I have Pure O – OCD and believe it or not, there actually are some things that it causes that I really can’t help. I didn’t choose this disorder. I didn’t choose to feel such a crushing weight of anxiety. I didn’t even choose to think all those disturbing thoughts. I can’t control any of that. But, even in acknowledging this, there yet remains something that does lie within my power to choose. I can choose what to do when an intrusive thought and it’s constant companion, anxiety, barge into my brain as unwelcome guests.
In this blog I want to cover both aspects of Pure O; the things I don’t choose and the things I need to choose in order to learn to manage my Pure O.
I’ve had people say things like; “you need to stop feeling so anxious” and “you need to stop thinking those thoughts”, as if I really want to feel this crushing weight of anxiety, or as if I enjoy the experience of distressing thoughts. One thing I can promise you, is that every single person who has OCD has already spent endless hours lecturing themselves in this way. And, until we begin to grasp how OCD operates we are usually completely disgusted with ourselves in regard to the presence of the thoughts and the anxiety we feel.
Lecturing someone with OCD by telling them to “stop feeling so anxious” or to “stop thinking those thoughts”, is a bit like telling someone with an allergy to stop reacting to the things they are allergic to: “Oh for Pete’s sake would you please just stop sneezing and quit breaking out in hives! And…while your at it – STOP scratching!!” The reason I like to use this analogy is because Pure O causes a person to experience an intense anxiety reaction to unwanted thoughts, which don’t cause any kind of abnormally anxious reaction in people who don’t have OCD. The OCD brain has an abnormal reaction to the thoughts in the same way a person with allergies has an abnormal reaction to an allergen.
Another thing that needs to be understood is that there is an enormous difference in how a OCD obsession first presents itself in comparison to when we are choosing to dwell on negative or self-deprecating thoughts. The obsessional themes that plague the person with OCD usually begin with just one distressing intrusive thought, doubt or question that most often just crops up out of the blue. It isn’t chosen. It’s shoves into the consciousness without the consent of the person in the same way you might get a stupid or irritating song stuck in your brain. The thought usually takes us by surprise, or an even better way to describe it, would be to say that it takes us by storm. When the thought crops up it creates such an intense surge of anxiety that our fear whips up into a frenzy within a heartbeat. The anxiety that accompanies the thought is what causes us to feel that the thought is extremely urgent. It’s an over abundance of anxiety that drives the OCD machine. If it weren’t for that inappropriate/disproportionate anxiety response, we could, like most people, just observe that we don’t agree with or accept the thought as being true or valid and therefore it would just pass harmlessly on through our mind. But that’s not how the OCD brain operates. The OCD brain is already in a heightened or hyper alert state before the intrusive thought enters the the consciousness. I suppose you could compare it to a Venus Fly Trap plant that is wide open to receive and clamp down on any insect that happens to fly within it’s reach. With OCD, when the intrusive thought pops into the mind, the brain has just been waiting for something to latch on to in order to expend all that needless anxiety that it’s been generating. The entrance of the intrusive thought gives the brain a reason to “be upset” and therefore, just like the fly trap it will clamp down on it and begin to chew on it. This is nothing more than an inappropriate, albeit instinctive, fear response. It’s this uncontrolled event that ignites the obsessional cycle: The intrusive thought pops into the brain, then the brain, because it’s already primed to over react, sends out a huge adrenaline rush and the person experiences a severe anxiety response. Once that happens. then the person with OCD will begin to try and do something to alleviate the anxiety and this is how the compulsive activity begins.
This brings me to the thing that actually does lie within the realm of my control: I can choose to attend to the thought in an effort to try and alleviate the anxiety by engaging in the compulsive activity of Pure O, or, I can refuse to attend to it and just let it lie there unchallenged even though to do so will mean that I will feel anxious. But, in order to make this choice I have to be schooled in regard to what constitutes the compulsive activity of Pure O.
Pure O differs from the classic form of OCD because in Pure O most of the compulsive activity is carried out within the mind and therefore, it isn’t observable like the rituals or checking compulsions that are seen in the typical form of OCD. I would say that for me there are only few compulsions that I engage in with my Pure O which are observable: avoidance, research and reassurance seeking. Avoidance just means that I will attempt to avoid the things which trigger or stir up the thoughts and the anxiety. An example of this would be; if I was struggling with harming thoughts, I wouldn’t want to be left alone with people that I love. Or, if I’m struggling with Religious themes, I might want to avoid going to church or reading my Bible because those things would trigger the obsessions. Research is done in order to find some kind of information that might reassure me that the obsessional theme isn’t really true. If I’m struggling with a specific health obsession I might try to read up on symptoms in order to reassure myself that I don’t have a certain disease. If I’m struggling with the idea that I may have lost my salvation I might research articles on eternal security. Reassurance seeking might mean that I ask others questions: “Do you think I act like a believer? Do you think I’m a good Mom? Do you think this tiny lump on my wrist could be cancer?” If they reassure me when I ask these questions, I might experience a temporary feeling of relief but the bad aspect of reassurance is that the answer validates the question as being worthy of my attention. This is counterproductive when it comes to moving past an OCD obsession.
The hidden compulsions of Pure O involve all sorts of ruminating which, when it’s bad will go on all day long. When I ruminate I will be carrying on this internal dialogue on the topic of the obsession in an effort to try and solve it, argue with it, reassure myself, cancel it by making opposite or undoing mental statements, or try to use my logic to counter it. Every bit of this is done to try and alleviate the anxiety and yet instead of my being able to move past the obsession, all the attention that I’m giving it only makes it seem even more urgent and threatening and before I know it, I am fighting an exhausting and excruciating mental war that I just can’t seem to win no matter how hard I try.
The most important thing for a person who has Pure O to understand is that all of the aforementioned activities make Pure O worse and keep us stuck on our obsessional theme. So, having established this, if we want to get better we have to stop engaging in the compulsions and allow the intrusive thoughts to just lie there in our mind, unattended, unanswered and unchallenged. This might seem to be an easy choice for those who don’t suffer from Pure O, but for those of us who have a brain that is over reacting to the thoughts with such intense anxiety it feels extremely risky to just let these thoughts be. The anxiety is making us feel compelled to do something about them. Leaving them alone means that, for a time we may feel even more anxious, but as we practice just letting them be, our brain becomes habituated to their presence and eventually lets go of them. If we fight against them our brain will continue to perceive them as threatening. No battle – and the war will eventually end.
So to sum things up; people with Pure O don’t choose their obsessions and they don’t choose the excruciating anxiety that accompanies them. We can, however, choose how to respond to them. When we feel afraid our brain tries to protect us by initiating the fight or flight response. But in Pure O we have to accept that it’s just misfiring over thoughts which apart from our disorder we would be able to easily dismiss. Therefore, we have to force ourselves to ignore the thoughts even while we are experiencing intense anxiety. This takes a lot of grit and a lot of patience with the process. If you’ve been waging war with an obsession for awhile it’s going to take awhile for your brain to let go of it. This is the choice that lies within our control when struggling with Pure O and it has to be our choice. No one can force us to do this. It’s something we have to choose when we’re ready. But it’s also something that is so worth it when we are finally able to move past an obsessional theme.
So go ahead – just let it be – ignore that thought. I dare ya!!
My OCD story: