The ‘Exposure workout’

I am learning new things about OCD everyday. Learning about OCD is like New York. It’s like trying to visit every avenue, every shop, every room in every apartment and shaking hands with every person who lives there. OCD is always awake and making noise just like New York. But people live in New York, they live happily there despite the noise, despite how big and busy it is. I feel like I will spend my life time learning new things about OCD and I feel okay about that because I know I will learn what I need to to help myself. I will learn to stop listening to the noise.

Yesterday I learned something new. I was reading some articles online about my OCD themes and it was intense. Every other word was a trigger word. Words that I still struggle to say out loud. Reading them was difficult. When I first started reading the first article I chucked my phone onto the sofa because I could physically feel myself getting worked up, and had physical pain in my chest as I tried to force myself to keep reading so I just chucked it away and said, ‘I can’t’. I spoke to my husband and said I was struggling and that I knew what my counsellor would say. He asked me what that would be. I said, “She would say ‘why can’t you read it?’ And I would reply ‘Because it’s too hard, the words are triggering a panic attack’, and she would ask, ‘And what is panic?’ and I would say, ‘A fight/flight reaction to a perceived threat releasing adrenaline and cortisol…so because I am reading words that are uncomfortable and horrible I feel like there’s a threat so I am wanting to avoid as a fight or flight response’ and she would say, ‘Okay so why are these words uncomfortable to you?’ and I would reply, ‘Because I have attached meaning to them’, then she would give me that look and I would smile nervously at how silly I feel because I know all this already but still can’t apply it to myself.”.

I had literally relayed part of my counselling session to my husband which just demonstrated to me I do know what to do and I do know what OCD is doing to me and I do know why I am carrying out compulsions like avoidance and I do know doing that will not beat this. So I picked my phone back up and finished the article. I reminded myself, that I am not reading this to torture myself or test myself, I am reading it to help myself and of course the OCD will tell me to stop doing that. It wants to keep me miserable. I read it because it was an informative article about my main fear and although written very bluntly using my triggers words, what felt like hundreds of times, I knew I needed to finish it. I did and to my surprise I reflected on it for a short while then carried on with my day. I had won that battle. I didn’t feel like Rocky when he finally made it to the top of the steps. I didn’t feel victorious or super proud. I just felt a bit deflated. We got in the car and I read more articles from the same person, with the same blunt tone. There was no cotton wall writing, it was written as it is, with every horrible word being used in nearly every sentence. I read a couple of these articles then we picked our son up from school and had to get straight to hospital for an appointment. I was feeling more deflated. I felt mentally drained and physically exhausted and wasn’t sure why. I thought by pushing myself to read those articles was a big step so why did I not feel better about it. Why was I feeling so low in my mood?

The hospital visit was stressful, a nurse was quite unkind, telling our children off even though they were actually playing so well and I felt so bad for not defending them. I couldn’t speak. I struggled even speaking to the doctor because I could hear her still telling them off when they weren’t doing anything wrong. Where was my fight? Why wasn’t I able to tell her to not tell my children off? Why was I feeling so defeated?

We got home and the feeling wouldn’t lift. I was so tired and felt so foggy. I wasn’t sure why. I had exposed myself to triggers and really worked on using the tools I have learned. I was in the middle of chatting to my husband and a notification popped up saying that one of my favorite advocates was now live on youtube. This is the first time I have watched her videos live, so I jumped on to watch her live video. I can’t believe what they discussed! They talked about what I had experienced. The doctor, Jon Hershfield, MFT, was likening OCD and learning to manage it to a workout at the gym. He explained that when you are learning to build muscles you have to start small with 10kg and keep tearing and repairing your muscles until it feels easy, once your form is perfect with that weight you move up to 15kg then again keep training until your form is perfect and it feels easy then you move up weight again and so on and this is what happens in exposure therapy. You start with a trigger that feels small or anything you think would be good to start with, even just writing the first letter of a trigger word is a good start, it’s completely down to you and your counsellor to work out where is your best individual starting place. There is no right or wrong.

He then went into the exhaustion part of it. This is the part that really helped me yesterday. He said just like when you have had a really good workout at the gym you feel fatigued, weak, a bit unsteady etc and the exact same is true for your brain. When you are exposing yourself to triggers you are working out the ‘muscle’ in your brain that is helping you to manage the OCD and because you are giving it a workout and putting it through it’s paces it’s normal to feel fatigued afterwards, to feel a bit deflated and not be jumping for joy (before the OCD doubt creeps in and tells you, ‘well you are really elated when you conquer an exposure so what if….’, I’m going to tell you it is also great if you can feel wonderful about your achievement, because it is a great achievement, there is no right or wrong way to react).  This feeling is actually showing that you have had a good ‘brain workout’. Of course, if you jump on a treadmill on the highest setting for the first time then you could fall off, smack you face, and bolt off to the other side of the gym and the same is true for your brain. If you try and do the big things first you could feel like you are taking steps back. I noticed yesterday I could read the article out loud but towards the end of the third one I could no longer say my trigger words any more and my tone changed and my husband could tell I was getting more uncomfortable. I now know that yesterday I should have stopped after just one article or as soon as I started to feel I couldn’t say the words any more. I could have said to myself, ‘Okay, you’ve just read an entire article full of trigger words, even when you put your phone and said ‘I can’t’, you picked it up and carried on and reminded yourself what OCD is and that’s amazing, so now it’s getting harder because your brain has already worked hard today so take this victory and tomorrow you can try again’. This is hugely helpful to me. I am understanding how to pace myself, how to react when I feel like I can’t manage to avoid avoiding and it’s changed my perspective from feeling like I must have failed that exposure to actually I made such an important step yesterday that will help me on my path of recovery.

You’ve got this!

A x

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