The following is an example to help carers of people who have OCD understand how it feels to have the disorder.
Have you ever been walking along and suddenly thought that your wallet wasn’t in your pocket? For a split second did you get a horrible feeling of blind panic? Were you fearful that you might have lost it? Did the alarm make you feel shaky and nauseous? Did you check and find the purse in your pocket or handbag? Once you knew your wallet was there, did your feelings of anxiety quickly subside? Perhaps you checked one more time to make sure you had your purse and to feel reassured.
Did you ever wonder why you got a sudden thought or gut feeling that your wallet wasn’t there? Why would this thought pop in your head for no particular reason and interrupt what you were doing at the time? In the split second that you thought you’d lost your wallet, did other thoughts come into your mind, like, the fear of losing your cash, credit cards, photos and driving licence? After some time had passed, did you forget all about it? If you did, do you think that’s because the evidence you needed to prove your purse was there assured you it was? Are you aware that your non-OCD brain processes it this way and then filters it out, leaving you free to get along with your day?
Someone with OCD is unable to process and sieve this sort of information in the same way. For them, the initial feeling of blind panic and fear doesn’t subside so quickly. Even when anxiety does come down, it arises again, because a brain with OCD doesn’t trust what it feels, hears, sees, tastes or smells. A person who has OCD knows on a rational level the purse is there, that the door is locked, that they heard the light switch turn on (or off), that the water they drank didn’t taste like bleach, or that something they smell isn’t a burning smell.
But knowing isn’t evidence. It doesn’t resolve the problem or settle the person’s doubts. It’s because the signals they get are misleading. OCD in the brain loops confusing information. This loop is the obsession, then anxiety, then compulsion (e.g., I need to check again just in case, and to make things safe). The person gets anxiety relief after checking because they feel reassured that all is well. But it’s a temporary relief because uncertainty makes them think they need to check again. It’s on repeat. It’s exhausting and pointless, but they cannot help it.
Tip: Remember how it feels when you think you’ve lost something important. Think back to the feelings of anxiety, dread or fear when you thought you’d lost your purse or something else, then anxiety relief when you found it. You may have checked once or twice but probably not more than that. But think about what made you do that first or second check. How would it have felt if someone had said, “you didn’t need to check?” What would you have thought if they’d said, “what made you get so panicky, don’t you think it was a bit over the top?” You might have felt hurt and wonder why they didn’t understand how important it is that your wallet is kept safe.
Remind yourself that someone who has OCD feels the same way, gets told the same things, but on a much larger scale. If ever you get the urge to say to someone who has OCD, “get over it”, think instead of how to help them through it. For example, you can help them resist their compulsions to check. Let them know their anxiety will come down and encourage them to have the confidence to live with doubts and uncertainty. Gently let them know that their fear of something terrible happening is almost zero. By doing this, and showing that you understand to some extent what they must be going through, you can help them weaken OCD’s influence and help them towards recovery.
By Carol Edwards
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