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Healthy alternatives to compulsions

The famous American cartoonist, Gary Larson, published some comic art in 1950 from his comic entitled ‘The Far Side’.

The illustration shows a man with two doors in front of him. One says ‘Damned if you do’, the other says ‘Damned if you don’t. Behind him, the Devil has a pitch fork wedged into his back and states,

“C’mon, c’mon-it’s either one or the other.”

I think for many of who have experienced OCD, it can really feel a lot like this cartoon. Let me explain

So entering the ‘damned if you do’ door is when we ‘give in’ and do the ‘compulsion’. Our anxiety is that strong in the moment, it feels like we have no other choice but to ‘act’ and do the compulsion to get relief, to stop the bad thing from happening. But the problem is- the relief is only short term! We are ‘damned if you do’ in the sense that we are giving more and more control over to OCD, we are teaching our brain that the only way we can manage the anxiety is by doing the compulsion, which in truth- we don’t want to be doing!

Entering the ‘damned if you don’t’ door is that feeling of dread, of uneasiness & uncertainty that shows up when we ‘don’t’ do the compulsion. When we try to ‘white-knuckle’ it, hoping and praying that the discomfort will ease and go away by itself. But any of you who have struggled with compulsive urges or intrusive thoughts will know, it’s very hard, especially at the beginning of your recovery journey, to resist and not do the ritual! You are ‘damned’ in the sense that when you don’t do the compulsion you are left with an overwhelming sense of anxiety and dread!

However, there is a ‘third’ door that the Devil doesn’t tell you about! This door is what I call- ‘Healthy alternatives to compulsions’!

So it all starts, with firstly acknowledging that we have other ‘choices’. That it’s not just a case of ‘do’ the compulsion or ‘don’t do’.

In Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s ground-breaking ‘Brain Lock’ book- he talks about learning to see these intrusive thoughts and compulsive urges as ‘false alarms’. This wasn’t just some theory that he randomly came up with- this was based on extensive research on the brain. This approach has been incredibly helpful in my own life and with the clients I work with.

So how can it be helpful? Well if we begin to treat our intrusive thoughts and compulsive urges as ‘false alarms’ as opposed to ‘fact’, this can have an impact on how we behave! If I believe that something bad will happen to mum unless I wash my hands 11 times, then guess what… any sensible and rational person will wash their hands 11 times.

However, if you see that thought as a ‘false alarm’ and ‘refocus’ you attention on to more wholesome behaviour you will see, over time, that the anxiety begins to dissipate and you will begin to gain more control over your life.

So, even if the Devil shows up from time to time probing you with a pitch fork into your back, and trying to force you into one door or the other- you have a response of your own now, where you can go through the ‘third door’… the door which puts you back in control- the door where you treat these intrusive thoughts and compulsive urges as ‘false alarms’ and ‘refocus’ your attention on to a more wholesome and healthy behaviour.

It’s up to you to find out what those ‘healthy’ behaviours look like- but trust me when I say- this is how to get control back in your life!!

Paul Mc Carroll

Therapist| Trainor| Blogger

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