Your Anxiety Toolkit - Anxiety & OCD Strategies for Everyday

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Your Anxiety Toolkit - Anxiety & OCD Strategies for Everyday








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Sep 22, 2023

What if I never get better? This is a common and distressing fear that many people worry about. It can feel very depressing, it can be incredibly anxiety-provoking, and most of all, it can make you feel so alone. Today, I’m going to address the fear, “What if I never get better?” and share tools and strategies to stay hopeful and focused on your recovery.

If you have the fear, “What if I never get better?” I want you to settle in. This is exactly where you need to be. I want to break this episode down into two specific sections. So, when we are talking about “What if I never get better?” we’re going to talk about first the things I don’t have control over, and then the things we do have control over. That will determine the different strategies and tools we’re going to use.

Before we do that, though, let’s talk about first validating how hard it is to recover. Recovery is an incredibly scary process. It can feel defeating; it can feel, as I said, so incredibly lonely. When we’re thinking about recovery, we often compare it to other people’s recovery, and that’s probably what makes us think the most. Like, will I ever recover? Will I get to be like those people who have? Or if you see people who aren’t recovering, you might fear, “What if I don’t recover either?” even if you’re making amazing steps forward.

It can be an exhausting process that requires a lot of care, compassion, and thoughtful consideration. Most of all, recovery requires a great deal of hard work. Most people, by the time they come to me, are exhausted. They’ve given up. They don’t really feel like there’s any way forward. And I’m here to share with you that there absolutely is, and we’re going to talk about some strategies here today.

Now, that being said, while all of those things are true—that it is hard and distressing and can be defeating—I wholeheartedly believe that recovery is possible for everyone. But what’s important is that we define recovery depending on the person. I do not believe that there is a strict definition of recovery, mainly because everybody is different, everybody’s values are different, and everybody’s capacity is different. So we want to be realistic and compassionate, and we want to make sure our expectations are safe and caring as we move towards recovery.

Let’s talk about what that might look like. Again, it’s going to be different for every person. 

What if I never get better


If we’re talking about recovery for OCD, let’s say we’re going to be talking about what’s realistic. Again, what’s compassionate? So, if someone comes to me and says, “I want my goal of recovery to be never to have anxiety and never have intrusive thoughts ever again,” I’m going to say to them, “That sounds really painful and out of your control. Let’s actually work at controlling your reaction to them instead of trying to tell your brain not to have thoughts and not to have feelings, because we all know how that works. You’re going to have more of them, right?” But again, the degree in which you recover is entirely up to you.


Recovery for anxiety or generalized anxiety is going to be the same. I am probably going to use me as an example. I have generalized anxiety disorder—it doesn’t stop me from living my life as fully as I can. It’s still there, but I’m there to gently, compassionately respond to it and think about how I can respond to this effectively. I think I’m genetically set up to have anxiety, so my goal of recovery being like never having anxiety again is probably not kind; it’s probably not compassionate or realistic.


Recovery for depression—again, it’s going to look different for different people. Some people are going to have a complete reduction of depressive symptoms. Other people are going to have a waxing and waning, and I consider that to still be a part of recovery. It might be that your definition of recovery is, “As long as I’m functioning, I can take care of my kids, and I can go to work and do my hobbies.” If that’s your definition of recovery, great. Other people might say, “My definition of recovery is to make sure I get my teeth cleaned, go to the doctor once a year, and have an exercise schedule,” and whatever’s right to them.

Really, again, I want to be clear that you get to decide what recovery looks like for you. I’ve had people in the past say, “I’ve considered my recovery to be great. I’m not ready to take those next extra hard steps. I’m happy with where I am, and I’m actually going to work at really accepting where I’m at and living my life as fully as I can, whether these emotions or these feelings are here or not,” and I love that.


Recovery for hair pulling and skin picking—another disorder that we treat at our center in Calabasas, California—might be some reduction of those behaviors. For others, it might be complete elimination, but you get to decide.


I know that for me, the recovery of a chronic illness was not the absence of the chronic illness. It was getting in control of the things I knew I could control and then working at compassion, acceptance, care, support, and resources for what I could not control.

So I really want to emphasize here first that we want to be respectful. I want to be respectful of your definition of recovery before we talk about this fear specifically related to “what if I don’t recover.” Some people have the fear that they won’t recover, and that might be valid because they’ve put their expectations so high that the expectation in and of itself causes some anxiety.


So let’s talk about it first. We’re going to first talk about what I don’t have control over, and this is what we’re talking about here in regards to how I manage this fear. 

Now, the first thing to do when we’re talking about what we don’t have control over is, we don’t have control over the fact that we have this fear. Of course, this fear is coming up for you because you want to recover, you want to live your best life, and you deserve that. You deserve to have a life where you go on to succeed in whatever definition that means to you. But we can’t control the fact that your brain offers you the thought, “What if I don’t recover?” We don’t have control over that, so let’s try not to stop or suppress those thoughts. We know that with research, the more you try and suppress a thought, the more often you’re going to have it.

The other thing we don’t have control over, and I actually mentioned this before, is, we have to acknowledge our genetics and acknowledge that genetics does have a play in this. I’m never going to probably be someone who is anxiety-free. My brain comes up with some ridiculous things. My brain loves to catastrophize. My brain loves to find problems where there aren’t problems. That is my brain. As much as I can work at eliminating how I react to that, I’m probably not going to stop that entirely. So I’m going to accept that I don’t have control over my genetics, and that’s okay.

A quick note here too is, if you do have anxiety and it is a part of your genetic—DNA, your family team tends to have it—also catch your anger around that. You’re allowed to be angry; you’re allowed to be dissatisfied or have grief about that. But we also want to catch that as well. Again, we do have to just acknowledge that no one has control over their genetic makeup.

The third thing to remember here is that recovery is a series of valleys and peaks. That we do not have control over. Some people have extreme fear that they will never recover because they believe or were led to believe that recovery should be this very straightforward recovery process where you go from A to B, there’s no peaks and valleys, and it’s all straightforward from there. We do have to accept that it is normal. Recovery will always have peaks and valleys. It will always have highs and lows. And that actually doesn’t mean you are relapsing or anything bad is happening.

I actually say to my clients a lot of the time, and I often will demonstrate to them as I’ll say, “You’re in the messy middle. You’ve started recovery, so you’ve made that huge step. You’ve gone through that chapter where you’re learning and you’re ready for it, and you’ve educated yourself and you’re prepared. And now you’re starting to make some strides. You’re seeing where you’re doing well. We’re also seeing where there’s challenges. You’re in the messy middle, and this is where valleys and peaks, ups and downs are going to happen. Our job isn’t to beat you up when you’re in a valley or a low; our job is to stop and just inquire, nonjudgmentally, what’s going on? What can we learn from this? What could help me with this if I were to navigate this in the future?” 

This has been a huge piece of my work managing a chronic illness because I could wake up tomorrow and not be able to get out of bed, but today I feel like I’m full of energy and all good. It’s completely out of my control sometimes. On the days where I don’t feel like I can get out of bed, my job is to recognize that this is normal. This doesn’t mean it’s going to be forever. Can I be gentle with myself around this hard day and not catastrophize what that means?

So, there are the three things we can’t control. 


Now we’re going to move over to the things we can control. There are actually seven of these things, and we’re going to go through them, and they will inform the tools and strategies you are going to use when you’re handling the fear, “What if I don’t ever recover?”


Number one, something that we do have control over, is: how do I respond to this thought? Now, you must remember, the fear, “What if I don’t recover?” or “What if I never get better?” is actually just a thought. It’s not a fact. It’s not the truth. It’s a thought your brain is offering to you, and we want to thank it for that thought because your brain’s trying to help you along. It’s saying, “Just so you know, Kimberley, there is a small possibility that you won’t recover. What can we do about that?” But if you have that thought and you take it as a fact, like you won’t recover, or recovery is not in your future, and you respond to it that way, you’re going to probably respond in a way that increases anxiety, increases depression, increases hopelessness, and isn’t kind or effective.

So we want to first acknowledge, okay, in this present moment, maybe it’s Tuesday at 9:30 in the morning and I’m having the thought “what if I don’t recover,” knowing that on Tuesday at 9:40, I might be having different thoughts, which is again evidence that thoughts are not facts. They’re fleeting. They’re things that show up in our minds. We can decide whether to respond to them or not.

Now, what we want to do when we do have this thought is respond to it in a kind, compassionate way. For those of you who know me and have followed me for some time, I’m always talking about this idea of a kind coach. The kind coach would say, “Okay, I acknowledge that’s a thought. Okay. What do we need to do? Kimberley, you’ve got this. Keep going. Keep trying. You know you’ve done this valley and this peak before. What did you do in the past that was helpful? What did you do in the past that wasn’t helpful? Great, let’s do more of that.” The kind coach cheers you on. It’s there to encourage you. It’s there to remind you of your strengths. 


It’s not there to bring your challenges and use them against you, which brings us right to tip number two, which is, you have 100% control over how kind you are to yourself throughout the process.Actually, let me renege that maybe not a hundred percent because I know a lot of you are new to the practice of self-compassion, and sometimes we do it without even knowing. So let’s also be realistic about that as well. Forgive me. We can really work at changing how kind we are to ourselves when we have that thought.

Let’s say you’ve been through the wringer. It’s a very Australian frame or quote, but you’ve been through the wringer, which means you’ve been through a really tough time, and you’re thinking, “I only have evidence that things go bad or things get worse.” A kind coach, your compassionate voice, or your compassionate self—that compassionate part of you would be there to offer gentle, wise guidance on what you need to do for the long term to move you forward. Again, that compassionate voice will validate how hard it’s been. It will not invalidate you. It will say, “I understand it has been hard. I understand that this is really, really challenging.” It will also offer you kind, effective, wise ideas for what you could do in that moment.

Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is just acknowledge the thought and keep going. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is to say, “No, brain,” or “No, anxiety,” or “No, I’m not buying into this today. Thank you very much for offering it to me, but you do not get to determine where I’m headed. I get to determine where I am headed.”

So, compassionate reactions aren’t just gentle. Sometimes they’re quite assertive and they’ll say, “No.” Sometimes they might even swear, like, “Bug off, anxiety. I’m not dealing with you today. You’re not going to tell me what to do. You can come along for the day’s ride. I know I can’t get rid of you. I know it’s out of my control to try and get rid of you, but you will not determine what I’m going to do today. You’ll not get to tell me that my life will be bad, or my life will be terrible or unsuccessful, or I won’t have recovery.” You get to stand up to fear in that way and let that then inform the actions you take from there.


The tip or tool number three is, also take a look at how much time you’re dedicating to recovery. I’ve had patients who’ve come to me really struggling with this fear that “what if I never recover?” We actually find that they’re not engaging enough in the recovery skills and tools throughout the day.

It’s sort of like going to the gym. If I went to the gym for an hour, once a week, yes, I would have some improvements, but to really maintain those improvements, I do need to be doing my homework, my stretches, my walks, and my weight training in a way that’s effective and not overdone throughout the week.

