How Avoiding My Fears and Triggers Actually Worsened My OCD
When I was first diagnosed with anxiety over a decade ago, my counselor told me to identify my triggers so I could avoid them. If your thoughts are particularly frightening or distressing, it seems logical that you wouldn’t want to have them and would try to avoid them.
I tried to incorporate “coping strategies” into my life that, in hindsight, I can see consisted of reacting to my anxiety and finding ways to avoid the bad feelings. It started out innocent enough. Coworkers being rude? Ignore them! Feeling anxious in a crowded mall? Leave! When combined with some exercises like deep breathing, I started to find mild relief, so I trusted that I was on the right path.
Little did I know, using avoidance long-term was giving my brain the green light to lock the doors on the anxiety train and take me for a ride that would last for the next 10 years. There was no getting off this train. I was the only passenger since most social interactions now caused me a lot of stress, and every night I had to watch a showing of “intrusive thoughts” — which was usually a repeat! The only food served was marked poisoned or full of heavy metals, and while water was scarce, alcohol was available in abundance. During this time, that locomotive traveled through many ups and downs and I often felt as if I were trapped inside a hopeless prison.
When I was finally diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), I was already performing a lot of obvious compulsions. A compulsion is a deliberate behavior (washing, checking, ordering) or a mental act (praying, counting, repeating phrases) that is carried out to reduce the anxiety caused by certain obsessions. A compulsion is something you do to cope with, check on, or control anxiety and other feelings you don’t like. At the time, I was performing so many compulsions that I found it hard to function at work, eat a meal or go to sleep at night. Here is the problem with compulsions: they may seem necessary to manage your anxiety, but the more compulsions you perform, the more you are likely reinforcing that you cannot live with uncertainty or feelings you don’t like, and so the more anxiety you feel. The more anxiety you feel, the more compulsions you might perform, until eventually there is nothing left in your life.
I would often avoid situations that might trigger painful memories from the past, like declining offers for drinks or karaoke with coworkers because I would automatically remember past social situations where I felt awkward, judged or disliked. I flipped the channel when stories of abused children came on TV because I was reminded of painful experiences from my childhood. I would steer clear of my boss because I remembered past employers who viewed me as an annoyance and had me reprimanded or fired. I avoided sexual situations with my partner so I didn’t have to worry about my performance or wonder if he thought I was attractive. I slipped by the things on the front of the shelf at the supermarket because I reasoned that they were more likely to be tampered with. I declined eating certain foods because of the possibility they could be full of chemicals or heavy metals. I refused to save leftovers so my family wouldn’t get sick. I wouldn’t touch certain things in case they were dirty, sticky or unclean. As time went on, I had built so many walls that I could hardly tolerate most things in my daily life. I was constantly on edge and lost to anxiety.
I was a little shocked when I learned that the treatment for OCD is exposure response prevention (ERP), which involves facing your fears. Face them? I had spent years mastering how to enforce boundaries at every turn! Every day on social media I saw, “Trigger warning: don’t scroll down if you have anxiety,” or read the latest article on “10 Common Anxiety Triggers and How to Avoid Them.” Even though avoidance can be useful in the short term while you tackle your fears, in the long term it has been shown that these behaviors prolong and worsen your anxiety.
By the time I found out about ERP, I found it impossible to face my anxiety on my own. I would shut down when an anxiety-provoking thought came up. I thought that my anxiety was just something that happened to me and denied the unhelpful beliefs and construction of fears that I was doing in my head. To make matters worse, my unaware family was helping me perform many of my compulsions by helping me carry out rituals and following my “rules,” like not bringing home food or products that I declared unsafe. When faced with a challenging task or goal I would think, “this is hard” or “I am never going to be able to do this” and stopped whatever I was trying to accomplish — and, wouldn’t you know it? This is also avoidance.
One of the ways I started working on this is by incorporating ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) into my strategy. ACT aims to change the relationship individuals have with their own thoughts, feelings, memories and physical sensations that are feared or avoided. Acceptance and mindfulness strategies are used to teach patients to decrease avoidance and increase focus on the present. With ACT, we are told that there is no reason you must get rid of anxiety or depression to accomplish your goals or live your values in life. After you experience whatever it is you’re experiencing, the next step is to take that experience with you as you do the things you value.
Initially, it seemed as if anxiety would dominate my entire being if I stopped trying to control it, but acceptance is just giving up trying to control the uncontrollable. You can choose to spend your time trying to control the weather in your head, but I have found it’s much more effective to focus on my relationship with the clouds. I can grab my umbrella and carry the heavy feelings and memories with me while doing the things I love and value. Besides, they say the sun always shines the brightest after the storm.
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Unsplash photo via Joanna Nix