Friday, May 14, 2010

Habituation: If It Doesn't Suck...

You're not doing it right. At least, that is the conclusion I have come to. If I feel content, comfortable, free of massive stress and anxiety, then I am not working the ERP hard enough. And the results only come when I am really pressing myself. The fact that it feels so counter-intuitive only complicates things; I feel like I am running a race, and everything tells me I should run faster, but running slower is what pushes me forward. It makes no sense.

The secret lies in habituation. I have noticed that that if I have one fear, and I encounter another fear which seems more substantial than the first, the initial fear loses almost all of its power. For example, say I have a piece of laundry which I feel is contaminated (by my standards, which I know are not normal). I might feel like it is impossible to place that piece of laundry in the washing machine with less contaminated articles of clothing. The mere thought of it might provoke a rapid heart rate and trembling. But then I go shopping, and I touch something sticky. While it is probably just juice, or something equally benign, my mind runs with the possibilities until I feel like nothing short of a hot shower will make me feel better. Upon returning home, the piece of laundry that once felt frighteningly contaminated no longer bothers me. I am able to wash it without any psychological discomfort.

That is habituation. I liken it to jumping into a cold pool, which I did many times during my childhood. At first it feels awful! You want to get right back out and remove yourself from the discomfort of the cold. But, if you wait, your brain stops paying attention to the signals from your body. The water doesn't get any warmer, but you become habituated to it. It no longer brings the same level of discomfort. In fact, before too long, you are enjoying yourself in the water without much of a thought to the temperature. If you get out of the pool, but get right back in, there isn't nearly the jolt you felt the first time. And that is the key. Who knew all those years of swimming would afford me such a useful metaphor?

Keep jumping in the pool.

I have found that some things are getting easier. As I continue pressing myself, which feels like the wrong thing to do, life is becoming a bit more normal. Things that would typically drive me nuts are much less anxiety-provoking. But occasionally, for whatever reason, I have a really, really bad day where I can't seem to do anything right. Those days are filled with much self-loathing (I have no patience with myself for this crap). But I am reminded of something I read in a newer book by Jeff Bell, called When In Doubt, Make Belief. Though I don't recall the exact phrasing, the point was that we have an opportunity in each moment, if we don't let past (did I?) or future (will X happen?) overrun our current, our present, our now. And many times I have stood, facing my nemesis, saying to myself, I have this moment...just this moment...and I don't need to think about anything else right now except what I am doing. It is not as bad as it seems. OCD is a bully. It wants me to be afraid. The fear I feel is real, but the threat is not. And it does work, not miraculously, but with enough effort.

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