Well, did you lock the door? Did you really lock the door or do you just think you did?
A pal was describing to me how her mum has to keep going back to check she locked the door and has been diagnosed with OCD. In this post I am going to talk about what starts the obsessive process and how full blown obsessions develop (and also how to start getting rid of them).
The ‘itchy’ nature of things that bug and worry us is how obsessive thinking is initially triggered. Obsessive thinking, fuelled by unreleased negative emotional energy, lays a foundation for full blown obsessions to develop later. The important thing to concentrate on here is ‘fuelled by’. Take away the fuel of your worry-engine and you take away the worrying. I will explain how to do this near the end of the post.
Worrying About Worrying
There comes a point when we know for sure that door is definitely locked but the worry keeps grabbing our attention and then we start to worry about why we are worrying. It is not the actual lock that bothers us but the emotional attachments held within the body linked to multiple dire and painful possibilities. We do not think we could cope with our own emotional responses to those possibilities if they ever happened.
The brain likes to represent things for us (it is very efficient and effective like that) and represented behind the focal point of that little door lock, and the little key we keep with us, is a whole host of scary stuff we imagine lies in wait if we get that door-locking-process wrong. Criticising yourself for worrying about the lock distracts you from facing up to the real concerns behind it – those things you do not believe you could cope with such as:
- finding your home ransacked by burglars and even worse finding them still in your house when you arrive
- losing things you have worked for all your life
- precious memories tainted (eg jewellery from your mother) by having items stolen
- loss of the belief your home is ‘safe’
- wondering if the burglars will come back and what kind of evil people do such things
- the concern you will be irreversibly damaged by the event.
These are all representations – products of our imagination. Knowing that is all they are causes us to criticise ourselves for being emotionally attached to them and refusing to feel the emotional responses associated with those underlying representations. We regard our emotional responses as ‘over-reacting’ and consciously try to stop worrying; we try to freeze the process. We attempt to stop both the thinking and the feelings involved.
Trying to Stop The Thinking Does Not Work
Fighting worrying thoughts with additional counteractive thinking such as ‘I should not be thinking about this repeatedly because it only exists in my imagination’, and then trying to distract yourself by deliberately focusing on nice things to think about instead means you must first think about what it is you are trying to avoid thinking about – and this keeps re-creating it. Doh.
Un-think a pink elephant – can you do it? Try again. Try again. Later when you are around the thing you do not want to think about, such as that lock, you think ‘I hope I do not think about it otherwise all those negative sensations will come back with it’. Guess what you just did. Yes, you thought about it.
Feelings Are The Key to Stopping Worrying
You are actually designed to cope with all of your feelings in all real-life scenarios regardless of content or intensity. Feelings work in a specific way. They appear, you feel them, and they eventually move through and out of you – if you let them. When you try to stop this process in its tracks you develop an ‘I would not be able to cope with my feelings in that situation’ belief system (in truth it is because you do not want to feel your negative feelings, rather than because you cannot, but who can blame you for not wanting to?). Nevertheless, to heal this worrying you must feel your feelings out.
By refusing to acknowledge these imagined scenarios as being a valid part of your built-in emotional response system you refuse to release the emotional charge attached and you keep the festering ‘I could not cope’ message running in your brain and body. When you set out to deliberately destroy these worries, because you see them as ‘wrong’, you then risk creating secondary emotional responses.
SECONDARY EMOTIONAL RESPONSES
Secondary emotional responses cause obsessions; panic attacks; phobias and a whole host of other anxiety-related disorders. Although they are intended to remove a primary emotional response they merely cement it further in place – they fail to work in the same way trying to un-think thoughts fails to work and they keep regenerating the problem.
In most cases a secondary emotional response is a repeat of the primary response: we can generate anger at being angry (rage attacks); fear of being afraid (panic attacks). We can also generate fear of feeling disgust and also anger towards feeling fear. It is often easier to notice the second type of secondary emotional responses because they produce different physical sensations, whereas ‘fear of fear’ and ‘anger at anger’ can seem to blend into an overall painful mass and we have difficulty seeing which is a primary and which is a secondary response.
When you have a secondary emotional response your thinking and feelings have been geared up for war against your own original emotional response. The determination not to have the primary response is so strong you are trying to physically remove the entire thinking/feeling process from your body. This cannot be done. Instead you must aim for the goal of flowing the energy through your body until the overspill is down to a reasonable level and your mind stops regarding the situation as a problem.
In the case of a phobia of door locks, for example, you have created a secondary response that causes you to emotionally fight every door lock you come across just in case it causes you to have a fearful emotional response. In the case of an obsession you have the image of a door lock repeatedly flashing in your conscious mind attached to the most extreme emotionally intense responses you are capable of producing. And because you know it is not ‘real’, you keep fighting it.
Hypervigilance, or being super-aware, is designed to keep you alive in long-term immediately life threatening situations. You are unconsciously driven to look for evidence of things even slightly related to the perceived threat. When you are hypervigilant your holistic thinking is shut down as you focus solely on looking for sensory signals related only to the trigger.
