Let’s pause for a minute and ignore (or at least set aside) the “C” part of the OCD equation, focusing instead on the “O”: the obsession.
The obsession is not always the same. It does not trigger the same amount of anxiety each time. It is different for different people. It changes. But it is powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it can drive us to those compulsions (that we are not focusing on right now) over and over again.
You can’t avoid your thoughts
If you’ve read, researched, or gone to therapy for OCD, you probably know that you can’t simply erase and get over your obsessions. You are stuck with them, more or less. This eliminates the option of, “well, to conquer my OCD, I better just figure out how to stop having the obsessive thoughts.” You can’t. Try it. As the books and research say, you’ll probably end up thinking more about it.
My doctor gave me the example once of “the yellow car.” If you heard on the news that there were criminals in a yellow car, you would be hyper aware of each and every yellow car you saw on the road, convincing yourself that there were so many yellow cars everywhere, when really, there were probably the same amount of yellow cars on the road as normal. You were just tuned into them now.
That’s basically what trying to purposefully avoid thinking about your obsession(s) can be like. Suddenly they are everywhere!
But then what?
So, how do we “deal with these internal freak outs” (AKA the obsessions telling us to be afraid or worried about X, Y, or Z and do B, C, or D to avoid some terrible result)? Honestly, it is hard, and you probably won’t like the answer.
But first, why is it hard? Because these thoughts seem and are SO REAL. My mind jumps to the worst possible conclusion. It seems so much easier to just do the compulsion and get rid of the worry. But friends, believe me when I say that doing the compulsion by and large does not actually get rid of the worry.
For me, it creates more obsessions—maybe I didn’t complete the compulsion completely or thoroughly. Maybe I need do it once, twice, twelve more times.
So the obsessions are really the key. What do we do with them, especially if we can’t eliminate them? Well, if they are severe, then going on medication may prove useful to take away some of the intense anxiety. But if you want to avoid the medication route, then you simply need to accept them.
Embrace the thoughts
Yes. It is not hard and it is not fun to accept your obsessions, but you need to welcome them*. You need to say/think, “Okay, hello obsessions. Yes, I accept that (X) might happen because of (Y). It’s true. But I’ll have to deal with that as or if it comes.”
You need to get uncomfortable. This is the crux of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the proven treatment for OCD. Be uncomfortable. Do not try to ease your discomfort. Stay there. And eventually it will lessen. You don’t stay uncomfortable forever. You really don’t.
One night during the week when I was having a supreme freakout with my daughter and her various excrement issues, I tried to text my husband (who was out of town) but he was in a movie and didn’t answer. I thought I would not be able to move on, especially not being able to talk to anyone about it or get any kind of reassurance. It had been a really intense night for me.
But in about an hour, I was fine. I was shocked, but at the same time I understood and felt proud of my progress. Back in my really hard days before (and in the very early stages of) treatment, I wouldn’t be able to sleep or would wake up in the night with anxiety during severe OCD times (which were basically all the time). But here I was, maybe an hour after a difficult OCD episode, and I was legitimately feeling fine.
So, to deal with an obsession, wait it out. This is counter to what the OCD demands. OCD wants immediate action. It wants a reaction, and it wants it now. So, delay. If you think you absolutely cannot prevent a compulsion, wait. Wait as long as you can. Be as uncomfortable as you possibly can be. And try not to do anything if possible. Sometimes we fail in that regard and eventually give in. It happens. It happens to me, probably daily. But at least try to delay your reaction, making that gap longer and longer each time until maybe you forget or realize the compulsion isn’t necessary.
Take a risk. OCD hates risks. It hates uncertainty. To really fight OCD, do exactly the opposite of what it wants you to do. And if you aren’t sure what it wants, if you can decide whether it is you or the OCD “talking,” then do whatever makes you most uncomfortable. Yes, it’s going to be hard. But that’s kind of the point.