…feel the way I’m feeling? If you want to fall into an excellent “Google black hole,” type the following words into Google search: Is it normal to…
Google will fill in what other Google users have searched for, when they’ve been unsure of whether the way they’re feeling or the way they’re reacting to something is normal.
In psychology terms, this inquiry is called “reality testing.” It’s taking yourself out of a situation and looking at it objectively.
If you want to get a better sense of whether your feelings or your reaction to something is normal, ask yourself:
In a group of 100 people my age and my gender, how many would have the reaction I’m having?
In a group of 100 people my age and my gender, how many would feel the way I’m feeling?
Use a the visualization that works best for you: a busy city street, a sports arena, an airplane, or Grand Central Terminal. Anywhere where you can picture 100 people.
What’s really neat about this exercise is that it provides pretty instant clarity.
If you say, “In a room of 100 people my age and my gender, how many would feel the way I’m feeling?” usually, your brain will serve up a clear answer, such as:
“…Only the ones who have OCD.”
“…Only the ones who tend to be high-anxiety.”
“…Most of them!”
Try it, the next time you’re asking yourself, Is it normal to… Not only does this exercise help right away with your current situation, but it also builds this valuable muscle. With enough repetition, you may not need to ask, Is it normal to…? Instead, you’ll instinctively know if what you’re feeling is appropriate for the situation you’re in.
I recently got hooked on comedian Marc Maron. Marc Maron has a huge body of work: you can listen to his CDs on Spotify, his standup clips on YouTube, his guest appearances on Conan and the Late Show and his popular WTF with Marc Maron podcast. Maron has major anxiety… and he’s not afraid to talk about it.
Marc Maron carries around his emotional baggage like a celebrity holds on to her oversized handbag. He is a recovered drug addict and alcoholic: he was addicted to cocaine when he was in his 20s, trying to break into comedy in Boston and New York. Today, he’s sober, and an Olympic-level overthinker. He describes the struggle of being too inside your own head as “thinky pain.”
Thus, it’s almost appropriate that the punchline from one of his more popular jokes could be used as a mantra to weather through OCD and anxiety storms.
Marc Maron tells a story that he recently ate way too much Chinese food, and his hand went numb. But because of his years of experience doing drugs, he didn’t panic. He just thought to himself,
“I guess I’m just gonna ride this out…”
When you’re gripped by an irrational fear or you’re in an extended state of panic, you may experience that when you analyze the problem and look for reasons why the catastrophe in mind won’t happen, the more you can feel your brain knotting tighter and tighter. OCD doesn’t respond to logic. You can’t rationalize your way out when the whole storm was caused by an irrational thought. It’s better to just surrender to having a storm.
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.
I just published a post over at my personal blog where I announced the work that I am doing to raise awareness about OCD, plus helping others with OCD, by writing, speaking, and coaching.
I shared an example of how a person could choose a new way to react to OCD thoughts. Choosing a new reaction–and a new way to frame your relationship with OCD–is key to befriending your OCD and thriving in life when you have OCD.
…Say that you have OCD and you have a routine for when you leave the house that makes you feel comfortable (checking to make sure the space heater is off, the stove is off, the lights are off, the faucets are not running, etc). But when on the sidewalk outside your house, you freeze: you’re not feeling confident about that space heater. It could still be on.
Instead of going back inside after you’ve already left the house to double-check that you unplugged the space heater or blew out the candle, you shrug off the fear. Instead, you say, “Okay, so I may have left the space heater on. I don’t know. My brain feels really tangled over the issue. Okay! I’m going to go about my day. I feel super uncomfortable right now, but whatever. I don’t really care.”
….Sometimes something really amazing happens: when you accept that the worst possible thing could happen, the fear often fades. The fear seems less serious, because you took it seriously but didn’t freak out about it or take action.If you have the opportunity to see that what you worried about didn’t occur, it’s awesome: it’s rewarding to see that you took a risk, and it paid off. The whole fearful episode was just the error-and-danger detection center of your brain having a little electric storm. No cause for concern.
If you do this over and over again, it can rewire your brain…
I advocate a “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to OCD. Personally, I am always going to have OCD. It fully sucks. But because I can’t make my OCD “go away,” I live with it, working to be as happy, as joyful, and as flexible as possible in the process. When I’m anxious, I say, “Okay, I have OCD, and I feel super anxious right now.” And then I get back to whatever it is that I want to be doing.
Finally, I shared my elevator pitch for my new venture: I want to be helping others with OCD as much as possible.
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.