Teddy pumped the sanitizer bottle for the second time in three minutes. “I know, I know, it doesn’t help when I haven’t touched anything else, but I want to be sure. You never know these days, right?” Freda waits to enter gatherings and meetings until everyone else has shown up- “It just helps me know I won’t run the risk of embarrassing myself.” Hassan skips driving over tall bridges. “Maybe it adds time to my commute, but I once heard of a bridge that collapsed, so you never can be too careful.”
Clinically, Safety Behaviors (aka “False Safety Behaviors”) are “unnecessary actions taken to prevent, escape from, or reduce the severity of a perceived threat” (APA PsycNet, 2020). Pursuing safety in a healthy context is valuable and will keep you alive- this is why work sites have a key motto: “Safety First.” However, notice the word “unnecessary” in the definition of a safety behavior.
If you feel fatigued, are a procrastinator, overwhelmed, anxious all the time, or just "stressed out," safety behaviors may be at play. When people start to have problems with my opening examples, they may still think that their behaviors aren't necessary to consider or aren't harmful in any way. I know! It's really tricky to differentiate at times, especially when many things we do, depending on context, can be helpful OR harmful. But imagine if there's 1,000 little examples in a day of double-checking, reassurance seeking, second-guessing- every extra second spent, movement taken, or second-guess made leads to extra stress, processing, and/or energy. When a person has a disorder like Generalized Anxiety, PTSD, Specific Phobia, Social Anxiety, and more (in OCD call them by a different term: compulsions), safety behaviors must be addressed for robust recovery.
We can categorize safety behaviors into several different types.
Any of the above might be healthy for any one person. It must be functionally assessed (what is the function of a behavior or thought?) to determine if it’s helpful or pathological (disordered). Using sanitizer after touching doors in a pandemic looks different than outside the pandemic. Checking in on your Amazon order status with an important order may help you plan your day. Having a baby monitor you look at for fun or in case of emergency can offer flexibility and safety. But for every positive example of these, there's an example that feeds fear: compulsive sanitizer use, online checking, or obsessive fear about a baby's health. You have the opportunity to evaluate your own head and heart (and may I suggest having some help with friends in the know, a therapist, a mentor).
Let's take Social Anxiety Disorder. Jenny learned to "cope" with her social fears starting in adolescence by just saying she was shy when around people. She would avoid gatherings where she had to interact with people she didn't know well, get her family to talk for her, and always carried her phone in case she needed to put in ear buds and look down. When she got to college she began to realize that events and activities she wanted to do felt really difficult. Making friends was a substantial challenge and led to shame and anger at herself and others. She couldn't place her finger on it, but felt embarrassed when talking with others and would often feel hot, her face became flush, and she would slip on her words. Her answer was to avoid and go back to her dorm to listen to music, quickly feeling better. She would later replay interactions in her mind and would run multiple mental scenarios before any social interaction. Jenny didn't realize that these were avoidance, distraction, and mental rumination/checking. They are safety behaviors, and they made her anxiety worse- much worse.
In therapy, your history will be gathered and rapport ideally built with your counselor. People who come to see me are so often relieved they're not alone, crazy, weird, or bad for struggling. How treatment goes depends on the person and their condition being treated, but transdiagnostically, when safety behaviors impair or limit a person, well want to do three key things:
Here's a personal example of how I've integrated this CBT work into my own life. I have the actual ability to speak and teach in public, write articles, and provide quality therapy. At any given time, I have had/do have various triggers to fear. For example, I gave a talk that was highly rated by all attendees (5 stars by 95%). One person literally stood up and started openly disagreeing during the talk over one quote (from an evidence based source) I had shared. I still don't know what the problem was, because it was ultimately inconsequential to the big picture, but something apparently 'hit a nerve.' Though I was still friendly with the person came redirected to talk afterwards (they didn't take me up on the offer), I unfortunately let this impact me for a bit, avoiding talks for about 9 months after, ruminating on what I did wrong and could have done better, and scanning groups of people in case my "heckler" was ever there again. I was living in fear and giving into safety behaviors.
I had always expected my nerves would calm down a bit after giving talks for 5-10 years. But unfortunately, I hadn't yet integrated CBT work in safety behaviors into my life, and so my stress remained stagnant, though I did engage in my goals (which involves public speaking). At the almost 15 year mark of giving talks, I now work on cutting out rumination at times I don't need to be thinking (going to bed, in the bathroom before a presentation, etc.), saying yes to any talk that's within my goals and expertise, and so forth. And the result is striking. My most recent presentation I gave had me observing to my wife, "Hey babe, this is really cool- I had a couple hours this morning where I didn't even think about it!" Nor was I very stressed. This takes time and growth.
You don't require a clinical diagnosis to grasp the value and benefit of catching and releasing safety behaviors. In fact, there's so much potential for the tools that almost anyone can benefit from them, whether you want to learn to work quicker, be more gentle with yourself, increase your processing speed and/or general "bandwidth" of stress tolerance.
In Conclusion. So in our world (especially the Western world) where safety is everything, go ahead and take a pause and evaluate some of your thoughts and behaviors. Ask for feedback from someone you respect (or find someone who can speak honestly to you). Do you have any limits in any sphere of life from checking, reassurance, safety aids, avoidance, or mental maneuvers? Do people say you're "tightly wound," perfectionistic, demanding, or unrealistic? Are you overly cautious? Are most people around you doing things you'd like to do but just can't? Go find the ways you "play it safe" but don't need to, and your life will be better for it.
APA PsycNet. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2019-52029-002
Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1986). Emotional processing of fear: exposure to corrective information. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 20–35.
Blakey, S. M., Abramowitz, J. S., Buchholz, J. L., Jessup, S. C., Jacoby, R. J., Reuman, L., & Pentel, K. Z. (2019). A randomized controlled trial of the judicious use of safety behaviors during exposure therapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 112, 28-35. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.11.010
Behaviour Research and Therapy, 112, 28-35. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.11.010
Korte, K. J., Norr, A. M., & Schmidt, N. B. (2018). Targeting Safety Behaviors in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: A Case Study of False Safety Behavior Elimination Treatment. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 71(1), 9-20. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.20180001
Riccardi, C. J., Korte, K. J., & Schmidt, N. B. (2017). False safety behavior elimination therapy: A randomized study of a brief individual transdiagnostic treatment for anxiety disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 46, 35–45.
Salkovskis, P. M., Clark, D. M., Hackmann, A., Wells, A., & Gelder, M. G. (1999). An experimental investigation of the role of safety-seeking behaviors in the maintenance of panic disorder with agoraphobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 37, 559–574.
Schmidt, N. B., Buckner, J. D., Pusser, A., Woolaway-Bickel, K., & Preston, J. L. (2012). Randomized control trial of False Safety Behavior Elimination Therapy (F-SET): A unified cognitive behavioral treatment for anxiety psychopathology. Behavior Therapy, 43, 518–532.
Telch, M. J., PhD. (n.d.). False Safety Behaviors: Their Role in Pathological Fear. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://labs.la.utexas.edu/telch/files/2015/08/Safety-Behavior-Handout-latest-8.1.15-1.pdf
Wells, A., Clark, D. M., Salkovskis, P., Ludgate, J., Hackmann, A., & Gelder, M. (1995). Social phobia: the role of in-situation safety behaviors in maintaining anxiety and negative beliefs. Behavior Therapy, 26, 153–161.
