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What to Do When You’re Having a Freak Out


One major challenge of living with OCD is that you feel like there is a serious threat or a huge, major problem… when you intellectually know there isn’t one. Call it an OCD storm, a freak out, a tizzy, whatever. You know there is not actually a time-sensitive crisis, but you want to feel better now, so you’re thinking yourself in circles.

This disjuncture is maddening. You know there isn’t an issue, but it really, really feels like there is one.  And damnit, it’s Saturday! This is not a good day to have a freak out!

Here’s how to calm down and talk to your brain:

1. Establish that this is just OCD.

You know you have OCD.  You know that OCD is basically neurological malfunctioning.  The danger detection center of your brain says, “There’s a PROBLEM!” when there is no problem. Except right now, the problem feels so big and so dark, it’s like the last twenty minutes of a Harry Potter movie.

Take a step back and establish that this is OCD, and this might as well be a scary movie. Or a really dark children’s movie.

2. Pick a mantra.

You know that you don’t want to push away your thoughts.  That tends to make intrusive thoughts bigger. But you also don’t want to engage your thoughts or debate with them or invite them in for coffee. Articulate to yourself: “This is just OCD. This problem doesn’t justify a response. No action is needed on my part. I am going to go about my day.”  When intrusive thoughts pop up, nod at them, and use a mantra: “Okay, but no action is required on my part” or “Okay, but I’m just going about my day today.”  Accept the thoughts—don’t push them away—and then go about your day.

3. Do something really different.

Now it’s time to refocus.  If you have already started to freak out, you want to do something to reset your head.  So do something a little unusual.  Watch YouTube videos of reporters getting into laughing fits on air. Watch clips of your favorite standup comedian on YouTube. Think of one of your favorite songs that has unclear lyrics, look up the lyrics, and listen to the song and read along. Make a list of 10 things you’re grateful for.  Make a list of your top 10 favorite moments from your life.  If you’re out and about, give strangers compliments on their clothes.  See how many dogs you can pet in fifteen minutes.  (This alone–petting dogs for fifteen minutes– could mean freak out = averted)

Do something positive to change the channel.

4. Don’t Google the problem.

No matter how much you want to Google, for reassurance or for comfort, please don’t Google. Don’t give the “problem” another ounce of your energy.  If you can, close your laptop and do something else. If you don’t have plans for the day, make some. (And stick to them!)

5. Reach for support.

Usually, it’s best not to look to friends and family for reassurance around an OCD problem. Having someone else tell you it’s going to be okay means that you lose a teaching opportunity for your brain.  Each OCD thought or each OCD storm is an opportunity to teach your brain how to respond to anxiety, obsessive thoughts, or panic; knowing how to respond effectively and cope will in your brain’s muscle memory.

But, sometimes it’s okay to phone a friend.  It’s ideal to have a friend who knows you have OCD, who is happy to be part of your support system, who is cool with just listening and not trying to offer advice or solve the problem for you.  (If you don’t have a person like this in your life, ask someone!)

If you need to phone a friend, here’s a helpful sample script.

“Hi, do you have a second?… Okay, I’m having a freak out and I just need to sound something out with you…. It feels like I have a massive, urgent problem. But I know that there is no crisis.  It’s just my brain.  So as I have these thoughts, all day I’m going to say to myself, ‘Okay, okay, I hear you. It feels like there’s a catastrophe going on right now, but there’s nothing I need to do or think about today…’”

By stating aloud your gameplan to another person, it’s easier to hold yourself accountable.  It’s so easy to give in to a freak out–to spend the day thinking yourself in circles or to look to an unhealthy coping mechanism (like overeating or binge drinking) to take you out of the game for the day. But if you phone a friend and state your plan for the day–to be present, to say “Okay, so I’m having that thought,” or to just ride it out–you’re accountable for how you’re going to take care of yourself that day.  To take a freak out and turn it into, of all things, a mastery experience, is something to be really proud of.

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