.
There’s a natural response: Why is this happening to me?!
Because it happens, unfortunately. It’s the same way that people without chronic mood issues can unexplainably have a good day or a crappy day (there’s the adage: “Some days you’re the pigeon, other days you’re the statue” for that one). OCD can vary in intensity from day to day, without any warning.
It’s not a good idea to analyze each obsession that bothers you; instead, try to be as “chill” as possible about it. Think to yourself, “Okay, so I’m having an OCD-heavy day. This sucks. Okay, whatever…” If you feel like you are getting pummeled by your thoughts, ready your stance to take the punch so you go down gracefully. “Fighting back” with OCD thoughts only makes them bigger and more complicated. But if you can roll your eyes at your OCD thoughts as you go about your Saturday errands, and not feel shaken, you’ve paradoxically won this round. Because when you don’t take action or react to OCD thoughts, you’re actively rewiring the frontal lobe of your brain when your amygdala says there’s a problem. Over time, this response–non-reaction, over and over again–will heal your OCD.
Naturally, if you sense that you’re having a really intense OCD day because you’re not fully acknowledging that someone is inflamed in your life, then it’s okay to pause and check in with yourself. If you’ve been really stressed, or you’re avoiding a problem, perhaps that is making your OCD boil over. But usually, that’s not how OCD words. OCD isn’t logical. OCD isn’t logical, given the way a fully-sane person can stare at an unplugged space heater, pulse racing, and not feel confident that the space heater is off.
It’s better not to look for reasons as to why you’re having a flare-up. It’s better to not validate the part of your brain that arbitrarily pulls the fire alarm.
Go about your day, practice good self care, and take solace that tomorrow will probably be easier. And if it isn’t–you’ll know how to handle it.
In OCD, “ritualizing” is performing some kind of activity intended to neutralize an obsessive thought. It could be washing your hands, going to the bathroom again, or repeating a recent conversation in your head to reassure yourself that you didn’t offend the person you were talking to. Or it could be parsing out a problem in your head, trying to prove to yourself that something bad you thought of won’t happen, because of x, y, and z.
Once you start ritualizing, it’s really, really hard to stop. But you can stop, and you can stop before you get to the place where you feel like your head is going to explode, or you feel like you need to engage in destructive behaviors to make the thought go away.
When your head feels sucked into an OCD swirl because you’re on a ritualization loop, stop and take a breath. Take four more breaths. Then, make a pact with yourself to stop ritualizing–for thirty minutes, for an hour, or for the rest of the afternoon. Then, try something from the list below to train your focus on something else.
The idea here isn’t about pushing away the thought.
In fact, the last thing you want to do is push away your thoughts. Pushing thoughts away tends to make them swing back like wrecking balls. The idea of refocusing on something else is that you’re giving your brain some distance from the thought and giving it something new–and ideally, something enjoyable or challenging (the good kind of challenging)–to think about. But it’s a gentle activity: you don’t want to yell at yourself or yell at your intrusive thought. When you’re trying to refocus, if the thought pops up, shrug at it. Say, “Okay, so I’m having that thought…” and go back to whatever it was that you were doing.
Eight Things to Do When You Want to Stop Ritualizing:
1. Go through Facebook, your Pictures file, and the catacombs of all your computer files, and pick out your favorite photos to have printed at the drugstore or by a new service like Parabo or Pinhole Press.
2. Create the best playlist ever. Imagine you are throwing an epic party: it could be a low-key holiday gathering, a bustling birthday party, or even your imaginary wedding. Create a playlist of all your favorite songs, creating crescendos and valleys with slow songs and fast, euphoric songs.
3. Trick your brain into being on a mission. Focus fully on your work and commit to doing an exceptional job for the next thirty minutes. If you’re driving or doing chores, make a goal to be totally mindful.
4. Spend thirty minutes working on something thirty days in the future: apply to speak at a conference for people in your industry. Nominate someone in your life for an award. Nominate yourself for an award! Enter a sweepstakes.
6. Provided you don’t struggle with hoarding or cleaning, declutter a drawer or two. Outer order equals inner peace.
7. Take on an engrossing activity: re-read your favorite book. Read your favorite trashy magazine. Read your favorite top shelf magazine. And every time the urge to ritualize pops into your head, say to yourself, “Yeah, I’m having that thought. I’m having an urge to ritualize. It’s just my OCD. Okay.” And then go back to reading about Kim Kardashian’s problems.
8. Tell yourself, “I’m teaching my brain something new.” Even if the urge to ritualize is interrupting your attempts to do something else like a child tugging at the hem of your shirt, you can say this really powerful mantra back. When you make the decision not to ritualize, you are rewiring your brain. You are rewiring a brain that doesn’t feel compelled to ritualize. You are teaching your brain that you don’t have to do this repetitive thing to feel okay. You are creating new grooves in your brain that will eventually lead to a more relaxed version of you.