Great V’s

A common, yet rarely spoken of, characteristic of struggling with your mental health is behaving in ways you are not proud of. Acting like a person you do not even like. Ironically, this then provides your brain with terrible pieces of evidence to prove to you why you are in fact a dickhead. Examples could include: lying about how you really feel to get a group of people to like you. Or giving into an impulse to get blind drunk to escape a feeling that you hate. Or obsessing about whether that feeling in your stomach is cancer so much so that you ruin every social event you go to. I did all of these things when I struggled with my mental health. It becomes a vicious cycle. You feel guilty for acting like a person you do not like. You feel shame and self-loathing. So, you do more unhealthy actions to cover up those feelings.

These unhealthy actions are compulsions. We do them to manage our fears and to avoid inner experiences we don’t like. However, if we want to start to build lives we care about, we really need to cut out these actions and replace them with healthy behaviours. This is where knowing your values is so helpful. Values are what make you feel alive. They give you energy and they are aligned with who you want to be. Think about bursting into celebration with the people you love when England beat Columbia in a penalty shootout at the world cup. In that moment you could experience joy, connection and community – these would therefore be some of your values. Another example could be working on a major project in your job with colleagues and creating something that improves the service in a lasting way. Here the values which drove you could have been leadership, teamwork and hard work. Or, your values could be most clear in the simplest of scenarios, such as having a conversation with someone where you felt completely understood. The things which matter to you in this instance being connection, friendship and empathy.

So how do we discover our values? How do we know what makes us tick? One exercise I learnt in CBT involved a seemingly morbid exercise. Creating your own gravestone. On it you write down how you would have liked to have spent your time during your life. What you would want your life to have been about ideally. On mine I wrote things like “he was kind”, “he knew how to enjoy himself”, “he seized each moment”. This reinforced to me in black and white what I cared about. What I valued. I was also asked to write what my gravestone would say at that moment if I was being honest with myself. How I was really spending my time. I had to write things such as “he worried too much”, “he spent a lot of time in his head” and “he gave into compulsions”. Looking at the two gravestones made me realise where I was at and where I wanted to be. And therefore, how I could start living consistently if I wanted to start to build good mental health and genuine happiness.

This is an important point about values. They really offer the opportunity to live a life that is deeper than the usual surface level definition of happiness. When we think about being happy, I think many of us generally think about that fleeting feeling of joy and contentment that we experience sometimes. Unfortunately, like any emotion, this feeling does not last long. But we try to hold onto it and control it and this causes all sorts of problems. However, if we define happiness as living a life that we value, one of meaning, then we always have the option to live this way, whatever emotion we may happen to be experiencing at that time. The bonus by-product of this turns out to be more feelings of joy, contentment and peacefulness because you are living a life you are proud of. You are creating a world around you that you want to live in. Benefiting others around you due to the value that you are also adding to their lives.

Once you have identified some of your values they can guide you in everyday practical situations. You may have a relative who is not well and who would benefit from a call from you. But this evening you have other commitments and things planned…what would the ideal you do in that situation? Or you could be involved in a debate at work which is important to you about and your boss says something you disagree with. How would you proceed knowing that courage is a value you hold dear? Or you’ve had a long stressful day with work and family issues, you get home and there are ingredients in the fridge for an awesome healthy salad. There is also the leaflet for a pizza takeaway on the fridge. Knowing you that you value your health could help you to reach a decision of what to eat that night. However, also knowing that you value living in the moment at times and that you have a deep love for pizza could also help guide you. Especially if you know you can rely on your value for living in moderation.

An important point to recognise here is that values are not necessarily doing the “right” thing or the “moral” thing. They are personal to what you value. I used to have an overpowering sense of guilt whenever I was hungover that I had done something terribly wrong. Not now. I know that I value having a good time. That I like to have fun. But with that comes a responsibility too. If I am going to own drinking alcohol and staying up late I also need to own how that affects the rest of my life. Because I also value my future, my health, my community and friends and family. So, I need to own those values too and make sure having a good time does not impact on any of these other values. Otherwise I will start to feel not so good about myself. Naturally.

Looking at the world today, I believe it could be a much healthier place if people were more in touch with their values. Society and politics could maybe be less based on being right, on being red or blue, on them and us. People could be more connected to what they care about. I imagine then people would start to realise that they have more in common with each other than they currently think they do. There actually appears to be some universal human values that may have the potential to transcend the more extreme forms of tribalism. Maybe getting in touch with your values could have an even greater impact than simply improving your own life. Not taking away how awesome that process is of course! Thanks for reading. And please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

Here is a helpful little video by Dr Russ Harris which further explains the notion of living a rich and meaningful life:



To be liked

A real revelation for me in overcoming mind malfunctions and brain exhaustion has been realising my overwhelming dependence on validation. When I say validation I basically mean any feedback that comes from anyone else apart from yourself. Any comment, compliment or look that makes you feel good. Or worthwhile. Or something. Within the past year or so I became aware of the extent to which I had been utterly addicted to it. For as long as I can remember. I also realised how incredibly unhealthy that had been to use as an energy on which to run my life. The issue was this had been so normal I barely had any idea it was even happening! Surely I was just a “nice guy” who liked to help! Perhaps…Or maybe things were a little more grey than that…

I’ll delve briefly into the murky past for a bit more background…ten years ago, for example, I would get excited about an upcoming party. There would be mates there I could have a laugh with. And there was a girl there I liked. I could have a laugh with my mates and chat to that girl! It was going to be awesome! I could say that joke to this friend and compliment that friend on the job he’s just got and take the piss out of that other friend who I piss around with. They will all really like me! They will laugh at my jokes and I will feel good. Then they will talk about me being awesome and I will feel even better! And the girl…well I will play it cool at first. I will make sure some of my best interactions are near her of course. I might look over and make sure my hair looks good in the reflection when I do. But I will make sure I do not look too bothered… After a while I’ll sidle up to her, cool as anything, drop a few nonchalant hilarious lines and then we’ll kiss and live happily ever after! What a time it will be!

