With summer travel in full swing, you may be tempted to look for “hacks” to make your packing and departure easier. Many are perfectly innocuous and even helpful. Rolling your clothes to maximize suitcase space or stuffing your shoes with your socks and underwear? Good ideas!
But if you have OCD and get stuck checking appliances, light switches, and door locks prior to leaving on a trip (or even for just the day), I would strongly advise you not to listen to the Lifehacker tip to take photos of your stove, thermostat, and appliances prior to travelling to ease your anxiety about having left something turned on.
It may be tempting to sidestep the checking process by snapping pictures to reassure yourself that you won’t have started a fire or caused a burglary. For a short time, your anxiety may lessen. But if you have OCD, the relief you feel will undoubtedly be short-lived.
Compulsions such as checking do serve to relieve anxiety in the short run. But they tend to escalate and demand more and more time because the doubt returns. The intolerance of uncertainty is a core feature of the thinking patterns fueling compulsive checking and other OCD behaviors.
Rather than checking over and over (or taking pictures) to feel certain, you need to train your mind to accept the lingering feeling of doubt by practicing—preferably before you go away for an extended period of time—setting a limit on the number of times you allow yourself to check and leaving even if you feel the urge to go back for another once over. The key is deciding ahead of time, rather than letting anxiety guide your actions. If you typically check appliances or the door ten times, say, start by cutting back by ten percent. When that becomes easier, reduce the number of checks again, and so on, until you are down to one or two.
When leaving for vacation, you can allow yourself an extra check (but only if you decide on the number in advance). Taking a picture might seem tempting, but it won’t lessen your discomfort if you have OCD. I’ve had patients tell me they’ve tried the picture hack only to question whether they might have turned the stove back on or plugged the iron in again after taking the photo.
So come up with a plan in advance, practice over and over before your trip, and save the photos for the sights you want to capture on your travels.
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.
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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