Gaining mastery over your OCD, or gaining mastery over any challenge, means reconciling what’s good for you with what makes you feel good.
I recently gave a talk called “Obsessive Fear of Violence in OCD” at a psychiatric conference. My talk was part of a panel on gun violence in the United States and what psychiatrists should know about it. The other speakers discussed gun violence statistics, the role of extremist violent organizations, and the link (i.e. lack thereof) between gun violence and mental health diagnoses. Then there was me, talking about people who are terrified of violence, frightened by unwanted intrusive thoughts of violence and fearful of what they could mean. I was a bit worried that talking about OCD on a panel about gun violence could send a confused message, but part way through listening to the other speakers I realized we were all talking about the same thing, that human beings are impacted by the role of violence in society and that treatment providers need to understand how different people are impacted differently.
In the weeks leading up to my presentation, I started taking pictures of newspaper headlines, thinking a collage of triggering “Man Kills Many People” stories would highlight what Harm OCD sufferers are triggered by every day. It took less than two weeks for me to have too many headlines to fit on one slide. The day I decided to stop collecting new headlines, I opened the newspaper to “59 Killed in Las Vegas Attack.” As of this writing, the motive of the man who shot at innocent civilians from the window of his Las Vegas hotel room remains unknown. You don’t need OCD to find this unsettling. Someone killed a lot of people, with no warning, with unknown intentions. This doesn’t prove that the world is any more dangerous than it was before this incident, but it does prove that living with uncertainty simply cannot be avoided.
Consider the following OCD traps that may await an incident like this. If someone can do this for no known reason, couldn’t the reason in fact be no reason? What does this say about me as a person with violent thoughts? I have no reason to act on my unwanted thoughts, but what if I decide to act on my unwanted thoughts anyway? Would I do that? Could I do that? These types of personalization traps (viewing events as being related to your obsession) may cause you a lot of pain, with one unanswered “what-if” following another. Furthermore, the general public’s thirst for answers often leads to a lot of loose talk about “mental health issues” as the cause of violent acts in the news. We may be accustomed to staying glued to the tv for information about current events, but studies have suggested that the more people watch television, the less they are likely to actually know about OCD and the less people know about OCD, the more they were likely to believe that people with OCD were violent. (Kimmerle and Cress, 2013) So with the cards stacked against you, consider the following useful things to remember:
Be mindful of facts: OCD wants you to focus on theories, but this is a distraction from facts. What are the facts of an event like the Vegas massacre? A man who is not you did a thing that you have not done in a place that you are not in for a reason that you do not know and this is making you uneasy. These facts may not bring you immediate anxiety relief, but they are nonetheless accurate reflections of what is going on in the present moment. That means they are subject to observation without judgment and that means you have the choice to access mindfulness.
Be mindful of perspective: Every day I sought a scary headline, I found one because every day something terrible seems to happen somewhere. This is true. However, I am looking in a newspaper. News, even done at its most ethical, is designed to highlight things of interest. Violence is interesting, not just philosophically, but because it is statistically rare. If I open the paper to find a crossword puzzle, that is not something I need to share. If I open the paper to find a million dollars (or rabid raccoon), well, that’s news. Bad things happening are worth our attention, of course, but learning of bad things happening does not mean bad things are happening at all times in all places. OCD wants you immersed in the content of “harm” and wants you to forget that most of the time, you are either bored because nothing new is happening, or satisfied and don’t know it.
Be Mindful of self-absorption: To be “self-absorbed” sounds like an insult, but taken literally, it just means to be absorbed with oneself. That is, OCD has a way of creating a black hole around your identity, where information is constantly being pulled in and nothing comes out. Your Harm OCD is likely to tell you that any event in the news related to your obsession is somehow secretly about you, whether it’s an act of terror, a celebrity suicide, or murdered child. The OCD tells you that you have a moral responsibility to investigate triggering news stories to figure out exactly how they apply to you. But these events are about the people that were actually involved in them, not about you. Try to go against the OCD by taking the focus off of what it means for you and putting it on what it means for those involved or society as a whole. Or, of course, on the taste of the sandwich you were eating before you got triggered by the news.
Most of us are engaged in some form of social media or another. Social media newsfeeds can be a scary place when you have OCD. Though avoidance is rarely the answer to dealing with triggers, this does not mean you have to always go out of your way to put yourself in unnecessarily stressful situations. Scrolling through newsfeeds, especially around the time of a recent violent event in the news, is going to give you lots of things to check. It’s easy to get stuck in a trance and hard to pull yourself out of it. But living with OCD doesn’t mean you have to do without the things you care about. For those genuinely interested in current events, I recommend streamlining your news acquisition to something static, like a print newspaper. All the same rules apply, no checking, no reassurance seeking, etc. But without the prompts to click and click your way down the rabbit hole, it is a lot easier to remain mindful of what you are choosing to expose yourself to.
It’s easy to fall for the trap of thinking your life would be better without the triggers in it. That’s the OCD pointing you at the content of your thoughts (beyond your control) and away from the process or how you relate to your thoughts (within your grasp). Gaining mastery over your OCD, or gaining mastery over any challenge, means reconciling what’s good for you with what makes you feel good. It’s up to you to decide what you value, but what you value should not be avoided even if it makes you uncomfortable. Go into experiences with open eyes and be mindful of what triggers bring up for you. If you want to read the news, read the news. Do your best to read it without OCD lenses, and take the risk of being self-compassionate when OCD sometimes makes this difficult.
Kimmerle, J., Cress, U. (2013). The effects of TV and film exposure on knowledge about and attitudes toward mental disorders. Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 931-943.
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Jon Hershfield, MFT is a psychotherapist in private practice licensed in Maryland, Virginia, and California, and director of The OCD and Anxiety Center of Greater Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.