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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.


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.

OCD for Beginners: 8 Tips for Early OCD Recovery

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.


  1. “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.


  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.” 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.


  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, 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.


  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.”  At the end of the day, double down on the self care or do something that tends to help you reset back to normal.


  1. “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.


  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 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.


  1. “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.”

Give yourself a pep talk: when was the last time you were brave?

Man on planeDo you need a pep talk? Do you need to work up the nerve to make a big change, head outside your comfort zone, or say something really important?  Are you in the midst of doing something new and exciting, but in your head, you’re “faking it until you make it”?

If you’re the kind of person who can pick up the phone and call on one of your supporters, call someone on your team and say, “I need a pep talk!”

If that’s not your style, you can give yourself a compelling pep talk, using information you already have.

When was the last time you were brave?

Conjure the experience in detail: where were you, who were you with, what did you say, what did you do? You can either write this out, or just get comfortable in your chair and think about it.

How do you feel recalling it? Do you feel your posture get better and your chest expanding?

Now, think of four other recent experiences where you were brave. Picture each example like it’s the first scene of any movie: lots of detail to grab on to and a reason to immediately root for our hero.

…Now, what was it that you thought you couldn’t do before? It feels way more within your reach now, right?

In the same way that practicing self-care is powerful because we develop the ability to soothe ourselves in times of duress and discomfort, being able to give yourself a pep talk—one that is rooted in recent examples of your capabilities—is power. We all feel shaky from time to time, but if you have the skills to make yourself feel strong and powerful when you need it, that’s a really valuable life tool to have.

Self-Care Will Change Your Life

Do you have a self-care routine? If not, get excited: self-care gives you energy, improves your productivity, and adds depth to the relationship you have with yourself. If you know how to take care of yourself and preventatively self-soothe, or self-soothe in healthy ways, that’s a really powerful thing. Self-care can be little things you do every day to maintain your physical and mental health, or it can be an activity that charges your batteries and makes you feel taken care of.
Woman in nature


Self-care will look different for everyone.

Self-care can be an indulgence or it can be doing activities that aren’t necessarily pleasurable but yield great dividends. For some people, self-care is brushing their teeth, eating healthy, and making time for 8 hours of sleep. For some people, it’s going to SoulCycle. For others, it’s avoiding the gym at all costs and starfishing on their bed. It can be a walk around your favorite park, to be in nature and recharge. It can be getting extra dressed up for work or it can be having a favorite outfit you wear for lounging around at home. It can be buying—and regularly enjoying—an extra-soft blanket. Self-care is often manifested in the divine feeling of sliding into crisp, fresh sheets on “change the sheets day.”

When you have awareness of the activities you do (or could do) to make yourself feel really taken care of, you can create new and improved self-care rituals that are a match for your preferences and values.  Explore and experiment, to figure out how to charge your batteries most effectively in the time allotted.


Self-Care is Powerful

If we think of ourselves as having imaginary iPhone batteries next to our heads, self-care keeps the percentage as close to 100% as possible. Self-care is also powerful in that it reinforces that we can take care of ourselves, that we can self-soothe when we need to, that we can self-soothe in healthy ways, and that we can implement systems in our lives to be happier, healthier, and high-functioning. Self-care can be a slowed down activity (like watching Netflix or reading magazines), but it also requires action: a commitment to make the time and follow through.


Integrate Self-Care Into Your Daily Life

Set your alarm for five minutes earlier so you don’t have to rush in the morning. Make your bed every morning. Buy perfume or cologne that you like, to wear every day. Identify something fun you can listen to, like a podcast or standup comedians’ albums, to make your commute more pleasant. Take your lunch break. Create a ritual for relaxing during your commute home from work. Tidy up your apartment. Nap whenever possible. Take a shower or baths, and take deep breaths in the steam. Curl up with a nice blanket. Meditate. Whatever you do, when you do it, make a mental note: “This is self care.”


Test Out “Big Ticket” Self-Care Strategies

Try these on a weekly basis or when you need a life boost: Carve out an afternoon at work to devote to getting to inbox zero. Take an Uber home if it’s late and you’re super tired, instead of taking public transportation home. Deep clean your apartment (including your bathtub). Plan a lazy Sunday (and plan out your lazy activities so you don’t go insane without structure). Get a haircut. Change your sheets. Buy new sheets. Get a massage. Turn your phone off for thirty minutes. Go away for the weekend.

Do you currently have routines that make you feel healthy and vital? Can you make yourself accountable to a self-care routine, so you know that your batteries will stay consistently charged? What’s one thing you can do to take great care of yourself today?

A Metaphor for OCD Recovery

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.

Sixth Sense

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?

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.

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



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?

