Coffee Date with OCD

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The second part of my three-part “Coffee date” series is focused on OCD. OCD, like other mental health conditions is highly individual. Thus, anything mentioned in this article as being helpful is purely based on my own personal experience with OCD.

What things trigger my OCD?
Is it an action? Is it a thought? Something on the news? A smell? Knowing your OCD and knowing it well is honestly a huge part of getting past an episode. I’ve lived with OCD since I was very young (before the age of 10). As a result, I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what my triggers are over time. One of them related to my fear of contamination (especially connected to the smell) is rubberbands. To this day, if I touch a rubberband, it feels like there are literal bugs crawling on my the skin where I touched it. When it comes to the main focus of my OCD (people), there is nothing that terrifies me more than someone asking for space. It automatically triggers a compulsive response to ask the person repeatedly for confirmation that it isn’t forever, that they still care about me, etc. When I get those urges, it is incredibly hard to control myself, but I do, because I know if I don’t that it can impact my relationships with other people (and it has in the past). When I was a kid, the form of OCD I have (relationship OCD, also known as ROCD) was not as widely recognized. As a result, I had a great deal of self-stigma thinking I was weird, strange, and every other synonym for those two in the book. However, now that there is more research around ROCD out there, I can say confidently that I am not alone in the struggle of OCD, and if you live with OCD I guarantee you aren’t either. Do you think the things that trigger your OCD are weird or strange? Check out the list of different kinds of obsessions/compulsions on almost any website, and you will soon come to the realization that what you’re experiencing is actually pretty normal. The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) is a fantastic resource that I highly recommend by the way.

What do I tend to focus on or think about (obsessions) most when I have an episode of OCD?
Knowing what your own thought patterns are is so incredibly important. Do you focus on a specific item? A specific texture? A specific feeling? When you know what it is you tend to negatively focus on, you can better utilize certain coping skills (such as positive self-talk). For example, I know that when I have an OCD episode that I am likely to doubt people around me, and to become suspicious of their actions and their intentions with me. By anticipating this, I know that when I am NOT going through an episode but yet I know I still have specific trigger(s) that I can find a way to remind myself that when I do go through an episode I have something to count on. For example, if there is a certain person that I tend to doubt, when I am in a good place with them I can write words of affirmation for myself and for my relationship with that person.

What behavioral changes (compulsions) occur when I have an episode of OCD?
This looks different for every individual, depending of course on what form of OCD they have. For me, my friends may describe me as acting a bit more “needy” or “needing reassurance” when I am having an episode. Honestly though, saying I get a little needy is kind of a compliment compared to how I used to be, asking the object of my OCD 25x or more per day, “Are you my friend?” “Do you love me?” “Are you still mad at me?” For others, this may look like taking showers more frequently than normal (I’m talking like 3+ times a day), checking the stove or locks more often, or seeking reassurance that you did.

What are some signs that I might be going through an OCD episode?
I am a huge advocate for providing education to those around you about your OCD (if you feel safe to do so). This can be a family member or friend, or really anyone you surround yourself with, just as long as you have someone who can act as a mirror, or be able to show you where your “blind spots” are. Personally, there have been times when I’ve struggled even recently, and it has been a friend who knows me well who is able to point out to me things that I don’t even notice yet. In my case, I am likely going through an episode or approaching an episode if I am isolating myself from people I normally spend time with (especially to spend time with one person in particular), if I seem particularly anxious or more forgetful than normal, or if I am placing too much mental energy on a particular person. For other people, it may be more or less obvious.

Am I willing and able to try to challenge my OCD-related fears?
If there is one thing I have learned about OCD, it is that the key to overcoming it is saying “no” to it. This is different from the other mental health conditions I live with. When I was younger, my therapist did Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) with me to try to lessen my anxiety around certain aspects of my OCD. I will talk more about ERP and my thoughts on it later, but for now, just know that I have adopted some of the techniques from that and the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) modalities to help me challenge my OCD, the thoughts I’m having, and to try to stay more grounded in what I know to be reality. A friend of mine describes this process of challenging OCD to be like trying to get the monster back in the cage, or the worms back in the can, or however you want to look at it. I sometimes do this in a way that is similar to exposure therapy too by exposing myself to what it is that bothers me, and then slowly desensitizing myself to it over time. I can talk about this in a future post as well.

Do I have anyone I can talk to about this?
OCD is slightly less common than anxiety and depression, so in this case I find it particularly helpful to have a friend or family member who can support me through this, and remind me that I am not my OCD, and check-in. For example, I got my OCD from my dad, so I know if I want to relate to someone about it I can talk to him, or one of my other good friends.

How do I know when it is time to reach out for help?
I say it again, I know it is time to reach out when my OCD is interfering with my daily functioning. Is the checking getting in the way of my working, or am I being too open with coworkers about it? Is it getting in the way of my usual activities? Am I still going to church? Is it keeping me from doing things I love with people who love me? We are our own best judges when it comes to what is normal for us, so having an awareness is really the key here.

Be on the look-out for my final post in this series about depression!

