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10 Things to Do When You Can’t Stop Ritualizing

In OCD, “ritualizing” is performing some kind of activity intended to neutralize an obsessive thought.  It could be washing your hands, going to the bathroom again, or repeating a recent conversation in your head to reassure yourself that you didn’t offend the person you were talking to.  Or it could be parsing out a problem in your head, trying to prove to yourself that something bad you thought of won’t happen, because of x, y, and z.

Once you start ritualizing, it’s really, really hard to stop.  But you can stop, and you can stop before you get to the place where you feel like your head is going to explode, or you feel like you need to engage in destructive behaviors to make the thought go away.

When your head feels sucked into an OCD swirl because you’re on a ritualization loop, stop and take a breath.  Take four more breaths. Then, make a pact with yourself to stop ritualizing–for thirty minutes, for an hour, or for the rest of the afternoon. Then, try something from the list below to train your focus on something else.

I don't get stuck on this often anymore, but I've spent *hours* of my life checking to make sure I turned the faucet off before leaving the house or going to bed.
I don’t get stuck on this often anymore, but I’ve spent *hours* of my life checking to make sure I turned the faucet off before leaving the house or going to bed.


The idea here isn’t about pushing away the thought.

In fact, the last thing you want to do is push away your thoughts.  Pushing thoughts away tends to make them swing back like wrecking balls.  The idea of refocusing on something else is that you’re giving your brain some distance from the thought and giving it something new–and ideally, something enjoyable or challenging (the good kind of challenging)–to think about. But it’s a gentle activity: you don’t want to yell at yourself or yell at your intrusive thought. When you’re trying to refocus, if the thought pops up, shrug at it.  Say, “Okay, so I’m having that thought…” and go back to whatever it was that you were doing.


Eight Things to Do When You Want to Stop Ritualizing:

1. Go through Facebook, your Pictures file, and the catacombs of all your computer files, and pick out your favorite photos to have printed at the drugstore or by a new service like Parabo or Pinhole Press.

2. Create the best playlist ever. Imagine you are throwing an epic party: it could be a low-key holiday gathering, a bustling birthday party, or even your imaginary wedding.  Create a playlist of all your favorite songs, creating crescendos and valleys with slow songs and fast, euphoric songs.

3. Trick your brain into being on a mission.  Focus fully on your work and commit to doing an exceptional job for the next thirty minutes.  If you’re driving or doing chores, make a goal to be totally mindful.

4. Spend thirty minutes working on something thirty days in the future: apply to speak at a conference for people in your industry. Nominate someone in your life for an award.  Nominate yourself for an award! Enter a sweepstakes.

5. Google “celebrities with OCD.” You may be comforted to find Justin Timberlake, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Charlize Theron among our ranks. Even Winston Churchill.

6. Provided you don’t struggle with hoarding or cleaning, declutter a drawer or two.  Outer order equals inner peace.

7. Take on an engrossing activity: re-read your favorite book. Read your favorite trashy magazine. Read your favorite top shelf magazine. And every time the urge to ritualize pops into your head, say to yourself, “Yeah, I’m having that thought. I’m having an urge to ritualize. It’s just my OCD. Okay.” And then go back to reading about Kim Kardashian’s problems.

8. Tell yourself, “I’m teaching my brain something new.” Even if the urge to ritualize is interrupting your attempts to do something else like a child tugging at the hem of your shirt, you can say this really powerful mantra back.  When you make the decision not to ritualize, you are rewiring your brain.  You are rewiring a brain that doesn’t feel compelled to ritualize. You are teaching your brain that you don’t have to do this repetitive thing to feel okay. You are creating new grooves in your brain that will eventually lead to a more relaxed version of you.

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