CBT

The Tangled Web of Obsession

Inasmuch as OCD utilizes a singularity, worry is multi-faceted and layered. An obsession or repetitive worry, the kind that I have, begin with my mind’s uncanny ability to hyper-focus on a single thing – whatever it is – for what seems like ages. It starts with that singularity and builds an entire universe of worry – worry about literal things, worry about potentialities and (un)likelihoods. The simplicity of the singularity is almost hilarious, once you can unravel the multitude of tangled yarns that make up the knot of anxiety.

The difficulty resides in, not necessarily stopping the trigger (this is easy with practiced, life-long avoidance skills), but changing the thinking patterns surrounding the anxiety once the machine has started. By the time I’ve reached an emotional overwhelming (sobbing uncontrollably) or an anxiety attack, I’m already surrounded by that tangled web of yarns.

But despite the complexity of the knot, I always have to start somewhere. It’s a large undertaking. Have you ever had 20 different things to do that, at the very least, felt urgent and important? You put your head between your hands and look around maniacally at all the things you have to do and the thought crosses your mind: Where the fuck do I start?

You have a tangled web of yarns to unravel and you have to start somewhere, right? So you pick a thread. Do you cut it? Do you try to untangle it? It’s hard to say, with my experience with OCD and abnormal anxiety, whether or not it’s better to untangle the yarn or cut it. Often times, as a way to cope with the mess that is an anxiety attack, I would visualize (a good method for coping, by the way) a knot of tarn on the inside of my head between my ears.

I would simply start cutting lines. And then I think from there I would begin the huge undertaking of untangling. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to just set it all on fire, but if I do that, I can’t learn from it, can I? I’ll never make progress if I don’t try to understand the silly, ridiculous connections my mind makes from one ear to the other.

So I cut the severely irrational lines. “Everyone is going to leave me.” That’s a nonsense statement. I mean, when you think about it, it is true. At some point, everyone in my life will be gone from me, whether by their death, my own, or simple expiration of relationships. But that’s a fact of life, and worrying about it is more of a waste of time than anything else.

“My boyfriend is cheating on me.” That’s also a nonsense statement. Mostly because it’s far from the truth and highly unlikely. Is there a chance that he could at some point be unfaithful? Sure, maybe there’s a small possibility; much as I’d like to, I can’t predict what he is going to do next week, next year, or 10 years from now. But given the circumstances of our relationship and his own desires about me and his own life, I know that evaluating this statement is worthless and unproductive. So I cut the line.

“I don’t deserve to be happy.” This might be worth looking at. I’ve learned to stop cutting lines look at strings of thought that my therapist might ask me questions about. This is something we might spend a lot of time talking about in a session. So instead of cutting the line, I untangle it from the knot. I start telling myself positive statements about how I do deserve to be happy. I try to speak over my Mean Voice and tell myself that I am a good person. That I work hard, in many aspects of my life, including my job, my friendships, and my relationship and I deserve to have these people in my life. That this condition is not a judgment set down by the universe. That I don’t deserve to have this condition and that it is merely a part of me that needs to be rewired.

As I write this, I realize that this method of getting through the web has changed over time. And that my capability to sever lines of thought and dismiss some of the severely irrational thoughts fairly easily is not a static ability. It has changed over the course of my work in therapy and self-awareness. A year ago, I know I spent time trying to unravel the statement “My boyfriend is cheating on me.” I had to work through that line of thought and figure out where that worry came from and nurture myself away from negative thought patterns and self-judgment. Now, I know that what my boyfriend may or may not do is not a reflection of my self worth.

At some point, very early in my recovery “Everyone is going to leave me.” is something I also had to work through. My irrational fears of abandonment drive a lot of my abnormal anxieties, to the point where, if my significant other leaves the room when I am upset, my overwhelmed emotional state will manifest into an anxiety attack. Sometimes this is a statement I do have to take head on. It’s a large part of the issues that I have, and many times even during non-spike times, I have to nurture myself through that abandonment fear.

Maybe sometime soon “I don’t deserve to be happy” will be a line that I cut instead of the small knot that I untangle. After all, evaluating these statements and working through them take a lot of time. The time I spend in the throes of a full-blown obsessive web of shit (involving crying, an anxiety attack, and self-abusive thoughts) has reduced dramatically over the course of the last year.

But that tangled web of obsessive nonsense is a Beast, regardless of my recovery. When my anxiety spikes and I lose control of myself emotionally, it looms over me as a challenge as big as it felt when I first walked into therapy. But I see myself differently than I did then. I see myself as almost wholly separate from my condition. That my condition, while it may never be eradicated or completely cured, is manageable and it does not make me who I am. That tangled web of lies that my mind tells me is not a reflection on what I think, believe, or feel. And I’m learning to trust myself and believe that it does not determine my worth.

Therapy in Action: Coping Methods for Anxiety and How They Work for Me

I’ve written a lot about processing obsessions in a theoretical and reflective way, but I haven’t illustrated what it might look like in action. First, I want to talk about the methods of processing, coping with, and overcoming obsessions and anxiety. Then, I want to show what it looks like (literally) on paper — processing in action, as it were.