Coffee Date with Anxiety

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If it is not already completely obvious, one of the things I am the most passionate about is mental health, and specifically mental health awareness. However, I believe this awareness starts at the individual level, and involves getting to know the very thing some of us want to run and hide from: the mental health condition itself.

For those of you who don’t know, I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, also know as GAD. I spent YEARS running from GAD, trust me. I treated GAD like an infection… like something that I was afraid if I got too close to would contaminate everything around it, and in my life. Little did I know that running from it was preventing me from doing the very thing that would eventually help set me free: getting to know GAD.

So, eventually I decided to try to do the unthinkable, and make friends with GAD. I went on walks with GAD. I introduced GAD to my friends and family. I took GAD out to coffee. As a result, I got to know GAD so well, that now when he appears, I don’t get scared or run away anymore. Instead, I greet him, I acknowledge him, and I live my life knowing that the sooner I embrace him, the sooner he will be on his way.

This post is the first in a 3-part “coffee date” series. 

What is my baseline?
I have this belief that everyone lives at a certain “baseline” of anxiety. What I mean by a baseline is the numerical rating on a scale of 1-10 that you would give yourself on an average day in your life. This is not necessarily a number that is stable over time. It can change, depending on your circumstances. I would say that my number is typically a 5. On my best days, it is maybe a 4. This is the baseline level of anxiety that I live with. Having an awareness of what that number is on a day when I am really anxious is helpful, because it shows me when the scale might be tipping a bit. It is also helpful to have an awareness of what the numbers higher up mean for you. For example, at what number should you reach out get help? It will be different for everyone, but for me I’d say when I get to about a 7, I know to start reaching out to my therapist, or someone familiar with me and my mental health needs.

What things trigger my anxiety?
As long as I am living with anxiety, I know that I will likely be discovering new triggers to add to this. It is just the nature of living. I don’t live my life in fear of this, I just keep it in mind so that when things come up I am not too hard on myself. If anything, I try to praise and reward myself for discovering something new about my anxiety. I also know that having triggers just comes with the territory. These are going to be different for everyone. For example, one of my triggers is being separated from friends when I am in a large crowd. Since I know this about myself, I know not to put myself in a situation where this will usually happen, and if by chance it ends up happening anyway, I remind myself that I am feeling anxious, but just like other feelings, it will pass and I WILL be okay.

What are some physical signs that I am becoming anxious?
Some of the typical signs I experience in the moment include a racing heart, sweating more than usual, shaking or “tapping,” and a feeling of restlessness. Anxiety at its worst goes so much deeper than that though. A lot of stress and anxiety-related symptoms tend to manifest as physical symptoms. For some people, this can mean that they get ulcers, acne break-outs, diarrhea, or all of the above. I tend to have a lot of digestive issues when I am going through a bad period of anxiety.

What are some mental/emotional signs that I am becoming anxious?
There are some signs indicating that I am anxious that are pretty obvious to me. For example, having racing thoughts that don’t seem to let up, or experiencing more agitation than normal when dealing with people around me. Again though, a lot of the symptoms go a lot deeper than that. For example, I’ve noticed that when I’m severely stressed or anxious that I begin to have more nightmares. In fact, there is a recurring dream that I have during periods of anxiety which serves as a sign to me that I am experiencing a higher level of anxiety than usual. I also tend to have more issues with my memory during those times, and when I am performing an activity like reading, I need to read the same page sometimes 5+ times to really soak up what I am reading.

What are some things I can do to cope?
Most of the things I do for myself when I go through periods of anxiety are related to self-care/relaxing. I prioritize making sure I get enough sleep, and I maintain good sleep hygiene by turning my iPhone on “night mode” (the blue light from the screen messes with our R.E.M or deep sleep), drinking herbal tea (my favorite is chamomile), and reading or writing at night instead of watching TV or looking at screens. I also do my best to only drink decaf or to stay away from caffeine altogether when I’m going through a period of anxiety. It really does help! Also, if you’re like me and take an SSRI, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the medication guide. Until I read that, I had no idea that caffeine messes with the medication I am on. I also cope by spending time with people who make me feel safe, love, and heard.

Who are some people I can talk to about this?
As I have gotten to know my anxiety, I have also gotten to know who has been there through it, and who has been willing to listen to me talk about what I am going through. I have a few designated people who I feel particularly safe talking to about my anxiety, and I tend to hold these people especially close during difficult periods of anxiety. I also have a therapist I see regularly who I feel safe with, and who I have a good relationship with who is willing to be with me during those difficult periods.

How do I know when it is time to reach out for help?
Just like any other physical illness or mental health condition, when anxiety begins interfering with your daily functioning, it is time to reach out. When it is interfering with your work, it is time to reach out. When you find yourself isolating from other people because of your symptoms, it is time to reach out. Every person has a different emotional distress tolerance, so this is going to look different for everyone. However, try to be mindful of your baseline, and recognize the point at which YOU need to reach out.

Stay tuned for my next “Coffee date” post. Next time, you’ll be meeting my OCD!