When people learn they have OCD, what’s commonly the most surprising–and most gutting–things to find out in OCD recovery is that OCD doesn’t go away. It’s true: OCD doesn’t get better; you get better at having OCD. Once you develop the skills and tools to manage the way your OCD manifests, you use those skills without thinking about it much; the thoughts and fears that were once crippling aren’t even that noticeable. What used to be an OCD storm is now a wisp.
Initially, people early in OCD recovery have an initial gritty determination to “beat OCD.” This never works. Approaching OCD as an adversary usually leads to suffering. There’s an acceptance step that is crucial in early OCD recovery. No one wants to have OCD. (Of course not!) But when you accept that you have OCD, you create space to be curious. You can learn how to manage your OCD and how to engage with your OCD thoughts. Eventually, you might look at your OCD recovery like an achievement: “I do all of these things in my busy, full life and I do it all with OCD.” You’ll be happy and healthy, and OCD is simply part of your 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. I have eight strategies/ mantras that I teach people with OCD to help them learn to live with OCD. These steps are quirky, but they really work. These are the basics that I wish I had known when I was first diagnosed. I affectionately call this list, OCD for Beginners.
- “This is just my amygdala.”
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 stomach ache; 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.”
At the most basic level, OCD is your amygdala, the section of the brain that detects danger and error, malfunctioning. Your amygdala is telling you that there is danger or error when there is no danger or error. The warning 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; the way you behave when you have an OCD thought teaches your brain how to react in the future. 99% of the time, the best thing to do is going back to whatever it is you were doing, and letting the thought hang out in your peripheral vision.
- “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.” It’s just a thought. We all have tons of thoughts, and we can choose which ones to focus on and engage with. You don’t have to engage with the thought; just let the thought be like an out of control toddler who thankfully isn’t your problem. If the thought feels really menacing, do your best to practice good self care as you let the thought dart around.
- “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, if all else fails, lean into it. Accept that you’re anxious. People who have OCD often have days when they feel anxious. 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.” At the end of the day, double down on the self care or do something that tends to help you reset back to normal.
- “If it happens, I’ll deal with it.”
The best way to defang a fear is to accept that it could happen. Accept that if the worst case scenario did happen, you’d deal with it. Whatever it is, you’d deal with it. Sometimes, this radical approach can shock your brain into realizing how nonsensical something is. Alternatively, this “I’m done worrying about this. Whatever happens, happens” is a very healthy form of surrender.
- “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 can overwhelm and terrify you on bad days… is actually so ridiculous, that it’s actually really funny. Or it’s so petty, it’s not worth one more iota of your mental energy. *To be clear, this doesn’t mean deciding that you are going to avoid the thought; it means that you’re doing to avoid actively thinking about it. You can have the thought, but there’s no need to engage with it, disagree with it, or try to reason it away. It’s not worth your mental energy… just let the thought dissipate.
- “99 Problems.”
I know a woman with OCD who is really, really good at living with OCD. She has a family and a job, and she balances her day-to-day responsibilities with putting daily effort into managing her OCD. She was diagnosed with OCD almost 10 years ago; she had developed a chronic, frightening obsession so extreme, it required restraint not to ask her about the sordid details of her dark days. The way her OCD manifested years earlier was extremely morbid.
Today, her take on OCD recovery is extremely empowering: “We all have 99 problems, and I prefer having this one. Because I have the ability to manage it.”