So a lot of you, if you’re struggling with this, be gentle around this question, because we don’t want to overdo it either. But we may want to check in and say, “Let’s be strategic here.” I know that in our online course—we have an online course called Time Management for Optimum Mental Health. It’s a course to help people schedule and manage their time so that they can prioritize mental health and other things they have to get done. There are other priorities, chores, and things they have to do. We often talk about, let’s put mental health first. Have you scheduled it in your day to do your homework if you’re doing ERP? Have you done that? Have you scheduled a time or an alarm to go off to remind you to sit and journal, do some self-compassion practice, or meditate?

For me, a big one from my mental health is an alarm to say, “It’s time to leave the house. You need to get outside.” I work from home. I’m often indoors with my patients. “It’s time for you to go outside.” That is important for your long-term mental health or your medical health. And so, it’s important that we are very strategic and effective about scheduling. I call it calendaring. We calendar recovery-focused behaviors. That is something you do have control over.

Again, you do not have control over the fact that the fear is here. You don’t have control over whether it will return tomorrow, but you do have control over your recovery and the steps you take, acknowledging that there will still be peaks and valleys. It will not be perfect. One thing I want to stress to you—and I shouldn’t laugh because it’s actually not funny; it’s actually very serious—is that so many people start recovery and get perfectionistic about it, which is often why they’re having the fear “what if I never recover,” because they’ve told themselves there is this one way that they are going to recover and that it again shouldn’t have peaks and valleys and it should be this way, and I shouldn’t be hijacked by any other things. But the truth is, life happens along the way. You might be cruising along with recovery for your specific struggle, and then all of a sudden, a life stressor happens, like COVID.

Here in LA, my husband works in the film industry. There’s a huge strike happening. It’s a huge stressor for a lot of families. It’s been going on for months. A lot of families. I have all kinds of stresses—financial, relationship, and scheduling struggles. Life does happen, and so we have to be gentle with ourselves on the times when our recovery isn’t going to the speed we would’ve liked because of the life hiccups that happen along the way that slow our progress. When that happens, we can gently encourage ourselves that we are doing the best we can. We’re going to be okay with the fact that it’s a little slower. We’re going to let ourselves have our emotions about the fact that it’s slower than we would’ve liked, and we’re going to gently just keep taking one step at a time in the direction you want to go in.


Now the fourth thing you want to remember here, and something that is in your control when it comes to the fear “What if I don’t recover?” or “What if I never get better?” is how willing am I to ride waves of discomfort? This question is key, you guys, and will determine a huge degree of how speedy your recovery is. Maybe it’s not even speedy. For some people, it’s speedy, but for others, it’s how deep the recovery process goes.

I know for me that I often will try to get things to move along nice and fast and on schedule and so forth, but I’ve really missed the true meaning, which is, have I actually learned how to be with myself when I’m uncomfortable? Have I actually slowed down and really had a degree of willingness to be with whatever discomfort it may be—tightness in my chest, racing thoughts, not in my throat, an upset stomach? Am I actually willing to allow that to be there AND still moving in the direction towards my long-term wellness?

Often, when discomfort comes up, we’re like, “I don’t want to feel this. I don’t want to have this experience.” And that’s often when we engage in behaviors that keep us stuck and keep us out of recovery, keep the disorder going. We know that when we engage in behaviors like compulsions, avoidances, and mental rumination, that often just keeps us stuck and keeps us cycling on the same anxiety and the same disorder.

The big question: How willing am I to ride this wave of discomfort? You may want to even put it on a scale of 1 to 10. You might say, “Out of 10, how willing am I to ride this wave? 10 being the most, 1 being not at all.” I always say to my patients, and I’ve said it here before, we want to be up around the 7s, 8s, 9s, and 10s. Even 7 is fine. It’s all fine, but we’re looking for 8s, 9s, and 10s here of how willing you are to really, truly just allow discomfort to be there and observe it as it’s there and not engage in it again, as if it were a fact.


Number five is, how accepting am I of the ups and downs? Now, we’ve talked about this, the peaks and the valleys. When you’re going through peaks and valleys, how accepting are you of that? Or when they happen, are you like, “No, this shouldn’t happen. I don’t like it. I don’t want it. It’s not fair”? I want to validate you. That response is normal and human, but we want to be careful not to stay there too long because when we’re there, we’re actually not moving forward. We’re then often so much more likely to beat ourselves up, put ourselves down, and compare ourselves to other people.

What we want to do is just gently accept. I understand. I validate that this is hard and that we may have taken a step back, and I do accept that. I take responsibility for that in the most compassionate way, and I’m still going to stand up and keep moving forward. It’s like that song. I may be aging myself here, but they say, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.” He talks about how nothing’s going to get him down. This is what recovery is. You get knocked down; you get up again. Maybe it should be your theme song—you get knocked down, you get up again; you get knocked down, you get up again. And that is so brave.

I celebrate any of my clients or any of my students when they say, “I got knocked down, but I got back up again.” That is so powerful. So courageous. So resilient. I just have all the words to say. I celebrate anybody who is willing to get knocked down and still get up again. So I hope that you can practice that for yourself. 


Number six is, how patient am I with this process? A lot of these are similar, I know, but patience is actually something I talk with clients about all the time. Often, particularly when they have the fear, “What if I never get better?” it’s often because they’re struggling to really connect with patience. They’re doing the actions. They’re engaging in their homework. They’re moving forward. The only thing that’s getting in the way is they’re losing patience with the process. 

This takes time, guys. Changing your brain takes time. It is a long-term process. Just like any muscle that you’re building, whether it be bicep curls, quadriceps, or your brain, it does take time. We do have to practice the mindfulness of being patient, steady, and slow, letting it be a process. I know, I hate it too. No one wants to be patient. It would be so much easier if it just happened fast, and you’re probably seeing other people where their successes happen faster than yours. But again, go back to: how willing am I to be uncomfortable? How accepting am I of my ups and downs? How can I be accepting of my own genetic makeup and the way that my brain responds? How patient can I be with myself in this process?


And then that brings us to tip number seven, which is, are you asking for help? Please, guys, as you navigate recovery and as you navigate the fear that you won’t recover, please do not hesitate to ask for help. Ask for support. Ask for resources. We have over 350 episodes here at Your Anxiety Toolkit. They’re there to support you, to cheer you on, and to celebrate your wins. There are therapists there who are there to help you and guide you. We have a practice in Calabasas, California, where we help people move towards their values as well. There are clinicians in your area. If you don’t live in California, we have a whole range of vaults of online courses, if you’re needing more resources or reminders. 

A lot of the people who take out online courses at actually have been through treatment, but taking a course helps remind them of the core concepts. “Ah, yes. I needed to remember that. I forgot about that.” It’s okay. The courses are there. You can watch them as many times as you want. They’re on demand. Again, you’ve got unlimited access. They’re there to encourage and support you and push you towards the same concepts of moving towards your definition of recovery. 

They’re the seven tips I want you to think about. We are here to encourage and support you as best as we can and give you those strategies and tools. But the big question again is, are you putting them into practice? Please don’t listen to this podcast and go on your way. The only right way that this podcast will truly help is if you put the skills, the tips, and the tools into practice.

I always say it’s a beautiful day to do hard things, and I really believe that. So I hope today has been helpful. We have really gone over what is in your control and what is not in your control. Please focus on the things that are in your control, and I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful day. I’ll see you next week.

Sep 8, 2023

[00:00:00] If social media causes anxiety, you will find this incredibly validated. Today, we are covering the nine reasons why social media causes anxiety and depression, and we will get specific about how you can overcome social media anxiety and depression. In a way that feels right to you, so let's go.

If you hear yourself saying, social media gives me anxiety, you are not alone. In fact, many people say it gives them such overwhelm and panic they just want to shut it down completely. That is a common experience, and I want to provide a balanced approach here today. So, let's first look at some social media stats.

When social media causes anxiety and depression

Research shows that people use an average of 6.6 social media networks monthly. When I heard that, I thought that couldn't be true, but I counted the ones that I use, and it is. I thought that was [00:01:00] very interesting. That sounds like an incredibly massive amount of social media networks.

But the average time spent on social media daily is two hours and 24 minutes, not weekly, daily. While 67% say they have a drop in self-esteem as they compare their lives to others they see on social media, 73% of people report. They also find solace and support in these platforms during tough times.

We all experienced that during COVID-19, and I know that as someone who lives in America but is Australian, social media has allowed me to be friends with people from high school & college; I get to be connected with my parents' friends. I have found it to be an incredibly beautiful process, but today, we're looking specifically at how social media impacts our mental health, particularly how it causes anxiety and depression. 

Now [00:02:00], we have some social media depression stats here as well. We do have research to show a link between social media use and depression. More than three hours on social media daily does increase your risk of mental health problems. 

This study was done specifically for teens, but I think as adults, we could all agree that's probably true as well. There are also some social media addiction statistics that we want to know. We know that 39% of social media users report being addicted to social media, meaning they want to get off but can't. Or, they experience adverse experiences and consequences when they're not using it in moments of distress and needing to regulate.

We may also look at some social media anxiety disorder statistics. Studies showed that around 32% of teenagers say social media increases their anxiety and hasn't had a [00:03:00] negative impact on people of their age. 

However, I found it interesting that only 9% believed it was the case for themselves, but they believed that for others.

Interesting statistic. 67% of adolescents report feeling worse about their own lives after using social media, and most teenagers say that social media has had neither a positive nor a negative effect on themselves. So, we are getting some mixed statistics here. The real point for you is to decide for yourself.

Is it helping me, or is it hindering my mental health? And if it is, let's discuss some skills we can use. So here we go. 


We have nine reasons social media causes anxiety. Now, to be clear, this needs to be scientifically backed. I did a review from people on Instagram. It's funny how it's a social media platform. Still, I did interview them and did a poll and also have a question box where they get to put [00:04:00] their specific reasons why some social media has impacted them negatively.

And here are the results. 


So, the number one reason social media causes anxiety is comparison. Social media comparison seems to be the biggest reason for increasing anxiety and depression, and I think it's important that we identify how social media comparison impacts us. Now, what I've found as a clinician and a marriage and family therapist in helping people with anxiety is how often social media reinforces untrue beliefs they have about themselves. Or, we could say negative beliefs that they had already. 


I'm not good enough. 

I'm not doing enough. 

I'm not happy enough. 

I'm not making enough money. 

I don't have enough followers. 

I'm not succeeding enough. 

And that constant, having it in your face of what they're doing and seeing their highlight reels makes us feel like we're not doing enough [00:05:00] and maybe bringing up the insecurities that we aren't enough. 

So, it's really important that we first use social media as an opportunity to take a look at those beliefs and those thoughts. What thoughts does social media bring up for you? Are the thoughts true? Are they helpful? Do they determine facts, or are they just feelings and thoughts you've had on a whim because of your anxiety? 

When we look at those thoughts, we can then determine whether we want to respond as if those thoughts are true. It's also important to recognize that people only post what I call their “A-roll.”

They don't post their B roll. They don't post their C roll. They only post the highlights. They post the things they're most excited about. They post the things they want you to think about. No one wants you to see their dirty socks, laundry, meltdowns [00:06:00], and relationship struggles. 

