OCD, Mindfulness and Me

When I say “mindfulness” people hear “meditation” and often they’ve zoned out already, imagining long haired hippies, free love and no alcohol. But mindfulness is for everyone and anyone (whether you’re of the long haired hippy variety or not).

Following a conversation with a lovely person on twitter (@RoseWiltshire who blogs here )  I decided to put together a FAQ to mindfulness.

I’ve heard of mindfulness but I don’t really know what it is? So what is mindfulness….In simple terms it’s about being present in the here and now. We live so much of our lives in the past or in the future without being aware we’re doing it. How many times a day do we replay conversations we’ve already had with people or plan the conversations we intend to have, thinking about the hilarious anecdote we’re going to tell or the sarcastic riposte to someone who’s been annoying us (or is that just me? ). Our minds are experts at jumping out of the present moment. What mindfulness aims to do is help us bring it back and cultivate more awareness of the patterns of our minds and an awareness of the present.

So can I just decide to be more mindful? Well deciding to be more mindful is a first step but unfortunately our brains are their own masters so it will continue to be unruly and follow it’s usual patterns unless we make a conscious effort. Just saying that we’re going to be more mindful isn’t usually enough. This is where meditation comes in. Mindfulness is often described as a practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to bring mindfulness to your every day and so sitting down and actually practicing mindfulness is quite necessary. “Boring” I hear you grumble and yes sometimes it is a little dull but it’s also one of the most illuminating exercises that you can do.

OK so I’d like to do some practice, do I just sit and say “ommmmmm” a lot? A frequent misconception about mindfulness is that it’s all about being zen, having no thoughts and chanting. Seriously, people at work who know I practice mindfulness are frequently asking me about whether I’m really chilled out (my usual response is baahahahhahah). So let’s just be clear, mindfulness is not about getting rid of thoughts or existing in a constant state of calm, it’s about bringing more awareness to what is actually going on for us. So that constant feeling of panic? Thoughts that nobody likes you? Great, notice it, observe it, be aware of it. That’s mindfulness.

Ermmm that actually sounds pretty painful, thanks anyway but I think I’ll give it a miss. Yep that was my first response. Who wants to sit and actually draw their attention to what’s going on in their inner world which is frequently difficult? Mindfulness is not about flooding yourself with difficult experience or about sitting and really dwelling. It’s about just observing some of what’s going on for you. The thinking is that we exist in a paradox. The more we push away difficult thoughts or feelings the more they plague us. Mindfulness suggests that actually if we turn towards these experiences (even slightly) then we become less trapped by them, we can get some distance from them and maybe just maybe they loosen their grip on us. Mindfulness practice helps us notice the thoughts or feelings but not necessarily get caught up in them. A thought is just a thought but so often it becomes a whole story. Mindfulness can help us recognise the thought before it becomes a story that’s dragged us down to the pits of despair.

So how has it helped you? I have OCD and generalised anxiety (if you’d like to read more about how they affect me click here and here or indeed any of my previous posts). They’re disorders which are pretty much all about hyper fondness/attachment to our thoughts. An OCD sufferer experiences intrusive thoughts – these are usually unpleasant, terrifying and impossible to turn off. Prior to doing mindfulness, I really thought every thought I had must be true, that it must say something dreadful about me. I did everything in my power to try and get rid of the thoughts. I tried thought suppression (turns out they bounce back louder and in technicolour), I tried avoidance of things that trigger the thoughts (turns out that just makes life pretty small). It wasn’t until I did mindfulness  (and intensive CBT too) that I could just see them for what they were – rather weird, creative neural impulses. Mindfulness doesn’t get rid of the thoughts- in fact just yesterday at a meditation workshop run by Buddhist monks I had numerous intrusive thoughts about punching all the Buddhist monks in the back of the head. Time was when I would have run out of the hall sweating and panicking about what it all meant but instead I just sat and watched the thoughts pass on by (and smiled a little at the incongruity of it all).