I recorded a full length episode for the OCD Stories with Stuart Ralph, based in London, this summer. He just dropped the final version. You can listen FREE on all streaming platforms.
One of my goals was to speak in a way where most people could connect or find something beneficial in this podcast. I hope you enjoy!
This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
“You want me to do what?!” Many of my clients, and particularly for the sake of this article, Christian clients, are a bit surprised when I ask them to practice exposure. Repeating scary, terrible thoughts on paper or aloud. Doing things that feel risky. It seems as a clinician I’m disrespecting your beliefs and don’t really get it. Maybe I’m asking you to do something unbiblical, blasphemous, against what God would want. But what if I do understand and am helping you live in line with your beliefs? What if exposure is a powerful tool under God’s grace (Matthew 5:45) to help you get over a disorder?
The Great Hesitation. When some clients start their treatment with me, I come across familiar hesitations when we begin discussing Exposure Therapy and facing one’s fears:
Maybe. I of course do not know your (the reader’s) story, so I cannot say for you personally. Though, here’s the problem many of my clients run into: they are reinforcing fear every time they avoid and run from thoughts/urges/impulses/feelings that are out of fear rather than a want (see an important article on this for more: FACE fear, FLEE Temptation). Some basic science is in order here: when you fight and resist a thought, it persists (e.g., don’t think of the pink elephant, trying to get a song out of your head, etc.). That’s the way it’s supposed to work- a threat believed to be a threat is supposed to feel like a threat.
This is where exposure therapy comes in. As a summary, exposure is the systematic and intentional triggering of fear while minimizing- and ideally eliminating- all pathological responses. In the therapy process, when I start to introduce clients to the idea of sitting with fear mindfully and not fighting it, most have hesitations. “You’re telling me to do what?! You want me to repeat these horrific thoughts again and again?!” I get it; it seems paradoxical. Most people can rather quickly wrap their heads around an exposure to an overt situational fear (like holding a kitchen knife when you have an intrusive harm fear) but have a harder time understanding exposure for other “Pure O” intrusions, such as harm and scrupulosity, like the following:
The above are examples of intrusive thoughts; they are counter to what a person holds as their overall value and pursuit, or “ego-dystonic.” If you want to know all about treating these thoughts through imaginal exposure, check out the article “Flip the Script- A Guide to Imaginal Exposure.” And yes, I’ll tell you right now that if a person obsesses on the above or has ritualistic behaviors and avoidances, we are going to work with leaning into the discomfort of these, not ignoring them.
The clinical rationale. In all disorders featuring anxiety and fear, there is a problem with the system that signals something is wrong. It’s broken. Doesn’t work right. It’s a fire alarm that goes off when there’s no fire. A missile alert with no missile. Depending on fear, a person might feel a range of things: fear, disgust, anger, sadness, loneliness, dread, regret, chest tightness, racing heart, sweaty palms, neck and back tension, and extensively more. We tend to feel the feelings that a signal dictates. For example:
In disordered behavior, people become over-focused (or under) on a narrow set of experiences. People who are overly vigilant can run into some of the very problems they seek to avoid, or a different set of problems. Examples:
The Biblical rationale.
If we are to change the outcomes for people who suffer from disorders, psychology has developed some very solid tools. If you believe, like I do, that the Bible is God’s Word and is meant to have authority in your life, then you’ll likely need a good biblical rationale for exposure therapy. Here goes on my end, but I am going to ask you personally to dig in. This is your decision. Don’t rely on some therapist to tell you what to think- talk to God, pray, use the brain He’s given and be open to the teaching of trustworthy others (2 Timothy 4:2).
Truth is very important in the Christian faith (John 17:17; Psalm 145:18; Proverbs 12:22; John 4:24; 1 Corinthians 13:4-6). If part of being the church of Christ is to speak the truth to one another, including difficult things like anger (Ephesians 4:15, 26), I remind clients often that if you have intrusive, obsessive, or otherwise bothersome thought or feeling, being open about them and calling them out is simply being honest. It’s being truthful. God knows what’s going on in your head (1 John 3:20)!
When Philippians 4:8 is brought up, it is sometimes a “proof text” on how you “should always thinking positive.” That’s a remarkably short-sighted, superficial view.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
This clearly can’t mean to not think about negative things, evil, or something terrible. If so, we’d never be able to ask forgiveness of our sins by calling them out and repenting! One of the ways that we can think on things like justice, honor, love, etc. is by calling out the opposite: injustice, dishonor, and selfishness. It is in acknowledgement of problems that the solution can be instilled.
God knows our hearts (Proverbs 21:2; 1 Samuel 16:7; Jeremiah 17:10; Acts 15:8; Romans 8:27). If you’re afraid you might do something bad, do you believe God knows that? And if you’re going to do something bad and be unrepentant, then you aren’t going to repent, right? And if that’s the case, why are you trying? If you’re doomed, what’s the point in trying to change that? If there’s a chance- even if you don’t feel like it in the moment- just a small chance that you can take to God your innermost thoughts and feelings and get love and grace and forgiveness and peace and patience, is it worth it to you? Would you be willing to try?
Walking with God means we are “...casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Nowhere in the Bible does it say you will not feel anxiety or struggle with anxiety. It tells us how to frame it (1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6-8), that fear is not God’s heart for us (1 John 4:19), and that he loves us in it (each of these references prior reflects God’s gentle, patient love). The Bible is not a psychology textbook or methods and techniques class. While we walk with Christ, we learn to depend on God by faith. Sometimes that’s therapy, medication, prayer, community, repentance, exercise, gratitude, acceptance, rest, or any number of things.
Obviously, we are not going to find a passage that says, “do exposure therapy” (and of course, “pay good money for it”, ha!).
Compassion and Understanding to You
When clients come to me with thoughts and behaviors they are bothered by, the last thing they want to do is to look it squarely in the face or write it down or say it aloud (It’s called exposure for a reason). But in reality, this is what helps shine the light on it- calling it out in truth. It calls it to the table to do business. In the end, you must personally seek the Lord, and I hope through prayer, His Word, and community to determine what steps you will take in anything important in life. I do hope that if you can benefit from something like Exposure Therapy, you will find, as I have, that it is a tool, albeit human and imperfect, that God has graciously allowed us to discover, maybe like penicillin, insulin, the benefits of exercise, or Vitamin D.. May the created point back to The Creator and show His goodness and love.
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11, ESV).
“For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 b, ESV).
“...He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7b).
A few extra readings on the Biblical rationale for treatment (medicine and/or therapy):
NOTE: Emotional Content- Mature Readers Only Please
Imagine intentionally telling yourself- again and again- "Maybe I’ll get sick and die.” Or, “I’ll have a sudden urge to kill someone." Or, “Maybe I blasphemed God and will go to hell." What if your therapist asked you to repeat these things to yourself? Does that sound like negative self-talk? A cause for grave concern? Not if they’re intrusive thoughts. If they are, in exposure therapy you would most likely learn to repeat these thoughts over and over.
Why in the world would I do that?
This can be hard to understand. It’s initially counterintuitive. There is a purpose behind what I'm sharing, so stick with me! In fact, the purpose is so distinctive and powerful, that for many people, entering willfully into sitting with scary content is the only thing that will help them overcome tremendous fear and consequent suffering.
I'm referencing the use of Imaginal Exposure.
