10 of the most helpful lessons I've learned from living with OCD
I want to continue as I mean to go on with these blogs and talk about what helps the most. Let’s get as many people as possible talking about OCD, spreading awareness about the disorder, and realising just how much help there is out there for us, if we know how to look for it.
Before I start, I want you to know straight off the bat something that it took me years to find out. I want you to know that there are lots of resources out there to help you. Whether you’re in the initial stages of getting help; some way through recovery; slap-bang in the middle of a relapse or just feeling overwhelmed by your symptoms, there will be something out there to support you and help you get better. If one strategy doesn’t work, there are a tonne of others to try, so please don't lose hope.
I’ll discuss every point I’m about to make in much more detail in future posts, but I want to leave this here as a quick and easy reference for those struggling right now.
What follows are some of the things I’ve found most helpful to my recovery…
1) Realise OCD is not who you are.
There was a time when I didn’t know where I ended and OCD began - it felt like the disorder had taken my identity and replaced it with something I was desperate to be rid of. It took a long while to get my head around the fact that OCD is not me, it’s just a condition that I live with. Some days it has more of an affect on me than others, but underneath, I’ve been me all along, just a bit battered and bruised from the impact of living beside it.
Understanding and eventually accepting this, has allowed me to make enormous strides in my recovery. It’s been so helpful to me in fact, that it’s been the basis for me creating Olivia; she reminds me that we are separate and that I don’t have to let her actions dictate what I do.
Is there a way you could shift your focus to imagine your OCD as something separate from you? Maybe you could imagine it as a character or give it a name. Not all people will find this helpful, and that’s OK, there are plenty of other things to try, but it’s worth giving it a go.
2) Realise you are not your thoughts.
Those of us with OCD give way too much power to the nature of our thoughts. We are human, we have thousands of years of evolution running through our systems and naturally, some of the stuff we think about we wouldn’t necessarily want to discuss with people at a works party or with other parents at the school gate. But that doesn’t mean we are bad for having them. I hold my hand up willingly; yes, sometimes I think about things that are classed as taboo; yes, I get the occasional urge to do something that society would punish me for. WE ALL DO! It’s our brains job to fire off loads of random ideas and thoughts.
Most people find these ‘taboo’ thoughts so unimportant that they forget about them straight away, but with us it can be different, our OCD can turn these totally natural thoughts into something else.
It makes us question what the thoughts mean, what they say about us, whether the tap was left running or the iron left plugged in or whether something felt ‘right’ when we did it. This is where the division lies - we live with a little voice that makes us doubt, well… everything. We also live with a huge sense of responsibility so we follow that doubt with a check or other behaviour (known as a compulsion) ‘just to make sure’.
I tell myself all the time that I am not my thoughts.
Stick ‘I am not my thoughts’ on post-its around your home (it’s what I did), make it the screen saver on your phone, do whatever you need to do to help this information sink in. OCD will try to make you doubt it, you know it will - that’s how it works. So be prepared!
3) Work on your self-esteem.
OCD can have an enormous impact on self-esteem - I spent a long time living with mine at rock bottom. The disorder tends to negatively impact self-esteem because it makes you doubt yourself so often. It also gives those living with it such an enormous sense of responsibility, that it’s very easy to fall short of the high standards set.
One of the best things I have ever done to help boost my self-esteem, was to complete a 'positivity' journal each night. In it I listed two or three things that had happened in the day, things that showed positive qualities about me, and next to that, I noted what qualities they were. It took about three minutes to complete and it really gave me a boost. It had the added benefit of being a reference point for when I felt down about myself again, as I could look back through it to remind myself that I was a good person, I couldn’t argue with it, the evidence was right in front of me.
4) Know the need to be kind to yourself.
Know that you are worth more than this disorder. Realise that OCD makes you suffer enough and stop being so hard on yourself. Show yourself compassion, imagine that instead of you, it is a friend or loved one who is living with OCD and suffering. Would you add to their load by thinking badly of them and getting frustrated? I’m sure most of us would treat them with compassion and try to smother them in love and support. Do the same for yourself.
This isn’t easy, particularly if your intrusive thoughts involve taboo subjects, but it is so important (remember everyone has these thoughts). OCD can cause a lot of hurt, be patient with yourself, you will absolutely get there.
5) Breathing and posture affect your mental well-being.
I knew exercise was important for mental health but there were others areas of the connection I had no idea about. For example, I was blown away, excuse the pun, when my therapist told me that most people stop breathing properly when they grow up. What?! If you’ve ever seen a baby sleep you’ll see that when breathing their stomach rises and falls too, along with their chest. This is called ‘abdominal breathing’ (or diaphragmatic breathing). It can make the world of difference to how you feel.
It wasn’t until I was in therapy that I realised how spectacularly inept my breathing was. I was tense, hunched over and taking really shallow breaths - it’s no wonder I constantly felt panicky. Try it right now. Put your hand on your stomach and breath. Your hand should rise and fall. Slow your breathing - when we panic, we speed it up. Slow controlled abdominal breathing makes all the difference. It took me a lot of attempts to learn how to do it, purely because I wasn’t used to it, but eventually it become second nature. Hopefully it will help you too. When the body is calm the brain tends to follow.