People are talking about that on social media, but even those people, we can't assume they're not showing us, you know, only the good stuff. It could be that they're also showing, you know, only the good stuff. 


Now, we can move on from there and look at the number two reason that social media causes anxiety and depression, and that is the fear of being judged by others.

The truth is that social media can cause social anxiety, which is the fear of being judged, humiliated, and shamed publicly. I'm going to really encourage you guys to use social media as an opportunity to practice letting people have their opinions of you. One thing I have learned.

Being on social media a lot and being a public figure in many, you know, this small area that I'm a public figure in is I've had to learn how to let people have [00:07:00] their opinions about me. I've had to give them permission not to like me. I've had to practice allowing the right in writing the wave of discomfort that I'm not for everyone.

The truth is, when we are on social media, we have to face the fear that our opinions may upset people.  People may say things about or critique us, which may impact how we feel about ourselves. I've been through a lot of therapy here, so I can speak about this a lot. I'm okay with people not agreeing with me, not liking me, or understanding me.

I've gotten really good at allowing them to have their feelings and thoughts about me. I'm going to have my feelings and my thoughts about them too. Does that mean I don't care about what they think? Absolutely not. I deeply care what they think, but I have learned not to let it imprint how I show up on social media [00:08:00] and how I feel and think about myself.


The number three reason that social media causes anxiety is trolls. Getting bullied is a huge piece of social media; we see it daily. I have been trolled. People have insisted on taking me down for years, and I have, through what I just talked about, learned to give them permission to really not like me.

I've even considered their opinion and really thought about, “Do they have a point?” How can I look at this from a place of compassion? Is it true? Is what they're saying? Factual In many cases, no. Right. Um, the truth is, hurt people hurt people. So, the people online who are saying horrible things usually come from a great deal of hurt, harm, and pain.

That doesn't mean I'm saying it's okay that they're doing this behavior. [00:09:00] We must also recognize from a place of compassion that most trolls out there are doing it, not because they're happy, fulfilled people, but because they're on a mission to take people down with them. And that really helps me to be compassionate and not take on their opinion, um, and allow it just to be a part of social media and not take it personally right now. 


The fourth reason social media can cause anxiety is the fear of being canceled. You may see that these points are growing on each other. Cancel culture is a thing, folks, and I get it. It is scary out there. Many of you say that being on social media, even commenting on your friend's posts, creates the fear that you might say something that will offend them and cause you to get canceled

[00:10:00] Maybe you feat that on a whim, you say something or you make a joke that causes you to get canceled. This is a widespread one as well. A lot of folks who weighed in were saying that this is a true fear for them.

As someone who has come head to head with this, what was really helpful for me was actually to write down a cancel campaign of my own, which is like, what is the worst thing someone could say about me, you know? What would it, what would they say? Sometimes people will say negative things, which doesn't hurt my feelings, and sometimes I'm afraid they'll say certain things that would really hurt my feelings.

I use that as an opportunity to look at those and ask, why are those things so important to me? Is it my values? Is there something about that where I was taught to be ashamed of those qualities as a child? Am I afraid of how people will stand up for me? Or am I afraid of how I will handle this sort of public shaming that goes on. 

[00:11:00] It was a super helpful experiment that I did with a therapist to really help me get to the bottom of what the fear is, um, and go from there. Of course, I won't say anything mean on social media. I'm not concerned about that, but I am worried at how people will go out and attack me, because it has been something that I've dealt with in the past, and it sounds like it's something that's bothering you guys as well.

  1. FOMO

Now, we move on to number five. The fifth reason that social media causes anxiety is FOMO. The fear of missing out is a real thing. If you fear missing out, social media can make this so much worse because you will often see other people going off to college, and you see somebody else starting a job in their hometown.

You might be thinking that maybe I should have done that. Maybe that the fear of you're missing out on that opportunity. Perhaps you chose to go [00:12:00] to the movies, and then you see a social media post about other people who decided to go to a party, or maybe you went to the movies not knowing there was a party, and then you had deep hurt feelings about not being invited.

These are true real emotions, and I want you to slow down for all of these points, but especially this one and give yourself a ton of compassion. And understand that social media does have everybody's a-rolls, and it will mean tou will have emotions. Normal human emotions like jealousy, envy, anger, and resentment.

That is a normal human emotion. When we're on social media, we judge ourselves for the emotions we feel about what we see on social media. I shouldn't be judging them. I shouldn't be jealous. I shouldn't be angry. I wanna give you permission to acknowledge and feel all of those feelings [00:13:00] 'cause they're normal human experiences.


The sixth reason that social media causes anxiety and depression is that social media highlights negativity.  Many of you said that you have tried your best to turn off the news. I don't sign onto the news apps, but other people post about things that frighten me when I go on social media.

Shootings, global warming, politics, religion, and they were saying that this really creates a lot of anxiety and stress on their nervous system as they just want to have some fun on social media and have a few laughs and watch a few baby dogs and kittens. Have a little fight over a piece of string or something.

I get it. I've had that same experience, too. It's the end of the day you're thinking, “ah, I just want to check out and do a little deep breath and then zone out on social media, " yet you're faced and [00:14:00] bombarded with negativity. If that's the case, and this goes for all of the points we're making, do an intention check as you log on to social media.

Check in. Do I have the capacity to see things I don't want to see when you see them? Have I got the discipline to turn it off if it's unhealthy for me? It is really, really important piece that we have to remember here. Similar to that. 


The seventh reason social media causes anxiety is seeing things that trigger my anxiety.

A lot of you said that you go on social media, and lo and behold, your exact fear shows up in somebody's feed, right? Maybe you're afraid of spiders and they've posted a photo of a funny spider, or maybe you're afraid of throwing up or getting sick. Someone's posting about getting cancer and having to be admitted into the hospital.

I know [00:15:00] personally, when I was sharing about, you know, all of the medical issues I was having in 2019 and 2020, a lot of people were so kind and so loving, and some people actually reached out and said, I am so incredibly triggered. What's happening to you right now is literally my worst fear coming true.

And so I get it. Again, we have to do an intention check when we go on social media and be prepared to see what we don't want. Right? One thing to know here, too, and this is a skill I want you to take on or more, it's actually a strategy, is you can train the algorithm to do what you want it to.

So, as you've probably already experienced, if you wanna see more videos of dogs, Google or search for dogs and it will start to show you more, particularly if you watch the video from start to end. You can also click on specific content. When you see something you don't want to see, you can click a button and say, see less of this, [00:16:00] or block this topic, or block this hashtag.

And that can be a way to help you keep your social media clean. Right. Another thing to remember here and going back to seeing other people's a role, is you can actually mute your friends. They won't even know if what they're doing is too triggering and it's causing you so much depression, right? Because we do know that social media can cause depression.

It's okay to take a break from them, particularly if they're in your face a lot with all their successes and wins. You can mute them. You don't have to unfollow them or block them. You can mute them, so you're still remaining friends. They still know that you're important to them and they're important to you, but you don't have to be seeing their content.

You can take a break and set healthy boundaries with social media so that you're not continually being bombarded by what they're posting. That goes with things that trigger you as well, anxiety-wise. Now, the eighth thing that causes [00:17:00] social media, um, to cause anxiety is perfectionism. Now I've put two things in one here, which are perfectionism and exceptionalism. 

Perfectionism is the hope to be perfect and not make mistakes. The truth is, on social media and off social media, you will make mistakes. You're not going to be perfect, and you have to bathe yourself in a ton of self-compassion when engaging on social media and giving yourself permission again to be imperfect is to let it be a little rough. You don't have to be perfect and make it curated. And all the things some people posted about how they even had anxiety about what graphics they use, um, how they're making their posts, whether they line up perfectly, whether the music is exactly the right thing.

Again, just be real. No one wants to be friends [00:18:00] with perfect people. Believe me, I have found much more success on social media being a normal human being who is imperfect and is just regular old Kimberly. And yes, there are perfectly polished accounts, but you have to ask yourself, is that helpful for my social media?

Maybe what they're doing is good for their mental health. Is it good for me?


Right now, the last one, the last point on why social media causes anxiety is overstimulation. This is a big one, and I finished with this one for a reason is social media posts are made to keep you on the platform. That's how they make money.

The posts that get sent to you and are suggested to you are so short, fast, and funny because they're promoting the exact videos and campaigns that will keep you engaged. But the problem with that is if you're [00:19:00] engaging and consuming content that is fast-paced, short, the content is very quick and it changes 1, 2, 3, 4, really, really fast and example would be TikTok, it actually will leave your nervous system quite overstimulated.

This is a problem, folks. The overstimulation. How social media content is delivered to us increases people's anxiety and stress levels. It increases the chance that they engage in safety behaviors such as compulsions because you put the phone down and you're literally vibrating from overstimulation.

I'm going to encourage you again to do a check-in. Is this good for me? Does this makes sense.?Are the benefits outweighing the negative? And a lot of the time the answer is no. How do we fix this? 

A lot of it that I have found is around setting strong [00:20:00] boundaries with social media. I created a course called Time Management for Optima Mental Health, and a reason for that wasn't because of social media; it was because many people with anxiety and depression tend to engage in behaviors that make their anxiety and depression worse.

What we do in this course is work at scheduling the healthy behaviors first and then building your day around that. If social media is a problem for you, we're going to set some limits and intentionally put some parameters and boundaries in to help you manage your mental health. 

Other resources include that most phones have a shut off time or an alarm that will alert you to when you've gone over or you have spent too much time. 

Some phones also will give you a usage report. [00:21:00] I know my iPhone sends me a usage report every Sunday. Kimberly, your social media uses up by such and such a percentage. Or it's down, or you know, you're within your limits if you set limits for yourself.

I know my daughter set a social media limit for herself because after a certain amount of time, she was getting overstimulated, and she was starting to feel lethargic and crappy. And then she wanted not to eat, exercise, sing, or do the things she loved to do. And that was an effective move on her part very, very wise.

Another thing to remember is many phones. Well, all phones will have an app. There are many apps you can access that will shut your phone off so that you actually cannot access that social media app or pro platform once you've used a certain amount of time. And if you are someone who struggles with boundaries and really disciplined in that area.

Go ahead and get [00:22:00] those apps. Invest in them because they will be better than therapy that you get. Maybe, probably not, but it will contribute and complement your therapy in that you've invested in this tool to help shut down. These apps if they're not helping you. Now, once again, I'm not saying all social media is bad.

Again, social media has lifted me out of depression in many cases. When I was having a lousy day showing me funny things, you know, me passing back, . Funny, you know, reels between my husband and I is a way for us to connect when he's at work, when he's away, or when he's upstairs and I'm downstairs.

It's not all that. It's about being intentional and checking in on what's helping you. What's not, it's going to be different for every person. So truly listen to yourself and go from there. Now, as I always say, it is a beautiful day to do hard things, and what that means [00:23:00] is setting limits is hard. It's not fun.

It actually takes a lot of willpower. So do employ your support systems, ask for help, get a therapist if you need one, who can help you implement some of these tools. As always, I hope this has been helpful, and I look forward to talking with you next week.

