Note: All parts of the guide have been updated as of Sep 2022 after much discussion from those suffering from SOCD and my own experience. In particular I have considerably adjusted the ERP approach, as I now believe that is better to simply avoid doing any explicit rituals, rather than trying to literally do nothing, which seems to have been causing some issues for people.
This unit is part of a guide. To see all units in the guide, click here.
In this module, some general principles will be presented which will hopefully help you deal with SOCD, as well as anxiety more generally.
Accepting sensorimotor OCD
Firstly is the idea of acceptance. There are some things in life you simply can’t control; one of those things is your thoughts. It may be that the thought of being conscious of some bodily process keeps coming up forever. But there’s no point in getting caught up in that; it is what it is. So what can you control? Your reaction to the event. In this case, your response to being conscious of a bodily process; how you view it or and whether you react with a ritual (more on this in Section 2). But you can’t control the consequences.
For example, let’s say you can’t live a 100% normal life if you’re conscious of bodily processes; well then that’s something you’ll have to accept. Maybe you can live a 80-90% normal life. That’s fine, there’s nothing you can do and there’s no point worrying. Sometimes we need to accept things in our life that we might not like or prefer. Learn to accept having the sensations and its consequences, and then the anxiety (the real problem) will begin to decrease.
This is a radical idea once you truly internalise it; the idea of completely accepting whatever comes your way and not trying to fight it. In psychological terms, this is similar to what is called mindfulness, where one simply observes what comes without judging or reacting.
Having sensorimotor OCD might not be a bad thing
I know if you’re suffering right now saying that SOCD might not be a bad thing will seem a bit ridiculous, but bear with me.
Some people approach SOCD as this horrific thing that happened to them; they were just unlucky while everyone else doesn’t have to deal with this. You know, if only they never ever thought about blinking, swallowing or whatever it is.
I believe things should be viewed differently. See this as a challenge; right now, you’re someone who’s scared of thoughts. It’s nothing bad in reality, but you are being destroyed by it. By having this fight with OCD and defeating it, and becoming someone who can deal with any kind of thoughts, you will come out a stronger person. You won’t be someone who is vulnerable to to any passing thought, but someone who can face anything head on. This will help you generally deal with any anxiety you have and make you a more resilient person.
Looking back on it, while it wasn’t pleasant, I’m glad this happened because I became a stronger, more empathetic person through it. I’m also someone who appreciates being ‘conscious’ of things that I’m not usually conscious of, and appreciate that ability, rather than being scared of it. I see it as a kind of a ‘higher level’ of consciousness, so to speak.
So be positive and look at this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself, become stronger, and ultimately improve your life in the long run, perhaps in ways that you can’t see right now.
In life, you only really experience the present moment. The past is gone and you can’t change it, and the future is uncertain and yet to come. You only really have now. A lot of SOCD is worrying about the future, which ends up causing us anxiety and ruining the ‘now’. Instead, the idea is to stop worrying abut the unknown and just focus on the present moment. Don’t waste it ruminating about things from the past or worrying about things in the future which actually haven’t happened yet.
When you struggle with SOCD, you are only actually noticing some kind of sensation. Nothing more, nothing less. Everything else is meaning we’ve projected onto it or stories about the future which don’t exist in the world in reality. In of itself, there’s nothing but increased awareness of what’s happening. You might feel horrible now sure, but that’s in large part due to the stories you’ve created about the future.
The idea that the present moment is the only thing that really exists can be very powerful. We can let go of everything else. This is not to say that you shouldn’t think about the future or past at all, but we should recognise that as humans we only experience the present moment in reality.
The meaning of your pain and suffering
A key idea in what I’ve discussed here is how you view pain and suffering in life. It’s one thing to accept something bad or painful in your life, whether that’s related to SOCD (e.g. that you won’t live a ‘normal’ life) or other things in life (e.g the lost of loved ones or failing to achieve your goals). Now it’s a big achievement just to be able to accept it, and it’s an important first step.
But far beyond this is when we can actually make meaning from these events, and see them as having a purpose, and even being a good thing ultimately. It doesn’t mean we enjoy them or like them, but it does mean deep down we are content with them and see a reason for them happening, rather than just being meaningless random unlucky events which just happened to us. We might even be grateful for them happening to us, especially down the track.
Now obviously you can’t delude yourself into thinking these; you have to really believe them. This is one place where one’s spiritual/religious beliefs come into play and can make a huge difference. I’m fully aware readers will come from different backgrounds, but if you hold to any tradition this can be very important. Often in various traditions, suffering is part and parcel of life. The difficult events we endure aren’t random meaningless events, but part of the world and are infused with meaning. I know this is true in Buddhism as well as in the Abrahamic faiths, but I can’t speak on others.
For example from an Islamic and Sufi perspective which is my tradition, all events are viewed as in the hands of God, and moreover that everything that God wills is the best set of events that could have happened. Hence, me having SOCD isn’t something that ‘shouldn’t’ have happened, but rather is God’s will for me. I may not understand completely why right now, but I will one day, and I’m pleased with God’s will for me. Suffering and pain play a distinct role in the cosmos and for each individual, and are seen as essential part of one’s journey and growth in life. And I try to keep this in mind all the time, whenever some difficulty or pain occurs in my life. This makes a world of difference for me personally; I know even the tiniest event is not random but has meaning and wisdom in it. I just focus on doing my best, whatever may happen.
Everybody, including more secular readers, might benefit something from the Stoic philosophy. A Stoic might say that one can create meaning from one’s suffering, e.g. this suffering can be a cause for me to help others who have the same problems, or might make me more empathetic, and so on. So even though you suffer, how you FEEL about the suffering can be different; instead of this being something purely bad, there is some good/benefit to the situation. I certainly feel like my whole episode with these has resulted some positives; for example I’ve been able to help people and have become more empathetic with others.
What we want to end up with is not only acceptance but also contentment; not just of the awareness and its consequences, but even the pain that potentially may occur for sometime. With this kind of mentality, it’s a bit easier to handle the difficulties of life, as you have a broader perspective on events beyond the pain and pleasure they might be causing you right now.
The Importance of Hope
Finally, the importance of having hope that there’s a better of future. One of the main issues which makes SOCD so bad is that people begin thinking about the rest of their life, and whether it’ll be as horrible as they are feeling currently. Just having hope that you will be able to recover soon can make a huge difference. I hope this guide does that, as does the experience of those who have recovered. This is another place where one’s spiritual/religious tradition will be relevant, especially with prayer and a belief that you and the world is in good hands.
Think about how you could adopt some of the above ideas, and please post any thoughts below.
This ends Section 1, which has focused on adjusting our beliefs. Hopefully some anxiety has gone just by reading this and starting to think about things differently, but if not, don’t worry. Generally a lot of that happens with Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), which will be the focus of Section 2.