So what do you think the best way to get into mindfulness is? 

There are several ways you can get into mindfulness. There are lots of great books with excellent audio guided meditation which you can do at home. Of course that takes discipline and it’s easy to just not do it. One of the best things I did was an MBCT course. This stands for Mindfulness based Cognitive Therapy and is an 8 week course. There are also MBSR courses (mindfulness based stress reduction). Doing a course provides the framework to get you used to practice as you have daily homework to do. For those that are worried that it’s some kind of group therapy session and that you’ll have to share, it really isn’t. The focus is on mindfulness and your experience of it, not what’s brought you to the class or what you’re struggling with. If a group really isn’t for you then you can also find teachers who do one to one classes (see below for links). For those with OCD and Anxiety I would emphasise that I don’t think that an MBCT  course is an alternative to doing CBT and ERP but it’s an excellent add-on that helped consolidate everything I was learning in CBT.

So finally do you have any links to resources?

Yes, yes and yes!

If you would like to do an MBCT or MBSR course then you can find them online. You can find one in your local area by going to this website. There is usually a cost to them although some GP’s or Community Mental Health Teams do refer to mindfulness classes too. If you are going to do one privately (either in a group or one to one) then ensure that the teacher has a good grounding in mindfulness. If all they’ve done is read the book and done the 8 week course themselves then I’d steer clear. Be on the look out for teachers who have studied to teach through the Mindfulness centre at Oxford University, Bangor University or Exeter University. Don’t be afraid to chat to the teachers and ask questions as you’ll get a good feel if they’re the right people for you.

If you’d like to read some books on the topic then here are ones I’d recommend:

The Mindful Way Through Depression – I love this book. It’s so easy to read and to be honest I think it’s a good one for anybody, depression or not. It also comes with guided audio meditations.

Mindfulness workbook for OCD – A great book with practical tasks to use mindfulness in overcoming OCD

Finding Peace in a Frantic World – A book I’ve dipped in and out of and used some of the guided audios. It’s a very popular mindfulness book.

There are so many others. I’ve got some of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided audio meditations and he’s also written a number of books, he’s a big name in the mindfulness field. Click here to see a selection of these.

Phew so that’s probably enough info for now! If there’s anything I haven’t answered or you’d like to know more then feel free to post in the comments and I’ll try to answer 🙂

Emily x

“Something good comes with the bad, A song’s never just sad, There’s hope, There’s a silver lining…”

I’ve been thinking about silver linings a lot recently. It helps that I love this song by First Aid Kit quoted in the title. It was then suggested as a blog hop topic too by @FightAgainstOCD

It has always seemed a complete anathema to me that there could be anything positive about OCD. It felt a bit like saying that Hitler was just a bit misunderstood. OCD – you know the monster that convinces you that you’re some sexual deviant harbouring murderous tendancies that’s also likely to contract HIV, nope not much fun to be had in any of that. Let me be clear, having OCD is miserable, I would never try and argue otherwise, but since recovering I have grudgingly started to see some silver linings.

1) My blog – I have always thought that I like to write and would like to do more of it. It’s been the kind of thing that I’ve told myself throughout my life, a fact about me, as true as I’d like to do an open mic night and I’d like to dye my hair a brilliant red. All of which have never happened. If it wasn’t for OCD and anxiety I would never have set up a blog, I would never have started writing regularly and as much as it pains me to say it I am kind of thankful for that.

2) Support network  – Through having the blog I went on to set up a twitter account. I have connected with an amazing twitter community and have met some lovely people (some in person and some online).  I would never have known that lots of other people have the same thoughts as me and that there’s a whole little community if OCD hadn’t reared it’s head and pushed me in that direction. I can’t honestly say it’s been all awful when I’ve met such wonderful people who have really made a difference. Actually scrap that, I can say it’s been awful but it’s been made a whole lot better by the lovely people out there. I actually wouldn’t change that for the world.

