Have you ever felt that your OCD was a kind of a vicious cycle that you can not break? Or that it is like a maze with no way out?
That is exactly the way I used to feel and to be honest, I still think that OCD is like a maze of thoughts, but fortunately, there is a way out!
What helped me a lot was understanding how Obsessive Compulsive Disorder works. This is one of the reasons why I have started this blog and in today’s post, I’ll talk about the OCD cycle.
(If you do not know/ not sure about what OCD is, please check out my post about Frequently Asked Questions about OCD.)
What are the four elements of the OCD cycle?
Everything starts with obsessive thoughts. A lot of people have intrusive thoughts, but people who do not suffer from anxiety disorders (or in our case OCD), usually do not really get bothered by them. Now, to an OCD sufferer, an unpleasant idea or a distressing thought can easily be the beginning of a new obsession.
People say I am a very creative person, so I wouldn’t like to give you the list of all the obsessive thoughts I have ever had, but a very nice example that I can give you is a pretty recent one: my fear of melanoma.
How did it start? Simply enough, sometimes I use tanning beds and I obviously knew that it was a risk factor for melanoma. And then one of my friends was telling me off for doing it, so that ‘s all it takes.
Okay, let’s stop here for a sec: you may say that my fear was absolutely rational or that this sounds more like Hypochondria, but please keep reading. This is only the beginning, It will get worse!
Oh by the way,I have found a pretty interesting article about the differences between OCD and Hypochondria, click here to check.
(Note: I am aware of the risks of indoor tanning and I would not like to promote it! This is an unhealthy habit that I used to have and I am not proud of it: I am just being honest. It had nothing to do with my OCD, I was doing it because winters can be very dark and depressing in my country. )
I think this is the worst part. Anxiety is a horrible thing, it can totally ruin your mood. During my worst episodes of obsessive thinking and anxiety, I felt as if I were 2 different persons: the rational Mark who completely understand that he is very unlikely to have melanoma and the other, OCD Mark, who keeps asking the typical “what if?” type of questions. Because at the end of the day, you can never know, can you?
And all the other symptoms of anxiety that (unfortunately) I am pretty sure that some of you may have experienced: feeling on the edge, nervous, restless…and a lot more, but that’s a topic for another article.And this anxiety is the cause behind our next element in the cycle:
I think this is probably the most well-known part of OCD. When I tell people I have OCD, they’ll usually think that I am addicted to cleaning or washing my hands. But there’s so much more to OCD than this – I think the compulsive behavior is rather a symptom than the actual problem.
Because at the end of the day, you do not keep cleaning your fridge because you like doing it: you do it because of your anxiety.
Now my obsessive melanoma fear made me do a few crazy stuff (and this is where you can easily see the difference between me and someone having hypochondria):
– I had to complete an online melanoma risk assessment 5 times a day – yes, you’ve read it correctly, 5 times a day! And…the same assessment. I managed to find one that I particularly liked because at the end of the assessment, it would tell me that my melanoma risk was very low. So I was seeking reassurance.
– I checked melanoma statistics few times a day – do not ask me why I was doing it. I do not know. It was more like a superstition, like: if you do not do it, something terrible will happen.
– And the craziest one was taking at least 20 pictures a day of my moles and comparing them to photos of melanoma moles. Also, sending it to other people to see what they think. Now, you can imagine how happy my friends were because of this….
Why was I doing all these? Now we arrive to the last element of the vicious cycle:
Acting on your compulsions will calm you down for a few minutes or even hours, but believe me: the intrusive thought will come back and the whole cycle will restart.
It is very hard to stop doing your OCD rituals, but as a first step, you need to acknowledge that they do not help. Even if you find the best possible ritual. Sad, but true.
How did I break out from this vicious cycle?
While in TV shows, they often tell you not to try certain things at home. And before sharing my personal solution to my melanoma scare, I would like to emphasize: I did not do the best possible thing and I wouldn’t suggest anyone to follow in my footsteps:
I ran away from it. Okay, not literary but I just got all my moles removed. I was told I wouldn’t need to do that and that they are extremely unlikely to be dangerous but then I really felt that it had been the only way out. After getting them removed, I would still call my dermatologist a few times a day just to make sure the results came back fine. But then my obsession was finally over.
So, why do I think that this was not the solution to the problem?
Because OCD is not about one obsession, OCD sufferers can have more than one obsession (we’re lucky people, are not we?) and your fears can change over the years. The obsessions and compulsions I used to have in my teens were different from the ones I had in my early 20s.
So you should fight your OCD instead of fighting your fears in multiple different ways!
What works on the long term?
Be more conscious of yourself – and of the OCD cycle:
An obsession is just like an illness: the earlier you recognize it, the better chances you have to fight it. This is something that one can totally learn: now, OCD usually gets worse with age (according to most of the psychologists I have talked to), but if you learn how to control it, believe me, it will get better and better. And being able to differentiate an obsessive thought from a rational one is the first step.
Mark’s tip: be aware of “what if” questions. Another characteristic of OCD is the constant feeling of doubt, so even if you’re able to convince yourself that your the intrusive thought you’ve just had, is simply impossible, OCD will always be there for you to whisper the terrible “what if’ question to your ears – and if this question comes into your mind, you should start working ASAP on breaking the cycle before it even starts!
Stop doing your OCD rituals!
This is one of the hardest ones. Especially that apart from the rituals that others can see OCD sufferers doing, there are a lot of invisible, mental rituals. So sometimes it’s even hard to recognize that you’re actually doing one!
What I did was: forcing myself into situations that make it impossible for me to act on my compulsions: such as leaving my phone at home so that I’d not be able to google melanoma symptoms or telling my family and friends not to “assist” my rituals (like for example, if you have harm OCD, do NOT tell your loved ones to hide the knives from you!).
Expose yourself to your deepest fears!
So as you have seen, anxiety is one of the elements of this vicious cycle. But avoiding situations that make you anxious will eventually make your OCD even worse: remember, OCD is an extremely creative disorder, so it will always be able to come up with a new intrusive thought, a new obsession and we can not spend our whole life on the run!
Other things you can do:
Learn more about OCD: know your enemy and know yourself, you will win a hundred battles.
So check out my posts about:
– the 6 types of OCD
– Frequently Asked Questions about OCD
– 12 things that will help you overcome OCD
And soon I’ll also share a list of useful websites and blogs about OCD – but that’s still in progress 🙂
Do not hesitate to share your own OCD stories, ideas, thoughts and helpful techniques in the comment section, because as you know there’s one thing I enjoy more than writing my posts: reading yours!
Post Scriptum – An OCD side effect!
OCD is not always bad – it is a terrifying illness and it’s not fun to live with, but sometimes it can help you becoming a better person. Ever since the OCD episode I shared with you in this post, I’ve been working on raising awareness of melanoma and on helping people who’re suffering from it. We are so busy with our problems that we often forget that there are a lot of other people out there who need help (in many cases, even more than we need).
So I just do not think it’d be appropriate if I published this post without sharing a link to the Melanoma Research Foundation (Click here).