My dog Baxter died last week. At fifteen years and nine months old, he had reached the end of his time. He was the canine equivalent of a human nonagenarian. But, still.
No matter how expected, the loss of a loved one always delivers a sucker punch to the gut. It knocks the wind out of you and leaves a cavernous hole. When I come home to the empty mat by the garage door where Baxter always waited for my return, I feel his absence. When I’m doling out food for one dog instead of two, I feel it. When I’m chopping cucumbers for a salad and, out of habit, drop the ends on the floor for Baxter (whose longevity quite possibly was related to his voracious consumption of vegetables), I feel it. And when I see his unoccupied bed in the corner when I wake up in the morning, I feel it.
My nine-year-old Aussie Freddie also feels it. Herding dogs need jobs, and his was to shepherd Baxter around our property to make sure nothing untoward happened. Baxter once killed a bunny, and instead of partaking in the hasenpfeffer feast, Freddie circled the carnage barking while Baxter gleefully eviscerated his prey. Whenever I let them out, Freddie body blocked Baxter to control his access to the yard . Now he stands on the deck looking back, waiting.
I’ve heard some people say they would never have a pet because they couldn’t bear the pain of losing it. But protecting yourself from strong emotions, like sadness, only sets you up for more problems in the long run because experiential avoidance prevents you from learning you can withstand the inevitable pain and difficulty of living. And, by too carefully protecting yourself from feeling bad, you also risk limiting the full range of human emotional experiences–like joy and love–that makes life worthwhile.
So I’m embracing my sadness. I’ve made Baxter’s picture the lock screen 0n my phone so I can remember him when I text or send an email. The lump in my throat comes up every time. I welcome it.
As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, I teach people how to handle distress by changing the thinking patterns and behaviors that negatively affect their emotional well-being. The inauguration of the new President has stirred up strong feelings for many on both sides. So it seems fitting to offer some coping advice for weathering this highly polarized and emotionally charged political climate.
First, I’d like to correct one misconception. Contrary to what many journalists reported during the campaign and following the election, I haven’t seen an uptick in referrals due to anxiety about the new administration. My practice is just as busy now as it’s always been, but no one has contacted me specifically because they can’t deal with the current state of affairs. To be sure, discussions about politics and heated emotional reactions have come up frequently during recent therapy sessions–I work in DC, after all, and see many lobbyists, lawyers, Hill staffers, and Federal employees from both ends of the political spectrum. But anxiety, for those who are prone to it, tends to attach itself to whatever happens to be in the headlines of the moment. Today it’s the roiling political climate; at other times it’s been Anthrax or West Nile Virus or bedbugs. The important point to remember, as I’ve noted before, is that the content of anxiety is irrelevant in learning how to manage it.
1. Practice selective avoidance
Although I don’t typically encourage avoidance as a way to reduce anxiety, I do advise managing triggers strategically. So if you know reading the Comments section of a blog post or news article will send your blood pressure through the roof, skip it. Likewise with Facebook and Twitter. You already know what the people you follow think, so you won’t be missing anything important.
2. Limit the time you spend reading the news
For any compulsive behavior–and checking the news for a media junkie can become as uncontrollable as washing for a germophobe–coming up with a reasonable schedule can help dampen the urge to check and keep your emotional reactions from coloring your entire day. If this is a problem for you, try limiting the number of sites you read to two or three major news outlets; don’t go on your phone the moment you wake up; decide only to look, say, after breakfast, lunch, and dinner– and never before bed.
3. Challenge your thoughts
A standard CBT technique is to identify cognitive distortions contributing to intense, negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression. Two common distortions, labeling and overgeneralization, may lead to anger towards those whose political beliefs differ from our own. In a Pew Research Center Poll, Republicans attributed these qualities, ranked from highest to lowest, to Democrats: close-minded, immoral, lazy, dishonest, unintelligent. The view of Democrats towards Republicans differed only in the order of the ranking: close-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, lazy. Clearly, such sweeping generalizations and negative labels create acrimony and even hatred of The Other.
4. Practice mindfulness
Railing against what should or shouldn’t be happening can make a difficult situation unbearable. As a Buddhist saying goes, “If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?” The Second Arrow–our reaction to a bad event–only adds suffering to the pain. We can cope more effectively if we adopt an attitude of acceptance. Keep in mind that acceptance doesn’t mean liking the status quo or giving up. It simply involves seeing things for how they are without judgement. Dialing down our emotional reactivity allows us then to make more clear-headed decisions about the course of action we want to take.
5. Cultivate compassion
Attempting to understand another’s point of view, even if you never arrive at any common ground, can help you feel less angry. Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, a Progressive academic who couldn’t be more different from the residents of St. Charles, Louisiana, where she embedded herself during a 5-year study, scaled what she calls “the empathy wall” to understand the economic and social forces that led them to embrace the Tea Party. Over time she came to see them as people rather than stereotypes. They, in turn, came to accept her as a human being rather than dismissing her as a “West Coast liberal.” In the end, they developed a mutual respect for each other even though their political positions never changed.
Emotional resilience requires the ability to see moods as transient, like the weather. We can apply the same approach to preserving our sanity in today’s stormy political climate. Lay in ample reserves of acceptance, empathy, compassion. Take constructive action. Batten down the hatches. And wait for the hurricane to pass.
OCD is a tyrant. It will control you with threats of the most horrific consequences if you don’t follow its commands.
“Don’t touch that or you’ll get sick and die.”
“Go back and check the stove five…no, ten…no, fifteen times or the apartment building will burn down and it will be your fault.”
“Don’t hug your niece. If you put your hand in the wrong place, she’ll be scarred for life.”
“That bump you felt while you were driving was a body. The police will arrest you for a hit-and-run and you’ll go to jail for the rest of your life.”
“You had a bad thought while you were in church. If you don’t repeat the prayer the right way, you’ll go to hell for eternity.”
Who wouldn’t be terrified by such thoughts? They may seem preposterous to people who don’t suffer from OCD, but to those who do, they’re grimly familiar.
To break free from OCD, you have to refuse to follow its orders. Its demands are unreasonable. You may think you can appease it to arrive at an uneasy truce. But unless you say no to the rituals, OCD will keep escalating its requirements and make you its prisoner.
So you have to stand firm. Push back. Do the opposite.
Terrifying? Yes! But it’s a tactic—called “response prevention”—that works.
In his book, Stopping the Noise in Your Head: the New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, psychologist Reid Wilson outlines specific steps you can take to break free from the tyranny of anxiety. One of the messages he drives home is that OCD worries are NOT ABOUT THE CONTENT despite what OCD is brainwashing you into believing.
So if you’re doing rituals to protect yourself from contamination, repugnant or blasphemous thoughts, or the risk of being responsible for harming others, you can shift your perspective instead of blindly following OCD’s orders. Don’t try to convince yourself you’re protecting yourself from the content of your fears; instead, remind yourself you’re doing compulsive behaviors to eliminate doubt about something that feels threatening.
Practice moving towards those feelings of uncertainty, and you’ll be on your way to freeing yourself from the stranglehold of OCD.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.