3) I have learnt to say “No” – I’ve always been someone who thought that I ‘should’ be doing various things in my life. I’ve never been good at saying no to invitations or truth be told putting myself first. Last year that all changed. I was forced to re-consider my priorities, figure out what I did and didn’t like doing and what felt right for me. This came about through duress, anxiety made it impossible for me to do all the things I had done previously but actually I’m realizing that something good has come of this. I’m now able to say no with few qualms to things I don’t fancy doing and without feeling like I’m missing out. I put my health and well-being first so if something doesn’t feel right for me I am able to choose. Anxiety and OCD pushed me to the edges of myself but with that has come a greater understanding of who I want to be.

4) Mindfulness – I’d always had a fleeting interest in meditation (in the same way that I’ve decided I’m going to become an epic knitter only for it to be discarded after a few half-hearted attempts). When my anxiety and OCD reared it’s head I decided out of desperation to give it another go and so has begun what I really think will be a life long daily practice. It has taught me more about myself than I imagined it would and has given me a quiet confidence that I have the answers within. It has helped with tackling the cycles of rumination and compulsions beloved to an OCD sufferer. Not only that but it has given me a new career route – I have decided that I would like to train in facilitating Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy groups and am currently going through the necessary steps to start this. This will complement the work that I already do but now I will be able to do something that is a passion. It got me out of the house when I couldn’t face doing anything as the only thing that didn’t seem too daunting was sitting in a group of people who smile serenely and don’t say anything to you! In the same way that I have learnt to say no, through mindfulness I have also learnt the simple pleasure of just ‘being’. I love sitting quietly these days and have shaken off the false ideas I had that to live a happy life I must always be constantly busy, always on the go. By going through the experience of having a mind that has been filled minute to minute with horror, like a record stuck on the worst bit of the song, I now have glorious minutes where there is just peace and quiet and whereas peace and quiet perhaps once struck me as a bit dull it is now music to my ears.

It is as if now I have known absolute misery I can know absolute happiness. Mindfulness helps me see those moments. I notice and observe things in more detail; objects, views, music – things that previously I may not have paid much attention to I now enjoy with the pleasure of a thirsty person coming across water. Rose Bretecher sums it up perfectly for me (and more eloquently than I could ever hope to) in her article for the Guardian when she says:
“If it wasn’t for the comparative cacophony of pure O, I wonder, would these moments feel so impossibly beautiful in their sheer, simple unthinkingness?”

Emily x

Guest Post – The Do’s and Don’ts in OCD recovery

I am very happy to welcome a brilliantly written guest post from David. This post was written about the various things that have helped (and hindered) David’s own journey towards trying to overcome OCD. These are all things that have benefited him, if they don’t work for you please don’t lose heart but I hope that you will find some things in here that you can try or that you will find helpful. Please also feel free to comment on the things that you have found most helpful in your own experience 🙂

If you would like to seek him on twitter then please do so: @DaveJPosti

The Do’s and Don’ts for recovery from OCD

I’ve put together a list of my own OCD Do’s and Dont’s, though of course much of what I mention is also applicable to other types of anxiety disorders/depression. I should stress that they are only my opinion of what can help/hinder – I fully understand that everyone is different and that what works for one person doesn’t for someone else. OK here goes, hope it helps anyone happening to read it, and in no particular order……

DO’S

Get help as soon as you think something isn’t right – OCD is common, nothing to feel ashamed about and can be treated very successfully. Hoping it will go away or improve by itself is very unlikely to work though.

Meditate and do Yoga Nidra – they will help you relax, which will reduce the hold that OCD has on you. This is one of the best things you could do for yourself, regardless of whether you have OCD or not.

Expect setbacks – Your recovery from OCD will most likely not be linear. There will be days of great progress and days of deflation. Knowing this in advance will help give you the strength to overcome these setbacks.

