Sometimes when we are going through an OCD or anxiety disorder episode, it feels like the feelings of worry and dread will never end. It seems like we will feel the anxiety forever and that feeling is often the reason that we think we HAVE to do the compulsion or safety behavior. It feels imperative that we get rid of the discomfort immediately, by whatever means available to us.
But then we have our therapist or read books telling us “DON’T DO IT. Stay in the discomfort.” That’s the crux of CBT treatment for anxiety disorders, after all: Exposure Response Prevention. Expose yourself to the anxiety or the trigger and then prevent yourself from doing the response that you want—or even think you NEED—to do. We have to take those steps over and over again in order to get better: Expose. Prevent Response. Again and again.
But doing those steps doesn’t mean that we won’t feel anxiety. Even thinking about exposures sometimes brings on the anxiety. For me, the anxiety of thinking about doing something I fear (or that brings on my obsessions) can be worse than the anxiety that comes with actually doing the thing. It can prevent me from even beginning a purposeful exposure at all.
So are the therapists lying to us or telling the truth? Will the anxiety pass?
I remember going to an OCD group in Seattle when I started getting treatment and hearing Dr. Travis Osborne speak. I still remember that he said that we can’t stay in a state of heightened anxiety indefinitely. It’s just not physically possible. The anxiety has to fade eventually.
Recently, I had an experience that reminded me of this principle. I went to the Farmers Market with my family. I shopped at one stand, collecting a few bags of produce, and waited in line until it was my turn to pay. They weighed my items and told me what I owed. I paid but then received less change than I thought I was owed, something like $5 less. I explained that I thought I paid “x” amount (though obviously the person thought I paid with different bills, maybe like a five rather than a ten dollar bill). He gave me the money I thought I was owed, and I walked away with my produce.
But then OCD came to visit. It whispered that maybe he was right. Maybe I didn’t pay with the bills I thought I had used. Maybe I just stole $5 from that man. We stayed for a little bit at the Farmers Market, and I worried. I thought about it. I wondered what I could do, and then I wondered what I should do. I didn’t want to go back there that day. I knew my husband wouldn’t go back for me. Should I give him back the $5 just in case, next week? Should I forget about it? My anxiety was high. I began to think about the consequences of being a thief or of being dishonest. I shouldn’t go to the Temple. I would be in trouble with God.
I talked to my husband about my anxiety and worries. He said something like, “Well, you’ll have to wait until Judgement Day to see if you really stole the $5 or not.” That was not particularly comforting, but even so, I decided not to do a compulsion. We went home. I never went back to give them $5. And eventually the thought left. The anxiety went away. I kept living my life, and OCD dropped it.
Sometimes, I think about it again. The thought comes up, “What if???” and I remind myself that the anxiety left once and it will leave again. What if? Exactly. What if. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I screwed up. And I’ll have to wait and see what happens, even if I have to wait for the final judgment 😉
So yes, the anxiety fades. Sometimes it feels like we can’t wait and see when or if it will fade, but we have to if we want to beat OCD in that battle. It’s hard. I know! It’s hard, and OCD might bring it back for you to worry about over and over again. Just get used to being uncomfortable!