Are you a newbie to what OCD, PTSD, Anxiety Disorders, CBT or Exposure Therapy is? You will want to understand these before trying to grasp Imaginal Exposure- which might otherwise seem strange, weird, harmful, or negative. Done well, it's none of these. To those of us who use it every day, it's a high horsepower beast of a tool that ages like a fine wine- with time, discipline, skill, and determination the end product typically is first-rate. By first-rate, I also mean clinically first line treatment (highly recommended with the best evidence) for Anxiety, OCD, Phobias, PTSD, Social Anxiety, and more. Let’s jump in.
Exposure Therapy, in a phrase, is the systematic and intentional triggering of fear while minimizing- and ideally eliminating- all pathological responses. Imaginal Exposure accomplishes this with thoughts and ideas. It is done in the context of addressing unhelpful/pathological responses to fear. Hear me loud and clear: fear is a healthy emotion in context- we need to honor it when we use it in a healthy way. Exposure, though, is about facing fears that are creating problems for an individual- pathological (disordered) fears.
Think of a TV set. Friends. Frasier. The Office. It appears so real- so NYC, Seattle, or Scranton. Have you ever seen behind the scenes? It's funny what effect a studio tour or footage has on the mind when you have the "curtain pulled back." Imaginal exposure capitalizes on the brain's creative ability. We’ve done this for even longer as humans through verbal storytelling. It's part of what makes us wonderfully human. From a threat preparedness standpoint, the ability to imagine and conceptualize problems (like children getting injured or killed from a safety hazard) helps us think through problems and find solutions, when done appropriately. Imagination can be wonderfully delightful (a good book, a child’s creativity), highly practical (designing safety procedures), it can also become nefarious (a traumatic memory, a panic inducing nightmare, constantly running worst case scenarios).
If you have a phobia of spiders, the average person may think along the lines of Fear Factor, that old TV show that threw people in a literal pit with their feared object in order to “face” their fears. Rarely would that work, if ever, if you have an actual phobia- without structuring it appropriately and having "buy-in" to the process. CBT and Exposure therapists use a treatment plan and usually stair-step their approach (through a hierarchy) to inhibit the learned fearful response. Here is a sample hierarchy with arachnophobia (1 is easiest, 10 most difficult):
1-6 are actually Imaginal Exposures. They don't involve direct confrontation. In-vivo (situational) exposure (7-10) implements exposures in a real life setting. E.g., if you pathologically fear you will get sick and die from touching a door knob and not washing, the situational exposure is to touch the door knob ultimately and experientially test the hypothesis of “what if I get sick and die?” Many fears in life, though, either cannot be accessed through in-vivo exposure or have a strong mental component to them. Common examples are:
Why would these responses lead to problems? Simply put- they reinforce fear, disgust, and other strong responses out of context. We call these either compulsions or safety behaviors (unnecessary anxiety based reactions). A person who gives into them consequently learns they need these responses to protect themselves. Enter the heightened level of disability that sufferers of OCD, Anxiety, and PTSD face.
Here’s the good news. Exposure lets you gain appropriate control. It is learning to play offense rather than defense. It is very active, and it can lead to a greater sense of confidence and acceptance.
How do I do imaginal exposure? The first thing we do besides good education and understanding exposure is gaining a strong assessment- it must underlie good exposure. Know what you’re working with. Make a list of your obsessions or bothersome thoughts. See a specialist. Get educated. Get to know your symptoms, your motivations for getting better, and start a running log (monitoring) daily. Once you have a tally of key examples, placing them on a hierarchy really helps to get a road map and be realistic and also to monitor progress (like the one above for arachnophobia).
Once you’ve got your hierarchy, we consider conceptualizing the core fear behind an uncomfortable thought or action. Start simple; don’t overthink it. Here’s a “downward spiral” vignette for a person who fears they might one day “snap” and kill someone.
Therapist: So what about that bothers you?
Client: I don’t have control.
Therapist: So what?
Client: This terrifies me.
Therapist: So what?
Client: It may just happen, I might just snap, so I
need to be hypervigilant all the time.
Client: Yeah yeah, I get it. I suppose it’s impossibly tiring; I will always have to be in a careful state to make sure I don’t harm someone.
Therapist: Anything else?
Client: I don’t think so right now.
Therapist: This is the core fear we will begin basing your exposures on: “I must always be hypervigilant to not harm someone.” This is the hypothesis we will be testing experientially.
Once you have hierarchy examples in which you've identified your compulsions or safety behaviors, along with core fears, determining the type of exposure (In-vivo, Imaginal, and/or even Interoceptive or Virtual Reality- see The Four Types of Exposure Therapy) is important. The best exposure seeks to maximize learning and go as far as is needed to eradicate pathological responses.
Let’s take an intrusive, unwanted thought like, “What if I jumped off this bridge?” When it is ego-dystonic, imaginal exposure would seek to respond with a strategy like writing/saying/hearing/reading something like the following: “What if I jumped off this bridge?” many times and over many minutes, all the while sitting with the feelings without compulsing. Once a person can tolerate facing their fear at a lower level, they can then move up the hierarchy and face higher and higher ones, in this example it might involve riding in a car over a bridge. At a later point, they would likely want to visit a bridge and walk across, getting as close to the edge as would be appropriate. Pairing an imaginal script with the situational would address any thoughts the person attempts to suppress, neutralize, or avoid. Here is a sample hierarchy (incorporating in-vivo, imaginal, interoceptive- bodily sensation exposure, and virtual reality):
A good summary of these steps I usually take in exposure therapy can be found in my guide, “Thriving Mental Health.”
Scripting is observation in its basic form. It’s taking what you already fear and calling it out.
Popular forms involve scripts/stories, videos, and audio tracks/loops. Creative ideas:
How does it work? Why does it work? People smarter than me call this the mechanism of change. You’re going to love this response: we don’t know exactly how exposure works. We can theorize. There are roughly 6 theories (some are often combined) as to how exposure therapy works:
Problem Solving & Tips. There are small and large nuances alike involved in imaginal exposure. Here is a list of some key tips, but remember that this is one of the key benefits of a specialty provider of exposure therapy. You can additionally look at “10 Tips for Effective ERP,” which covers important details related to all types of exposure.
Catch All Compulsions. Mental compulsions and avoidance are compulsions. Reassurance from others (including your therapist) is compulsive. Learn to get rid of all of it. Distraction from fear is avoidance. Gotta catch ‘em all!
Conceptualize Your Core Fear. Skipping your core fear conceptualization.
Face, don’t Escape. Use your script to face fear- NOT escape fear. Anything to relieve fear in the moment can lead to reinforcing fear.
Remember the Framework. Face fear by sitting with it and/or don't pathologically respond. It might seem like you're allowing something bad (in fact, that's almost a guarantee you will feel this way). Dig into your commitments and motivations to stick with challenging exercises. Our goal is to go as far as your fear/disgust/etc. makes you run. However, sometimes we do go further with an exposure than thoughts go. We must seek maximum disconfirmation of fear, which means pushing exercises further than you initially want (because seeking relief and comfort and perceived safety got us in this mess in the first place).
Get Messy. Expect to mess up exposure. It’s naturally mucky, and no one does it perfectly. However, those who stick with it and keep working on it are more likely to achieve better results.
Get Support! You are a complex being in an interconnected world. You will likely need to incorporate various supports in your life for long-term success. Involve your loved ones. I get it- it will typically feel very odd to get your family members involved in scripting with you- but often remarkably helpful when your system is healthy and supportive.