Methods
I can’t say for certain that what I do to deal with obsessions and anxiety torment is purely Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), but that is the main method that my therapist and I use to combat my anxiety. Sometimes, I also utilize Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) methods. And occasionally, I use Grounding as a method to alleviate escalating anxiety. I have feelings and reactions to all of these methods of coping with anxiety and obsessions, sometimes only one works, sometimes I have to do all three. Some days I hate REBT, some days the CBT isn’t enough.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The use of CBT for me is the one that is the most “invisible,” so to speak. This is the method I most likely use when I’m not noticing what method I’m using. I know that sounds real layered and heady, but honestly, that’s how my mind works. When I’m trying to overcome anxiety, the anxiety becomes about the anxiety, and I spend a lot of time and energy focusing on or obsessing about the method I’m using. The CBT is the most blended kind of mechanism – it sometimes sounds like REBT to me, and sometimes, it just sounds like the way I’ve coped my whole life. Maybe for me CBT works the best, and that’s why I don’t really notice it in action. Also, I believe this is the method my therapist uses in sessions, so it may just be comforting or just feel like a conversation with my therapist, which is much less informal than utilizing other skills.

Grounding
This is an interesting method. My therapist recommended it as just a piece of a toolkit for me. I have a small object that I carry with me EVERYWHERE. All the time. Every day. I keep it in my pocket. When anxiety comes on, I am to either hold it, or look at it, or try to focus only on the object and not on the world (and thus the stimuli/anxiety) around me. What I carry is a little Pokemon figurine (Wartortle, if you’re curious) that I got from my significant other. It serves both as a distraction and a focus as much as it does a comfort to me. It’s very much like the totems in the film Inception. It’s there to ground me back into reality. And it usually only works with escalation and doesn’t necessarily work for me when I’m dealing with an obsession.

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy
I kind of hate REBT. Mostly anyone who has used REBT, in highly emotional moments, will say they hate it. It’s harsh sometimes. And when I talk to my therapist about it, she says “Nobody likes REBT, it’s just supposed to work.” And it does, often, when I can dedicate myself to the Spock-like nature of the logic it utilizes. Often, I find a lot of comfort in the standard coping statements that REBT uses (ie: I can overcome my anxiety. I am not my anxiety. It is okay for me to not handle every situation perfectly. I will feel better soon. etc) and the idea that there is a difference between ‘knowing’ something and ‘believing’ something. I practice bridging the gap between these two ideas with my self worth while I run, actually. I know that I am tenacious and strong and beautiful, but do I believe it? Often times, no, I don’t. But when I’m running, and I start telling myself these things, I can feel myself start to believe them. And the positive emotional catharsis I feel when the ‘believing’ starts to sink in is tremendous.

Coping Methods in Action
What I’ve written below was composed by hand, while in the midst of an obsession that was upsetting me for probably more than a few days. I had been stressed out for weeks over a circumstance that was pretty difficult to deal with, and the stressor re-lit some dormant obsessions that blind-sided me and haunted me for longer than I’m willing to admit to myself. I’m going to write out the obsession for the sole purpose of overcoming the shame I feel in having it (and because I think people need to see what sort of things can buckle a person like me completely). Know this: this obsession was certainly not the ONLY obsession rolling through my head. It was one of many. I didn’t really confront the obsessions I was having until this plagued me for a couple of days. Remember: this obsession is a product of stress and fear, and does not reflect the reality of who I am or what I actually think.

What if I don’t love my significant other and I am lying to myself and him? What if I want to break up with him?

How I drew it out and coped:

October 1, 2014

Obsessions and intrusions have started up again. Nonsense thoughts that haven’t bugged me in a long time. It also has to do with certainty and perfection. It’s like I set these boundaries in my mind that I:

  • must be 1000% anything at all times
  • must be certain about my emotions
  • must react perfectly to everything
  • must know exactly how I feel 100% of the time

Additionally, I check in with my emotions and search out feelings. It’s like…checking doors or opening closets to make sure all my stuff is still there.

know my wallet is in my pocket, so why do I keep checking my pocket?

Furthermore, I set metaphors for my feelings and thoughts. Based on what? The culture’s or world’s conception of my identity and how I should feel: “Oh – every Rom Com says that this means this and therefore…”

The difficult thing is – even bearing this in mind – I still struggle to know what’s real.

There’s a difference between knowing and believing and I think the way to create the bridge between them has to do with self-trust.

It’s mind-boggling to me to see and recognize that I understand how all of this works and to still be so unsure of myself. 

The doubt and self-doubt is terrifying.

Now, I did write this with the intent of sharing it. But, in this instance, the only way of dealing with the emotional turmoil over an obsession and an anxious moment that I knew was caused by the delusions of my mean voice, was to evaluate how anxiety functions in my mind and the tricks that my brain plays on itself. Because telling myself over and over again that it isn’t real doesn’t help. I have to see how the mechanism works. Otherwise, I’ll argue with myself over the finer points of evidence.

Evaluating evidence is something I can’t do inside my mind. It causes ruminations, which are dangerous for me. Sometime soon, I’ll discuss how ruminating ruined almost a year of my life, and how the process of ruminating has led me to believe over and over again that I am the most awful person that has ever lived.

In this case, anyway, if you’re wondering, once the stress was gone, the obsessions stopped again. I stopped taking my meds last weekend, and I spent four whole work days without meds. I’m so unbelievably proud of myself. I feel like myself again. I didn’t realize how much my small dosage of Klonopin was effecting my every day emotions. Both in a good way and a bad way. I may still use it yet, but for now, I’m okay without. I’m in a great headspace this week – a stark contrast to my last entry – and I’m motivated to keep the ball rolling so I don’t fall into too terrible a seasonal depression come December.

Be well, friends. And I hope you can also find a good headspace.