I would run through these scenarios and buzz all over with excitement. High on the anticipation of the glorious love that was certain to come my way! What could go wrong with such meticulous planning!?…

The party would arrive a week after the mental sorting had begun. By the time I got to the house I was already exhausted with anxiety after going over in my head all of the things that could go wrong. I was alright though…I thought I had covered most of them! The party begins…people are having a good time, I’m enjoying the atmosphere. Everyone is here that I expected. But somebody else has made that joke I wanted to make. Oh well. I’ll try say something else to join in that conversation. But there’s no opportunity to say anything worth saying…maybe there’s no point in me being here…maybe no one wants me here…how depressing! I don’t like this feeling so I’ll drink more booze! That’s right being drunk is fun. Then I’ll have the confidence to go up to that girl! I’m sure I’ve caught her looking over at me. Won’t go over just yet though, don’t want to seem desperate…so I’ll drink a bit more…oh no I’m drunk! People seem to be ignoring me… Maybe no one likes me… Fuck it I’m guna go talk to that girl…but she is talking to my mate now. She is laughing at his jokes…I’m guna drink some more…Life is shit.

That whole unfortunate and unhealthy experience was driven by me either not getting the validation that I desired from the situation or judging the feedback I was getting as not good enough. That then had significant consequences on my mental wellbeing and interpretation of the world around me. It was so impactful that I felt compelled to try to control my emotions via covering them up through alcohol. I was desperate to get the positive feedback coursing through my veins. And if I did not get my fix I was miserable.

My comparisons with addiction are deliberate. I was hooked. I would exhibit behaviour that one may associate with more conventional addicts. Such as manipulation and deception. If I was participating in a conversation with a colleague about a piece of work of mine they had seen, I would drop in “I hope what I said was okay”. This was knowing full well the work I had done was valuable. But I wanted the “Oh, it was great” response. I manipulated the conversation to get that. I made it the sole focus of the conversation. Or, if I had made a good point in an argument or debate amongst friends and needed to go to the toilet, I would linger outside the room to listen to the praise that I expected to come my way but that the people talking did not think I would hear. That was deception.

I am not the only who has experienced this craving for positive feedback. This can begin for many in early childhood. When we are young we all, inevitably at some point, experience some negative feedback from our caregivers. After all that affection, if you are lucky, a sharp criticism or even punishment will be literally the worst thing in the world to a child. A terrible feeling! And so, a longing for the good stuff begins. Maybe this is achieved by really good behaviour in front of Mum and Dad. Maybe by drawing. Maybe by scoring a hat-trick in footy training. Anything for that praise!

Fairly quickly society picks up on the thread and feeds into this mindset. Disney films have told children for generations that you can only be truly happy when you find true love. This tells our impressionable subconscious that someone else holds the key to our future happiness. Only when someone utters the words “I love you” are you safe. The implication being that otherwise you will end up alone and miserable. Unfulfilled.

Our current youngsters have to be the generation that have had this message screamed into their souls more fiercely than any other. In their pockets, always, are devices that literally buzz every time they are messaged. Or called. Or “liked”! Phones and social media can be great ways of connecting people to each other. But they can also end up as simply another tool that reinforces the belief that other people and other things let us know that we are alright. We rarely learn, or indeed are rarely taught, how to believe we are actually okay. From ourselves.

The issue with all this seeking of praise is you can never receive enough. You never reach a “validation utopia” – a fantastical land where you have engineered and received so many compliments that you just exist there in pure bliss. Like any dependence or addiction, the more you desire and get the more you need. And the more you need it the less you believe you are worth anything. The less you trust yourself. Examples of this in overdrive are celebrities that crash and burn after accelerated fame. People adore them. They feel that adoration. They feel so happy. Then people get bored of them. And they end up feeling like they have been dumped or rejected a million times over.

I first properly understood this whole concept when doing Skype mental health coaching sessions with Mark Freeman this year – something I would highly recommend to anyone interested in improving their mental health as he is such a breath of fresh air when it comes to this stuff. The link to his coaching and awesome new book are at the bottom of this post. I stated to Mark that I feared I cared too much about what people thought about me in close relationships. His response: “You don’t need to get anything from anybody because you are already complete. When you go searching for validation, you create a hole that needs filling.”

Now if you can get your head around that concept and set yourself a target on continually understanding and believing it the results could be tremendous. To approach all social situations from a place of wholeness, from a lack of lacking, is very foreign to many of us. It also makes a lot of the self-love exercises you traditionally find online and in self-help books unnecessary. That route can once more be a tool to need to gain validation outside of yourself. If you must remind yourself of reasons why you should love yourself your brain will come up with reasons why those reasons are not actually true. Or it will compare you to others unfavourably. Fundamentally, we do not need to wait to love ourselves or appreciate ourselves. Because we have that opportunity right now. There is nothing to fix. Just space to grow.

Due to this being such an odd state of being to get used to, I have begun a useful miniature exercise to add on to my three daily gratitudes which I discussed in my last post. After writing three things I’m grateful for I write down either “I am complete”, “I am whole” or “I have inherent value”. I find this useful because it says to my subconscious it does not need to keep searching for validation or look to gain anything from social interactions. It means I can be in social situations and simply express myself, enjoy myself, help others, share experiences or do anything else I value. This is all without the continuous fear of judgement, the self-censoring, or the attempts to control these interactions. Another sentence to write down or to believe deeply is “People can judge me”. Let people judge you. Positively or negatively. You are already whole.