Hard to catch. Many clients exclaim that predominantly internal OCD themes are very challenging to work with because they are so difficult to catch. True, at first. But they can be treated just as successfully, and once you know how to work with them, they are very treatable. In a sense, covert obsessions (“Pure-O”) and mental rituals can be more difficult to notice and catch than overt behaviors and processes like washing. But to be clear, OCD in any form is no cake-walk, nor do folks who have more overt rituals have it better, per se. They are just different. Also, there is always a mental process behind overt behaviors, which also must be addressed in treatment. Last of all, though all treatment is on paper the same, everyone’s experience is personal to them; certain themes (like sexual, religious, etc.) can lead to tremendously higher amounts of shame, guilt, anger, or any number of feelings.
Matching game. Match the script to the actual content of your thoughts that you need to face to overcome and maximize your strength training. Make sure the content of exposures fit with the content of your obsessions.
Prepare. A healthy mind is not made in comfort. Prepare to feel uncomfortable. The inverse of taking on too hard of exposures is not pushing oneself enough. The reality of scripting is that it can seem monotonous. It can seem really scary. It does trigger at least some distress.
Proper Dosing. When we utilize medication, we often consider dosing. It’s not a foreign concept for many aspects of life. Applied to cooking we measure ingredients, in learning a new subject we stair-step difficulty and measure as we go along. A lot of people come to mental health with expectations that deeply rooted patterns and habits, behaviors and thoughts will somehow magically vanish. We’ve got to be realistic. The more severe a case, the higher the “dosing” is typically needed for therapy and exercises. I often point out that if you have 4 hours of compulsions/safety behaviors rituals per day, you will need to get to the point where this number is ideally zero. The “dosing” then of treatment is a lot higher than someone with 1 hour of these pathological responses.
Relapse Prevention Planning. When you’re feeling better, don’t just move on and say, “Thanks, it’s been fun!” Have a plan. Develop this with your team.
Strength Training. One of the most significant errors clients report to me prior to therapy was trying to “lift too much weight” consistently before they were ready. If you can’t face a level 3 on your hierarchy without compulsing, you’re not ready for a level 10. But as soon as you know how not to compulse or do a safety behavior in the face of fear, CONGRATS!! This is one of the greatest achievements, and now you can move the ball forward with other examples.
Type Matters. Remember that though we are discussing Imaginal exposure, it is usually best to make sure to do in-vivo exposures with things that you can face in real life. Though you can always pair imaginal with situational, you must go as far (or further) than your obsession goes.
Fin. Imaginal exposure may seem odd, counter-intuitive, and harmful at first. The reality is that it's just what the doctor ordered to start playing offense with problems and not be a victim of cycles of fear and relief. If you've made it this far, you've got some guts. I hope you've been encouraged. Let's do this.
The Guide above is provided entirely for free to newsletter subscribers.
One of my first questions to a professor in my earliest IOCDF BTTI (Exposure Therapy training) at Massachusetts General Hospital was, “What happens if someone actually gets sick after a contamination exposure?” I haven’t forgotten the simplicity of the answer that went something like this: “People get sick all the time. Yes, that might create some additional hesitancy to face exposures at first, but you have an incredible opportunity for learning.” Life involves not only facing bad things that don't happen, but also bad things that do.
Exposure Therapy involves the systematic confrontation of fearful triggers while reducing and eliminating fearful, pathological responses. In the end, it can relieve a lot of suffering.
During this global pandemic of COVID-19, people actually are getting sick. One might not think the principles of exposure therapy would apply (i.e., "Don't you do exposure therapy for risks that don't happen?"). Quite the contrary. I believe exposure therapy provides one of the best evidence-based ways forward, helping us stand up to fear we need to squarely face. So today, whether you have a disorder or not, there is an opportunity for learning and growth in the face of COVID-19.
This guide, "Thriving Mental Health Alongside COVID-19," is dedicated to my clients and the IOCDF and provides a thorough summary of the main steps of Exposure Therapy with me, with key tips for general mental health. May you be enriched by this!
Whether you have a mental disorder or not, there is an opportunity for learning and growth in the face of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). Now, more than ever, we need stable footing to stand on. People go to every extreme. You don't have to. Mental health is about being grounded in reality, insomuch as we can grasp it.
Getting sick will happen. Yes, people die. Relationships break up and fail. Businesses go under. We might get it wrong. However...many people can experience health. Some people live with purpose and to the full (which is not the same as perfect). Relationships can be incredible. Businesses can thrive. We can get things right.
When I utilize the method of Exposure Therapy in counseling (a subset of Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), it involves the systematic confrontation of fearful triggers while reducing and eliminating fearful, pathological responses. It is Gold Standard treatment for OCD & Phobias, and is a first line treatment for all Anxiety Disorders and PTSD. What we think happens is that relearning occurs, which for most increases confidence and decreases disruption in life when they follow the treatment. Exposure, then, gives us two opportunities:
2. To learn we can face it anyway.
Its principles connect us to some of the best of life: face the thing you have reason to face; gain the opportunity to live more fully.
This guide is a very brief summary of the main points of the exposure therapy process with me, particularly with clients who have OCD and Anxiety. Many of my clients actually are faring better in this crisis than people I have talked to and seen in the general public- and why wouldn't they?! They've been training and learning- and now it's game-time.
Click "Read More" for a Summary
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), the gold standard treatment for OCD, can be fairly straightforward once understood. However, certain nuances are crucial for facilitating learning, growth, and maximal fear disconfirmation (fancy terms for successfully overcoming fearful responses). Here are 10 tips- click on the picture for a downloadable version:
Adapted from: Abramowitz, J. S., & Jacoby, R. J. (2015). Obsessive-compulsive disorder in adults. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.
If you have a child, significant other, or friend who has OCD, you likely know the suffering it can create. Or maybe you don’t; that’s okay. The unfortunate reality for most clients once they appear in my office is that OCD has culminated in tremendous levels of stress and disability. 14-17 years from the onset of OCD is the average needed to obtain evidence-based treatment. By this time, OCD is typically well-developed. Sometimes, it can function under the level of awareness, even when severe. Family members often feel guilty that they missed it for so many years. You are not alone. This article presumes basic knowledge of OCD, so if you are brand new to the topic, I recommend a primer, such as the following on my OCD Resources page: Intro brochure, ERP for OCD Presentation, and the IOCDF’s “What You Need to Know About OCD”
OCD is an extremely debilitating disorder as a whole, ranking as one of the top ten medical and mental illnesses in the world- right alongside such things as Heart Disease, Major Depression, and COPD, according to the World Health Organization. With 2 out of 3 people reporting severe impairment at some point in their lives (e.g., work, relationships, school), you can count on OCD to create an ever increasing set of problems- without effective treatment. Furthermore, around 90% have at least one comorbid mental disorder, such as Major Depression, Panic Disorder, or a Substance Use Disorder. OCD has a tendency to make sufferers “hostages"- feeling stuck in an ever-narrowing loop of behaviors and/or thoughts that usually seem nonsensical to the person themselves, which tends to drive even more shame. Families and support are collateral damage. It is crucial to identify the threat and connected suffering of OCD in order to fully address its impact- and to have the proper perspective and motivation in getting necessary treatment.