Eat well – Putting lots of junk food into you will most probably result in more junk OCD thoughts. Eat well, fruit and veg, for the benefit of your mental and physical health.

Talk with people you can trust – Sometimes you just need to get these thoughts out into the open by talking about your OCD with a trusted friend or relative. You are strong not weak for doing this. You know that deep down. If you can’t talk with friends or relatives call the Samaritans or OCD UK/ OCD Action. They are lovely people. You will not be judged.

Consider if there is something in your emotional life that you aren’t doing that deep down you know you should be – Consider whether facing it down will ultimately help you in your battle. You will know the answer.

Try to be mindful about your OCD – Say to yourself that you notice that you are having xyz obsessive thought and rate your anxiety out of 10 to yourself. This technique will help you distance yourself from your OCD without trying to push it away.

Take your sleep seriously – OCD hates well rested people. Make it your mission to get into a regular sleep pattern and protect your rest periods.

Help others – Helping others helps you to take yourself out of your endless rumination. Your focus is external and OCD loses power in these circumstances.

Get angry with your OCD – When your OCD tells you that you can’t do something, stand up to the bully that it is and politely tell it to go forth and multiply, as you are going to do what you plan to do regardless.

Exercise regularly – I like to think of exercise as being a WMOCDD – weapon of mass OCD destruction. OCD HATES exercise – even better is exercise that engages your brain e.g kickboxing. Exercise has helped me get through terrible periods when I was totally lost in my OCD. It can do the same for you.

Make a crisis plan – You will have crisis moments. At these times you won’t be able to think clearly. Therefore it makes sense to write down and keep with you a list of practical things you can do to get you through the otherwise.

Expose yourself to your fears regularly – It is the only way to truly overcome OCD, despite how painful it will be for you.

Forgive yourself – You are dealing with an illness that most people simply cannot comprehend in terms of how devastating it is. You may feel weak but in fact you are incredibly strong. You do what you need to do despite how desperate you feel. That makes you heroic. When things don’t go so well, have compassion for yourself and remind yourself of the above. Being angry with yourself is like pouring petrol on a fire. Not recommended.

Consider the levels of stress you are under – OCD LOVES stressed people. If you can take practical steps to lower your levels of external stress you will be doing yourself a huge favour.

Ask pertinent questions of potential OCD therapists – Therapy can be very helpful. But you don’t want to go through 5 therapists before you find one who is an expert in treating OCD. Use OCD UK/OCD Action for advice on selecting an appropriate therapist. They are not all the same and you deserve expert care.

Practice gratitude for the positives in your life – There will be some, focusing on them and being thankful will probably shift your mindset in a more positive direction.

Understand that avoidance only worsens OCD – To overcome OCD you will need to regularly put yourself in positions that are very uncomfortable or worse. You know this deep down. But it is the route to peace of mind.

DONT’S

Drink alcohol to excess, or preferably not all – Being drunk may give temporary relief from your obsessive thoughts. But they will return twice as vicious the next morning. Alcohol is a false weapon against OCD.

Google possible side effects for OCD meds – This is a surefire way to terrify yourself. I have taken 5/6 OCD meds without experiencing major side effects. If you do have problems of course visit your GO but don’t pile more potential unknowns into your already bursting in tray of worries.

Expect miracles – You may be fortunate in that you make a quick and full recovery. But if things take a little longer, stick with it. OCD loves impatience and withers in the presence of calm resolve.

Seek reassurance – You will feel an overwhelming temptation to seek reassurance that your OCD fear(s) are not true. This is a major trap to avoid and only worsens OCD. You may need to learn this the hard way in the beginning but the sooner you can drop reassurance seeking the better.

Attempt to out analyse/ out logic OCD – This is a battle you cannot win. I know, I’ve tried. OCD will ALWAYS have the last word with another creeping ‘what if’ thought. Accept and observe yourself engaging in this compulsion, and gradually you will weaken it.