There are other ways to re-train the mind to a healthier place. One way is to be mindful. Be present. This is simply observing how you feel when talking to someone. Be curious and spot when your mind wants to be certain that someone likes you. Let it squirm and not know. How does that feel? Awkward? Anxious? Where do you feel those feelings in your body? Feel them. They don’t have to be unpleasant experiences. Instead of attempting to gain validation in conversation express yourself from a place of wholeness. Say what you really think and give yourself the permission to do that. Disagree with someone perhaps. Feel how that feels in your body to disagree with someone. Realise that you can survive that. Realise that you won’t only survive, your self-esteem will also grow because you are owning how you feel about something.

When you start acting from a place of being complete you can also begin to do things because they represent what you are about and because you have an awesome time doing them. You can try dancing regardless of what your family thinks. You can quit football if you don’t enjoy it anymore. Or you can re-start it if the only thing that was stopping you was the fear of being judged. How about making amends with a family member you really care about…Who cares if people don’t see you as someone who says sorry…Or if your boyfriend does not think you are sporty…Or if your mates think that guys don’t bake. Do what you want to do because you value doing it.

Fast forward 10 years the scenario from earlier. I can now approach a social gathering from a place of being complete. I can ask someone a question because I am interested in the answer, regardless of the judgement that may result from the question. I can appreciate a mate’s jokes rather be anxious about my own role in the group. I can express myself freely because I value expressing myself. Or I can be quiet and enjoy the atmosphere rather attempting to impose my personality. I can connect with people. I can have a drink because it might add to my experience. Not because I want to escape my experience. If I see other people getting along I can be pleased they are having a great time. I don’t need anything from them. I can be free.

I know which experience I prefer of the two. This may not be a problem for you at all. But if it is, I have found it beneficial to approach my days from a place of personal trust and valued actions. That way you can start to show your brain that you don’t need the nod from others before getting on with living your life.

Here is a link to Mark Freeman’s new book ‘The Mind Workout’:

Here you can enquire about his online courses or Skype therapy:

Here is Alan Watts being fabulous:

Thanks for reading!

The Power of Thanks

For the past 6 months or so I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal. It’s been useful. Basically, I get to the end of the day and think of three things I am grateful for and write them down. It could be from that day specifically. It could be anything ever. Looking through my journal there is a right variety: ‘chat with a patient’, ‘having all the boys round’, ‘buying veg on the market’. A bonus of this process is that you get to look back and remember good times, momentous or tiny. I like that. A gratitude journal is essentially a happy diary. And has multiple benefits.
When I was practicing full blown anxiety I was a genius at problem solving. Incredibly useless problem solving. I would be in a meeting at work and try to work out how evil a memory made me. Then in the next moment I would try to pinpoint what came before the Big Bang. I still haven’t got to the bottom of them two. I was training my brain to solve problems. Constantly. But what does a master problem solver need? Problems. Negativity. Gloom.
I am not the only one. I regularly witness people being more comfortable dwelling in negativity rather than the good stuff. Despite the great work done daily in healthcare, back office bonding is more often than not likely to focus on the stresses of the industry rather than the solutions to solve them. Or, speaking at social gatherings on current affairs, we are more likely to complain about politicians rather than talk enthusiastically about the contributions we can and do make daily to society.
So many of us have a tendency to focus on problems internally in our minds and then do the same externally with others. This is not anyone’s fault either. We have been born with these “faulty calculators” (as I have begun to call the brain). These calculators have been great at keeping us flourishing as a species for millennia. In terms of evading predators and surviving treacherous weather conditions they have rocked it!

They still have their uses too. Working out a tax return or planning a holiday are both endeavours that benefit from a bit of old fashioned brain power. But the faults are never far away. Our brains judge almost everything they see or think of. Each person is “great” or “ugly” or “old”. Thoughts are “bad” or “good” or “terrifying”. The purpose of a lot of these judgements is to reinforce to ourselves that we are okay. That we are not the worst. That we can control the scary world and what it does to us. But pretty soon we start to worry whether we are ugly or bad or old ourselves! We have another problem to work out. In our heads. And we can’t solve it.
It makes sense therefore to take a step in the other direction. Ponder what is going right…what are we pleased about? What do we appreciate? This may feel a little bit like turning around and facing a heavy wind at first. But that gale was whisking you away to Gloomsville and keeping you there. The other way is challenging to get to. But you can tell its brighter and has a sense of hope and energy to it.

Interestingly, researchers have found that the effects of gratitude can come about quickly (see awesome Youtube vid below). After a 21 day study real change was witnessed as brains scanned for the positives first before the negatives. Personally, at first I struggled to write anything down. It felt clunky and forced. After a short while you start to remember to look out for positive events during the daytime for the sake of the exercise. By the end of the three weeks your brain has begun automatically recognising positivity on its own! Once that foundation is laid your reality can begin to alter a little. A simple moment walking to work can be savoured. A struggle in your personal life can be an opportunity for growth. Research has also shown gratitude to improve sleep, self-esteem as well as your physical health. More here:

Some simple pointers to succeed at this: Buy a notepad or a diary or find a piece of paper. Find a pen or a pencil. Set aside 5 minutes before bed or when you wake up daily. Really think about what you are grateful for, be sincere with that gratitude. Why are you grateful for it? How does it make you feel? Where do you feel that? (Don’t worry if you don’t feel anything, you don’t have to, just keep going). Give it a go for 21 days and see how you do. Nice one 🙂