Do Your Research
Attempt to really understand your loved one’s suffering, and understand how to help, howa not to help, and how to stay healthy yourself. Finding effective support and treatment is crucial. You don’t have to have diagnosable OCD to be an incredible advocate. Myself and a majority of my OCD specialist colleague/friends do not have diagnosable OCD. Knowing treatments that are effective helps to stay grounded and focused. In short, a specific subset of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) known as ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) is the Gold Standard in treatment. SSRI medications (and clomipramine, a TCA) are used as the first line psychopharmacological treatments. Supportive psychotherapy is not evidence-based first-line treatment for OCD. You may love a counselor who is very supportive, but if they’re not doing some sort of exposures or behavioral experiments, and there’s not a noted clinical reason why they cannot, consider an OCD specialist, because they are not following clinical practice guidelines. Again, check out my Intro Brochure and ERP for OCD Presentation for more on the research and specifics.
Make the Unseen Seen
Taking OCD seriously involves seeing it- and you may help your loved one see it more clearly through your loving support. When it is beneficial to a client, I almost always recommend involving a supportive loved one at some point in treatment. We would consider it odd or unusual not to involve a family member in many other medical treatments. A major challenge with mental illness is making the unseen seen.
Be Realistic With Expectations
One of the roles I serve is setting expectations. Consider how a coach might observe, teach, encourage, and challenge based on a fitness or performance goal. I know OCD from the inside; you can, too. I want to prevent “injury” from occurring in clients who are overeager and might overwhelm themselves jumping in unrealistically- in order to make progress quicker than their skill and training can support. I’ve seen this occur when clients start with the hardest thing they can imagine doing without the support to do it- they usually get burned out or drop out of treatment altogether if they don’t redirect this focus into systematic, consistent, and sustainable work. Conversely, some sufferers have low motivation or may be depressed. Walking together in the trenches and valleys, I seek to boost their perspective to know there is hope when they don't feel it. You cannot “cure” / overcome core fears in OCD with a single exercise, so pushing a loved one to do something they are terrified of can backfire- reinforcing fear vs. disconfirming it; we need to consistently, systematically face fears by addressing with a strategy and a plan.
Be careful to not underestimate how much of a problem OCD can create- and in turn, how much work and growth is needed to learn to say no to all the compulsions that exist for an individual. When there are additional treatment factors (comorbidity and severity, among others, negatively influence outcomes), they can complicate the learning and growth process . Probably the most common error I see in practice is an underestimation of how much treatment and work is needed to accomplish clients' and families' goals (e.g., in terms of number of sessions, practices at home). We also want to be realistic about outcomes, i.e., getting better. Though the treatments for OCD are highly efficacious for most and can be life-changing in a short amount of time for some, practicing patience in your individual situation is key. No one case is exactly alike. You as a family member can help spell out hope or chaos in expectation-setting- helping your loved one in staying the course without being overly idealistic or nihilistic in their views of getting better.
Facilitate buy-in by reinforcing the principles of what it takes to get better. Validate growth- and always validate the person's value and importance, no matter how much they struggle. Remember to encourage yourself, too!
Support: Don't Accommodate or be Emotionally Explosive
Support needs to strike a balance between being overly-accommodating and overly-emotionally expressive (outbursts, hostility, negativity, etc.). The well-researched terms we use to describe these are Family Accommodation (FA) and Emotional Expression (EE). Break the Cycle!! Don’t Do Compulsions for them (by proxy). Begin (with a plan) to minimize your accommodation. Typically in therapy, I help to incrementally get rid of accommodation altogether without “pulling the rug out” too fast (i.e., in one day). Therapeutically, all client rituals must ideally be terminated to maximize outcomes. Helping a loved one ritualize only feeds the cycle. Don’t Give Reassurance. To do this well, you often need to be involved in the prior steps this article elucidates. It can be tricky to know what is reassurance and what is not. Ask questions of your loved one. If they are not open to sharing, you may have to do your best to set your own boundaries, make an informed guess, and base your limits on your own personal boundaries until they're willing to communicate further. Part of feeding obsessions involves engaging the content of obsessions with logic, emotion, and reactions. The person with OCD must learn to live their goals and values without following the content of obsessions. Be careful not to get pulled in, either through accommodation or emotionality. Offer to go to therapy with your loved one if they are willing. You can also gain much support by doing your own therapy, as well! Part of support may be helping covering costs of therapy. Just to be clear- you get to have your own emotions, whatever they are! But EE refers to when these emotions are expressed in harmful ways.
Make Space for your Own Growth and Boundaries
You are a person with your own thoughts, feelings, life to live and decisions to make. Having healthy boundaries for yourself and family is very important. Helping does not mean loss of your own identity and responsibilities. It is not over-extending, nor is it avoidance of problems. Review the chart above. Your situation is your situation; there is a lot of similarity and variety (homogenous and heterogenous) to stories around OCD. You will likely be encouraged at how others feel similarly; but you also have unique factors that make your story your own- be careful not to compare unnecessarily. For goal and boundary setting, Contingency/Behavioral Contracts might be helpful, especially if you are responsible for someone with OCD (i.e., a child), or if you just need clear guidelines of involvement (how and when to discuss obsessions, financial support, reinforcements and privileges, etc.). Your own support and therapy can help you with you own growth and boundaries. Refer to the IOCDF’s excellent tool to “Find Help.”
You can be a crucial source of ongoing recovery, similar to how a coach or trainer might help. We all need reminders, especially in dealing with a consistent need (exercise, diet, and chronic disorders). You can be part of the team surrounding a sufferer to help them be aware of any new compulsions or problems that may arise. You may want to communicate with them in advance about how to best bring up concerns when they are observed. You can be part of the team that cheers them on and helps with motivation! Remind them of their values and why they want to grow (i.e., to go to school, work, not be controlled by OCD, feel better, enjoy life, help others, grow as a person, etc.).
Practical Tools for You
I often have my parents and significant others complete several documents and incorporate various tools. Each situation will vary, but commonly I use:
If you have made it this far to read this article, you are quite likely a key support of someone who has OCD. It is then very likely that you care and want to make a difference. You rock. Keep up the good work.
Calvocoressi, L., Lewis, B., Harris, M., Trufan, B. S., Goodman, W. K., McDougle, C. J., & Price, L. H. (1995). Family accommodation in obsessive compulsive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 152, 441-443.
Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
Gillihan, S. J., Williams, M. T., Malcoun, E., Yadin, E., & Foa, E. B. (2012). Common Pitfalls in Exposure and Response Prevention (EX/RP) for OCD. Journal of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, 1(4), 251-257.
What You Need To Know About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved February 2, 2020, from https://iocdf.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What- You-Need-To-Know-About-OCD.pdf
An editor for the American Counseling Association reached out to me about OCD from a Specialists' perspective. (I was so proud of them for doing their research with multiple specialists!!). The following are excellent questions that may help inform their ACA magazine article in February 2020. Whether they utilize any of these or not, I hope they are helpful for you as they cover important questions to consider with regard to treatment.
"What presenting issues might bring these clients into counseling?"
"What are some “red flags” for counselors to listen for that might indicate OCD in a client who came in for something else (anxiety, ADHD, etc.)?"
If a counselor begins hearing the exact same things, worded or behaved in similar ways, this is a good indicator to watch out for. Many of my clients are good at exactly quoting themselves on what they've said before. Obsessions are repetitions on a theme; if you get good at catching the theme, you can usually spot an obsession miles away.