Sep 1, 2023

Am I doing ERP correctly? This is a common roadblock I see every week in my private practice. I think it is a common struggle for people with anxiety and OCD. Today, we will talk about the three common OCD traps people fall into and how you can actually outsmart your OCD and overcome it.

Now, when we're talking about Expsoure & response prevention ERP, we must go over the basics of ERP therapy, so let's talk about what that means before we talk about the specific traps that we can fall into. 

ERP is exposure and response prevention. It's a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy and is the gold standard treatment for OCD to date. 

And it's a detailed process, right? It's something that we [00:01:00] have to go through slowly. It's a detailed process where we first identify OCD obsessions and OCD intrusive thoughts. So, you'll identify precisely the repetitive, intrusive, and distressing things for you. Once we have a good inventory of your OCD obsessions, we then identify what specific OCD compulsions you are doing now. A compulsion is a behavior that you do to reduce or remove your anxiety, uncertainty, or doubt, or any kind of discomfort that you may be experiencing.

And once we do that, then we can move towards exposing you to your fears. Exposure therapy for OCD involves exposing yourself to those specific obsessions. And then engaging in [00:02:00] response prevention, which is the reduction of using those compulsive safety behaviors. Now, common OCD response prevention will involve reducing physical behaviors, reducing avoidant behaviors, or reducing thought suppression. It's reducing reassurance, seeking, reducing mental compulsions, and in reducing any kind of self-punishment that you're engaging in to beat yourself up for the obsessions that you're having. Then we get you engaged back into doing the things you love to do; getting you back to engaging in your daily life, your daily functioning, the things that you find pleasurable, and your hobbies as soon as possible. 

That's the whole goal of ERP. Right? 

The important thing to remember here is that ERP therapy for OCD is greatly improved by adding in [00:03:00] other treatment modalities, such as acceptance and commitment therapy or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, DBT, and medication. 

I should have mentioned medication first because most of the science shows that that's one of the most helpful to really augment ERP therapy for OCD. If you want to go deeper into that, I strongly encourage you to check out Exposure and Response Prevention School. I'll show you how to do all of those steps in ERP school, our online course for OCD.

ERP School Online Course for OCD

You must know how to do those steps and that you're doing them in a way that's careful and planned so that we're not overwhelming you and throwing you in a direction that you're not quite prepared for; you don't have the tools for yet. And so today, I wanted to discuss three questions that come directly from people who've taken ERP school [00:04:00], and they're really trying to troubleshoot these three common OCD traps that OCD gets them stuck into.

So, let's get to the good stuff now. 


What if I don't engage with an obsession? Am I thought suppressing? One of our listeners said, “I know what you resist persists. We talk about that in ERP school, but I also know that obsessive thinking and worrying can become compulsive. Is it possible I could be caught in both situations, and how common is this?” 

So I want to really be clear here in what we're saying when we say to practice ERP. So when you have an obsession or the onset of an intrusive thought or intrusive feeling, sensation, urge, it could also be an image.

When you have that,[00:05:00] you're old way of dealing may have been to try and push that thought away with some urgency and aggression.  We call that thought suppression and that's an avoidant compulsion, so yes. This student of mine is correct. That becomes compulsive, right? But we also know if we go into the obsession, try and figure the obsession out, give it too much of our attention.

We're also engaging too much with it in terms of using mental compulsions. That too is a compulsion. So we want to see that these two things can happen. But when we have the thought, and we observe that it's there the obsession, we've noticed it's there. Right? We talked about this in previous episodes of your Anxiety Toolkit podcast.

When you identify it's there and then you say, I am gonna let it be there and still move on. To what you love to do, [00:06:00] what you value that is not resisting it, that is engaging back into what you find important and effective, and valuable for your life. It's not avoidance, it's not thought suppression. Now, if you do that in a way where you're like, oh, I don't want that thought.

I want to engage in what I'm doing. Now you're crossing into that reaction being with . Urgency and resistance, and anytime we're doing anything in a sense of urgency and resistance, well, yes, it may be becoming a compulsion, right? And what we're talking about here, the way to manage this trap, right, is to find middle ground, and it often involves slowing.

Down being a little more thoughtful in how you respond, and that's often using mindfulness. We talk a lot about mindfulness here in your, your anxiety toolkit [00:07:00] in observing, okay, this is happening. I. I'm going to respond in a way without urgency, and I'm going to come back to what I'm practicing. That isn't thought suppression.

It's also not avoidance. It's also not doing a mental compulsion or ruminating. It's what we call occupation. You're engaging back into what you need to be doing. Right, which brings me right to trap number two, which is did I expose myself to the thought enough? 


The fear, “Did I expose myself enough to my fear?” and, “if I dont engage with an obsession, am I thought suppressing? These are two very close obsessions. But, there's a nuance difference that I want to ensure we address here.

So the student says, right now when anxiety sets in, I divert my attention to something else to focus on my values. Beautiful. Right? Then usually anxiety will wear off pretty quickly and I choose to move on. The problem is what happens next? So, so far this is beautiful. [00:08:00] Just like what we said they go on to say, my mind immediately points out the fact that I didn't quote, unquote, savor the anxiety or look it in the eye, right?

And that they're doing that to prove they're not scared of it. Or that they can they can tolerate it, right? And so they go on to say, “OCD accuses that my diversion wasn't in fact occupation or being functional and effective, that it was avoidance and, and that I'm avoiding to deal the anxiety feeling that I have. And they then go on to say, this makes me more scared of the intrusive thoughts in the long run.”

So, if we were to break this down, this person had a thought, they responded really effectively. But then, this is the trap. OCD will usually tell you there's a way you're doing this wrong or there's a way that there's an additional thing you haven't addressed yet.

It usually [00:09:00] is like you who I have more to say, have you thought about this? Like it's saying, you know, there's other things you should be worried about. And in this case, they have dealt with it really beautifully. But then OCDs come in and said, no, you didn't look at it long enough. You didn't face it enough.

If you don't face it enough, well then you're gonna keep having this anxious feeling in the long run. And really in that situation, all we need to do, I. Is practice exactly the same tools we use with the first obsession, which is to go maybe, maybe not, but I'm not tending to you. I'm not trying to make this perfect.

I'm going to move forward with what I am going to do and allow the uncertainty that I may or may not have anxiety about this in the future, or I may or may not have looked my fear in the face enough, right? Remember here that O C D. Is always going to try and bring you back into doing [00:10:00] a compulsion to try and get that uncertainty.

And your job is to catch the many ways OCD consistently pulls you out of using effective behaviors and tries to get you to use compulsions. If you can find those trends, you can identify them as, okay, we know what to do when they come.

When it tells me I'm not doing it enough, or I'm not looking at my fear enough, or I'm avoiding it, or whatever, you can go, I'm not tending to that. I'm moving back to my values. Right. Which beautifully now brings us onto the final trap, trap number three, which is, how do I know I'm doing ERP correctly?


People often ask, “How do I know if I am doing ERP correctly?” This is a very common one. In fact, I have consulted with dozens of different OCD therapists, including the ones in my private practice. For those of you [00:11:00] who don't know, I have a private practice in Calabasas. We have eight incredible licensed OCD therapists. We are constantly consulting on this kind of question or these traps in particular, and it's often around, how do I know I'm doing this right?

And it makes sense, right? If you're doing ERP therapy, you want to get better, you're here to get the job done, and you want your life back. You're not putting in all this time and paying all this money and investing your valuable resources, um, to just . Have a good time and waste it, right? You're here to get better.

And so it makes sense that you're going to have some anxiety about how well you're doing it, and you're obviously wanting to do it well, like you're someone who is thorough and is invested, so it makes sense that you're going to have this fear. But this is the thing to remember. This is another trap of OCD to try and get you to go back to rumination, right?

To try and figure something out. [00:12:00] Here is the facts. No one does ERP correctly. You are going to do ERP, and you are going to fall and you're going to try again, and you're going to fail again, and you're going to try again, and you may fail again. That is a normal progression of ERP. I tell my patients all the time, you're not backsliding.

Nothing is particularly wrong right now. This is just the normal progression that we get better over time. Just like when we're learning to walk. You stand up, you fall down. It's not like you say, I'm not able to walk, I'll never be able to do it. You get back up, you walk three steps, you fall down, then you get back up, you walk five steps, you fall down.

That's normal, right? We are not going to say to a young baby like, oh, you're not walking correctly. You know, this is bad. You're never gonna be able to walk because you're not walking correctly. No, we're going to say to them, keep going, keep trying. Just keep trying. And with time, those muscles will strengthen.

And you'll be able to stand up and do this work a little longer each time, but do not fall into the trap [00:13:00] of O C D telling you it has to be done perfectly and you have to do mindfulness correctly, and you have to do response prevention correctly, and you can't do any thought suppression or you'll never get better.

That is another trap, and your job is to say, good one, OCD. Thank you for your input, but I'm still over here with the focus of not trying to engage in rumination and trying to get certainty, but to, to move towards my values, to allow fear to be there imperfectly, right imperfectly, knowing that it won't be perfect every time.

You may engage in some compulsions. I'm going to keep saying that that is not particularly a problem. Right. Especially if as you're doing it, you're using your tools and you're doing the best you can, try to just focus on doing one minute at a time and doing it as you can. And we're not here to do it perfectly.

Right? And at the end of the day, if you're someone who struggles [00:14:00] with this thought, like, am I doing it correctly or am I doing it perfectly? You can just say, “Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. I'm also not getting caught in that trap.” 

So I hope that that has been helpful to really get to know these traps.

And for you, it mightn't be specifically these three common traps. It may be something a little different. That's okay. Your job is to catch these trends, the things that keep pulling you back into rumination, pulling you back into avoidance, pulling you back into reassurance-seeking, and identify them. Come up with another plan.

Again, if you need more help with this, you can use E R P school. It's an online course. It's on demand. You can listen to it and watch it as many times as you want in your PJs. It's there for you to troubleshoot these issues. We have a whole bunch of modules talking about how to troubleshoot these issues, but I wanted to do this publicly because I knew

A lot [00:15:00] of you who don't have access to care are probably struggling with the same thing. So that's it for me today. Thank you so much for being here. I love talking with you about the nitty gritty of how this can, you know the real hard stuff and I hope it's been helpful for you. Please do remember, and I say this at the end of every podcast episode, you know I'm gonna say it.

It is a beautiful day to do hard things. 

Do not let society tell you that you're weak or that you're not supposed to. And it should be easy because that's not real life. I know it's hard to accept that, but we can shift this narrative to a narrative where we can do hard things. We can see ourselves as strong.

We can see ourselves as courageous, and we will do the hard thing because in the long run, we build resilience and freedom that way. Have a wonderful day, everybody, and I can't wait to see you next week.​[00:16:00]

Aug 25, 2023

If you are interested in stopping compulsions using attention control, this is the episode for you.  I am really excited for this episode. This was a deep dive into really how to fine-tune your mindfulness practice for anxiety and OCD. Today we have the amazing Max Maisel, who is an OCD and anxiety specialist here in California. He came on to talk about these really nuanced differences of mindfulness, where we might go wrong with mindfulness, how we can get a deeper understanding of mindfulness, and this idea of attentional control. The real thing that I took away from this is how beneficial it can be at reducing mental compulsions, putting our attention on the things that we value, putting our attention on what we want to put attention on, not in a compulsive way at all. In fact, we addressed that throughout the episode, and it’s just so, so good. I’m so grateful to you, Max, for coming on, and I just know you guys are going to love this episode.