Just an extra note about posture too, I've spent parts of my life looking at the ground, hunched over in a kind of protective self-cuddle. If you do that too, have a go at adjusting your posture: lift your head, look up, straighten your back, pull your shoulders down. This can make you feel very exposed at first but once used to it, it helps so much with breathing. I found it also helped me feel better about myself; it physically highlighted the fact that I was now facing the world head on. Try it, it could have the same affect for you too.
6) Accept the disorder and educate yourself.
Strictly speaking two different points but they are closely related and impact one another.
Acceptance doesn’t need to mean shouting the disorder from the rooftops or changing your whole life to deal with it. It just means learning a few strategies to help you deal with the more detrimental symptoms or negative effects on your day-to-day life. There is no shame in accepting that you need to work a little harder in order to feel better and once you have accepted that, it is much easier to move forward to becoming either OCD free or to successfully managing it.
Educating yourself about OCD is life-changing as it not only gives you a fantastic chance to lessen your symptoms, but it can help you to accept you have the disorder and to not feel so alone. I read everything I could about OCD so there were no surprises left. I started with Break Free From OCD and it taught me such a lot. You can read a little about it here, where you will also find other useful contact points and information to help you learn about OCD.
A note on books: I try to own my own copy of books if possible so I can dip in and out of it as and when I need to. I also like to highlight bits and make notes, but remember you can get these books from the library and if they are not available, you should be able to request them. Teaching yourself about your condition doesn't have to be expensive.
7) Get therapy with a medical professional.
Without doubt this has had the biggest impact on my recovery. When I was told that my symptoms were OCD related I burst into tears; I was so relieved that there was a name for what I was going through. For the first time, I was not alone. For the first time, I’d found someone who not only knew what OCD was but knew how to help me treat it.
I know many people fear talking to medical professionals. I can empathise with this. When I went to see my Cognitive Behavioural Therapist for the first time, I was convinced that when I told her about the thoughts that sometimes entered my head, she’d hold my gaze, give me a big fake smile and search frantically for the panic button under her desk. I was totally convinced I would not see freedom again. I was wrong about this.
Therapy changed my life. Remember if you do not feel comfortable with your medical professional you can request a new one, there are some amazing therapists out there and there is absolutely no shame in asking for help.
8) Talk to people.
This is something that depending on your situation can take a lot of courage, there’s no denying it. When I thought about mentioning my OCD, especially the nature of my intrusive thoughts, to others, I thought they too, would produce the same fake smile as the CBT therapist (see above), and then run for the hills. I carried my own stigma and assumed everyone else did as well. In my case, I was wrong about this too.
Have a think about who to talk to, there are so many options available: medical professionals, friends, family, people who work with charities - the list goes on and on. Who do you know who is likely to understand? Do you know anyone who has gone through something similar? Or who knows someone who has gone through something similar? You’ll be surprised at how many people are impacted by mental health challenges.
Another good place to find understanding people to talk to is at support groups, whether in person or online although a word of caution on this. I find that I’m sometimes triggered by the content in online support groups as they are often ungoverned. Support groups can help you to feel accepted and part of a community but keep your wits about you and come away if you start to feel bad.
I have spoken to people from Mind and the Samaritans in the past. They were fantastic at listening to me. I didn't feel judged and I came away feeling lighter, understood and safe.
9) Don't feel ashamed about taking medication.
Whether to take medication or not is a very personal choice based on a lot of varied factors, and as a completely unqualified person it can’t advise on what to do here. What I can say though, from personal experience, is that if you do decide to have a little extra help in the form of medication, you should in no way feel bad for doing so.
When I first started taking anti- depressants, I was so hard on myself about it. I was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to deal with my situation without them and I was constantly trying to lower my dose before I was ready just so I could say I wasn’t on them anymore. Again, that was stigma talking - there is absolutely no shame in taking medication.
10) Mindfulness and meditation.
There seem to be as many different views on these two and the relationship between them as there are articles talking about it, so I’ll give you my understanding of what they are.
When I (attempt to) meditate, I sit still and focus on sounds, my breath, my heart beat, basically anything that keeps me in the present. I see meditation as a deliberate and intended activity. It does not take place with anything else going on, you concentrate on that and that alone. I will confess to needing a lot more practise at meditating and at first it was like pure torture, sitting with my thoughts, but I can see the early signs of improvement.
I have been taught that mindfulness is a type of mediation but a less formal practice. Mindfulness is what I do as I go about my day-to-day business. It feels far less formal, I just try to pay attention to the here and now. If I feel my mind wander (which with anxiety, depression and OCD it does tend to do) I remind myself to come back to the ‘now’. It’s all about staying in the present.
I pay attention to whatever it is I’m doing. There are loads of books and apps out there about mindfulness and meditation. For some ideas see here.
If you live in the U.K., The Works often has some great books on this for a much cheaper price.
Just to end…
This is in no way an exhaustive list, there are endless positive lifestyle choices that you can make that will have a beneficial impact on your feeling of wellness, and help you to build up strength.
Again, I’ll talk about these in more detail in the future but for now, a few ideas are: Listen to uplifting music, do things you enjoy, distract yourself with something that will keep your attention, learn yoga, exercise, pay attention to nutrition and eat well, drink enough water, get enough sleep, do something creative; you could even have a go at creating your own version of Olivia!