When Life gets overwhelming, we sometimes just have to stop and think for awhile. Unfortunately, when you have OCD, thinking can become our worst enemy. For me, I tend to over-think and then over-think on what I am already over-thinking about, which is just a vicious cycle (a broken record) of thinking that leads absolutely nowhere. It just creates more anxiety, stress, and ultimately, emotional suffering.
I am also a problem solver with OCD, which simply means I have no patience. I want to resolve problems as quickly as possible, if I don’t, it causes me emotional suffering. I get anxious (I want to solve it now), I begin to worry (what would happen if it doesn’t get resolved) and I stress over the anxiety and worry (emotional suffering).
So, after years of emotional suffering, I eventually developed a sort of mindfulness exercise that helps me ground my OCD emotions. Not only does it prioritize the level of importance for worrying about things, but also allows me to better organize my thoughts and emotions to make better decisions on things.
This exercise works well with all different kinds of worries and/or anxieties. It is also great for prioritizing life problems or even just a stack of overwhelming work projects (I used to get stuck on list making rather than actually working). I love this exercise, because it basically tricks the OCD brain into moving forward (fixing that broken record of thoughts and emotions).
This exercise incorporates a few different practices that often help overcome OCD ruts, such as identifying root-causes, implementing acceptance and mindfulness. It also incorporates prioritizing and goal-planning.
Listing helps us identify stressful situations and then with a series of certain questions, we can better assess the situation to make better decisions about them. In addition, writing all of this down on paper (it is important to do this exercise on paper and don’t be afraid to read it aloud), gets the thoughts out of the head (breaking internal thought cycles) and prioritizing the thoughts allows the logical part of our brain to step in and pick it up (breaking the OCD hold on the thought). I love it!
1) Take a piece of paper and make 6 columns:
1st COLUMN: List specifically all the things you are worried, anxious, or stressed out about. The purpose of this column is to identify the root cause of your worry, anxiety, stress, fear, or problem. Don’t think, just list them all!
2nd COLUMN: Is this something that is out of your control?
If yes, stop here and let it go!
There is no point in wasting anymore energy into things that are out of our control. This part focuses on ACCEPTANCE. Sometimes we stress over things we do not realize we have don’t have any control over; this is often because our OCD sends us into a cycle of overthinking with ‘What if’s” and “Catastrophe thinking.” But, once we identify the things we have no control over, we can redirect our energy into letting go (disconnecting our emotions from it), accepting there is nothing we can do about it, and having faith that all will be okay in the end. Acceptance is a powerful tool in overcoming OCD.
3rd COLUMN: If you answered NO, in the previous column, then now is the time to think of reasonable and realistic solutions to resolving your problem, or easing the anxiety, worry, and stress. Take your time with this one, do not rush through it. You might even realize that this is something that is truly out of your control, going back to column 2.
If you are stuck on catastrophe thinking, ask yourself first, “WHAT IS ABSOLUTELY THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN,” and start from there. For some, writing down our fears and reading them aloud, allows us to recognize (from a new perspective) irrational and unreasonable thoughts. Sometimes things sound good in our head until we speak them aloud.
4th COLUMN: At this EXACT moment in time, can you do anything about it? YES or NO?
This part focuses on MINDFULNESS. We all have things to realistically worry about and that is why mindfulness is so important. Practicing mindfulness allows us to reduce stress by not having to worry about everything at once. There is no point wasting energy today on something we don’t have to deal with or worry about until tomorrow (or next week, next month, or 5-10 years from now).
5th COLUMN: If Yes, write down the things you need to do and then go take care of it!
I love this part, because it just feels good getting stuff done, especially, if held back by OCD.
6th COLUMN: If NO, here is the section to make a game plan.
List all the things that need to take place to resolve this problem, or ease the anxiety, worry, fear, or stress.
If possible, include a task you can start today, just something to get you started and moving in the right direction. Create a checklist and make small achievable goals. It might just be something as easy as putting it on a calendar for another day, with the realization, it isn’t something you have to worry about right this second.
Often times, we can reduce stress by having a game plan. A game plan can eliminate some of the unknowns we are worried about or just simply reduce stress by being confident that there is a plan.
When finished, you should have prioritized everything into 3 different lists:
1) The list of things to let go!
2) The list of things you can resolve right now!
3) The list of things you don’t have to worry about right this second, but now have a plan to deal with it later (hopefully, reducing some stress over it).
- Do not be vague.
- Be specific, yet to the point. It’s not a journal.
- Be honest, reasonable, and realistic.
- Write down your thoughts and read them aloud for a new perspective.
- If it causes more anxiety, stop, breathe, and decide whether or not you want to continue. Pushing through your emotions to solve a problem is kind of like exposure therapy – it can be intense.
I hope this mindfulness exercise is just as helpful to you as it has been to me. Everyone is different, so feel free to modify it to your own specific needs and please don’t feel discouraged if it doesn’t seem to help at all. From my own personal experience in overcoming OCD, it’s all about trial and error.