You Can’t Go Home Again

Frequently when I meet people with OCD and they tell me their story, I often hear the phrase, “so I went home again.” Taking shelter with one’s parents or other family members when one is first diagnosed with OCD, or during a prolonged OCD storm, is part of a lot of peoples’ stories, including mine.

But you shouldn’t do it. In fact, I’d argue, you should avoid it at all costs. I’ve met a lot of college students who have taken a semester off, or left mid-semester, to move back in with their parents because of OCD. I know 20somethings who have left their jobs to move back home while they regroup and find treatment for their OCD. I also know a handful of people who have moved back home more than once (“so I went home again”).

Alas, there are a few problems with going home:


1. Odds are good, “going home” won’t actually be restorative.

Picture a severely anxious person carving out time specifically to relax. While it would be lovely if that made way for a restorative or therapeutic experience, odds are good, that blank space would simply make more room for anxiety. OCD tends to fester if we’re not keeping busy. And many of us have probably had the experience of OCD flaring up during blocks of unstructured time.


2. “Going home” gives OCD power.

Part of why moving back in with your family isn’t a good idea—and part of why so many people go home “again”—is because pressing pause on our lives in an effort to heal from OCD paradoxically does the opposite: it gives OCD power. It’s retreating.

When you have OCD, the best thing you can do for yourself is to say, “Okay, so I’m anxious. I’m going to keep living my life.” When you “go home,” you’re doing the exact opposite.

When you find something to be scary or menacing, if you avoid it and run from it, it reinforces that whatever it is (whether that’s a snarling dog or a snarling thought in your head) is in fact dangerous, especially if you didn’t get close enough to explore it.


3. “Going home” may kill your confidence.

There are lots of benefits to living with family. You get to see your family, you get a slowed-down pace of life, and odds are good there will be more—or better—food than you tend to keep in your house. But odds are good, you will at some point resent that you live with your family. You may even feel like a loser. For that reason, keep your apartment.


4. “Going home” may put serious strain on your relationships with your family.

OCD is really hard for families. Family members’ reactions to a loved one’s obsessions can range from surprise, to irritation, to a full-on “Mama Bear”-esque desire to do anything to help. Alas, it doesn’t help things—on real-life level or a brain wiring level—when family members assure someone with OCD that there isn’t a problem or when family members participate in or help with rituals.

Most importantly, living with family will inevitably put a strain on one’s relationships. That’s too high of a price to pay.


5. “Going home” means you have so much more stuff to figure out.

Best case scenario, when you go home again, you find help and get better. But now you’re faced with the task of rebuilding your life. If you can return to your job and your apartment and your friends, that’s terrific. But it’s unlikely that everything will be so effortless.

During a prolonged OCD storm (an OCD hurricane, perhaps), the urge to flee and take shelter makes sense. It’s normal, even, to crave someone else taking care of you.


Instead, this is the time to prove to yourself that you can take care of yourself. You have a good life and you are willing to fight for it.

You are going to need to adopt a new way of living. You have OCD, and you need to master living your life, even when you have OCD. There’s no time like the present.
POP (1)

You want to ground yourself in your life. The best way to heal from OCD is to keep calm and carry on.

When you’ve been diagnosed with OCD and you’re scared, or you’re having a prolonged OCD storm, this is the time to put down roots.

The Life-Changing Magic of a Daily Mastery Experience

This is a cool experiment. Want to feel more powerful and capable within the next thirty days, by picking up an easy habit? Have a mastery experience every day.

Do one thing every day that makes you feel accomplished or skilled, because you completed it. A mastery experience could be finishing a big work project, initiating a new project, getting to the gym, or installing the air conditioner. A mastery experience can also be doing something that you didn’t think you could do. (Such as installing the air conditioner! Or installing the air conditioner and choosing not to worry that it could fall out the window and kill someone). A mastery experience can even be any time when you focus on getting better at what you’re best at: devoting uninterrupted time to do work and build your skills. A mastery experience trains your brain to see challenges as opportunities to grow and get shit done.

I’ll get off my high horse: a mastery experience could be finally cleaning out your car. Mastery experiences can feel like seemingly insignificant things, but they make you feel like a boss once you accomplish them. You feel a sense of pride. You radiate a nice glow for the rest of the day.

mastery experience photo


So, create a system to have mastery experiences and enjoy that glow. Make a commitment to having some kind of mastery experience every day. Set an alarm on your phone and take sixty seconds every evening to consider what you did that day, that helped you grow as a person, that gave you an opportunity to learn something, or that gave you information that you could do something you didn’t think you could do. Make it a daily exercise in bravery… and soon, taking action to create a bigger and better life will start to feel like “just something you do every day.”

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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