At its core, it's not remarkably difficult to identify criteria in OCD (in most straightforward cases) if a counselor brushes up on what they're looking for (dust off that DSM-5!).
Furthermore, if a client isn't improving from certain methods (especially things like Cognitive Restructuring in CBT), this is "Getting Stuck 101" and needs further assessment. Most of my clients have had prior experience with a counselor who had no idea how to treat OCD from an evidence based way and approached the same as regular old automatic negative thoughts. This is not typically helpful.
"What counseling methods/techniques can be helpful when working with clients with obsessive behavior and/or OCD? Please explain how this/these method(s) work well for this client population. If possible, please talk about a case example (without identifying information) who worked with you and showed improvement. What were his/her presenting issues, what methods did you use and what issues did you focus on in counseling sessions?"
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is the GOLD standard treatment (which is a very specific subset of CBT). It is indicated as the starting point for all OCD treatment. This is a strong statement, but it is backed by the research (the most RCTs by far) and organizations like the IOCDF, APA, and so forth. SSRI (and Clomipramine, a TCA) medications are also first-line psychopharmacological treatments, though with less effect on average than ERP. Both combined can be helpful, though may not necessarily increase the overall benefit of just ERP alone. Another first-line treatment for OCD (though not the "gold standard") is Cognitive Therapy with Behavioral Experiments. Along with medications, it is seen as sometimes a more agreeable option for those who are hesitant to engage in exposure therapy (which intentionally and repeatedly provokes distress in order to respond differently- i.e., without compulsions).
Adjunct therapies, medications, and treatments are utilized. In the interest of brevity, research has discovered the integration of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Motivational Interviewing (MI), and other techniques can be helpful to provide well-rounded treatment and/or facilitate the practice of ERP.
To share a classic example [identifying factors changed to protect confidentiality- this type of case is remarkably common], one woman came to me with severely distressing thoughts about harming her children (no history of harm or abuse). She knew it was irrational, yet it felt so real to her; the more these intrusive thoughts continued to appear, the more difficult it was for her to determine her intent from confusing feelings and "impulses" to stab her kids. Upon receiving a diagnosis of OCD, I thoroughly assessed history with symptoms, and educated on the CBT model for understanding OCD treatment with a rationale for CBT and ERP. We discussed medication options, to which the client was willing to pursue with their Psychiatrist. The client was very cooperative due to a high willingness and intrinsic motivation to be able to engage at home with her two children and spouse. As can be very typical, the stress also took a toll on most every area of life, making work difficult. Once we began ERP, we started with doable exposures while learning how to stay present with triggers and distress- without compulsing. Upon successful practice of more manageable triggers on their hierarchy, they- with the incredible support of their spouse and church and loved ones- made a jump in their exposure work that began with "scripts" (imaginal exposure stating/writing distressing thoughts and quickly progressed to holding knives and stating these feared thoughts aloud) and transitioned to practices situationally at home, holding knives and saying scripts aloud (in separate rooms appropriately not in front of their young children). The incredible support around this client, along with a sense of strong purpose, helped facilitate (this is part of ACT) the integration of ERP into daily life. They would be considered recovered at this point, scoring so low on the Y-BOCS (gold-standard assessment in rating severity) that their symptoms are sub-clinical. In relapse prevention planning, they understand the chronic nature of OCD and the necessity of staying on top of their good progress, with the plan to follow-up at occasional intervals for "booster sessions." I gain so much joy from stories like these.
"People with an OCD diagnosis may be taking medication and seeing other professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists). How could a counselor work in tandem with these other professionals? Please include a case example, if possible."
Coordinating care can be difficult, but worth it for the best client care! Although seamless communication and record exchange between providers is likely ideal, it just rarely happens in real life. Working within the space and limits that exist, I have found that outside of those very few therapists and Psychiatrists I can have near immediate communication with, it is still very helpful and feasible to at least request/give one way communication to a provider. In complex cases, it is almost unheard of for me to not outreach another provider that is connected somehow to shared treatment concerns. I think we need to be realistic about other providers' schedules and communicate what we can- how we can. This often looks like me leaving a Psychiatrist a voicemail after release is given- and not hearing back- but at least they have the information. It may be coordinating with another therapist who is treating other concerns. Early on, I used to welcome other counselors working at the same time on separate diagnostic concerns. Though I may work with someone now who is seeing another professional for something like, say, Depression, it is usually quite imperative that I make known to the patient and also the other provider the pitfalls of feeding compulsions through reassurance, ruminating, and so forth. This is a great opportunity for education of those who are not specialists in OCD. But OCD being as debilitating as it is (2 out of 3 people experience severe impairment at some point in their life), I need to work hard upfront to educate especially the patient about how hard they will need to work (and not undermine) their exposure therapy. Also, many other comorbidities can often improve significantly just by treating the OCD first.
"How, particularly, are counselors a “good fit” for helping clients with obsessive behaviors? How can they help people with OCD differently than a psychologist would?"
It has been my personal experience that my colleagues who are counselors (Master's level, typically), bring to the table incredible creativity and "outside the box" thinking. Many of the hands-on resources, videos, blogs, and social media that exist to help the sufferer of OCD often come from Master's level clinicians. I believe there is great flexibility many of my counselor colleagues have (which is a positive and a weakness all at the same time, sometimes lacking the rigors of adhering to the evidence based treatment protocols).
There are actually quite a few more Master's level clinicians than Psychologists, and there is a great need for more clinicians offering great treatment. Counselors can help fill this gap.
"As a practitioner who specializes in working with OCD, is there anything else you would want counselors who don’t specialize in this area to know?"
For many reasons, I love work with clients who have OCD. I have found they are some of the kindest, hardest working, conscientious individuals on this planet. This is where I believe many of their personality strengths arise once moving through pathology. It is a joy every day to see recovery, growth, and maturity bloom out of suffering.
"Any main take-aways to share?"
OCD Treatment can be so rewarding! It has very effective treatments for most, very clear evidence, incredible improvement that can be witnessed in a short period of time, and there are wonderful opportunities to get invested in this world with a community of professionals, sufferers, and supporters who are incredible.
~Justin K. Hughes
Those who know me know that I see people as individuals and hate to make generalizations. However, it seems to me that those suffering from OCD are among the kindest and most understanding people I have ever met.
This post was originally published on 02/13/2014 on my wordpress and is newly updated.
“Why can’t I stop thinking about this?” “Why can't I stop? I know it doesn't make sense.”
William went to the Middle East after his unit was deployed from Ft. Hood. Most of what he heard about soldiers’ experiences were rumors and media stories- he had no way to be prepared for what would happen. After nearly 6 months of swallowing sand stirred up by 110 degree winds, William had 5 days left until he would return home. Momentarily losing his hearing, all his senses were shaken when an IED tore shrapnel through his three closest friends. They were dead. Just like that. After being rushed by helicopter for triage medical care, William soon discovered he only narrowly missed death- the same shards of nails and rocks that killed his friends were found inches away from where he stood.
Returning home is where cleaning up the fragments took the longest. After being debriefed and allowed medical and family leave, Bill struggled getting back to civilian life. Some of the most difficult times he faced were trying to overcome his own unexpected reactions to situations, usually late at night where he would awake from a noise, pulling his wife down from the bed onto the floor to take cover. When he became calm, he was covered in sweat, visually stunned by recalling what had happened weeks before- and so embarrassed to be dragging his wife- literally- into the center of his problems.