Now, we are talking about some pretty difficult things, like things that are hard to do. I even roleplayed and explained how hard it was for me to do it. I want, as you listen to this, for you to please practice an immense amount of self-compassion and recognition and acknowledgment of just how hard it is to do these practices and how we can always learn more. Hopefully, something in this episode clicks for you and feels very true for you and is hopefully very, very beneficial. 

I’m going to go take you straight to the show because that’s what you’re here for. Have a wonderful day everybody, and enjoy this interview with Max Maisel

351 Stopping Compulsions using Attention Control (with Max Maisel)

Kimberley: Welcome. I am so excited for this episode, mainly because I actually think I’m going to leave learning a ton. We have the amazing Max Maisel here today. Welcome.

Max: Thank you, Kim. It’s really good to be here. I’m super excited for our conversation.


Kimberley: Yeah. Okay. You know I use a lot of mindfulness. I am a huge diehard mindfulness fan, but I love that you have brought to us today, and hopefully will bring to us today, some ways in which we can drop deeper into that practice or zone in, or you might say a different word, like how to focus in on that. Tell me a little bit about how you conceptualize this practice of mindfulness and what you use to make it more effective for people with anxiety and OCD.

Max: Yes, for sure. So, I’m a major proponent of mindfulness practices. I use it myself in my personal life. I integrate it in the clinical work that I do with clients with OCD and anxiety. But one of the concerns that I’ve seen in my clinical work is that mindfulness is such a broad concept and it covers so many different types of psychological suffering. The research behind mindfulness is just like hundreds, maybe even thousands of studies. But when it comes to very specific and nuanced concerns like OCD and anxiety, it could be a little bit confusing for people sometimes to figure out, “Well, how do I apply this really healthy, beautiful, amazing tool to how my own brain is wired in terms of like sticky thoughts or just to engage in all sorts of compulsive behaviors.” I like to think about mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition at the core—paying attention to the present moment in a way that’s non-judgmental and with this curious intentionality to it. But then within that, there’s some really nuanced details that we can talk more about how to make that really relevant to folks with OCD and anxiety.


Kimberley: Tell me a little bit. When we’re talking about mindfulness, we often talk about this idea of awareness. Can you differentiate first—and this is using some terminology just to set the scene—can you differentiate the difference between attention, awareness, and even a lot of people talk about distraction? Can you share a little bit about how they may be used and what they may look like?

Max: I love that question. I think in a good OCD treatment, people really need to have a good solid understanding of those differences. I’m actually going to borrow from a neuroscientist named Amishi Jha. She’s this incredible professor at the University of Miami. In her research lab, they look at the neurological underpinnings of mindfulness, and that very much includes attention and awareness. I highly encourage anybody to look up her work. Again, it’s Amishi Jha. She talks about attention or focused attention. If you imagine there’s a dark room, and if you turn on a flashlight and you shine that beam of light into that room and say that beam of light hits a vase on a table, again, what happens to that vase? What’s different compared to all the things in the background?

Kimberley: Is that a question for me?

Max: Yeah. If you imagine a beam of light, what goes on with that?

Kimberley: You would see the front of the vase, maybe it’s a bit shiny, or you would see the shadow of the vase. You would see the colors of the vase. The texture of the vase.

Max: That’s exactly right. From this vivid and detailed, you can see all the different descriptions of it and it becomes privileged above everything else in the room. That vase is that beam of light. And then somebody might take that flashlight and shine it to the right a little bit, and then it goes from the vase, let’s say, to a chair next to it. All of a sudden, that vase is still there, but it’s fallen into the background. We might call that our awareness, which we’ll talk about in a second. But then that table that we shine on or the chair is now privileged over the vase. That’s how you can think about focused attention, is this beam of light. Whereas awareness, instead of a focused beam, you can think about that more as a broad floodlight where it’s effortless, it’s receptive, and you’re noticing what is present in the moment without privileging one thing over the next. We’re not focusing or hooked on anything particular in that room, it’s just observing whatever comes up in the moment. Does that make sense?


Kimberley: It totally makes sense. Excellent. What about distraction? 

Max: Distraction, when we think about that broad floodlight of awareness, where again, where what’s privileges the present moment, distraction is trying to get things out of that. It’s trying to suppress or not think about or get something that is in your awareness, outside of your awareness. But unfortunately, the trap that people fall into is in order to get something out of your awareness, what you need to do first is shine your beam of attention onto it. Inadvertently, while it might seem like a good idea in the short term, especially if it’s something really scary, that pops up in your awareness like, “Oh, I don’t want this. I want to get this thing out of my awareness.” But in doing that, you’re literally shining your attention. That flashlight is right on the scary thing. The very act of trying to distract, trying to push it away actually keeps that thing going, which is why it can be so easy and so tricky to get stuck in these pretty severe OCD spirals by doing that.

Kimberley: Right. If we were talking about mindfulness, and let’s go back to that, are attention and awareness both parts of mindfulness? Give me how you would conceptualize that.

Max: That’s exactly right there, and that’s what I was talking about where mindfulness is such a beautiful, helpful practice and term. But oftentimes when we say just mindfulness, people don’t understand that there are really relevant parts of mindfulness that are actually applicable skills that we can practice getting really good and solid without shining that beam of light and focusing flexibly on aspects of our experience. We can get good at letting go of that focused attention and just being with what pops up in our awareness, which are very relevant practices when we have OCD or anxiety. But if we just say mindfulness as a whole, paying attention to the present moment, we could miss these really important nuances and actionable skills that are different parts of mindfulness.

Kimberley: Let’s go deeper into that. Let’s say you have OCD or you have panic disorder, or you have a phobia, and your brain-- I was talking with my son who has anxiety and he was saying, “I keep having the thought. No matter how many happy thoughts I have, it just keeps thinking of the scary thought.” That’s just a really simple example. How might you use attention versus awareness or attention and awareness for folks who are managing these really sticky thoughts, like you said, or these really repetitive, intrusive thoughts?

Max: It’s such a good question. OCD, I always talk about how clever and tricky it is. In order to get through OCD, we need to be even more clever, more tricky than OCD. One of the ways OCD gets people to fall into its trap is by confusing them. It gets people to try to control things that they cannot control, which is what pops up in their awareness, but it also blinds people and gets them that they can’t see that there are things that are in their control. That will be really helpful, powerful tools, and OCD gums up the works a little bit. 


To be more specific, there’s an aspect of mindfulness that we can think of as attentional training or attentional flexibility. What that is, it’s strengthening up the brain’s muscles to be able to take control of that flashlight, of that beam of focused attention. OCD, what it’s going to do, it steals it from you and shines it on the really scary stuff, like with your son, “Oh, here’s a thought that you really don’t like,” or “Here’s a really uncomfortable sensation.” All of a sudden, that beam of light is shining there. What attention training does, it really teaches people to be able to first notice, “Oh, my beam of light is on something really scary. Okay, this is a thing. This is a moment to practice now.” But then more importantly, to be able to then take power back and be able to shine that flashlight in flexible ways that are in line with people’s values and goals versus are in line with OCD’s agenda.

But attention training, it’s not only getting really good and powerful at shining that beam of light on what you want to shine, but it’s also the practice of letting go of control over the stuff that’s in our awareness. We’re going to practice and allow those scary thoughts and feelings. I treat them like a car alarm going off where it might be annoying, might be uncomfortable, but I’m not going to focus on them. I’m not going to pay attention to it, because otherwise there’s going to be front and center. 

It’s both. It’s awareness, it’s being able to flexibly shift between different aspects of our experience, and it’s also allowing things to go, and you’re like that broader floodlight of awareness. I always find it really helpful to practice the skill of attention training on non-OCD, non-anxiety neutral stimuli. It’s not too triggering. And then we can start applying that to anxiety. If it’s okay with you, Kim, I would love to walk you through some quirky little easy exercises that just help you maybe understand what I’m talking about and hopefully your listeners as well.

Kimberley: I was just going to say, let’s do it. 

Max: Let’s do it. Let’s dive in. 

Kimberley: Let’s roleplay this. 


Max: Okay. I want you to roleplay with me and if your listeners would like to roleplay as well, more than happy to follow along too. Again, these exercises, I don’t see them as like coping skills. I see them as like creating an understanding of what we can control, what we can’t control, and being able to just feel what that’s like in our bodies and know that this is something that we can do. 

For the first one, what I want you to do is put your thumb and index finger together, like you’re making an okay sign. Put a little bit of pressure between your thumb and index finger, but not a whole lot of pressure. Just take a couple of seconds and see if you can put your brain into your thumb and your index finger and just notice what that feels like. Notice the sensations. Let me know when you feel like you’ve got a good sense of the feeling.

Kimberley: Yep, I got it. 

Max: What I want you to try to do is shine that beam of attention. Really focus in on the pressure only from your index finger and see if you cannot think about not engage in the pressure from your thumb, allowing that to be there. See if you can really find and identify what your index finger feels like. let me know when you’ve got that. Again, not thinking about your thumb, just focusing on your index finger.

Kimberley: Yeah, that was hard, but I got it.

Max: It is hard, right? Because what we’re doing is honing in that beam of light that we’re paying attention to. What I want you to do now is switch. Let your index finger, let that feeling go, and switch to your thumb. Again, only focusing on the pressure from your thumb and allowing your index finger, allowing that pressure to be there without thinking about it or controlling it. Just letting it exist, and then focusing on the pressure from your thumb.

Kimberley: Yeah, I got it. 

Max: We could do this for five, ten minutes. I won’t make you do it right now, but you can see there and there’s like a bump. There’s a shift where you go from one to the other. It’s great. It’s not about getting into details, it’s about noticing, “Oh, I can pay attention flexibly. I can focus on my index finger, allow the thumb feeling to be, and then I can switch to the opposite side.” That’s one way that people can start understanding what I’m talking about, where we can flexibly pay attention while allowing other stuff to exist in the background.

Kimberley: Let me bring up my own personal experience here because, like I said, I’m here to learn. As I was pushing, I actually had some pain in my thumb. As I was trying to imagine the top finger, that index finger, that was really hard because I have a little bit of ligament pain in my thumb. I had to work really hard to think about it. What was actually getting in the way was the thoughts of, “I won’t be able to do this because of the pain.” What are your thoughts on people who are fighting that?

Max: It’s such an important piece of this because oftentimes what prevents people from practicing are these thoughts and beliefs that pop up. The belief of, “I have no control over rumination,” or “I cannot pay attention.” I’m saying this, and where we’re stepping back and noticing these are thoughts, these are stories as well. Part of the practice is, can I see them as events of the mind? Can I see them as stories? Allow them to be in the background, just like we’re maybe allowing the sensation of your index finger to be in the background while maintaining focus on that one part of your experience, your thumb. Again, we want to treat pain, thoughts, feelings, sensations as best as we can, allowing them, seeing them as mental events versus as distinct parts of who you are as a person while maintaining as best as you can that focused beam of attention on what you choose to.

