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Get Yourself Back to Normal

When you’re upset, stressed, or anxious, do you know how to bring yourself back to normal?  Whether you consider yourself an anxious person, whether you have OCD, or whether you have an above-average ability to think yourself in circles until you’re sweating from stress, we all occasionally feel outside ourselves with stress. Sometimes a mood takes over. Sometimes we’re just plain agitated. When this happens, do you know how to bring yourself back to normal? Do you know what you specifically can do that helps you shake it off?

Having some self-knowledge and knowing what specific things you can do that act as a re-set button is empowering.  In fact, it may even be helpful to write down a list of what calms you down:

Tried-and-True Reset Button Remedies:

-Take a walk

-Get into nature

-Go running and listen to songs I have a happy, carefree association with

-Lose myself in my favorite comedian’s Instagram account

-Go somewhere where I know there are dogs, and ask to pet peoples’ dogs

-Watch an episode of a suspenseful, sucks-you-in TV show (like Breaking Bad or House of Cards) or a silly, escapist TV show (like Bob’s Burgers or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

-Put my phone on airplane mode and read a book

Tidy my apartment

-Swiffer my apartment

-Clean out a junk drawer

-Fold all my clothes and reorganize my dresser drawers



Seriously, Make Your Own List

When your brain is spinning out of control, it’s hard to go from sixty to zero (like if you were to try meditating at a moment you felt like screaming). What’s helpful about a list like this is that these activities are active and refocus your attention. What’s helpful about having a list like this is that when you’re having a freak out, if you try one of these activities and you feel better, great! If you’re still feeling agitated, you can try another activity, and then try another until you’re back to normal.

It’s also helpful to know what activities don’t help when you’re feeling agitated or make you feel worse instead of better. Personally, I find that going to the gym only has a 50% chance of being helpful. Half the time, if I show up cranky or anxious, I leave doing the shuffle. It’s exactly what I needed. The other half of the time, being in a loud, echo-y space with tons of people in my personal bubble and forcing myself to try to change my mood makes me seethe. So, the gym is not on my list; I go to the gym when I feel okay and don’t try to use the gym to change my mood.

When you can successfully self-soothe in healthy ways and come back to normal on your own, it makes having a slightly volatile temperament feel a lot more manageable.

So, what’s on your list?

In Praise of a Seasonal Bucket List

For those in the northeast, winter means staying inside, watching the snow through the windows, cozying up with a blanket, and reading a book while you listen to the whirr of your spaceheater. That is, it’s like that if you make a conscious effort to feel that way and create that scene. Realistically, winter looks like this cozy scene for sixty seconds while you take a photo for Instagram (#sundaymorning), and then you go back to being cold and coping with mild seasonal affective disorder. For most people in climates where winter is really a challenge, there’s a way to make the most of every season of your life: having a seasonal bucket list.

Let’s rewind: this past summer was the best summer I’ve ever had, and potentially one of the happiest periods of my life. It’s not because I was in a great new relationship (I actually swore off dating for the summer) or because I took a thrilling international vacation (I spent most of my free time hiking in western Massachusetts).  It’s because I sat down and wrote out a “sand pail list,” or rather, a summer bucket list.  I made a list of the specific things I wanted to do that summer, like go to art museums, go to the ballet, go see live music, read certain books, take a weekend vacation by myself, and start and finish a pleasant professional project. I kept my summer bucket list on my desk where I could see it every day. I bought tickets to shows, I wrote down on my calendar when I was going to which museum, and I carved out time to read. When that time came, I read or went to museums or I went to shows.  It was astounding to me how pleasurable it was to take all the things that I enjoy doing or wanted to try but “never got around to” and made plans to actually do them.

Excluding those who are avid skiiers and those who really, really love Christmas, winter isn’t most peoples’ favorite season. For those who struggle with mental health issues, the dark afternoons and cold temperatures aren’t helpful: the setting foments staying inside and isolating.

So, send a surge of power to your happiness circuits and make a winter bucket list (we can call it a “salt bucket list”).

If you’re not sure where to start, consider all the times you say to yourself, “I love ‘x,’ I just don’t seem to do it that often anymore’ and put them right on this list. If there is an activity that you enjoy, but it tends to require a bit of planning or a bit of outside-the-Saturday-night-box thinking, like going to live comedy shows or live jazz, it belongs on this list. If there’s a hobby you want to try, put it on the list!



If there are big tasks you want to accomplish and you sense that you’d feel amazing once you got them done, put them on the list, too. But, try to avoid letting your seasonal bucket list become a to-do list or full of resolutions. Instead, it’s about the sheer pleasure of identifying the things you really want to spend your free time doing, the meaningful fun, and finally doing them. To make finally doing them actually happen, schedule them. Once you have your list, sit down with your calendar and etch out what you’ll actually do when. Then knock down the walls of your comfort zone and go have fun!

In case you want some inspiration/ a place to start, here’s my 2017 Winter Bucket List:

  1. Go to the movies once a month
  2. Practice one new kind of self-care once a month, like getting a facial, going to the mineral baths in Saratoga, or sitting in the dry sauna at the gym)
  3. Practice a low-key form of self-care once a week, like doing an detoxifying face mask, taking a bubble bath, watching a movie (something I never do–I usually can’t sit still at my own home long enough to watch a movie, so this counts)
  4. Cuddle up with a blanket and a book for an hour once a week
  5. Outline Core Desired Feelings/ Goals with Soul for 2017
  6. Winter hike at White Rocks in Bennington, VT
  7. Go skiing as soon as soon as it’s sufficiently snowy
  8. Make epic New Year’s plans
  9. Go to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
  10. Plan 2017 trip to California


You Can’t Go Home Again

Frequently when I meet people with OCD and they tell me their story, I often hear the phrase, “so I went home again.” Taking shelter with one’s parents or other family members when one is first diagnosed with OCD, or during a prolonged OCD storm, is part of a lot of peoples’ stories, including mine.

But you shouldn’t do it. In fact, I’d argue, you should avoid it at all costs. I’ve met a lot of college students who have taken a semester off, or left mid-semester, to move back in with their parents because of OCD. I know 20somethings who have left their jobs to move back home while they regroup and find treatment for their OCD. I also know a handful of people who have moved back home more than once (“so I went home again”).

Alas, there are a few problems with going home:


1. Odds are good, “going home” won’t actually be restorative.

Picture a severely anxious person carving out time specifically to relax. While it would be lovely if that made way for a restorative or therapeutic experience, odds are good, that blank space would simply make more room for anxiety. OCD tends to fester if we’re not keeping busy. And many of us have probably had the experience of OCD flaring up during blocks of unstructured time.


2. “Going home” gives OCD power.

Part of why moving back in with your family isn’t a good idea—and part of why so many people go home “again”—is because pressing pause on our lives in an effort to heal from OCD paradoxically does the opposite: it gives OCD power. It’s retreating.

When you have OCD, the best thing you can do for yourself is to say, “Okay, so I’m anxious. I’m going to keep living my life.” When you “go home,” you’re doing the exact opposite.

When you find something to be scary or menacing, if you avoid it and run from it, it reinforces that whatever it is (whether that’s a snarling dog or a snarling thought in your head) is in fact dangerous, especially if you didn’t get close enough to explore it.


3. “Going home” may kill your confidence.

There are lots of benefits to living with family. You get to see your family, you get a slowed-down pace of life, and odds are good there will be more—or better—food than you tend to keep in your house. But odds are good, you will at some point resent that you live with your family. You may even feel like a loser. For that reason, keep your apartment.


4. “Going home” may put serious strain on your relationships with your family.

OCD is really hard for families. Family members’ reactions to a loved one’s obsessions can range from surprise, to irritation, to a full-on “Mama Bear”-esque desire to do anything to help. Alas, it doesn’t help things—on real-life level or a brain wiring level—when family members assure someone with OCD that there isn’t a problem or when family members participate in or help with rituals.

Most importantly, living with family will inevitably put a strain on one’s relationships. That’s too high of a price to pay.


5. “Going home” means you have so much more stuff to figure out.

Best case scenario, when you go home again, you find help and get better. But now you’re faced with the task of rebuilding your life. If you can return to your job and your apartment and your friends, that’s terrific. But it’s unlikely that everything will be so effortless.

During a prolonged OCD storm (an OCD hurricane, perhaps), the urge to flee and take shelter makes sense. It’s normal, even, to crave someone else taking care of you.


Instead, this is the time to prove to yourself that you can take care of yourself. You have a good life and you are willing to fight for it.

You are going to need to adopt a new way of living. You have OCD, and you need to master living your life, even when you have OCD. There’s no time like the present.
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You want to ground yourself in your life. The best way to heal from OCD is to keep calm and carry on.

When you’ve been diagnosed with OCD and you’re scared, or you’re having a prolonged OCD storm, this is the time to put down roots.

The Life-Changing Magic of a Daily Mastery Experience

This is a cool experiment. Want to feel more powerful and capable within the next thirty days, by picking up an easy habit? Have a mastery experience every day.

Do one thing every day that makes you feel accomplished or skilled, because you completed it. A mastery experience could be finishing a big work project, initiating a new project, getting to the gym, or installing the air conditioner. A mastery experience can also be doing something that you didn’t think you could do. (Such as installing the air conditioner! Or installing the air conditioner and choosing not to worry that it could fall out the window and kill someone). A mastery experience can even be any time when you focus on getting better at what you’re best at: devoting uninterrupted time to do work and build your skills. A mastery experience trains your brain to see challenges as opportunities to grow and get shit done.

I’ll get off my high horse: a mastery experience could be finally cleaning out your car. Mastery experiences can feel like seemingly insignificant things, but they make you feel like a boss once you accomplish them. You feel a sense of pride. You radiate a nice glow for the rest of the day.

mastery experience photo


So, create a system to have mastery experiences and enjoy that glow. Make a commitment to having some kind of mastery experience every day. Set an alarm on your phone and take sixty seconds every evening to consider what you did that day, that helped you grow as a person, that gave you an opportunity to learn something, or that gave you information that you could do something you didn’t think you could do. Make it a daily exercise in bravery… and soon, taking action to create a bigger and better life will start to feel like “just something you do every day.”

Keep Calm and Carry On

I have an article in Fast Company today on how leaders and entrepreneurs with OCD can leverage their coping skills to thrive in their careers. In researching and writing the article, I learned a fascinating story about the origin of one of my favorite quotes: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”


Winston Churchill was prime minster of the United Kingdom during World War II. The mantra the government encouraged British citizens to bear in mind during an era of air raids was, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Says leadership coach Kelly Ebner, “That seems like Churchill’s self-talk to me.”

I made the argument that for people with OCD, “Keep calm and carry on” can be the foundation of a thriving lifestyle, where OCD is simply a nuisance guest at the party.

Please do check out the article and share on social media!

Who do you have on your team?

Who do you have on your team? People who thrive have support networks. Support networks are people you can go to for advice, encouragement, and even collaboration when you have a challenge or goal. Most people have support networks for different areas of their lives (i.e. a professional support network, a personal support network, a mental health support network).

To put it in a fun way, you need a team. You need to have people who you can reach out to, who you know are rooting for you. These are people you can shoot a friendly email, just saying Hey and telling them what’s new and asking them about their lives. These are parents, mentors, friends, “friendtors,” former colleagues, people in your professional network, who you can approach to buoy you with advice or offer a listening ear when you need it. Even if you don’t approach people for advice often, it’s so important to know that your team is in place.

What if you read this and think to yourself, I don’t know enough people to have a team.

Are you sure? Can you dig deep into your past and list all the people you’ve interacted with in a meaningful context, who have supported you?

Sample team:

My parent

My coach

My sibling

My favorite cousin

My favorite aunt

A close friend from college

My best friend

My work best friend

My friend who is ten years older than me, who I see as older and wiser

My professional mentor

My downstairs neighbors


Now is the time to reach out and make those connections. (The best time to build your support network is before you need to lean on them for something) Reach out to people, say hello, ask what they’re up to, and offer to support their work in some way to get the conversation started. Ideally you can add value to the relationship in your own unique way. Ask, How can I help? And send lots of gratitude to the all people on your team.

It’s good to have a team.


What to Do When You’re Having a Freak Out


One major challenge of living with OCD is that you feel like there is a serious threat or a huge, major problem… when you intellectually know there isn’t one. Call it an OCD storm, a freak out, a tizzy, whatever. You know there is not actually a time-sensitive crisis, but you want to feel better now, so you’re thinking yourself in circles.

This disjuncture is maddening. You know there isn’t an issue, but it really, really feels like there is one.  And damnit, it’s Saturday! This is not a good day to have a freak out!

Here’s how to calm down and talk to your brain:

1. Establish that this is just OCD.

You know you have OCD.  You know that OCD is basically neurological malfunctioning.  The danger detection center of your brain says, “There’s a PROBLEM!” when there is no problem. Except right now, the problem feels so big and so dark, it’s like the last twenty minutes of a Harry Potter movie.

Take a step back and establish that this is OCD, and this might as well be a scary movie. Or a really dark children’s movie.

2. Pick a mantra.

You know that you don’t want to push away your thoughts.  That tends to make intrusive thoughts bigger. But you also don’t want to engage your thoughts or debate with them or invite them in for coffee. Articulate to yourself: “This is just OCD. This problem doesn’t justify a response. No action is needed on my part. I am going to go about my day.”  When intrusive thoughts pop up, nod at them, and use a mantra: “Okay, but no action is required on my part” or “Okay, but I’m just going about my day today.”  Accept the thoughts—don’t push them away—and then go about your day.

3. Do something really different.

Now it’s time to refocus.  If you have already started to freak out, you want to do something to reset your head.  So do something a little unusual.  Watch YouTube videos of reporters getting into laughing fits on air. Watch clips of your favorite standup comedian on YouTube. Think of one of your favorite songs that has unclear lyrics, look up the lyrics, and listen to the song and read along. Make a list of 10 things you’re grateful for.  Make a list of your top 10 favorite moments from your life.  If you’re out and about, give strangers compliments on their clothes.  See how many dogs you can pet in fifteen minutes.  (This alone–petting dogs for fifteen minutes– could mean freak out = averted)

Do something positive to change the channel.

4. Don’t Google the problem.

No matter how much you want to Google, for reassurance or for comfort, please don’t Google. Don’t give the “problem” another ounce of your energy.  If you can, close your laptop and do something else. If you don’t have plans for the day, make some. (And stick to them!)

5. Reach for support.

Usually, it’s best not to look to friends and family for reassurance around an OCD problem. Having someone else tell you it’s going to be okay means that you lose a teaching opportunity for your brain.  Each OCD thought or each OCD storm is an opportunity to teach your brain how to respond to anxiety, obsessive thoughts, or panic; knowing how to respond effectively and cope will in your brain’s muscle memory.

But, sometimes it’s okay to phone a friend.  It’s ideal to have a friend who knows you have OCD, who is happy to be part of your support system, who is cool with just listening and not trying to offer advice or solve the problem for you.  (If you don’t have a person like this in your life, ask someone!)

If you need to phone a friend, here’s a helpful sample script.

“Hi, do you have a second?… Okay, I’m having a freak out and I just need to sound something out with you…. It feels like I have a massive, urgent problem. But I know that there is no crisis.  It’s just my brain.  So as I have these thoughts, all day I’m going to say to myself, ‘Okay, okay, I hear you. It feels like there’s a catastrophe going on right now, but there’s nothing I need to do or think about today…’”

By stating aloud your gameplan to another person, it’s easier to hold yourself accountable.  It’s so easy to give in to a freak out–to spend the day thinking yourself in circles or to look to an unhealthy coping mechanism (like overeating or binge drinking) to take you out of the game for the day. But if you phone a friend and state your plan for the day–to be present, to say “Okay, so I’m having that thought,” or to just ride it out–you’re accountable for how you’re going to take care of yourself that day.  To take a freak out and turn it into, of all things, a mastery experience, is something to be really proud of.

What to Do When You Wonder, Is It Normal to…

…feel the way I’m feeling? If you want to fall into an excellent “Google black hole,” type the following words into Google search: Is it normal to…

Google will fill in what other Google users have searched for, when they’ve been unsure of whether the way they’re feeling or the way they’re reacting to something is normal.

In psychology terms, this inquiry is called “reality testing.” It’s taking yourself out of a situation and looking at it objectively.

If you want to get a better sense of whether your feelings or your reaction to something is normal, ask yourself:

In a group of 100 people my age and my gender, how many would have the reaction I’m having?


In a group of 100 people my age and my gender, how many would feel the way I’m feeling?

Use a the visualization  that works best for you: a busy city street, a sports arena, an airplane, or Grand Central Terminal.  Anywhere where you can picture 100 people.


What’s really neat about this exercise is that it provides pretty instant clarity.

If you say, “In a room of 100 people my age and my gender, how many would feel the way I’m feeling?” usually, your brain will serve up a clear answer, such as:

“…Only the ones who have OCD.”


“…Only the ones who tend to be high-anxiety.”


“…Most of them!”

Try it, the next time you’re asking yourself, Is it normal to… Not only does this exercise help right away with your current situation, but it also builds this valuable muscle. With enough repetition, you may not need to ask, Is it normal to…?  Instead, you’ll instinctively know if what you’re feeling is appropriate for the situation you’re in.