Feeling hypervigilant is the difference between seeing a wild, hungry lion on your television and having a wild, hungry lion in your home. Lions on the telly engage your conscious thinking brain in seeing nature at its most powerful and beautiful; lions in your home engage your unconscious emotional brain in contemplating the painful deaths of you and your loved ones and cause you to have powerful physical responses.
A heavy breath; a moving shadow; scratching claws; sharp teeth. In hypervigilance your unconscious emotional brain runs you and automatically produces the signals that tell your senses ‘danger!’. But you do not need a real lion in your home to become hypervigilant. All you need to achieve this state in normal every day life is to refuse to engage your conscious thinking brain in working with your negatively charged emotional issues.
Refusing to consciously work with an emotional issue does not make the issue go away – it forces the issue downwards into your unconscious emotional brain.
Because your unconscious emotional brain does not know the difference between imagined and real scenarios it assumes it has received the information because the scenario is real. When your unconscious emotional brain takes control of dealing with issues you refused to deal with consciously your risk of hypervigilance is greatly increased.
Two other things that can increase the risk of hypervigilance are:
- the feared event, or something similar to it, actually happening or having happened in the past so your unconscious mind has evidence such a threat could be real
- having your sense of control over the prevention of such imagined events being undermined; for example a partner who always leaves the door unlocked when they go out.
Becoming hypervigilant towards triggers you know to be false in the present moment means you have emotional reactions you do not want or understand. Your unconscious brain creates imagery, sounds and sensations that appear in your conscious brain against your conscious will and you have physical reactions, driven by extreme emotional responses, that exactly mimic the false situation as if it were real. If there were an actual lion in the room you would welcome this reaction because it could keep you alive – but when you know these reactions are happening around imagined events you continue to fight them; continue to try and force them out of conscious awareness but send them repeatedly down into your emotional brain for unconscious processing.
To undo this unconsciously driven nightmare you have to do just one thing: consciously reclaim your feelings. The earlier you start the better.
HOW TO STOP WORRYING ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT YOU LOCKED THE DOOR
When a person develops OCD or an obsession in regard to whether or not they locked the door they’ve taken what started out as a fear-laden area of worry, refused to spend time with it, started to fight it and then turned that fight into an unconscious long-term habit supported by secondary emotional responses that defend against the undoing of that habit.
This habit actually restructures both your brain and your emotional release system. Specific emotional responses are blocked from leaving the body while thought patterns are created that act like ‘shields’ trying to stop you from thinking about certain areas of life. But like any other habit it can be reversed if you’re willing to pay the price and give it the time required.
Here’s an example of a strategy you can use to remove the initial obsessional worrying process:
Step 1: Focus On the Door Lock
Accept it is not your thoughts but your feelings that keep driving you to pay attention to the lock. The feelings we’re talking about here are feelings already present in your body waiting to be released – I’m not talking about deliberately generating new feelings. If when you focus on an object you have feelings automatically come up they are already present in your body and they will keep asking you to pay attention to the issue they represent until they are released.
Step 2: Explore Your Feelings and the Issues to Which They Relate
Explore the threat of burglary and how you would react; explore the threat of feeling stupid after the event if you forgot to lock your door; having the police come round and point security issues out to you that you should have been thinking about and did not – explore the embarrassment all that entails. Explore the issues and feel the feelings in depth. Do this consciously and this reduces the need for your unconscious emotional mind to keep getting involved.
Step 3: Tell Yourself You Would Cope if These ‘Terrible’ Things Happened
Because you would. You would hurt; but you would cope. The feelings you have while imagining the scenario are roughly the same as you would have if the scenario were real, if you can cope with the imagined scenario you can cope with the real version.
Step 4: Accept that Locking the Door is an Important Thing You Need to Concentrate on When You Are Doing It
Sometimes the reason we worry is because we are distracted by other things fighting for our attention and our memory of having performed an important act is blurred. Our unconscious is telling us we did not pay enough attention to the door at the time of locking. What is happening here is your unconscious is working in line with your deepest value systems and reminding you to keep in line with them.
Step 5: Replay Issues and Release the Emotional Responses Attached to Them Until They Stop Grabbing Your Attention
Do not wait until the issue reappears and you say ‘oh no, not again’. Set aside a regular time slot each week where you deliberately go searching for issues; deliberately seek to feel the feelings attached.
Step 6: Do Not Self-Criticise
Self-criticism about this process is like telling yourself it is wrong to feel pain when you cut yourself. Almost all people I have met who worry or who develop anxiety disorders tell themselves ‘I have gone wrong’ on the basis of their experiencing negative feelings. You get a broken leg, it hurts physically. You imagine a harmful life event, it hurts emotionally. It is not desirable, but it is not ‘wrong’. When you catch yourself telling yourself this, challenge it. The self-criticism needs to be repeatedly stopped when it surfaces – eventually it will be become a habit not to do it.
Step 7: Rinse and Repeat
If you follow this process over and over again you will find your worries eventually disappear. That lock no longer keeps grabbing your attention.