This statement is something that is often said to those of us with OCD by a close friend or family member if we happen to open up about one of our obsessional themes. And, to be honest, most of the time we already know that the thing we are worried or obsessed with isn’t really a true/valid concern. But knowing and feeling are two separate things. Knowing has to do with using information, reason and logic and feeling has to do with our emotional responses.
In OCD our logic and reasoning aren’t broken. Those things aren’t the things that need to be fixed or corrected. And, that is why you can speak the truth of a matter to us, reassure us, or even show us some evidence that the thing we are obsessed about isn’t really a big deal and yet, not make one inch of progress toward helping us let go of the obsession. All you are doing, most of the time is telling us things we already know; things we’ve already checked out, as driven by our need for absolute certainty.
The experience of living with OCD means continually living with an intense and foreboding anxious feeling that has attached itself to an intrusive thought, doubt or question. Living with OCD means living with a brain that is already overly prepared to misfire and go directly into fight or flight mode over those type of things which others can just easily brush off and turn away from in a matter of a few seconds once they label them as invalid or nonsensical.
Basically, in OCD our faulty emotional response trumps our logic. That faulty emotional response is actually a misfiring in that part of the brain which is responsible for fight or flight. We aren’t choosing for this to happen or causing it to happen because the fight or flight response is an automatic, instinctual action of the brain which is supposed to be there to help us in real/valid emergencies. The fight or flight response is an extremely compelling feeling. It must be like that because if it weren’t then, we wouldn’t take any safety seeking action in the event of a real emergency.
So, any effort to “set us straight” so to speak about our obsessional theme does absolutely nothing to alleviate our suffering. In fact, it has the exact opposite effect in that it keeps our brain fixated on the topic of our obsession. It helps to reinforce the compulsive side of our disorder which involves things like continual checking and reassurance seeking as we attempt to quell the anxiety response.
When a person with OCD keeps revisiting information that they think will settle the matter and calm the anxiety response this only serves to keep the obsessional theme front and center in the consciousness. Then, due to that, the person will feel even more of a need to attend to it as it begins to haunt their every waking minute. This completes the cycle of the disorder which goes something like this: Intrusive thought/doubt/question, anxiety response, compulsive attending, momentary relief, more intrusive thoughts/doubts/questions, more anxiety, more compulsive attending…and on and on it goes. And, as this cycle continues it creates a worn and well-traveled path in the brain as the obsessional theme begins to grow larger and more threatening because of the attention that is being given to it.
So, if you know someone who has OCD and you’ve thought that they need you to fix their thinking processes, they don’t. What they really need from you is compassion and understanding for how horrid the disorder makes them feel. What they need is for you to say something like:
“I’m so sorry you are feeling this intense emotional pain from your OCD, and I will pray that you can get the help you need to minimize the pain of your disorder.”
We really aren’t crazy or ill-informed. We just have a disorder which causes misfiring in the anxiety center of our brain. There are helps available for us which come in the form of medication and therapies which are designed to retrain or habituate our brain to each of our obsessional themes, so that it will eventually stop overreacting to them. But, unless you’ve taken a course on how to manage OCD you aren’t going to know how to help us employ those things. And, let’s just be honest about this, if you really believed that our disorder was a real affliction you probably wouldn’t try to take on the role of a physician. Yes, OCD sufferers need the help and counsel of trained professionals!
But now, having said all of this, one very helpful thing you can do is to acknowledge our disorder as being a valid affliction. You can show empathy and compassion and pray for our recovery just as you would for any other person suffering from any other affliction. And we would be so grateful for you to do those things, more than you could ever imagine!!