Kimberley: Right. This is really cool. Just so I understand this, but please don’t be afraid to tell me I’ve got it completely wrong. As I was doing it, I was noticing the top of my index finger, doing my best, and in my awareness was the thoughts I had and the pain that I had. My attention was on the top, but there was some background awareness of all the other noise. Is that what you’re saying?

Max: That’s exactly what I’m saying. The trick with OCD or anxiety is, can we allow the stuff in the background? Because a lot of people get annoyed or frustrated. And then as soon as you do that, that focus goes from your index finger to the stuff that you don’t want versus if we can let go of control. Another way to think about it too is if you’re looking out of a window. Focused attention would be, you are immensely engaging in this beautiful oak tree in your front yard. I don’t have an oak tree, but hopefully, somebody does. Imagine you’re really focusing on this oak tree, and that is what you’re paying attention to. 

Now, there might be other things that come and go. There might be birds flying and bushes in the background. There might be houses and a bunny rabbit running by. You could choose to then shift your beam of light from the tree to one of those things, but you don’t have to. You can keep paying attention to the tree and allowing all this other stuff to exist. That would be what we’re talking about and that’s the practice you could do with your fingers. And then with that same metaphor, broader just overall awareness would be looking out the window, but not intentionally focused on anything. Just letting your eyes wander to whatever is present. “Oh, I notice the tree and I notice a cloud and I notice a bird. Oh, I noticed a thought that I’ve been looking out this window for a very long time.” We’re not questioning, we’re not ruminating, we’re not judging, we’re just simply being there with what’s present. That’s that broader awareness piece to this. 

Kimberley: Okay. I love it. For those who have probably heard me talk about this, but not using this language, or are completely new and this is the first time I’ve ever logged in and listened to us, how may they apply this to specific intrusive thoughts that they’re having? Can you walk us through a real example of this? You could use my son if you want, or an actual case of yours or whatever.

Max: Yeah, for sure. If we think about it in this way, also, it’s like a little bit of a different approach than maybe how some people think about exposure and response prevention. Because in this way of doing things, there’s a really hard emphasis on the response prevention piece, which in this case would be not ruminating, not engaging in the mental compulsions. It’s doing the exposure, which is triggering the scary thoughts and the feelings, and then accessing awareness mode, like being with what’s present. 

An example of that, let’s just say somebody has an intrusive thought, a really scary fear that they might hurt somebody. They might be a serial killer or they might do something really bad. Let’s say we want to do an exposure with that thought and we choose a triggering thought of, “I am a murderer.” Normally, when they have that thought, they do all this stuff. Their focused attention is on that thought, and they’re trying to convince themselves they’re not a murderer. They’re trying to maybe look for evidence. “Did I kill somebody? I did not.” They’re engaging in this thought, doing all this sort of stuff that OCD wants them to. 

One way that we might use this difference in attention awareness, doing exposure would be to first evoke the scary thought. Maybe really telling themselves for a couple of seconds like, “I am a murderer. I am a murderer, sitting with the fear and the dread and all the stuff that comes up.” But then instead of focusing on it, then letting go of any engagement. We could just sit there and actually do nothing at all. We just watch and observe. Like you’re looking out that window and that thought “I’m a murderer” might pop up, it might go away. Another thought might pop up. But we want to take this stance of, “None of my business.” We’re going to sit here, we’re going to observe, and we’re not going to mentally engage in the thoughts. It’s really accessing this more of like awareness mode. We can actually do something like that. 

If you want to, Kim, we don’t have to use an intrusive thought, but we can, again, practice with a neutral thought together and then apply what I’m talking about. Usually, what people realize is that what happens to their intrusive thoughts is what happens to 99.9% of all the thoughts they get in a day where it comes and then it just goes away when it’s ready. If you think about it, we have thousands and thousands of thoughts per day. Mostly that’s what happens because we’re not focusing our beam of light on it, because we’re not doing all this work that inadvertently keeps it around. It’s exposure not only to sit with the feelings, but to practice the skill of letting go, of focusing on it, of letting go of any mental compulsive behaviors towards it.


Kimberley: Right. I know this is going to be a question for people, so I’m going to ask it. How does attention training differ from distraction? Quite often, I will get really quite distressed messages from people saying, “But wait, if I’m being mindful on the tree, isn’t that me distracting against my thoughts?” Can you talk about, again, differentiating this practice with distraction or avoidance?

Max: Yep, absolutely. I like to think about it as an attitude that people take where we’re willing to have whatever our brain pops up at us. With distraction, we’re unwilling. We don’t want it, we don’t like it, we’re turning away from it. But that’s actually like, it’s okay too. We call it distraction, we can call it engagement. It’s okay to live your life to do stuff, but we have to first get really clear on, can I allow whatever my brain pops up to be there without then keeping that beam of attention on it? Because all mental rituals, all sorts of stuff that we do starts with focused attention. Summons, rituals are pure retention, but a lot of them like analyzing, reassurance, attention is a major part of them. If you can notice when our OCD took that beam of light and shined it, then we could practice taking the light off, allowing it to exist, allowing it to be there, but without engaging. If you want, Kim, I’m happy to maybe do another experiential exercise, not to throw too many at you today. 

Kimberley: No, bring it on.

Max: So maybe you and your listeners can understand that piece to it. 

Kimberley: Yes, please. 


Max: Okay. Lets start with attention training exercise #2. What we’re going to do is we’re going to practice engaging in what we might think of as a rumination, analytical way of thinking. Again, rumination, mental compulsions, they are a behavior. They’re a mental action that we’re taking that we could turn on, but we can also turn off. We want to be able to turn off mental compulsions throughout the rumination, but allow any thoughts and feelings to exist without doing anything about them. I know it sounds heavy, so let me show you what I mean by that. 

Kimberley: Good. 

Max: What I want you to do is think about a vacation or a trip that you either have coming up, or it might be like a dream vacation that you really want to take, and just take a second and let me know when you got something in mind.

Kimberley: I got it.

Max: You got it. That was quick. That was a good thing. What I want you to do is start mentally planning out the itinerary for this vacation, thinking about what you’re going to do, all the steps you’re going to take, just like doing it in your mind. And then I’ll tell you when to stop.

Okay. Stop. Now what I want you to do is let go of that engaging analytic way of thinking and just sit here for a couple of seconds. We’re not going to do really anything. If the idea of the vacation pops up in your mind, I want you to allow it to pop up. But don’t think about it, don’t focus on it. Allow it to be there or not to be there. Just don’t do what you were just doing where you’re actually actively thinking about it. Are you ready? 

Kimberley: Mm-hmm.

Max: Okay. Again, we’re just going to sit and we’re going to observe. Whatever comes up, comes up. We’re going to let it hover and float in your overall awareness without focusing on it. 

Waves washing on the beach or just letting your thoughts and feelings come and go. We’re not engaging, we’re not thinking about them. We’re just observing. 

What I want you to do one last time, I want you to start thinking again, planning, going through the itinerary, thinking all the cool stuff you’re going to do. As you’re doing it, notice what that feels like psychologically to go from not doing to doing. And then start thinking about it, and I’ll let you know when to stop again.

All right. We can let go of the vacation. Again, just for five, ten seconds sitting. If the thought pops up, allow it to pop up, but don’t engage in it. Don’t manipulate it or actively walk through the itinerary again. Just notice what that’s like. 

Okay, Kim. I’d love to hear your experience walking through, turning it on the analytical way of thinking, and then turning it off and playing around with it a little bit.

Kimberley: Okay. Number one, I immediately was able to go into planning. I think because I do this, this is actually one of the things I do at bedtime. I’ve planned my 91st birthday, my 92nd birthday party. That’s what I love to do, so it was very easy for me to go into that. When I went back to more awareness of just what I noticed, I was actually able to do it really easily except of the thought like, “Oh, I hope I don’t have the thought. I hope I’m doing this right.”

Max: That’s such a beautiful way, and the mind is going to do stuff like that. We’re going to start thinking about thinking, and I’m curious how you respond to that thought. What you did next?

Kimberley: I was just like, “Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. What else?” And then I was like, “Well, there’s Max and there’s my microphone.” That was the work.

Max: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. We’re not like, “Don’t think about this vacation.” Because if we did that, what do you think that would do to you if you’re just sitting there in that moment of awareness and be like, “This is not a good thought to have, I can’t think about this upcoming vacation”?

Kimberley: Well, I had more of them and I had distress about them.

Max: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I mean by we’re not distracting, we’re allowing, but we’re also not analytically thinking about it. Now that we’re talking about this, I think this is a really important piece on where mindfulness can get maybe especially confusing or even contradictory for people. Again, to preface this, I’m a huge mindfulness advocate and fan, but one of the issues about mindfulness for OCD, in particular, is that mindfulness is really in a lot of ways teaching it, it’s about coming back to the present moment. I’m going to focus on my breath. I’m going to refocus to my body. I’m going to ground myself. Again, overall very healthy things to do, we should practice that. 

But the problem about that is if applied directly to OCD mental compulsions—and again, just to be really clear by mental compulsions, I’m talking about anything that people do to try to feel better, cope with, resolve a scary, intrusive thought. Kim, your six-part series, let’s say, on mental compulsions that you did is one of the best OCD contents I’ve ever seen. I think everybody should go back and listen to that, whether you have OCD or not. So, all this mental stuff that we do in response to a scary thought. Mindfulness can be really helpful in noticing when we get caught up and again, like flexibly shifting. But at the end of the day, sufferers of OCD really need to understand that you don’t need to focus onto the present moment to stop doing mental compulsions. Because it’s analytical, it’s a behavior, it’s a way of thinking. Just like you did, we can simply turn it on and then we can turn it off. 

Now, I don’t mean to say it’s as easy as just don’t do it. Obviously, it’s not the case. This is complex stuff. There’s so many psychological factors that lead people to ruminate and to do compulsions, but it’s a simple idea. People need a foundation to understand that mental compulsions are a behavior that we have a lot more agency over than your OCD wants you to think. I like to think about when you look at more traditional, like contamination OCD, people might wash their hands a lot. It’s the same thing where there’s the behavior of washing your hands that you could do or you cannot do. 

Now there’s entire treatment protocols helping people chip away at that to not wash their hands, so it’s not just like, “Don’t wash your hands.” But people understand that the goal of this treatment is to, “I’m washing my hands too much and now I’m not washing my hands.” If you apply the same mindful logic to rumination, it would be like, “Oh, we’re going to wash your hands, but you cannot wash your hands. You’re just going to have to use wet wipes forever.” It’s like, oh, I’ll get maybe a step in the right direction. But people need to know that the goal here is to not wash your hands. Just like with more Pure O rumination type of OCD, the goal is to learn how to not ruminate. Learn how to step out of that.

