'Habituation' Could Be Key To Conquering Anxiety For Good

Written by Aisling Peartree

Photo by paff

The term OCD has become a catchall for being controlling or overly consumed with tidiness and order. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is, however, one of the most debilitating anxiety disorders there is, according to the World Health Organization. I was a teenager when I first began exhibiting the classic symptoms of OCD—obsessive thoughts accompanied by frequent compulsions—but it wasn’t until years later that I had a name for what I was experiencing.

For a long time I didn’t know what was wrong with me. What I did know was that I felt alone, embarrassed, pathetic, and sick. Sometimes I felt like I was going crazy. I felt haunted by a force beyond my control.

Over the years, I tried everything I could find to stop the obsessive thoughts. I tried "thought stopping," including visualizing a stop sign, and snapping a rubber band on my wrist. I tried ignoring and accepting the thoughts. I repeated mantras and affirmations. I began a daily meditation practice. I saw multiple therapists. I did some very important soul-searching, inner child work, journaling, and energy healing.

Although I still use several of these techniques to help with my overall mental and emotional health, all of them provided only temporary relief from the OCD. My painfully persistent thoughts always returned with a vengeance. I was terrified I would always be suffering, trapped in my own mind, controlled by these vicious thoughts. I worried I would never be able to have a healthy relationship. I feared I wouldn’t be able to have children lest they inherit this disturbing disorder.

As I researched OCD, I came to feel more alone—even weird. The common kinds of OCD I read about were what I imagined "normal" behavior to be: checking locks, washing hands, counting objects. My OCD, on the other hand, seemed abnormal, shameful. After my parents separated and my father started a new family, I began to experience the classic signs of an inadequacy and inferiority complex. Deep down I was terrified of being abandoned and replaced, unloved and unworthy. I felt painfully threatened by other women.

My mind would pick one person at a time, usually someone I barely knew, and compare myself to her relentlessly. It began with a schoolmate, then friends and exes of boyfriends, then a fellow singer. The thoughts were consuming, and my compulsion manifested as social media stalking—constantly seeking evidence that they were somehow superior to me.

"Is she prettier than I am? Is she in touch with my boyfriend, and does he love her? Is he going to leave me for her? Is she better than I am because she’s a mother and I’m not?" The constant questioning was at best annoying, at worst excruciating.

I gave my OCD a label: CCE, which stands for comparison, competition, envy. With the constant judgment and competitiveness, sometimes I came out on top. "I went to an Ivy League, and she didn't. I'm a singer/songwriter, and she's not." But win or lose, it always hurt. It was painfully negative and self-destructive, at times mean-spirited and spiteful.

This illness wasted over 20 years of my precious time, energy, and life. I was consumed by it. It was exhausting. It contributed to my experience with bipolar depression, severe anxiety, and panic attacks. I hated myself. I often considered suicide and was hospitalized more than once.

And then, finally, after trying everything I knew, I found a way to manage my OCD with two kinds of therapies. While researching online, I stumbled upon a therapy called ERP—Exposure Response Prevention. When combined with tapping, also known as Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, the results were nothing short of a miracle for me.

Because obsessive thoughts are so painful, we try to avoid them. We try to stop them. Our attempts to fight, ignore, bury, and run from the thoughts compound our resistance to them, thereby increasing the negative energy stored in our bodies. This reinforces the false notion that these thoughts present an actual threat to us.

Our normal anxiety responses, designed to help keep us safe in dangerous situations, become triggered by mere thoughts. The thoughts feel so threatening and scary to us that we engage in compulsions to try to temporarily relieve some of the anxiety and panic. We enter a vicious cycle of trying desperately to stop the thoughts, being unable to, and then engaging in self-harming compulsions to make ourselves feel better.

The answer? Stop trying to stop the thoughts.

Welcome them. Embrace, even initiate, the thoughts. Purposely think them. Examine the deeply rooted fears that are fueling the anxiety of OCD, and then refrain from engaging in your compulsion. You expose yourself to your trigger and then prevent the response: Exposure Response Prevention. It can be uncomfortable, painful even. It is simple but far from easy.

When I first started ERP, my anxiety escalated, my heart raced, and I felt afraid and very sad. But I continued, and using EFT, I would tap on statements such as “I’m afraid that other women are a threat to me. I’m afraid that I’m inferior to other women. I’m afraid that I’m not good enough.” Then I tapped on letting go of all these fears. I also tapped on affirmations, “I am safe. I am secure. I am incomparable. I am irreplaceable. I love myself. I am more than good enough.”

When the obsessive thoughts popped up, I repeated the statements and the tapping and stayed off social media. It was difficult at first, but after over 20 years of suffering, I was ready to stop being an emotional cutter.

Within days, I felt more in control of myself and my feelings than I had in my entire life.

The key is the process of habituation—where your mind grows so accustomed to typically anxiety-producing thoughts that it becomes desensitized to them. They are no longer threatening or panic-inducing. They become thoughts that your mind can observe and dismiss, or ruminate on briefly—as with any other benign thought—without attaching associations of fear, self-hatred and shame.

The tapping balances the body’s energy pathways, or meridians, helping you to resolve trauma-induced energy in your body and achieve mental, emotional, physical, and energetic harmony. I noticed the recurring obsessive thoughts disappearing almost completely within a few days. My urge to engage in compulsions was gone.

If you are suffering from OCD, I would encourage you to explore your fears—with the supervision of a therapist if possible. Meditating on my deepest insecurities was the key to freeing myself from them. Allow yourself to dig deep and listen to what your fears are trying to tell you. Confront these fears, and you will find their power over you diminishes with time.

I now feel cured of my OCD. If I feel a twinge of anxiety or a triggering thought pops up, I know to keep going back to the ERP and EFT. The women I was once felt painfully threatened by, jealous and envious of, now feel more like old friends—people with whom I once shared a painful part of myself but whom I now can appreciate for the light they offer the world. I am able to be on friendly terms with them. I now see that I was never actually in competition with them. They are some of my many teachers and spiritual guides. Our fears are based on the lingering wounds of our ego minds, but we can heal ourselves from them.

I was recently asked to open for a big-name artist in my hometown, but because I'm traveling, I recommended another singer for the show. After years of struggling with feeling envious of and inferior to her, I can now listen to her music and let myself be a fan. It felt wonderful to pass along such a great opportunity, to receive her appreciation and gratitude, and to witness my own growth.

I feel free now—free to love myself and to be happy. My mind is no longer at war with itself. I am not consumed by self-sabotage. ERP and EFT have brought me an inner peace I haven't felt since I was a child. I share my experience openly, however difficult, in hopes that those suffering from OCD might benefit from my story.

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