Want to Defy an OCD Urge? Plan Ahead.
Classic cognitive behavioral therapy may ask you to resist an OCD compulsion in the moment and assess and record your level of discomfort, in the hope that over time your level of anxiety from not doing ritual will diminish. Many people find behavioral therapy to be beneficial in reducing symptoms. Back when I tried it in the 1990s, it allowed me to reduce my obsessive compulsive behavior by about 15%. That was a huge success, but the symptoms returned after I was thrown out of therapy for allegedly not trying hard enough (oh yeah, that’s another story).
I have different strategy for avoiding OCD rituals. It’s one of the little tricks that I figured out as a sufferer, instead of a technique that was taught to me by people who don’t really know what OCD feels like. Even though my OCD is almost completely gone, occasionally I have a strong urge to engage in repetitive reading. That is, when I get to the end of a page in a book, I have to re-read the last few words until it feels just right. If I turn the page to early, I have to go back and try again … and again.
Here’s my strategy: Instead of waiting until I’m in it and it seems irresistible, I decide in advance that I’m not going to do the ritual. Usually near the top of the page, I make a decision: I am just going to read the last line once and then turn the page.
By anticipating the ritual, I can get control of my brain before it slips down that OCD hole. And, of course, because OCD is a collection of habits, you are either weakening or strengthening them each time you avoid or give in to a ritual. In other words, if you can avoid starting a ritual, it makes it just a little easier over time to keep avoiding it. Just like any addiction, you have well-worn pathways in your brain and you need to make new ones that support a healthier lifestyle. If you wait until you’ve already started down one of those paths it’s much harder to take another route.
I would compare this strategy to avoiding a fight. For those of you who are prone to get swept up in the emotions of the moment, it can be a good strategy to recognize your feelings right at the start, step back and take a moment to calm down and think before your amygdala takes over and you find yourself in another fight.
If you are a practitioner of intentional manifestation, you may have noticed a similar phenomenon. Every time I drive somewhere, I try to manifest a perfect parking space. It’s a small thing, but it’s good practice, if you want to work on manifesting your reality. If I forget, and right when I’m pulling up to my destination I try to wish for a parking space, I generally don’t get one: that reality is already set. But, if I start to focus on a feeling of gratitude a few blocks in advance, my perfect parking space will appear.
You may not be into the practice of manifesting, and you may not have a problem avoiding unwanted fights. But if you are reading this, I’m guessing that you do have some behaviors that you feel powerless to resist once you’re in them. If you want to turn the page on them, I find it useful to make that decision up front, before they have any say in the matter. Over time, just like the intent of cognitive behavioral therapy, you will break those old brain circuits and create new ones that are more loving of you. After all, who’s brain is it? Yours! Take it back.