This is trauma. This is the story of William’s PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Hopefully his story can help bring understanding to struggles faced by those dealing with trauma and respect for our service men and women.
It’s not very difficult to have some sense of empathy for William’s situation. It’s often much harder to understand another very real and very overwhelming problem. It is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). You may be curious why this article spends so much time talking about PTSD, only to discuss OCD. Two reasons. OCD actually has some similar features and neurobiology to PTSD, and secondly, if we are to listen to the struggles of others, often we must start with something we do grasp a little more readily.
Whether a person is triggered into feeling distress from trauma or obsessions, their brain is becoming hyperactive in warning of a threat. This wonderful system when working properly can be nightmarish when the reactions surface out-of-context. Think of the panic you would feel if you saw someone almost being run over by a car- your fight/flight/freeze response would activate and prepare the body and mind. Now imagine it occurring at random times and being uncontrollable.
Despite popular references of, “I'm so OCD” and “He really likes the house OCD clean,” [FYI, OCD is not an adjective] this diagnosable mental health condition is a serious disorder- and far beyond a person’s immediate ability to just “stop it.” Because the anxiety and distress a person with OCD feels is so bothersome and intrusive, they naturally seek to alleviate it- sometimes with elaborate mental rituals to “do away” with the anxiety (e.g., counting, prayer, neutralizing statements) and sometimes with physical compulsions and avoidance to feel better (e.g., “I feel anxious when someone touches my clothes and need to change and wash them immediately”). To some people, this sounds "crazy." But in our age of neuroscience (and OCD is remarkably well established), we cannot deny scientifically the paint and suffering involved in the sufferer's life. Their mind- and often body- SCREAM with discomfort until they do something to alleviate it. And the compulsion works! Momentarily, at least for a bit. It problematically, though, reinforces the learning, connections, and neural pathways linked to disorder as opposed to reinforcing healthy, non-compulsive behavior.
To stand up to OCD, a person needs to ultimately eliminate all compulsions. What do we make of this? Do we expect the person with PTSD to just jump back in to just get on with their lives? Nope. Let me be clear with OCD (and this is also true of PTSD).
There is hope and very effective treatment.
We don’t have to understand, ultimately, to love. As many as 1-3 % of the population wrestle with this. Look around- that’s someone in your neighborhood or at the restaurant where you ate. Will you lend a helping hand to those who suffer? I will.
Justin K. Hughes
Check out more resources on my page dedicated to them:
This video and guide below were specially formulated to help you be mindful in an "Exposure-Friendly" way.
This one's a bit different from the average mindfulness practice you might be familiar with. The reason it's called "Exposure-Friendly" is that it is specially designed to help a person be mindful of whatever they are experiencing, not just attempting to feel better. This is a hallmark of exposure therapy: being able to tolerate distress without engaging in pathological responses (rituals, safety behaviors) that negatively reinforce fear. Distractions and relaxation when facing our fears can backfire (see the research at the end of the Guide). So if we need a different set of tools to face fear, here's one of them. I hope it helps.
Music: As Leaves Fall
Thanks to Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash for this beauty!
Perfectionism and OCD
What is perfectionism? Oxford dictionary defines it as “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” That’s automatically problematic. Perfectionism leads to a circumscribed focus, stress, and suffering for not only individuals, but for loved ones nearby who feel the weight of being perfect.
Is this the same as OCD? Nope. OCD and perfectionism often get confused. They both can affect and drive distress in one another, but they are separate. OCD involves unwanted (intrusive) thoughts, urges, and impulses that cause distress; furthermore, compulsions are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that attempt to reduce distress or prevent something bad from happening. Perfectionistic manifestations of OCD, often referred to as “just right / not just right” fit this categorization. Separately, in Perfectionism, someone pursues “perfect” thought, behavior, or action initially out of interest or enjoyment (rather than to suppress an intrusive thought/urge/impulse, like in OCD). There are typically problems that go with this, however. So a difference between the two is that OCD is ego-dystonic and Perfectionism is typically ego-syntonic (you can check out my video here explaining the difference).
Examples of perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors[4,5]:
I am a "recovering" perfectionist. And it’s a problem when I’m not, well, “recovering” from it. One of the mechanisms that keeps perfectionism going is the belief that it is helpful (this is a “Positive Belief” about perfectionism, and it is a cognitive distortion). When I succeed at a task- and especially if I get a lot of praise, it is a natural reinforcer that I must be doing well. However, if I spent 8 hours researching, writing, and proofing this blog today, that is problematic for me at this point in life (and I easily can spend that much time). What is a problem or not sometimes depends on the person and their situation- maybe a journalist would spend that much time or even more, but I am a full-time clinician with a family, church, volunteer involvements, and hobbies. If I make this post “perfect,” in my perfectionism, I will seriously miss out on other things.
This pursuit of perfection doesn't stop with one blog post. It will always generalize if allowed. So if I let it, the pressure of perfection will continue (and does, at times) to move on to other things like caring for my home, caring for people in my life, my relationship with others, my diet, exercise, my spiritual walk, my car, money, and so on. And being honest with you, these things are tied up in anxiety and simultaneously selfishness- attempting to control these things rather than to engage with them/others in a meaningful way by learning to lean into the fear and live based on what is valuable.
Parenting is probably the single biggest event that pressed me with the realization I need really challenge my perfectionism. There are two stark realities to me in life: I can either do my work/relationships/home life/etc. “perfectly” and end up in an ever narrowing scope of anxious overwhelm trying to keep all the balls in the air, OR learn to tolerate the distress that comes doing things "not just right" and focus on the big picture, growing towards what I love and value. And the reality usually is that in time, this fear habituates when not engaging in avoidance, rituals, or control strategies.
Whether in therapy or personal life, to change how I behave and think and respond in life, I need to be aware/monitor what it is that needs to change (good therapy, support, and resources such as on my website can help). Even if I know what needs to be done, if I can’t effectively observe and catch it when it occurs, I will not be able to change it. Next, I will need tools and strategies to effectively grow and mature. In therapy, some of these are Exposure Therapy, Cognitive Restructuring, and more. In essence, at the point of the problem I must be able to insert the solution- and consistently. Lastly, I want to continue to monitor and gain feedback to incorporate learning and solidify growth. I don’t want to oversimplify this- if you are having a problem with any of the areas I have discussed, please reach out to a competent trusted person and/or therapist.
Today I gave myself the time limit of 3 hours- start to finish- to research, write, upload and post. And it’s simultaneously stressful and joyous at the same time. I’m going to do a behavioral experiment and keep doing it- “testing” whether or not my choice(s) in leaning into my fear of failure a) doesn’t end up as bad as it feels like it will, and/or b) I was able to handle or face it anyway. We’ll have to see- I'm leaning in!!!
Justin K. Hughes
 First of all, it’s a whole mess to even get into a truly perfect standard- if I make and continue to make mistakes, I am not perfect. I cannot even begin to conceive what perfect is, then, since I would make a mistake in defining “perfect.”
 The Diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) may apply when a person pursues perfectionistic behavior to pathologically disordered levels.
 Grayson, J. (2014). Freedom from obsessive-compulsive disorder: a personalized recovery program for living with uncertainty. New York: Berkley Books.
 Minirth, F. B., & Meier, P. D. (2015). Happiness is a choice: enhance joy and meaning in your life. Grand Rapids, MI: Spire.