Kimberley: Yeah. I think you had said somewhere along the way that it’s a training. It’s a training that we do. What’s interesting for me, I’ll use this as solely example, is I am in the process of training myself to do what I call deep work, because I have two businesses, things are chaotic, and I can get messages all the time. When I sit down to do something, I’m being pinged on my phone and called on my computer and email bells, so I’m training myself to focus on doing the thing I’m doing and not give my attention to the dinging of the phone and so forth as a training. I’m trying to train myself to be able to go longer, longer, longer periods and hold my attention, which at the beginning, my attention, I could really only do like 15 minutes of that and it felt like my brain was going to explode. Would you say that this is a similar practice in that we’re slowly training our brain to be able to hold attention and awareness at the same time and increase it over time? 

Max: Yeah, absolutely. I think everything with OCD and anxiety is a process. First, it takes awareness, and that’s where mindfulness can be so helpful, where the practice of mindfulness is about being more aware. “I’m aware, I’m ruminating. I’m aware of that. I’m doing some sort of compulsion.” That itself could take a very long time. I think it’s all about baby steps. 

Now, I will say though, Kim, some people, when I explain them these differences and they’re able to really feel what it’s like to be ruminating, what it’s like not—some people click and they can do it really fast. They’re like, “Oh my gosh. I had no idea that this is something I was doing.” Some people, it takes a very long time and there’s a spectrum. I think everybody always needs to go at their own pace and some people are just going to need to work at it harder. Some people, it’s going to come really easy and natural. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. These are principles that live in the ERP lifestyle. We want to start taking little baby steps as much as we can.

Kimberley: Right. For those listening and for me too, where it clicked for them, what was the shift for them specifically?

Max: The shift was understanding that while it felt like rumination—again, a lot of this is like, think about OCD, there’s this big unsolvable problem and they’re trying to solve it. They’re analyzing it, they’re paying attention to it, they’re focusing on it, they’re thinking about it, for them to really feel that, “This is something that I am doing. I know there’s reasons why I’m doing it, there’s beliefs I have about the utility of ruminating, including beliefs that I can’t control this, when really, we can’t control it. Beliefs about how helpful it is.” There’s a lot of reasons why people do that, but to recognize, “Oh my gosh, this is a thing that’s a lot more in my control than I thought.” When they experience that stepping back and allowing their brain to throw out whatever it does without having to engage with it, game changer. 

Also, in terms of classic mindfulness, think about mindfulness of breath. The instructions generally are, we’re going to focus on, say the breath, the rise and fall of my belly. My attention goes, I’m going to come back to it. I think if we do that with a very specific intention, it could be so relevant and so helpful for OCD. That intention is seeing your brain as a little puppy dog. When you have OCD, that puppy dog is full of energy. OCD is like this mean bully that’s thrown a tennis ball and getting that puppy dog to go. 

What mindfulness of breath can teach you, if we’re aware of this, we go into it like, “This is what I’m going to work on. This is how my OCD is getting me—it’s getting me to follow these lines of thought.” When you’re there sitting on your breath to be able to notice where your thought goes, be able to look at it, “None of my business. Come back to my breath.” To me, Kim, that is actually exposure and response prevention. You expose yourself to discomfort of not following the thought, which is really hard. For people with OCD, without OCD, that’s hard to do, but like you said, that is absolutely a skill that people can get better at.


Kimberley: Yeah, and it’s response prevention. It’s the core of that. Okay, I love this. I love this. Now, as we wrap up, is there anything that you feel we haven’t covered here that will bring us home and dial this in for those who are hearing this for the first time or have struggled with this in the past? 

Max: I think we did a pretty good job. I mean, it’s very nuanced stuff. I like to see this for people that feel like their OCD is well enough managed, but there’s still work to go. This is like icing on the cake. Let’s really look at the nitty-gritty of how this works. Or if people are feeling really stuck and they’re not knowing why, hopefully, this can shine a light on some of these less talked about principles that are really important. 

But I guess the one final thing, going all the way back to Amishi Jha and her neurological research on mindfulness, really fascinating studies out of her lab show that 50% of the time, 50% of her waking day, people are not aware. They’re not aware of what’s going on, which means 50% of this podcast, people aren’t going to be paying attention to. We can’t take offense to that because it’s 50% of any podcast. When you have that coupled with OCD’s tendency to steal that beam of focused attention on scary stuff, it can be so devastating and so stuck for people. Hopefully, some of the stuff can give a sense of what we do about that and how we can start making moves against anxiety and OCD.

Kimberley: Yeah, and compassion every step of the way.

Max: Oh my gosh. I think everything needs to be done, peppered with compassion. Or maybe peppered is too level like in the context of full radical compassion. That’s such an important part of all of this work.

Kimberley: Yeah, because it’s true. I mean, even myself who has a pretty good mindfulness practice, I was even surprised how much of mine was like, “Am I doing this right? What if I don’t do it right? Will this work? How will it help me?” All of the things. I think that everyone’s background noise, like you said, is very normal. I so appreciate you bringing this to the conversation, because again, I talk about mindfulness a lot. One other thing is, I will say when, let’s say, someone has a somatic obsession or they have panic, and so they’re having a lot of physical sensations. When you say “Come to the present,” they’re like, “But the present sucks. I don’t want to be here in the present.” What are your thoughts on that? 

Max: Somatic OCD and panic, I think out of any themes or content when it comes to awareness and attention, those are the most relevant. If you think about somatic OCD, where people come obsessed about different parts of their perceptual experience, it’s all about people trying to not be aware of things that they can’t control, and then therefore they’re aware of it all the time. I think this is especially spot on for those. It’s helpful for all forms of anxiety, but that in particular, that’s going to be-- we tend to not do exposures by hyper-focusing on what they’re afraid of because that’s compulsive. That’s we’re focusing on controlling more. This process should be effortless. When we’re ruminating, when we’re compulsing or paying attention, that’s like you’re on the treadmill. You’re doing work, and just hopefully, people experience some of these exercises, all we’re doing is getting off the treadmill. We want to be doing less, if anything. OCD is making you work for it. It’s making you do stuff. We want to identify that and do a whole lot less. And then you’ll forget about it usually until you don’t. It’s like, “Oh crap, here it is again.” And then, “Okay, cool. I just practiced. Let me do it again,” until it loses power more fully.

Kimberley: Yeah. I so appreciate you. Tell us what people can hear about you.

Max: I run a practice in Redondo Beach. We’re called Beachfront Anxiety Specialists. We have our website. Again, my name’s Max Maisel, and people can feel free to Google us and reach out at any time.

Kimberley: Amazing. Thank you. We’ll have all of your links in the show notes. I’m really, truly grateful. Thank you for coming on and talking about this. It is so nuanced, but so important. As I say to my patients, I could say it 10 times and sometimes you need to hear a similar thing in a different way for it to click. I’m so grateful. Hopefully, this has been really revolutionary for other people to hear it from a different perspective. I’m so grateful for your time. 

Max: Thank you. It’s such a privilege to be here with you and your listeners and I really appreciate you having me on today.

Kimberley: Thank you.

Aug 18, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. This is a last-minute episode. I usually am really on schedule with my plan for the podcast and what I want to do, but I have recently got back from vacation and I have been summoned to jury duty.  For my own self-care, the idea of going to this master plan that I created for all of the other episodes that I do a lot of planning and a lot of prep and really think it through today, I was like, “I deeply need this episode to land on my own heart.” This is as much for me as it is for you, and it is a community effort, which also was very helpful for me. 

As you may know, I’m a huge proponent of self-compassion, which isn’t just having bubble baths and lighting a candle. It’s actually stopping and asking, “What do you need in this moment?” And I really dropped in and I was like, “I need this to be really simple, really easy, and I need this to be also something that will land.” Let’s do it. 

Today, we’re talking about the 14 things you should say to a loved one with anxiety. I asked everyone on Instagram to weigh in on what they need to hear, and the response was so beautiful, it actually brought me to tears. 

Ep 350 14 Things You Should Say to a Loved One with Anxiety

I am going to share with you the 14 things that you should say to a loved one with anxiety, and I’m also going to talk about, it’s not just what we say. I was thinking about this the other day. When we’re anxious, the advice we get can make us feel very soothed and validated, or it can feel really condescending. Saying “stop worrying” can be really condescending. It can make us enraged. But if someone so gently says, “Listen, don’t worry, I got you.” You know what I mean? The tone makes a huge difference. 

For those of you who are family members or loved ones who are listening to this, to really get some nuggets on what they can do to support their loved one, remember that the tone and the intent are really 80% of the work. That is so, so important. Here we go. Let’s go through them. 


The first thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “I am here for you.” The beauty of this is it’s not saying, “How can I make your discomfort go away?” It’s not saying, “What should we do to fix this and make you stop talking about it and stop having pain about it?” It’s just saying, “I’m here, I’m staying in my lane and I’m going to be there to support you.” It’s beautiful. 


The second thing you could say to a loved one with anxiety is, and this is actually my all-time favorite, this is probably the thing I say the most to my loved ones when they’re anxious or going through a difficult time, “How can I support you?” It’s not saying, “What can I do?” It’s not saying, again, “How can I fix you?” or “Let’s get rid of it.” It’s just saying, “What is it that you need? Because the truth is, I don’t know what you need and I’m not going to pretend I do because what may have worked for you last week mightn’t work this week.” That’s really important to remember. How can I support you?


The third thing you could say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You are not bad for experiencing this.” So often when we are going through a hard time, we’re having strong emotions. We then have secondary shame and blame and guilt for having it. We feel guilty, we feel weak, we feel silly, we feel selfish, we feel juvenile for struggling—often based on what we were told in childhood or in our early days about having emotions. We can really start to feel bad for having it. Or for you folks with OCD or intrusive thoughts, you might feel bad because of the content of your obsessions. 

Now let’s pause here for a second and be very clear. We also have to recognize that we don’t want to be providing reassurance for our loved ones with OCD and intrusive thoughts because, while giving them reassurance might make them feel better for the short term and might make you feel like you’re really a great support person, it probably is reinforcing and feeding the disorder and making it worse. 

So in no way here am I telling you to tell your loved ones like, “You’re not bad. You’re not going to do the thing that you think you’re going to do,” or “That fear is not going to come true.” We don’t want to go down that road because that’s going to become compulsive and high in accommodation. Those two things can really, really make your OCD and intrusive thoughts much, much, much worse. But we can validate them that having a single emotion like anxiety, shame, anger, sadness does not make them a bad person. So, so important.


The fourth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “Things will get better,” and another thing that the folks on Instagram said is, “This will not last forever.” This was something that was said many, many times. I pulled together the main common themes here.

But what I loved about this is they were bringing in the temporary nature of anxiety, which is a mindfulness concept, which is, this is a temporary experience that this anxiety will not last forever. Again, pay attention to the tone here. Telling them “This won’t last long” or “This won’t last forever” in a way that devalues their experience or disqualifies their experience, or invalidates their experience isn’t what we’re saying here. What they’re saying is, they’re really leading them towards a skill of recognizing that yes, this is hard, we’re not denying it. Yes, this is hard, but things will get better or that this won’t last forever. 