Forget that when you overcome OCD you will have so much insight and capacity for joy in even the simplest parts of life – It may not feel like it right now, but what has been temporarily taken from you will be permanently returned to you in new, precious ways you can’t imagine right now.

Give up HOPE – If you feel you’re running out, have some from this blog post to get you through the storm. Millions of people recover from OCD and you will to.

Think you’re alone – You’re not. Many people who you walk past on the street will have OCD. It’s common. Connect with people who can truly empathise and support and you’ll find more energy to do what you need to do.

Worry – This is the end of OCD (War and Peace). Put the kettle on and have a well deserved break and a cup of tea!

Good luck!

What’s in your tool kit?

As I’ve been winding down my CBT therapy my therapist keeps saying to me “you have all the tools you need” and you’ve got a number of “tools at your fingertips”. I quite like imagining that I’ve got an actual tool bag that I can carry around at all times and so it got me thinking about what’s in it to help me overcome my Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

I have found that thinking about this has actually helped me feel more confident about facing the future without having regular therapy (which after all can be a daunting prospect and may be an entirely separate blog post!).

So here are the tools that I will be turning to again and again as I navigate my way forward.

Professional help: Knowing when to access professional help is really key. I know that it can be difficult to accept that things have gotten to a point where outside help is needed but to be honest I think if the insight is there that this is a problem that isn’t going away then you’re half way there. Helping yourself through accessing professional help is a really powerful tool (It’s the equivalent of a power saw in my kit!). We all deserve to feel better and that first step in reaching out for professional help will tell yourself that you matter. I also know that if in the future things become difficult that that resource is always there and that is what it is there for. It is not ‘bothering people’ or ‘weak’, it is necessary and a large part of recovery. I will be using all my CBT lessons as time goes on including worry postponement, exposure techniques and more (this will also be a separate blog post!)

Walking: At the beginning of the year when things were starting to fall apart I started to walk. I walked through my lunch breaks at work and I walked in the evenings until I could walk no more. I only ever started to feel settled and soothed when I walked. I don’t know about you but when I am highly anxious I start to feel like my head is separating from my body and is drifting off up towards the clouds. Walking helps me to feel grounded. It also releases endorphins which is vital for mental health but was a good compromise at a time when I didn’t have the energy to run or do anything that required anything more than putting one foot in front of the other.

Exercise: This has only become relevant since I’ve started to feel better and have regained some strength. When I am highly anxious I cannot eat and I often vomit through panic. Please don’t exercise if you are in this state as it will make you feel worse. However, now that I have a full appetite exercise is a vital part of my week. Sometimes it’s a jog, sometime’s it’s a cheesy aerobics class, sometimes it’s yoga – it doesn’t really matter what it is –  it just helps to be out and about in the real world. I am distracted from my thoughts and my worries when I am doing exercise and doing a class of some kind often lifts the spirits. As long as it puts a smile on your face then do it.

Meditation: In all of my frantic researching about “cures” for anxiety and OCD I came to mindfulness meditation. A staple of recovering from OCD and anxiety is to realise that you are not your thoughts and your thoughts are not you and guess what mindfulness meditation says…. yep you’ve guessed it our thoughts are not facts. Through mindfulness meditation I have learnt how to better watch my thoughts rather than getting tangled up in them and then convincing myself that to untie the knot I need to “figure out” the solution. There is no solution and if you’ll let them thoughts will just pass on by like clouds in the sky. I also find that meditation helps me to sleep which can be an errant friend when anxiety strikes.

As I write I realise there are so many other things that I have learnt and picked up along the way. Plenty of sleep, good diet, natural remedies such as Rescue Remedy to settle the anxious feelings in the stomach, being outside in the natural world, writing, and sometimes the hardest one of all… feeling the fear and doing it anyway!

So what about you…. what’s in your tool bag?

solar tool bag

Image courtesy of Daniel on Flickr