The Myth of Disappearing Distress. If I do the right things, I won't have to face suffering, right?
It's easy for me as a therapist to exhort my clients to stay focused on the prize DESPITE the distress they feel. How easy it is to get off track! And while it's also easy for me to tell someone else this, it can be very cumbersome to do in practice. I, too, struggle to keep focused when challenges hit. But I'm always best prepared when I lean on my team: #support #faith #accountability #truth.
In Vivo Exposure
Directly facing feared objects or situations, examples include:
Getting on a flight, touching a doorknob that feels “contaminated,” not going back to check a lock, or going to a social gathering.
Good exposure attempts to match the content and detail of a person's fear as close as possible. So, for example, if a person fears “going crazy” in a social setting, the best exercise will be working up to facing that, not just exposing to the thought or word. On the other hand, if the fear is that a person will have inappropriate impulses (to harm, sexually, etc.), sitting with the intrusive thought and being present will serve best.
Imaginal exposure involves accessing the content of fears and anxieties through cognitive means. For example, a fear that someone will fail, make the wrong decision, harm someone, die, or choose the wrong relationship are not accessed by activating these life occurrences. They are addressed imaginally.
There are many ways to practice Exposure imaginally, but the most common are writing scripts, stories, listening to recordings, watching videos, or using visualization.
To be clear, Imaginal exposure often is the most confusing and hardest to grasp of exposure practices, as it seems to be creating negative thoughts or “bringing” unrealistic and negative thoughts on- the seeming antithesis of most of psychology and cognitive therapy. But what is really done here is only facing what a person is already experiencing, thinking and feeling.
Intentionally bringing up physical sensations that are feared, such as:
Heart racing, shortness of breath, sweaty palms.
Ways to do this when a person's health allows are breathing through a cocktail straw, breathing rapidly, or sitting up quickly.
Virtual Reality (VR) Exposure
With the advent of new technology, we have a recently emerging type of exposure. Some may class Virtual Reality into imaginal exposure, but it can be seen as a cross between in vivo (situational) and imaginal. This is especially helpful with treating disorders such as Flying Phobia, where the access to an actual plane and flight to practice can be cost-prohibitive and difficult.
What is Exposure Therapy?
Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that is practiced in Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is indicated as a first line treatment for a number of disorders such as
Exposure therapy helps clients to systematically confront fearful stimuli along with changing fearful responses. This relearning increases confidence and decreases disruption in life. Over time, discomfort and fear typically decreases through active engagement rather than avoidance, suppression, neutralization, or ritualization.
The evidence base is very strong for its use and effectiveness, though it is currently only applied a minority of the time in clinical settings.
How Do You Do Exposure Therapy?
The principles of exposure may be simple, but the specifics- personalized to any one individual- involve many working parts.
Do I want this, or do I not? Is this my actual desire, or what I don't want? Does this thought or desire define me? What if it's terrible or horrible?
Sometimes the things I think about are because I value them or desire them.
Sometimes the things I think about are because I don't value them or desire them.
What the heck?
Egosyntonic and Egodystonic are two psychological terms to describe phenomena of thoughts/urges that are synonymous and antonymous to what a person desires or wants. Sometimes our thoughts reflect very much what we desire or want, but around 90% of people endorse having "intrusive thoughts," or unwanted thoughts.
It is crucial to do a good functional analysis on a thought/behavior to determine whether someone is doing something in order to pursue- or to avoid- the very same thing.
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” – Helen Keller
I don’t want to live my life being overly cautious, but rather appropriately cautious.
We are discovering in the research of anxiety disorders, OCD, and now depressive disorders, that possessing an Intolerance of Uncertainty (IU) is a common construct linked with higher anxiety and life disruption.
What is IU?
My favorite definition: “Belief that uncertainty, newness, and change are intolerable because they are potentially dangerous” (Steketee et. al 2005, p. 125). IU links threat with uncertainty.
But is uncertainty a threat? Take a moment and ponder one of your favorite memories. What did it involve? Was there any risk? Any vulnerability? Any chance of failure? Most of the best life stories I hear are of those that involve, well, all of these things.
A person who cannot tolerate not knowing actually misses out. How? Isn’t knowledge power?
What happens is this: the more control a person must have, the less control a person has. The more certainty that is sought, the more narrowly circumscribed life becomes. Quick examples:
Want to know how you handle uncertainty? Take the free IUS-12 assessment here. [Go to "Read More" below to find out how to score the assessment.]
Let’s be clear: everyone is uncomfortable with some uncertainty. And reasonable protection from risks is part of being wise- which can also be subjective. But the more you necessitate that certainty must exist, the following is more likely to happen:
In the research on IU, there are also two subset strategies identified: Prospective anxiety (desire for predictability) and Inhibitory anxiety (uncertainty paralysis) (Fourtounas et. al 2016).
If you struggle with any of these, the next questions is this: How do I live with uncertainty and anxiety, while also taking suitable precautions?
The solution is fairly straightforward, but not easy.
Once a problem area has been identified (along with what is reasonable, normative, or within your values), gradually and consistently gain ground by pressing into your fear without using a false reassurance strategy that reinforces the false threat of uncertainty.
In therapy, one of the most powerful tools that exists to deal with uncertainty is what we call Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). This is the single most effective tool in treating OCD, and it is very valuable in other disorders. The reasons it usually has to be done in therapy are several:
I personally love Exposure because it helps me face life with a “bring-it-on” attitude rather than a “stumble-through-best-I-can.” ERP in therapy is very specific, very structured, and very powerful. However, even the person who is not in therapy can benefit from its principles:
“Some men storm imaginary Alps all their lives, and die in the foothills cursing difficulties which do not exist.” ~Edgar Watson Howe
So what uncertainty are you not letting yourself live with? When is ‘not knowing’ unacceptable to you? Uncertainty is not the problem. It is unrealistic to be 100% certain about most everything in life. Life has few certificates of guarantee, and those are only as good as what is backing them. Ready to face your uncertainty?
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
All Content on this Site, justinkhughes.com, was created for informational purposes only. Content is not intended as a substitute for professional advice, treatment, or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your own personal health provider who is qualified to treat you, along with asking them any questions you may have regarding medical or other conditions. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have viewed on justinkhughes.com. Also, due to the sensitive nature of topics and material covered through this Site, which contains very descriptive and/or advanced content, you may not want to use justinkhughes.com. The Site and its Content are provided on an "as is" basis. Some posts are written for specific populations (OCD, Christians, Professionals)- with the intent to remain respectful to all- some content may not fit or go counter to your beliefs, perspectives, and what is explored for you in a professional counseling session with Justin K. Hughes, MA, LPC. The posts are intended solely for the population they are written to and can be designated by their titles and tags.
Links to external educational content are taken at your own risk. Justin K. Hughes, MA, LPC is not responsible for external content.
Justin K. Hughes, MA, LPC of Dallas Counseling, PLLC participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. This means that some links on this site will produce a small commission from Amazon.com and affiliated sites. I NEVER link products I don't use or clinically find benefit in. Many of them have been recommended for years inside and outside therapy sessions. You are under no obligation to purchase any book, product or service recommended on this site. However, they are provided on this site only educationally and are not meant to be interpreted as treatment or therapy in any way. I am not responsible for the quality or experience of any items purchased through affiliate links, as they are entities completely separate of myself.