Four Steps For When You’re Stuck

I’m at a bit of an awkward pause in my treatment with OCD right now. Some things have gotten a lot better, but other things have gotten a bit worse, and I’m having trouble finding the motivation to do exposures. So, I thought I’d take the time to talk about what to do when you’re in a situation where you feel like your recovery is pausing or even inching backwards. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you in this post, honestly, because I need to do a lot better at handling these lapses in a positive manner.

#1: If you aren’t sure what to do, do something. This is something my therapist has taught me and likes to remind me of when I get discouraged. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed at the idea of all the exposures that I could be doing, that I just stop them because I feel like I’m underachieving no matter what I do. But, the truth is, even one exposure is a great act of courage. When I don’t know which exposure I should do, the best thing is to start small and pick one rather than letting my mind bully me into worrying about doing it perfectly.

#2: Try to let your circumstances motivate you instead of demotivate you. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself, but a better use of your state of mind would be to focus on the ways this setback can motivate you towards recovery and building a better life. For example, my current ERP work is helping me work through some things I wouldn’t have gotten to work through as well if I hadn’t had a flare up in symptoms. The flare up gave me an opportunity to work towards healing.

#3: Reach out for support. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed, but sometimes the most important thing you can do to counter that is to recognize that you’re overwhelmed and take action to change your circumstances and empower yourself to move forward. Whether it’s calling your therapist, getting a hug from your friend or family member, or making some room in your schedule to spend time with those who love you, make sure that you are reaching out for support from those around you. You and only you are responsible for doing your exposures, but it can be a lot easier if you have people cheering you on.

#4: Reach out beyond yourself. Studies (and Scripture, if you’re a Christian) show that reaching out to help others is one of the best possible things you can do for yourself during a trying time. It will give purpose to your pain, help you think outside of yourself, and turn the attention from your problems to how you can help other people. One of the important things to do when OCD has you focusing inward, is focus outward. There is no better way to make value based decisions (instead of fear based decisions) than acting according to your beliefs in helping others especially when OCD wants you to forget to do those things.

One thing that also helps me is knowing that OCD waxes and wanes; that a bad day doesn’t have to become a bad week or a bad month. Sometimes my symptoms are just worse than other times, but, with exposure and hard work, I can have fewer and fewer bad days as time goes on. If I can tough it out and remain optimistic during the hard times, there will be good times again to enjoy and to remind me of why I was working so hard toward recovery.

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Triggers As A Gateway to Recovery

I am probably getting a hamster this year. This is a big deal for me. Okay, for a lot of people it’s probably a fairly big deal to get a pet, but for me it’s an extra big deal. You see, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. When I sign up to get a pet, I’m not just signing up for cleaning out a cage every week and occasionally making trips to the vet. I’m signing up for gut gripping anxiety and repeating obsessive thoughts about how maybe my hamster will die, and it will be all my fault. I’m signing up for being scared that somehow I might secretly be an evil person and that not taking care of my hamster “perfectly enough,” whatever that means, might somehow be the one of the secret signs that I am a horrible human being. I’m signing up for scary urges to do ritualistic behaviors over and over in my brain’s ill-wired effort to calm down. I’m signing up for a lot of anxiety.

“Don’t do that to yourself,” you might be thinking right about now. “You have a health condition. Don’t do anything that will trigger it and make it worse.” Ay, but there’s the rub. Triggering it is how I’m going to get better. You see, I don’t just have obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am in recovery from obsessive compulsive disorder. And the reason I am in recovery is because I go out of my way to trigger myself and to face my fears head on instead of avoiding them. (I haven’t done this on my own. I’ve done this with a therapist who specializes in treating OCD and a good psychiatrist who put me on the right medication. But that’s a different post for a different day.) Basically OCD thrives through a vicious cycle that reinforces itself. I have obsessive thoughts, become anxious about them, and then, if I’m not on my game that day, I do a compulsion to try to relieve myself of the anxiety and avoid disaster. This compulsion reinforces the false alarm that is being sent to my brain and makes the OCD worse. So in treatment, I break the cycle by learning to trigger obsessions and act according to my values instead of according to my compulsions.

“So are you saying facing your fears is good for your health?” Yes! Yes, I am absolutely saying that! It’s healthy for everyone, but it is especially necessary for people with OCD. We are encouraged to create a lifestyle of facing uncertainty and pushing past our comfort zone. We are encouraged to look our fears in the face and then act according to what is true instead of the “what ifs” that haunt us. We know we have to do these things, because OCD is an aggressive disorder, and if we do not treat it aggressively, it will get the better of us.

This really makes room for another post about how I don’t want people to feel like they have to worry about triggering me. Trigger warnings have their place, but ultimately, I am responsible for how I deal with my own triggers. It is a personal value of mine to get to a place where I can respond to a trigger with poise and without being limited in what I do or listen to.

This brings me around to another vocabulary word that is important to people with OCD, and that word is exposure. An exposure is an exercise we engage in to purposely expose ourselves to our fears in order to trigger an obsession. The goal of an exposure is to respond as if the obsession is irrelevant and to let the anxiety go down on its own with time, instead of trying to artificially manipulate it with compulsions. (This trains the brain to stop reacting to the false alarm the same way and helps literally reprogram the way our brain works.) The reason I’m getting a pet is because I love animals and want to care for one and enjoy it. But because I have OCD, getting a pet also happens to be an exposure for me.

There is the opportunity here for me to be resentful of my triggers. They’re not fun, they’re not fair, and they’re definitely not comfortable. Triggers interrupt my life and make me feel out of control. But because of a simple choice called joy, I have the opportunity to view it a different way. Triggers are more than just opportunities to be uncomfortable. They are opportunities to overcome my fears, and to thereby become stronger than I would be without them. Triggers can be a gift, albeit in a strangely wrapped box.

A trigger can be one more chance to beat OCD and do what I want to do instead of what it wants. A trigger can be one more reminder that we are more than our struggles and that life is more than its pains. A trigger can be one more shot at freedom.

So I’m not going to say that I necessarily embrace anxiety. Not yet. But I also strive not to avoid it. And sometimes, just sometimes, I try to be adventurous about it. Because recovery is not about controlling your emotions. Recovery is about embracing your life. Recovery is about embracing uncertainty. I don’t have to live according to my fears. I can live according to truth instead. Sometimes that looks like doing something big. Sometimes it looks like getting a pet. But always, it looks like hope.