Friday, March 30, 2012

The Cold Pool of OCD

Why can't I just stop?

Can I just stop?

How do I stop?

I've come to a few realizations. One is that you can't just stop having ocd. The other is that you must just stop doing ocd. Habituation is jumping into a cold pool; at first, the shock to your body from the cold water is unpleasant. You might have the urge to jump right out of the chilly water and back into the warm air. However, you also probably want to swim and enjoy being in the pool. To get there, you have to wait. You have to allow habituation to occur. If you wait, you'll eventually realize that the water no longer feels uncomfortable. After a few minutes, the water will feel quite comfortable. You will no longer experience the urge to leap out of the pool for the sake of escaping the unpleasantness of the chill.

Now, the water temperature has not changed; the only difference is that habituation has occurred. The unpleasantness, the cues from your brain telling you, "Holy crap, this water is COLD!" have stopped coming. Again, nothing has changed about the situation, the water, or your physical self, per se. Nothing, that is, except habituation. You've "gotten used to" the pool water and you are now free to enjoy whatever activity you jumped into the pool for in the first place. Even if you get out of the pool, say to use the diving board, you will still feel acclimated to the water temperature. Unless you stay out of a few minutes, in which case you will habituate to the air temperature around you. Which is why it is important to keep going back into the pool.

Which is why it is important to keep going back into the places that scare you or make you feel uncomfortable. Avoiding jumping into the pool will not make the water any warmer, and avoiding contamination will not make something any less contaminated.

Habituation also happens much faster if you just jump right the hell into the pool. Easing your way in a little at a time just allows the process to last longer, your mind to consider the coolness of the water longer, your body to experience the unpleasantness longer. The person who jumped in at the same time you started tiptoeing in is already having fun and enjoying the water, while you're still standing there thigh-deep, re-experiencing the shock of the chilly water one step at a time. Whose experience of getting used to the water is likely to be more negative? Who is more likely to avoid the unpleasantness in the future? The tiptoer, of course.

And OCD is the same.

I have the power to either strengthen or take the wind right out of the sails of ocd. Every time I react to an obsessive or frightening thought (i.e. OMG, that red dot is blood!) by washing or performing some compulsion or ritual, I am telling my brain that it was correct in its assessment of the risk. In doing this, my brain takes my action as confirmation, and the compulsion is deemed "necessary" in the future. An unrelated pair of things becomes related, and OCD gains strength and validity. Now all red spots are dangerous and require a decontamination ritual - even if they're easily recognizable as simple polkadots in a pattern on a dress.

I went to sleep two nights in a row with no soap & water handwashing. None. I did briefly wipe my hands with a cloth, but that was it. Will this continue? Likely not quite yet. But I am hoping it will help me break the 4-hour handwashing ritual that nightmares are made of. Time will tell. And meanwhile, I will keep reminding myself of the cold pool.

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