There are many reasons for us to be anxious in 2022. From having that little voice that asks, “did you lock the door?” to fear of economic and societal collapse, we live in a world of uncertainty. We often find that the scariest, most upsetting conclusion is, “I don’t know.” What is the usual response to that statement? “Look it up.” “Figure it out.” “Google it.” Sometimes I wonder why no one ever responds to our uncertainty with, “that’s okay.”
In OCD treatment, we work hard to accept uncertainty. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterized by the experience of obsessive worry and fear as well as mental and/or behavioral compulsive activities that are performed in order to reduce the distress caused by the obsessions. It takes “what if?” to the extreme. No matter how much logic one applies, OCD always finds a way to sneak its way in. Even the most sound, well thought out logic is dismantled by OCD’s favorite question: “what if, just this time, you’re wrong?” People with OCD often spend hours toiling over finding the right solution to their fears. As an OCD therapist, I tend to throw people for a loop when I advise them to stop engaging with the thoughts. “That could happen.” “That would be bad.” “That sucks and you could handle it.” These are the ways that we slow down the constant stream of intrusive thoughts that we refer to as a negative feedback loop.
By telling ourselves, “that could happen” or other responses of a similar ilk, we can reach the apogee of acceptance. Consider uncertainties that you face in everyday life that are not very bothersome. Many of us enter multistory buildings on a regular basis. Maybe we even work in one. Could that building collapse at any given moment? Most likely not, but did you design the building? Were you part of the construction team? Did you review the safety requirements of the building? Probably not. Yet, we still enter the building without thinking twice. This is because we can accept the uncertainty of not knowing all these details.
Now, back to our anxieties. Let us take the principle of accepting the possibility that the building could crumble, and apply it to our consistent anxieties and fears. It is often our response to our fear that creates high anxiety. Our desire to get rid of anxiety makes us feel much more anxious. We may find ourselves saying, “I hate this. I wish this anxiety would just go away.” Unfortunately, this tends to make everything worse. Instead, what if we could acknowledge our anxiety – and accept that it is there – while going about our daily lives? Is this difficult? At first. Like anything, it takes lots of practice, but in the long run, it is extremely functional.
I believe it is better to live a life based on our values with some anxiety rather than avoiding opportunities due to fear of feeling anxious. This process is not exclusive to OCD. I find that I can take much of what I know about OCD treatment and apply it to other types of anxiety and stress. If this is something that you are interested in, this may be a good time to explore these ideas in therapy.
Mitch Krmpotich is a licensed masters level social worker and works with clients age 13 and up.