I once considered OCD as “a brain disorder shaped to project into the consciousness a realistic imitation of the controls and operation of a complex system used for ‘fight or flight’ purposes.”
Hmm, that’s a mouthful and sounds complicated, but that’s how it felt for me for over 30 years living with obsessive compulsive disorder.
To explain, imagine you’re in an aircraft simulator in which the sudden loss of controls and operation of the machine meant the aircraft was about to crash. Now imagine whether you would jump to action with a “fight or flight” response. It would make sense if you did, because the simulated experience has you naturally feeling that a sense of real danger is looming.
When my OCD was severe, the usual ways of trying to reduce anxiety and squeeze negative emotions, caused by this obsessive-compulsive “fight or flight” system, was to seek reassurance, escape/avoid, check, pray, align objects, re-read, re-think or ruminate; among other compulsions.
In a rational moment I then sat and thought about the feeling of anxiety that often overwhelmed me with fear as I struggled with obsessions; also, the feeling of guilt or other destructive emotions, and then I asked myself, “Is this feeling simulated?”
The point here is that being faced with a realistic imitation of an event (obsession) that regularly assigned fear into my consciousness and then standing back and observing subsequent anxiety as anxiety and not real danger made it easier for to see that the fear-related content was counterfeit.
“And so I asked myself, ‘is this feeling simulated?.”
Yes, at the time, I felt the physiological symptoms of anxiety but the danger element wasn’t real; it was a mistaken interpretation that I applied to the obsession (intrusive thought, image or impulse) and in which case the parts of the brain responsible for emotions/anxiety was misguided, hence my term “simulated anxiety”.
For example, just because I had the thought that deadly harm would come to my child if I didn’t align two objects perfectly did not make the thought more tangible and more likely to occur. In other words, when putting in some rational perspective it was clear that my intrusive thoughts were not authentic or sincere in spite of their appearance into my consciousness; just like the air-craft simulator, the experience appears real but it isn’t real.
However, the “danger” element does not rest that easily.
As a further example, the underlying sense of danger had me going back and forth to make straight the two objects again and again to “prevent” a fatal accident involving my child. My compulsive behaviour did help remove perceived “threat”; yet this unfortunately was short-lived and therefore remained a temporary solution. At first my compulsions for reducing anxiety and eradicating threat was accidental, not intentional. On reflection, I can see that I trusted my feelings and alas got taken along with the realistic imitation of events.
My rational perspective was lost to this conflicting disorder.
One of the problems I encountered time and again was finding myself in the grip of an obsession and being confused with what was and wasn’t a true fight or flight anxiety situation. During the confusion, OCD got “louder” and projected to me that danger was imminent; that I was at risk of loss, harm, death, destruction unless I gave into the symmetry ritual. Basically, my aversion to asymmetry had locked itself into magical thinking and so I obeyed again and again my brain’s mislead command, “Go back and straighten those objects, or else”. My rational perspective was lost to a conflicting disorder which left me faced with a false wall – a mental obstruction that when pushed away would reveal factually that no action (compulsion) was ever required.
Even when my rational thoughts pushed past that obstruction to advise me no action was needed, I was still left with doubts. As a consequence, I felt pressed to question the significance of my thoughts, and then the significance of the next set of thoughts; and also analysing the importance of my feelings, such as, “Am I, in reality, kidding myself, and if so what kind of mother does it make me if I don’t align the objects?” So I decided it was safer to meet the terms of my disorder to “save” my child, and so it went on.
“On reflection, I can see that I trusted my feelings and alas got taken along with the realistic imitation of events.”
This persistent spiral of examining my thoughts and evaluating my feelings left me feeling exhausted. Even then, I tried to resist going into my child’s room to openly checking that he was still breathing; or phoning the school reception to check he was okay; and I attempted to walk away from aligning objects to prove this was all in my head; yet there I was going over the “what-ifs”, thinking about thinking also known as obsessing about obsessing for hours on end. I wanted answers about an answer relating to my responsibility OCD; I had a “need to know” beyond knowing; I had to be assured about reassurance; I felt urged to straighten something beyond straight. Quite frankly, I was in a meta-cognitive spiral of conflict that meant I was losing the capacity to agree or disagree with my brain’s faulty control system, and so I repeatedly surrendered “just in case the bad thing happened”.
My meta-cognitive cycle looked liked this:
- Obsession (the thought that harm will come to my child feels real, but how can I be sure?)
- Anxiety (my feelings tell me this is real, so it must be real)
- Compulsion (open rituals such as double-checking to reduce anxiety; or cognitive attention to “know beyond knowing” to question doubts, and analyse feelings such as guilt etc, albeit unsuccessfully)
- Short-term anxiety relief following open compulsions to “prevent” harm; and brief respite from examining thoughts/feelings… then straight back to the obsession (1).
“I was losing the capacity to agree or disagree with my brain’s faulty control system, and so I repeatedly surrendered ‘just in case the bad thing happened’”.
What helped me recover can help you too.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure response prevention (ERP) together with Mindfulness techniques helped me find remission. These are the tried and tested methods for treating OCD, as are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI medications). The latter can help reduce symptoms on a passive level by approximately 60% (for me it did) and CBT is useful on an active level where cognitive therapy helps change faulty interpretation of thoughts and unhelpful behaviours; this then leads to healthier emotions and outcomes. ERP has you facing obsessional fears in graded steps whereby you agree to be prevented from doing the usual responses (compulsions), and until habituation is achieved. Applying a rational statement in favour of an irrational one can be helpful when doing ERP. This might be, “I will discover that my anxiety is only temporary” instead of “I cannot cope with my anxiety when I do exposures.”
Mindfulness has you sit with your thoughts without judgement or appraisal and where you agree to allow the thoughts to come and go without yielding to any compulsions; therefore, a rational statement could be, “I will discover that my anxiety is part of the process of Mindfulness when sitting with my thoughts, which will help me reach habituation” instead of, “It’s too hard to sit with my thoughts, it doesn’t work.”
In a nutshell, hard work and perseverance throughout therapy is worth it for longer term benefits.
“Just because I had the thought that deadly harm would come to my child if I didn’t align two objects perfectly did not make the thought more tangible and more likely to occur.”
For a copy of my free Mindful strategy plus self-reflection exercise relating to this article please leave a message on my website’s contact page and I’ll send you these soon.
By Carol Edwards © 2018