It’s not unusual to be emotional

As a human being, you feel all sorts. Jovial, anxious, excited, sad or happy. That faint sense of unease…just all sorts! In the months leading up to Christmas just gone I went through a period of “struggling” again with my OCD. I started to react to some of the “negative” emotions that were showing up in my body. I began to think anxiety meant something was consistently wrong with my external world. I interpreted sadness as being something inherently wrong with my internal world. So I started to perform compulsions again!! Who’d have thought a relatively experienced OCD-recovery agent such as myself could fall into such a trap? Oh well. I have learnt from my lapse and will now add it to my recovery arsenal, levelling me up to some sort of Recovery Rambo, slaughtering compulsions in dark crevices of brain matter. I thought this post would therefore be useful for myself to revisit some of what I have learnt in recent years about emotions. Plus, I hope anyone reading mignt find it beneficial. Recovery from OCD is generally about learning skills that improve mental health universally. So read on ye emotional one!
I find it is useful to go back to childhood to consider what many of us may have learnt about emotions as tots and tiddlers. From parents, teachers, and any other person who is bigger and more wrinkled than you at that age. The very reassurances and statements you receive from these folk, mostly spoken with good intentions for sure, could possibly deliver a not too helpful message. For instance, a common instruction from a teacher could be “don’t be nervous” to a pupil worried about acting in their first nativity play as the arse-end of a donkey. Or a parent may demand “don’t be angry” to their child who has just been told that a planned trip to the zoo is cancelled because the car is broken down. Another child could witness how sad cartoon characters always seem to have less friends than the jolly ones. So is sad bad too?
Society’s cultural message about emotions has not always been particularly helpful either. As males get older common instructions such as “man up” and “grow some balls” are thrown at them if they start to portray some of these frightful feelings. A big part of Britain’s cultural heritage in the past century has been built around the catchphrase of having the desired “stiff upper lip”. These pressures are of course not confined to men. Women too are severely judged on their emotions. Females can commonly be labelled as “hysterical”. This phrase brings about connotations of having too many emotions, of not being able to control them and hence being unpredictable because of them. Indeed, someone exhibiting this heightened state of emotion is at real threat of being accused of “being on her period” and therefore seen as irrational and not to be taken seriously.
So, we are repeatedly, throughout our lives and from multiple angles, bombarded with the same message: there are certain emotions that are bad. There are others that are good. Yet we all feel all of them. Which creates a problem. If we have been repeatedly taught to chastise and discriminate against some feelings, then how are we expected to react when they inevitably show up? I imagine anyone with any sense would try to avoid those emotions, they would try to hide them from everyone else. They may even get angry with themselves for experiencing them in the first place.
Judging emotions as either good or bad starts you on a dangerous cycle. Say you feel anxious about a meeting at work and you label that feeling instantly as a bad one. It would be natural for you to then feel guilty about feeling anxious. Then, knowing that this is quite ridiculous, you feel angry about feeling guilty about feeling anxious. Reflecting on this a little further, you might understandably feel quite sad… So you feel sad because you feel angry because you feel guilty because you feel anxious. How traumatic! All because you felt a very natural feeling…
Many anxiety disorders have the denial of feelings as one of their headlining acts. Think of agoraphobia. Someone cannot stand the thought being feeling unsafe and anxious outside the home so they eventually never leave. This avoidance of that anxiety reinforces the message to the brain that they cannot handle the outside world, that it is bad. OCD is looped in a similar pattern. Our marked sensitivity to anxiety means that we try to do everything to deny it. Which means that we feel it all the time. I remember I used to take myself off to bathrooms out in public and try to talk away my anxiety. I used to put my head in the pillow at home and pleaded with my body to stop despairing. That worked about as well as a fire extinguisher filled with petrol.
So…what’s the answer then? Change the relationships with those feelings. If they are going to be around no matter what then it makes sense to let them in. Welcome them in with open arms actually. It is a foreign concept at first and can feel weird. Your body and brain may have been attempting to get rid of the “horrible” emotions for so long that at first you might even feel like you are in serious danger, going against all conventional wisdom. Interestingly and reassuringly, after a while, those feelings just begin to feel more normal. They are a part of your daily existence in the same way moments of excitement and joy and connection have been. Life begins to flow. And that we like.

How do you start this challenging process? Firstly I would say don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You can explore the concept gently. At the bottom of this post there is a meditation titled “Exploring Difficulties”. It is less than 10 minutes long and it instructs the listener to think of something that has been challenging them recently and then to explore the feeling that evokes. Essentially, this is the practice of not attempting to get rid of emotions you once thought were negative. I find that once I stop resisting it can be quite soothing. It gives you distance between you and your emotions. So you are someone experiencing or even watching anxiety. Rather than fighting it and becoming it personified. When you observe anxiety in this way it can end up feeling interestingly pleasant, even exhilerating. Butterflies in the stomach, energy under the skin and a raised heartbeat. Very close to its opposing partner in the emotional world – excitement.
This is classic mindfulness and the more you practice it the better you get. I think something that trips us up as humans again and again is that we make the mistake of treating our internal worlds the same way we do our external worlds. If there is a poisonous person in your life who always makes you feel terrible about yourself, eventually it makes sense to cut that person out. Or if your toaster kept setting fire you would chuck that out too. The issue is you can’t do this with your internal experiences. I cannot easily discard that feeling of dread about the dentist or put the thought about disease in the recycling bin. We humans do suffer. We experience pain, loss and despair. Just as we experience joy, excitement and connection. The cruel irony, as with “nasty” thoughts, is the more we try to avoid one set of emotions and cherry pick others, the more our minds find possible ways we could feel the to-be-avoided emotions. So you can end up feeling them everywhere.
Another way to start to get comfortable with the Emotions Formerly Known as Bad is to do something incredibly simple. Talk about them. Call them out. I dare you to say to someone “I’m feeling anxious today”. Because the person you say that to will know exactly how you feel. They too are having a human experience. They too feel anxious and sad and scared sometimes. As a society we are still chronically awful at opening up in these ways. There is the fear of judgement, of seeming weak. So instead we keep it inside and judge ourselves, ironically making us weaker. For years I feverishly tried to cover up emotions I did not want others to see. It was exhausting. I was so desperate for people to not see me anxious or vulnerable. I became pretty masterful at it. It just caused untold pain internally. When I started to speak of it the relief was tremendous. It was like bleeding a radiator of horror. Then feeling lighter and free.
Lastly, I would suggest looking closely at the labels you place on emotions. If you think anxiety is bad, how about reframing that? Could anxiety just be anxiety? Could anxiety even be seen as good? Could you get excited about the next time you are going to feel anxious? A case in point would be a recent personal experience of my own. I had a presentation to do at university in front of classmates and examiners. In the past, despite best intentions, I would become self-aware and red-faced. I would be thinking too much about how I looked rather than what I said. I wanted to escape the platform. This time, just the other week, I knew those feelings would come again. I knew I would feel nervous and a sense of dread. So I thought “bring it on” and I said to myself “just how anxious can I get?” I felt the heat on my skin and the beat of my heart and said to myself “this is awesome this is happening, I am grateful for it”. After a while those bodily sensations just accompanied my experience and I enjoyed doing my presentation. It was a good buzz.

There you have it. A whistle stop tour of emotions. I should add that I am not saying lets all get really sad and live a life of misery. Of course we all want a life full of joy and peace and connection. It just makes sense to me to re-evaluate that rocky relationship with parts of my life that are going to be there whether I resist them or not. Especially when, if I accept them, they tend to not show up as much. Re-visiting this stuff has helped me to get back on track to having some really positive mental health. That’s not to say there are not hours or days when the struggle feels real. But now I’m seeing that struggle as a challenge rather than a disaster. Or even as an opportunity to practice feeling anxious rather than an ordeal to be terrified by. Thanks for reading!

Compulsions and quick fixes

Compulsions fuel OCD. They maintain it and make it worse. If an obsession is a nasty boomerang that you desperately want to get rid of then a compulsion is the act of attempting to throw it away. The more effort you put in to getting rid of that problem the more viciously it will come back and smash your face to bits. Compulsions temporarily get rid of the problem but they make the situation so much worse. OCD is the most accurate boomerang ever. It will come back every time. So the trick is to stop throwing. Stop trying to get rid of it. In order to embrace uncertainty and live a fulfilled life an OCD sufferer needs to stop performing compulsions. This is easier said than done because our minds tell us that compulsions are the most important things in the world. We are made to believe it is the compulsions that are keeping us safe. But that is a lie. They are keeping us unwell.

Compulsions are not the sole privilege of people with OCD. Quick fixes, light relief and vices serve the function of helping the majority of people to escape from feelings they do not want to feel, such as stress, anxiety or low mood. A common example would be a colleague declaring in the office that a bottle of wine will need to be cracked that evening due to the day’s difficulties. Another would be someone pulling out their phone in a group conversation during that awkward silence. It is interesting to look at the function of these actions. The wine will relax and perhaps comfort a mind “frazzled” by stress and tension. The phone is a great barrier to an environment which feels problematic, maybe protecting an individual to the frightful notion that the silence is because of them.

When these avoidance strategies snowball to consistent repetition we can become dependent on them. In some circumstances they can end up being the only way an individual copes with any feelings at all. Heroin is very good at avoiding feelings. I used to work in substance misuse and a recurring theme, or perhaps the only one, was that clients used their chosen drug to continuously escape the trauma of emotional pain. This comes as no surprise when considering the amount of service users who have suffered some type of serious abuse. The burden of having to deal with the issue is so great that any tool, however destructive, can seem like the only way to temporarily ease the pressure.

So there are similarities between addiction and anxiety disorders such as OCD. In order to avoid uncertainty, anxiety and anything else which felt intolerable, I had an impressive war chest of compulsions. I used to: reassure myself that a thought was not true, ruminate on things I had done “wrong” or “right”, get takeaways, get pissed, binge eat sugary foods, constantly check my mood, attempt to feel a certain way, check my pulse, smoke, count movements in my head, hide sharp objects, work out how people view me, spend money wastefully, check I was cured, think of nice things people had said about me, analyse any social situation I found myself in, ruminate on whether I was performing a compulsion, etc.

It would not surprise me if people’s reactions to this list were “well some of them seem quite normal, I do some of those”. I am sure this is true. Some of the compulsions I have mentioned are quite normal. And in some circumstances some of these behaviours could even be classed as relatively healthy. But what made them compulsions for me was the way I used them. All of the above COULD be used by me to attempt to not feel a certain way. This does not mean I cannot get a takeaway if I have been healthy for the rest of the week and feel like a treat. And I can drink alcohol if I feel it adds to my experience in a particular setting too. As long as these actions are adding to my current experience instead of being used to try to take me away from it that is okay by me.

There are some compulsions which are so subtle you have no idea you are doing them. Only recently I realised I had been using a coping technique to deal with sadness for years. When I was in a potentially upsetting situation I continuously had a friend or relative in my head watching me! That individual would complement me or critique my choices in that scenario and I would reason with them to prove I was doing “right”. I was justifying my actions to someone not there! I had placed such a high degree of importance on others’ validation that I had to invent their presence when faced with a difficult scenario. I am now aware of how unhealthy this was. Why could I not get this validation from myself? Why could I not be present with the situation? For the first question I believe that my intolerance of uncertainty resulted in needing to provide justifications for everything I did in order to guard against any future judgement. With that unhealthy desire an ‘imaginary observer’ proves useful. For the second question, I think I could not be present because I interpreted sadness as being an emotion as something to avoid at all costs. Having a friend or colleague (always someone from ‘real life’ that I respected) compliment me in my head was a comforting distraction from the rawness of that present moment reality.

Since coming to these conclusions it became clear what I needed to do. I needed to experience challenging situations exactly for what they were. As with any aspect of recovery, once you become educated on the mechanisms that keep you unhealthy, it is much clearer how to start making healthy choices. That does not make the process easy. I recently experienced an upsetting situation on a personal level. I had to come to terms with some difficult truths about an individual’s health and sit with them for an extended period of time. In the past I would have been imagining a family member letting me know how well I was coping with the situation and I was tempted to start doing this. Instead I just sat with the individual. And I felt sad. It was hard but completely appropriate for the situation. It meant I could properly be there for them and give my full attention. It meant I could come to terms with the reality in front on me.

A big part of recovery from OCD is learning to healthily feel all emotions, something I will go into in more detail in later posts. I am currently reading ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Dr Russ Harris. In it he states happiness in not a fleeting pleasure or gratification (something that a lot of compulsions and quick fixes actually give us quite successfully), but rather the meaning of happiness is a “rich, full and meaningful life”. His reasoning is that anything worthwhile and lasting, such as starting a family or building a career, will have its equal share of pain along with joy. People with OCD, and many others, end up trying so hard to control and avoid feelings they class as ‘negative’ that they end up doing the same with more ‘positive’ ones! Your whole life becomes an attempt to numb a  potential nightmare and that hence that nightmare becomes your reality. Recovery is instead the process of embracing all the emotions. Aim for a colourful life, not a grey one.

So how do you stop these compulsions? There are loads of ways! Don’t be like me and start worrying about which technique is “best”! I have spent days performing compulsions, trying to be certain about which technique would be most effective at stopping compulsions! Just find what works for you. My preferred methods revolve around awareness and acceptance. For example, if I feel myself starting to seek certainty I will use a tool recommended on ‘Headspace’, an app which is a great resource to get started with mediation. The listener is instructed to stop thought tangents by bringing them into awareness, by imagining tapping a crystal ball with a feather in your mind’s eye and gently saying “checking”. This brings the unhealthy thoughts into awareness and stops you getting caught up with them. Therefore, if you find yourself beginning to perform a compulsion simply lightly tap that intent with your ‘awareness feather’, thank yourself for doing so well to notice it and then bring your attention to the present moment, ideally onto doing something healthy aligned with your values.

If an intrusive thought arises and knocks you for six it can be ridiculously tempting to try to get rid of it or prove it wrong. A thought of “maybe I just ran someone over” can be met with intense fear and doubt. Stephen C Hayes is an ACT practitioner and author of ‘Get out of Your Mind and into Your Life’. He would suggest “defusing” from the thought by singing “I just ran someone over” to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Twinkle twinkle’. This can be very effective to see difficult thoughts as simply thoughts, not actually you. Mark Freeman talks about radically accepting the thought in order to accept your darkest fears. If you show your brain you are no longer scared of those deep fears it will eventually stop throwing them at you. So: “Yeah maybe I did just run that person over, they will have died, I will have to go to prison, my family will disown me, I will be alone forever”. I especially like that one. It strangely gives you some perspective when you own that fear instead of avoiding it.

A great thing I’ve done in my recovery is identify all the compulsions that I was performing. I wrote them down and gradually began cutting them out. It massively helps to have a therapist help you with this but I think great strides can be made with education and determination. One thing I noticed with cutting out compulsions is that you end up having lots of spare time when you are no longer trying to control all your internal experiences. It helped to see this as a great opportunity to start doing more things I cared about. I identified a list of healthy actions to turn to if I was ever struggling with the acceptance of a thought or feeling a little “bored”. I know I can always: exercise, call a mate, read, meditate, text family, etc. However I’m feeling. These principles are the foundations of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and so I highly recommend the work of Hayes, Harris and Freeman already mentioned. Trust me when I say only good, if scary, things can come from replacing compulsions with healthy actions. It’s the way to get better. So put the boomerang down and play another game.



Re-thinking Fear

Fear is fascinating. We all experience it. Or try not to. I see fear as the “thing” at the end of all the worries. The deep horror, as it were, that we try to avoid at all costs. Fear plays a big part in OCD. Part of recovery from the disorder involves digging deeper at first past the compulsions, then the obsessions, right up to the fear that fuels it all. Fear is the reason why those obsessions are there and the uncertainty over the plausibility of that fear causes the compulsions. So it therefore makes sense to get a little more comfortable with these entrenched terrors if you ever want to be free from them. I think fear should be treated as more of a friend rather than a ghastly neighbour you dare not to look at in the face. Fear can give you so much if you approach it in the right manner.
I used to think I had loads of fears. I was scared of: sharp objects, news stories, criticism, organised fun, failure, success, talking to girls, judgement, myself, opinions that contradicted mine, bodily sensations, saving money, bodily movements, sadness, losing friendship, getting old and being happy (in case I lost it!), etc., etc. I was engulfed by fears, every way I turned. As soon as I convinced myself that I was not hated by people close to me I would worry that I was self-obsessed for caring so much. As soon as I reassured myself I was not self-obsessed I would feel good and then worry about when I would stop feeling good. Then I would worry about whether I would always feel worried after feeling good. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the control of all this uncertainty creates more uncertainty to control. You are telling your brain that it is important to keep practicing this ridiculous game.
What massively helped me was realising that a lot of my fears could be distilled down into just a few topics. This was done by asking why. Repeatedly. For example, I looked at why I got nervous talking to girls. This was because I didn’t want them to see that I was nervous. Why? Because then I would not seem strong and confident. Why is that bad? Because then I would not be able to attract them. Why is that bad? Because then I would not be in a relationship. Why is that bad? Because then I would not feel loved. Bingo!
Example 2: I tried to avoid sharp objects. Why? Because they made me feel anxious. Why? Because I was worried I could hurt someone close to me with them. Why is that bad? Because I loved people close to me and I didn’t want them to get hurt. I could never cope with the guilt. Any other reason to be so frightened of sharp objects? Because if I ever hurt anyone accidentally or intentionally everyone would hate me. Why is that bad? Because I would not feel loved.
Example 3: I checked my pulse constantly for any irregularities. Why? Because I needed to check if I was having a heart attack. Why? Because that would be the worst thing ever and maybe I could prevent it from happening if I was constantly vigilant. Why would it be so bad though? Because I don’t want to die.
Once I had bottled all my fears up into a few nasty little bottles they felt much more manageable. I was left with: not feeling loved, death and wasting time/my life on worrying/OCD. Now I had to decide what to do with them. I discovered two fantastic approaches. The first was acceptance. This is simply the process of accepting the external or internal world exactly for what they are. This could seem a terrifying prospect when dealing with your deepest darkest fears. But for me I did not see it that way. The fact I had discovered the subjects I found most horrifying in the world did not alarm me. Instead it was empowering to realise that if I could come to terms with those I could come to terms with anything.
There is a good meditation called ‘The Five Remembrances’ read out by Mark Freeman at the bottom of this post. This gave me a great reference point of how to accept deep fears. The meditation instructs the listener to accept some of life’s difficult truths and to not react to them. The truths include: ‘I will get old’, ‘all my personal relationships will change’ and ‘I will die’. Now your first reaction to hearing these may be “Bit morbid isn’t it?”. Perhaps. But the wisdom and freedom that I felt from starting to accept these was awesome. The instruction to not react to them was paramount. Since I was young I would hear about illness and cope with it by saying to myself “Well I’m not old now so it’s alright”. Or when dying came up in conversation I simply avoided the topic via distraction. But of course these completely normal everyday coping and avoiding strategies are simply compulsions. Giving evidence to your brain that these subjects are monsters to hide under the bed and not look at. It feeds the false belief that you are not capable of handling them.
Instead I determinedly did not try to rationalise these fears. I did not try to comfort myself. I did not Google search websites that would reassure me. I went to a local meditation group that was doing a session on accepting death. I learnt to look at my fears for exactly what they were and embraced the very human emotions of anxiety and concern you would naturally associate with these subjects. After a while those emotions started to ebb away and I felt quite light and refreshed. I realised I could handle those fears because I was no longer trying to change them. The golden reward after this process of acceptance is that you begin to realise the amount of freedom that you do have and the precious nature of having your health and a life to live right now. If you do have OCD I would add that this process (including the meditation below) is by no means easy but it is well worth pursuing if it sounds like it would be of use in your recovery.
I discovered a second philosophical approach to fear that excited me just as much as acceptance. This was the idea that your fears point you towards your greatest desires. Once you discover what your fears are you can flip them and realise what you really value in life. For me the fear of not being loved meant that I so value connection. I did not want to die because I value life and all it has to offer. I did not want to waste time on OCD because I know there is only a finite time to do everything I want to do. It makes a lot more sense to live by those values rather than their fear counterparts.
Limiting beliefs are indeed a window to people’s fears and therefore their values. You hear them all the time. A common one is “I’m not a people person”. Well there’s a fair chance that someone saying that is actually communicating that they don’t like the feeling of social anxiety or the possibility of being judged. Instead they might in fact crave to openly interact with others and express themselves freely. But fear stops them. Another one is “I can’t trust people”. This is another example of a perfect defence mechanism. The likelihood is this person has had their trust broken in the past. So to protect themselves from that heartbreak they have now made it part of their identity that they cannot trust people. But they are capable of trusting people. And it matters to them because otherwise it would not have hurt in the first place. By listening to their fear they are limiting their happiness. If this topic interests you I would highly recommend “Feel the Fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers. Clues in the title.
So I have found it sooo useful in building positive mental health to re-think fear. Getting to know my fears, accepting them and then using them to discover my values has really got at the core of my OCD. I have always found it so inspiring to hear about someone who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and they suddenly get a new lease of life and do everything they ever wanted to do. I think what might happen in (some of) those cases is those people react that way because they already know the worst is coming, so they develop an attitude of “fuck it lets have a party!”. What else is there to be scared about? I used to hear those stories, get inspired and make plans. Then the mind comes in with nuggets of fear and doubt, “It would be pretty dangerous to jump out a plane”, “I can’t save the money to go see the pyramids” or “Maybe swimming with dolphins would actually be a bit shit anyway”. Then you get stuck in the old neurotic world of risk assessing mundanity. It seems when you try to control or avoid fear you live in a self-made prison. When you accept it and flip it you start to feel a bit freer. It’s good to know I no longer need to wait for an awful diagnosis to start properly living.


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“Oh hello Uncertainty! Come on then lets have a cuddle”

So where was I? I ended my last post by describing where I had got to at the beginning of this year. I had just been discharged from CBT for the second time and had a fabulous new toolkit at my disposal. I felt better than ever about my OCD. All the work I had done made me feel like I had most areas covered. If thoughts of harming others ever came up I was not bothered. If health fears arose I could challenge them with ERP techniques. If existential trauma broke out I knew I had to intensely leave it alone. These could all be termed as ‘classic’ OCD themes. I legitimately felt like I had an answer for all of them. Yet the aforementioned (in previous post) psychological banana skin was not far away.

I am in my first year of mental health nurse training so January was significant because I had my first practical placement. I was naturally looking forward to this next chapter in my career. Within a couple of weeks I unfortunately started to struggle. The placement was in a hospital on a surgical ward, a setting I had no experience in. The whole thing brought stress levels back up to a place they had not been in years. Within one month of being discharged from CBT, my anxiety was shooting back up. I started to question my career choices as a whole. This questioning, especially prolific late at night, then led to questioning about other topics. Old ones with a familiar tone. The odd health fear, a worry that I had contaminated patients on the ward, “Why do I do anything?”. Shit it’s happening again…

Something my therapist had mentioned in our last session was playing on my mind. Along with the congratulations and best wishes she had given me a gentle warning. That this was a cruel disorder and can come back. Especially at times when you are feeling your most vulnerable. A lot of the support forums and online information offered a similar grim message. The word “chronic” is so often used in association with OCD. I suppose it was natural therefore that in February this year a new theme became “Will OCD always ruin my life?”. I reasonably feared that this monkey would never be off my back. Life would always have times of stress. Would OCD always be around to compound my heartache?

I called my GP and they concurred that it is at times like this when sufferers must do their best to “manage” their symptoms. They said to do my CBT work or take up their offer for more medication. I was gutted. I had just done the best treatment of my life and things were falling apart again. University signed me off placement for a week because I couldn’t sleep. I felt low.

One morning I woke up with a strong sense that I was missing something. I could not just accept that things would always be like this. A part of me still believed it did not have to be this way. I went on Youtube and typed in OCD. I came across a guy called Mark Freeman. Within 10 minutes, or about two of his videos, something clicked. Mark’s message had a strong impact on me for many reasons. For one, he has a clear and infectious belief that recovery from OCD is possible. This conviction is vital to hear for any doubtful sufferer. His positive and jovial nature is also the perfect foil to OCD’s weary cynicism. Despite this positivity the videos do speak realistically about what is necessary to get better. It is not easy. All areas of your life most likely need to be addressed. And you need to keep practising good habits to stay well, just as you do with your physical health if you want to stay fit. This made complete sense to me. I was ready to “build great mental health”.

Possibly the biggest lesson Mark has taught me is to closely re-address my relationship with uncertainty. His view is that OCD is really about a poor relationship with uncertainty in all areas of the sufferer’s life. As soon as I looked at my own examples it dawned on me quickly that I have always interacted with the big U quite dreadfully! “Themes” had simply arisen when I could not digest the uncertainty in a part of my life that was important to me. I could not 100% prove that I was not capable of hurting people. I could not be certain that I would not die in the next 24 hours. I could never provide a formula that could make myself certain that things mattered to me. This all was beginning to make sense…

Towards the end of the first video I have provided below you will see Mark urging the viewer to “give bug hugs” to all uncertainty that week. This is what I did. The exercise showed me how often I had been trying to avoid, control and deny uncertainty. Day by day, hour by hour, I would come across uncertainty and try to do nothing with it. This was really tough but I relished the challenge knowing how healthy it was for me. Like how a runner enjoys the burn of that uphill struggle, it was exciting for me to see how much my mind wanted me to fix an uncertain feeling, but then to deny that. In that first week or two I interestingly experienced what some people call “recovery headaches”. These are common if you are incessantly denying your brain the actions it has ordered you to do for so long. It feels as though your brain is literally changing, for the better. They were the best headaches I have ever had!

Of course these exercises were most striking when it came to my main themes. This came as no surprise and the embracing of uncertainty in these areas was so useful. What struck me most was the all the other little bits. Mark hits home the point that overall uncertainty intolerance is the problem and you need to “practice” challenging it again and again. A common example would be in social situations. If a friend said something that sounded a little “off” I realised that for years I would have had to think of many situations when they had spoken kindly towards me or given me praise, to convince myself they still liked me. In these recovery weeks I therefore had to say myself “Maybe they don’t like you anymore” and be okay with that. In the past if I went to work and felt like I had acted too rushed when speaking to a work colleague maybe that would tip them over the edge and lead them to commit suicide. So I would say “Yes maybe what I have just done could be the catalyst for individual disaster” and then sit with that feeling. In years gone by if I was having a good day, pleased with my accomplishments, I would have a thought of “Maybe I am only nice to people to convince myself that I am not bad”. And so now I agree with that and any resulting horrible dread!

What I have learnt from these beautiful simple exercises is that life is uncertain in so many ways. But I can live with that and I am actually okay with it. I now know that I can have a day when my worst possible fears are screaming at me that the world is about to end and it is all my fault, but accept these terrors and do things that make me happy anyway. In fact because I am okay with that happening it actually means that those days do not occur very often anymore. The Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh states “Those who learn to suffer, suffer much less”. For me hugging uncertainty is all about learning to suffer healthily and hence being able to just get on with life. We spend so much time trying to eliminate what could happen that we end up not just doing what we want do. I now accept fully that it is possible I could hurt someone. I also know there is a chance I could die at any moment. And maybe everything I do believe in is bullshit? But because I do not try to change those fears anymore, I am free from their traps. This is why this blog is called OCD Choice. Because now I can choose how I interact with uncertainty. I can deny it and perform loads of compulsions. Or I can embrace it and live my life. Essentially I can choose whether to practice OCD or to practice being healthy and happy. Two people who do well to articulate these points are featured in the videos below. Thanks for reading everyone. Go on, give it a hug!