The term “gaslighting” is so widely used today that most people, aside from classic film buffs, don’t know its origin–most famously from the 1944 movie Gaslight. The story revolves around a woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, whose husband tries to convince her she is going insane by repeatedly dimming the lights, making loud noises and talking to himself in the attic while insisting she is hallucinating.
In the psychological literature and in popular culture, gaslighting describes efforts to manipulate someone’s perception of reality in order to gain control over the person. Successful gaslighters make their victims question their memories and experiences and, in extreme cases, even doubt their sanity.
OCD is a master gaslighter. Sometimes called “the doubting disease,” it manipulates by causing the sufferer to question every action, thought, and recollection. A person who is trapped in an OCD spiral will wonder, “Can I trust I am remembering the situation accurately?” “Did I really lock the door/turn off the stove/unplug the hairdryer?” “Did I ask for consent in that sexual encounter?” “Did I say something offensive?” “Did I cheat on that test?”
OCD is a sly, creative, and very destructive manipulator.
People with shaky self-esteem and low confidence may find it especially hard to stand up to gaslighters and assert their own assessment of reality. OCD undermines self-confidence and leads to excessive questioning, which feeds doubt.
In an interview for the podcast The Psychology of, I discuss the traps OCD sets, particularly in relation to moral scrupulosity and doubt, with psychologist Zac Rhodenizer. Check it out to learn more about how to stop OCD from gaslighting you.
In my last post, I talked about strategies for managing anxiety during these harrowing times. I have added some new tips for boosting psychological immunity and staying on track with sound mental health practices while sheltering in place in a post I wrote for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
The new Coronavirus outbreak has infiltrated our public consciousness, and it is exhausting. When the media are constantly bombarding us with updates about fatality counts and quarantines, even the most unflappable are finding it hard to stay calm. Everyone seems to be running to the nearest supermarket to stockpile disinfectant wipes, bottled water, and canned goods. So how are people with health anxiety and OCD—who are already prone to excessive worry about uncertainty, contamination, and illness— supposed to cope?
In treating anxiety, I use the evidence-based approach called Exposure/Response Prevention to help people tackle their fears and limit the compulsive behaviors, such as excessive washing, designed to make them feel less anxious about risk. But some of the practices my colleagues and I would typically recommend for someone with contamination worries, such as limiting hand-washing and avoiding the use of hand-sanitizer, fly in the face of current public health recommendations. Even so, if you keep in mind the rationale for exposure-based approaches to anxiety, which is to learn to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty, you can still come up with a personal plan allowing you to follow reasonable disease- prevention guidelines without letting your anxiety skyrocket and control your behavior.
This is a challenging time for all of us. But we don’t need to make it worse than it already is by fueling our anxiety. If we practice responding to the uncertainty with reason and thoughtfulness rather than reacting out of panic, everyone will benefit.
Update: When I wrote this post only ten days ago, the coronavirus situation was very different from how it is now. The current national emergency mandates strict social-distancing practices, which make my advice to carry on normal activities no longer medically sound. or feasible.
I will be writing another post in the coming days with tips for staying sane while stuck in the house.
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