Anxiety Strategy: “I’m Just Gonna Ride It Out”

I recently got hooked on comedian Marc Maron. Marc Maron has a huge body of work: you can listen to his CDs on Spotify, his standup clips on YouTube, his guest appearances on Conan and the Late Show and his popular WTF with Marc Maron podcast. Maron has major anxiety… and he’s not afraid to talk about it.

Marc MaronMarc Maron carries around his emotional baggage like a celebrity holds on to her oversized handbag. He is a recovered drug addict and alcoholic: he was addicted to cocaine when he was in his 20s, trying to break into comedy in Boston and New York. Today, he’s sober, and an Olympic-level overthinker.  He describes the struggle of being too inside your own head as “thinky pain.”

Thus, it’s almost appropriate that the punchline from one of his more popular jokes could be used as a mantra to weather through OCD and anxiety storms.

Marc Maron tells a story that he recently ate way too much Chinese food, and his hand went numb. But because of his years of experience doing drugs, he didn’t panic. He just thought to himself,

“I guess I’m just gonna ride this out…”

When you’re gripped by an irrational fear or you’re in an extended state of panic, you may experience that when you analyze the problem and look for reasons why the catastrophe in mind won’t happen, the more you can feel your brain knotting tighter and tighter. OCD doesn’t respond to logic. You can’t rationalize your way out when the whole storm was caused by an irrational thought.  It’s better to just surrender to having a storm.



You can listen to Marc Maron on YouTube; his “Drug Wisdom” bit starts at 3:24.

An OCD-Heavy Day

It’s very normal for people with back pain to have some days where they feel practically limber and other days when their chronic pain is much more severe.  For migraine sufferers, sometimes they have a day–or a long stretch of days–with no migraines. And other days, they have migraines that knock them off their feet.  People with depression can have great days where the blue sky looks clear and gorgeous and all feels well in the world. And they can also experience days where they have no idea how to muster the energy, enthusiasm, or life force to pick up the takeout they just ordered. And it’s the same deal with OCD.

Whether you’re new to managing your obsessive-compulsive disorder or you’re an obsessive-compulsive disorder veteran, it’s normal to experience your symptoms to varying degrees on different days. Some days, your usual triggers may occur and you react to them as you usually do.

DentistOther days, your brain feels like it’s full of knives.  In the span of three hours, you may experience a trigger, get “stuck” on a thought, experience a steady sequence of irrational worries, and then have an intrusive thought that really disturbs you and pops into your head every three seconds.

There’s a natural response: Why is this happening to me?!

“David After Dentist,” 2008 YouTube celebrity.

Because it happens, unfortunately.  It’s the same way that people without chronic mood issues can unexplainably have a good day or a crappy day (there’s the adage: “Some days you’re the pigeon, other days you’re the statue” for that one). OCD can vary in intensity from day to day, without any warning.

It’s not a good idea to analyze each obsession that bothers you; instead, try to be as “chill” as possible about it.  Think to yourself, “Okay, so I’m having an OCD-heavy day. This sucks.  Okay, whatever…” If you feel like you are getting pummeled by your thoughts, ready your stance to take the punch so you go down gracefully.  “Fighting back” with OCD thoughts only makes them bigger and more complicated.  But if you can roll your eyes at your OCD thoughts as you go about your Saturday errands, and not feel shaken, you’ve paradoxically won this round. Because when you don’t take action or react to OCD thoughts, you’re actively rewiring the frontal lobe of your brain when your amygdala says there’s a problem.  Over time, this response–non-reaction, over and over again–will heal your OCD.

Naturally, if you sense that you’re having a really intense OCD day because you’re not fully acknowledging that someone is inflamed in your life, then it’s okay to pause and check in with yourself.  If you’ve been really stressed, or you’re avoiding a problem, perhaps that is making your OCD boil over. But usually, that’s not how OCD words.  OCD isn’t logical. OCD isn’t logical, given the way a fully-sane person can stare at an unplugged space heater, pulse racing, and not feel confident that the space heater is off.

It’s better not to look for reasons as to why you’re having a flare-up. It’s better to not validate the part of your brain that arbitrarily pulls the fire alarm.

Go about your day, practice good self care, and take solace that tomorrow will probably be easier. And if it isn’t–you’ll know how to handle it.

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