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 God damnit, it’s Saturday!
[I wrote this with people who have OCD in mind, but all of this also applies to anyone having 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 (I love John Mulaney’s bit about an out-of-control high school party). 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. Give a stranger a compliment.
Do something positive to change the channel.
4. Don’t Google the problem.
Seriously, please don’t Google. No matter how much you want to Google, for reassurance or for comfort. 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.
Personally, this happened to me a few months ago. I had a small, real life problem that did not require any action on my part. But it felt like I was being crushed by the pressure of this big, enormous problem, to the extent that it had become an OCD storm. I was sitting in the parking lot outside Whole Foods—where I went because I wanted to treat myself—taking deep breaths and trying not to fully freak out.
So, I used a lifeline and phoned a friend. This friend knows I have OCD and has agreed to be a support for me when I need it. (If you don’t have a person like this in your life, ask someone!)
The conversation went as such:
“Hi, do you have a second?… Okay, I just need to sound something out with you…. It feels like I have a massive, urgent problem. I’m about to cry. But I know that there is no crisis. It’s just my brain. So as I have these thoughts, 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…’”
My friend said, “Sounds good!” We exchanged goodbyes and got off the phone. If you look at our “transcript,” I didn’t tell her what was going on at all or ask for reassurance in any way. It’s important not to ask for reassurance. Instead, I simply shared my game plan with her, sealing it in.
And then I went about my day, and bought some sweet-ass palm plants* from Whole Foods.
*Despite my best efforts, the palm plants almost immediately died. But life goes on. And freak outs fade away.