Ever noticed how if you try to push something away it seems to come back even stronger? A common phrase in my work is “What you resist, persists.” And this couldn’t be truer than with anxiety, panic, OCD, and maybe just about any problem that’s fear related.
Repeated checking leads to “memory distrust” (Hout & Kent, 2003; Radomsky & Alcolado, 2010). You’ll hear it again and again from me and other specialists: compulsions and safety behaviors will always backfire, given time. What makes you feel safe but is not a valued safe pursuit (i.e., in line with your overall beliefs and goals, and what’s reasonable) will make you feel less safe.
Don’t Push Away Your Fear- It REINFORCES It
Think of a pendulum, with the ball being a perceived threat. As Reid Wilson, in Stopping The Noise In Your Head, brilliantly notes the following:
“Whenever we face a threat, if we decide ‘I don’t want this’ and try to get rid of it or push it away, we give Anxiety energy to hurt us. It’s true that when we feel threatened, our instinct is to protect ourselves. Feeling that urge is not the problem. However, we get into trouble when we decide that we never want to feel threatened like that again, and when we elect to get safe and comfortable by getting rid of any scary doubt that pops up about that theme. Once we make that decision, then any time the threat gets close, we push it away. If the threat returns, we push it away again. When we act on our intention to avoid the difficulties we need to face, we manufacture more fear, more symptoms, stronger symptoms, and a great urge to avoid.” (2016, pg. 25).
Bill Nye and Potential Energy
This is not that different from physics. Enter Bill Nye the Science Guy. I remember as a child watching the episode on potential/kinetic energy. It’s a fun watch. Check it out here:
When he lets go of a bowling ball on a rope, he placed it right next to his nose to start and doesn’t move. It appears like it will hit him coming back, but it doesn’t. Why? “It’s only going to have as much energy as we gave it….” The kinetic energy won’t be more than is given to it. Wow.
Anxiety/Fear Is Similar
We want fear in certain ways (keeping children safe from dangers, caution when driving a car, etc.). But fear will only have as much energy as we give it.
It’s important for me to make a disclaimer that there may be many reasons we give fear credit, such as biology/genetics, how our body responds (see Polyvagal Theory for ideas on this), and more. Feel free to check out “causes” of OCD in my full talk on ERP 4 OCD- Ultimate Guide to Treating OCD.
But there is another principle that appears to have immense truth to it: we make fear worse the more credit we give to it.
Recover- 4 Tips To Start
Recovery is all about changing our relationship to the things that keep us stuck. If that thing is fear/anxiety/doubt/uncertainty, here are four parting tips:
- Learn to notice, be mindful and present with thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
- Track/Monitor the ways you respond (behaviorally, mentally, spiritually).
- Assess and address your relationship to doubt and uncertainty. Learn to tolerate discomfort.
- Get help if you stay stuck.
Best wishes! Let me know in the comments what you found helpful and what else has helped you!
Bryan Henning says
Yes, and I know how hard it is to not resist those fears and anxious feelings. I’ll add in that I find it helpful, on top of ERP and other strategies, to have an action that I’m doing _instead_ of resisting those feelings that is not in any way targeted to alleviate them. From a spiritual angle, for me that looks like turning to God and asking very briefly what the next thing He wants me to do is, which might be anything from being of service to someone, giving a friend a call and praying for them, or being faithful to the work task that I have in front of me. I seek to persist in that task and keep looking for the next thing God wants me to do while the uncomfortable feeling is sitting there in the background. Hence, I may not be as efficient or effective in that task if I didn’t have the anxiety in the first place (which I can’t control), but it is still way more effective than getting stuck in a huge OCD loop. And I have found that most of the time the feeling fades fairly quickly, and I didn’t even notice when it left because I was doing the other task.
Hope that is helpful to some of you fellow OCD sufferers out there!
Bryan, thanks for taking the time to share, be vulnerable, and offer real-life, lived tips! That is spot on with one of the ways an OCD sufferer can live our their values while tolerating anxiety- all without giving into their fear. What a great distinction!!!