'Habituation' Could Be Key To Conquering Anxiety For Good

'Habituation' Could Be Key To Conquering Anxiety For Good Hero Image
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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 learned tapping, also known as Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT. 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 healing and wellness, 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 was 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.

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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 relentless, 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 she better than I am because she is 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. I suffered from recurring depression, severe anxiety, and panic attacks. I hated myself. My self-esteem was so low I often considered suicide and was once even hospitalized.

And then, finally, after trying everything I knew, I found a way to manage my OCD with something I'd never heard of. While searching online for a Hail Mary, I stumbled upon a therapy called ERP—Exposure Response Prevention. It has been 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. Thus 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. As I did more research, I discovered a technique called the imaginal exposure story, in which you write a brief, concise story of your worst fear being true. Along with reading your story, you refrain from engaging in your compulsion. You expose yourself to your trigger and then prevent the response: Exposure Response Prevention. It is meant to 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 did as suggested and read my story a minimum of 30 times a day, without repeating mantras, without checking up on social media pages, without engaging in any of my compulsions or avoidance techniques. In my case, my story consisted simply of statements such as, "She is better than I am. She is prettier than I am. She is more popular than I am. She is a mother, and I’m not. I am inferior to her."

When the thoughts popped up, usually as mental images of the women’s photos on social media, I repeated the statements and stayed offline. 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 and shame. I noticed the recurring obsessive thoughts disappearing almost completely within a few days of beginning ERP. 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 at all 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. As Roosevelt said,

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
 

I may never be able to say that I am completely cured of OCD. I still have bad days, particularly when I’m anxious about other things. But when the thoughts pop up, they don’t feel devastatingly painful, as they once did. Every now and then I check up on the women I once felt triggered by.

Now they 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. These women are no longer threats to me. They are some of my teachers and spiritual guides.

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 has 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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