By Justine De Jaegher
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is considered a “chronic anxiety disorder” . How to calm OCD anxiety, like Bert and Ernie, they go hand-in-hand. Also like our friends from Sesame Street, Bert’s constant exasperation with Ernie, and trying to push him away actually makes things worse. Bert would likely be far more content if he learned to accept and live with the reality that is Ernie. If this metaphor is lost on you, put more simply:
“You can’t get rid of your fears. But you can learn to live with them.”
This pearl of wisdom was shared with me by my therapist weeks into my exposure and response prevention (ERP) treatment journey. The instinct to try to suppress or avoid anxiety is a strong one. Anxiety is a hard feeling. But as anyone living with OCD will know, trying to “get rid of” anxiety only makes it worse in the long run. This “getting rid of” takes the form of compulsions: from excessive hand-washing, to compulsive prayer, to endless rumination, to seeking reassurance and the myriad other ways OCD tells us it’s trying to keep us safe.
How to calm OCD anxiety? Remember, OCD is lying to you.
While perhaps providing temporary relief, engaging in compulsions only makes anxiety worse in the long run. Every time I engage in a compulsion, I’m feeding the monster that is OCD. The best way to get rid of OCD anxiety? Stop trying to. By engaging in evidence-based treatment, you will learn that you can tolerate the distress. It’s not easy. But neither is living with the near-constant anxiety caused by unfettered OCD.
Doing hard things requires motivation. A good place to start might be asking yourself the “why” question. Why am I engaging in treatment? Why is it important for me to gain freedom from my OCD? How to calm OCD anxiety?
My answers were wanting to be present for my family and friends, especially my nephews. I wanted to contribute to the world through social justice in a healthy, sustainable, productive ways and not simply be motivated by the guilt of moral scrupulosity. I wanted to engage in a faith practice consistent with my beliefs and not a false God created by religious scrupulosity.
Your answers to the why question may be different, but no less important. What is it that you value in life? What is OCD presently taking away from you that you value? How has OCD made your world small?
Doing this values-mapping work is so important for motivation in treatment.
Practicing radical acceptance
At the end of the day, freedom from OCD means accepting uncertainty - even around our greatest fears. Accepting something doesn’t mean we like it, doesn’t mean we want it, doesn’t mean it’s likely - it just means that we acknowledge reality rather than fantasy. The reality that the only thing certain in life is the uncertain. It’s an often painful reality to live with, but through treatment, we learn that we can.
Pain is a reality but suffering is a choice. For those like-minded math nerds out there, here’s a helpful formula my therapist shared with me:
Pain + Nonacceptance = Suffering
Assuming pain to be a constant, we can reduce suffering by taking steps to reduce nonacceptance. What does reducing nonacceptance look like? How to calm OCD anxiety? For me, it means leaving some room in the pew for my religious scrupulosity and not engaging in compulsive prayer or ritualizing when it tells me to. It means choosing to focus on the task at hand of doing dishes when my OCD tells me I need to ruminate some more on whether my propane tank was fully closed after a barbecue with friends. I accept that the anxiety is there and I accept the uncertainty around my salvation and whether my friends might die in an explosion. The alternative (going back to values) would be living a life filled with compulsions and fear that would bring me further from God and further from those friends.
Get the whole family involved!
Speaking of friends! OCD recovery and managing anxiety is helped by community. This community can look like biological family, chosen family, friends, or people in a virtual support group.
Share resources with this community on family accommodation and how they can support you in your recovery journey. Loved ones will instinctively want to reduce your anxiety because they love you. But they’re often not very good at it when it comes to OCD. The instinct will often be to reassure:
“you’re not going to hell”
“you’re not going to hurt anyone”
“you don’t have cancer”.
But the reality is they cannot know these things for certain, and are only fuelling the OCD. Shifting language from “that’s not going to happen” to “I know you’re dealing with a lot of hard feelings right now. I love you” might frustrate the OCD sufferer in the moment, but they will be grateful over time.
Much as freedom from OCD looks like learning to cope with anxiety and distress - you don’t have to do it alone. Calling a friend for support rather than reassurance is a powerful thing. When my wife says “I can’t answer that but I know you can cope with this anxiety you’re feeling” I know that’s a loving response. When I engage in difficult treatment and resist compulsions, she also knows I love her because I’m motivated by the value I place on our family.
My journey with OCD has at times involved feelings of abject hopelessness. The anxiety I was experiencing felt intolerable. It was only through working with trained clinicians using evidence-based treatments like ERP and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) that I learned that I could live with anxiety and ultimately gain relative freedom from my OCD. The anxiety I experience on a day-to-day basis is now wildly less than I used to. But perhaps more importantly, I know that if I do experience a spike in anxiety or even a full-blown relapse in my OCD, I now have better tools to cope.
How to calm OCD anxiety? Part of this lifelong recovery journey involves engaging in an ongoing “ERP lifestyle”, challenging myself to engage in routine exposures and not engage in compulsions even when I’m doing relatively “well”. For me, it has involved attending a regular GOAL support group with other people with lived experience.
I promise that there is hope for you too. Amidst the waves of OCD anxiety, I promise that you can learn to be Ernie’s rubber ducky, moving along with them rather than swimming furiously underwater to no avail.
Take a deep breath. Take another one. Feel your feelings. Get outside. Play catch. Call a friend. Accept that it’s hard. You’ve got this.