The thing I love about “Things will get better” is, so often when we have anxiety, and we recently did an episode about this—when you have invasive anxiety all the time, you can start to feel depressed about the future. You can start to feel helpless and hopeless about the future. Offering to them “This will get better with steps and together we’ll do this and we’ll support you and we’ll take baby steps,” that can really help reduce that depressive piece of what they’re experiencing. 


The fifth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You have gotten through this before.” Now, that reminds them of their strength and courage. Even if they’ve never done this scary thing before, chances are, they’ve done other scary things before or other really difficult things in their life. Often I’ll say to patients when they’re new to treatment, “Tell me about a time where you did something you actually didn’t think you could do.” It’s usually things like, “I ran a marathon,” or “I rode a bike up this really steep hill and I couldn’t do it forever. And then one weekend I built up and I could,” or “I never thought I would pass this one exam and I’d failed it multiple times and I finally did.” It helps us to really see that you are a courageous, resilient person, that you’ve gotten through hard things before. 

Again, we’re not saying it in a sense of urgency like, “Get up and do the hard things because you’ve done them before.” We are really dropping into their experience. We’re really honoring their experience. We’re not rushing them too much. 

I have learned as a parent of a kid who hates needles, this is the biggest lesson for me because I’m an exposure therapist. I’m like, “Let’s go, let’s face our fear.” I’ve learned to trust my child. When we go in to get vaccinations or immunizations, my child says, “Mama, I’m going to do it, but you have to let me do this at my pace.” I was like, “Wow, you’re quite the little wise one.” It was so profound to me that I was pushing them too fast, going, “Let’s just get it over with. Once you’re done, you’ll feel so much better.” They really needed to slow it down and be like, “I’m going to do it. It’s just going to be at my own pace.” I digress. 


The sixth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety, and you don’t have to say all of these by the way, but number six is, “I am proud of how hard you are trying.” I loved this because it, number one, validates that they’re going through a hard thing. It also encourages and recognizes that they are trying their best. 

Often we make the mistake of saying, “You could be doing a little better.” The truth is, yeah, you will be doing better in the future, but you’re doing the best you can right now with what you have, so do really say, “I’m proud of how hard you are trying.”

One thing I’ve also learned, and I learned this from another clinician once, is this clinician taught me. She says, “I never tell my patients how proud I am of them.” She says, “I always say, you must be so proud of how hard you are trying.” She said that because that gives them ownership of being proud. It gives them permission to be proud. I have learned in many clinical settings with patients to say that. Not all the time, sometimes I just straight up say, “I’m so proud of you.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But you might even want to play around with this nuanced change in this sentence of, “I’m so proud of how hard you are trying and you must be so proud of how hard you are trying.” So powerful the use of words here. 


The seventh thing you need to say to a loved one who has anxiety is, “Let’s listen to stories of other people who have gotten through this.” The person who wrote this in, I loved it because they actually gave some context of them saying, “In a moment where I don’t think I can do the scary thing, sometimes hearing other stories of people who have done this work is exactly what I need to remind myself that I can do this hard thing.” This is how they did it, and I have the same skills that they do. I’m the same human that they are. They’re no better or worse than me. 

If you go back, there’s tons of stories and OCD stories that you can look at on Your Anxiety Toolkit podcast or OCD stories or other podcasts, or even IOCDF live streams of other people’s stories that can be inspiring to you.


The eighth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, I loved this one, “I will do the dishes tonight.” I loved this one. They actually put a smiley face emoji after it because really what they’re saying is, “You need a break and I’m going to be the break you need.” It’s not to say, again, that we’re going to accommodate you and we’re going to do all your jobs and chores for you. All they’re saying is, “I can see anxiety’s taking a lot of space for you. As you work through that—not to do compulsions, but as you work through that and navigate that using your mindfulness and your ERP and your willingness and your act and all of the skills you have—as you do that, I’m going to take a little bit of the slack and I’m going to do the dishes tonight.” I just loved this. I would never have thought to include that. I thought that was really, really cute. 


The ninth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You are allowed to take this time and this space.” I thought that was really a beautiful way. Quite a few people said something similar like, “You’re allowed to struggle at this time. It’s okay that you’re having this discomfort. I’m going to give you some space to just feel your feelings. Be uncomfortable if that’s what you’re doing. Bring on the loving kindness and the compassion, and I’m actually going to give you space to do that. You’re allowed to take this time. You’re allowed to take up this space with these emotions.”

As somebody who, myself, struggles with that, I feel like I should tie my emotions up and put them in a pretty bow. I really felt this one really landed on me. It was exactly what I needed to hear as well. Thank you, guys. 


The tenth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You do not need to solve everything right now. You can pace yourself through this.” There’s two amazing things I love about this, which is number one, reminding us that we can be uncertain, that we can be patient, that we can let this one sort of lay it down, sit down. We don’t have to tend to it right now, we can just let it be there. We’re going to go about our time. Absolutely. And that you can pace yourself in that. 

Often I get asked questions like, “I just want to get it all done right now. I just want to get all my exposures done and I want to face all my fears and I want to have all the emotions and get them over and done with.” You can pace yourself through this. I think that’s so important to remember. 


The eleventh thing that you should say to a loved one with anxiety is—this is actually not something you’d say, it’s actually something you would ask. They’d say, “I need them to ask me, what’s important to you right now.” I think this is beautiful because instead of supporting them, you’re really just directing them towards their north star of their values. “If you’re anxious, let me just be a prompt for you of, what’s important to you right now.” So cool. It’s really helping them, especially you guys know when we’re anxious, we can’t think straight. It’s so hard to concentrate, it’s all blurry and things are confusing. Sometimes being given a prompt to help direct us back to those values is so, so important.


The twelfth thing that you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “I believe you.” Really what we’re saying here is, “I believe that this is really hard for you. You’re not trying to attention seek. I believe that you’re struggling.” This was a big one, especially for those people who have a chronic illness. As someone with a chronic illness, so many people kept saying, “Are you sure it’s not in your head? Are you sure it’s not anxiety? Maybe you’re seeking attention.” For people to say, “I believe you, I believe what you’re experiencing. I believe that this is really hard for you,” I think that that is so powerful and probably the deepest level of seeing someone authentically and vulnerably.

All right, we’re getting close to the end here guys. You have held in strong. 


The thirteenth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You are stronger than you think and you have got this.” So good. Again, similar to what we’ve talked about in the past, but it’s reminding them of their strengths, reminding them of their courage, reminding them of their resilience. 

Sometimes when we’re anxious, we doubt ourselves, we doubt our ability to do the hard thing. They’re saying, “You’ve got this. Let’s go. Come on, you’ve got this.” But again, not in a way that’s demeaning or condescending, or invalidating. It’s a cheerleading voice. 


The fourteenth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety, but I do have a bonus one of course, is,” I know you can resist these compulsions.” This is for the folks who have OCD and who do struggle with doing these compulsions. Or if you have an eating disorder, it might be, “I know you can resist restriction or binging or purging,” or whatever the behavior is. Maybe if you have an addiction, “I know you can resist these urges.” Same with hair pulling and skin picking. It’s really reinforcing to them that, “I know you can do this. I know you can resist this urge or compulsion, whatever it may be.” 

Again, it gives us a north star to remind ourselves what are we actually here to do. Because when we’re anxious, our default is like, “How can I get away from this as fast as possible?” Sometimes we do need a direction change of like, “No, the goal is to reduce these safety behaviors.”


These are so beautiful. I’m going to add mine in at the end and you guys know what I’m going to say. We almost need a drum roll, but we don’t need a drum roll because I’m going to say that the 15th thing that I always say to any loved one, including myself with anxiety, is, “It’s a beautiful day to do hard things. It’s a beautiful day to do freaking hard things. It’s a beautiful day to do the hardest thing.” I say that because it reminds me to look at the beauty of it, to look at the reward of it, and to remind myself that yes, we can do hard things. 

My friends, thank you for allowing this to be a nice, soft landing for me today. I know I have to rearrange all the schedule and my podcast editor and my executive assistant is going to have to help me with all of the mix-up and mess around. But I’m grateful for the opportunity just to slow down with you this week. 

Take a deep breath. 

Drop into what do I need. I hope you’re doing that for yourself. I will see you next week back on schedule and I cannot wait to talk with you there. 

Have a wonderful day everybody, and talk to you soon.

Aug 11, 2023

Today, we’re talking about when anxiety causes depression and vice versa. This is a topic that I get asked about all the time. It can be really confusing and a lot of time, it’s one of those things that we talk about in terms of like, is it the chicken or the egg? I want to get to the bottom of that today. 

When anxiety causes depression, it can feel like your world is spinning and racing from one thought to another. You may feel a complete loss of interest in the things that you’re doing. You may have racing thoughts, depressive thoughts, or thoughts of doom. This can be really, really overwhelming. Today, I want to talk about when anxiety causes depression and how you might target that, and also when depression causes anxiety.

Let’s get into it. We’re going to go through a couple of things today. Number one is we’re going to go through why does anxiety cause depression, how does depression cause anxiety, how common is depression and anxiety, particularly when they’re together, and what to do when depression and anxiety mix. Now, stick around till the end because I’m also going to address how OCD causes depression and how social anxiety causes depression, and what to do when anxiety and depression impact your sleep, and in this case, cause insomnia. I’m so excited to do this. Let’s get started. 

349 When Anxiety Causes Depression (and vice versa)


What causes anxiety and depression? Let’s look at that first. 

What we understand is that anxiety and depression—we don’t entirely know just yet to be exact, but what we know so far is that there is a combination between genetics, biology, environment, and also psychological factors. That’s a big piece of what we’re going to be talking about today. 

Now, if you want to know specifically the causes of anxiety, and that’s really what you’re wanting, you can actually go over to Episode 225 of Your Anxiety Toolkit. We have a whole episode there on what causes anxiety and what you can do to overcome anxiety. That might be a more in-depth understanding of that. 

But just in general, we do know that genetics play a huge component. However, we do know, talking about the psychological factors, that often people who do have depression, that depression does cause an increase in anxiety. A lot of people who have an anxiety disorder do notice that they feel themes of depression like hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness. 


Now, let’s first look at, why does anxiety cause depression? The thing to remember here is, anxiety alone doesn’t cause depression in all cases. There are lots of people who do have an anxiety disorder who don’t experience depression. However, we do know that for those who have a lot of anxiety, maybe untreated anxiety or anxiety that is very complex and they’re in the early stages of recovery or learning the tools and mastering those tools, it is common for people with anxiety or uncertainty to start to feel doom and gloom about their life. Often it comes in the form of feeling like, “Is this going to be here forever?” A lot of people will say, “What’s the point really of life if I’m going to be experiencing this level of suffering with my anxiety every single day?” And that’s very, very valid. 

When you’re suffering to the degree that some of you are with very chronic anxiety disorders, very severe degrees of anxiety disorders, it makes complete sense that you would start to feel like, “What is the point? How do I get through this? No one can help me. Am I someone who can be helped?” These are very common concerns. I myself have struggled with this as well, particularly when your anxiety feels so out of control and you don’t feel like you have mastery over it yet. I think that that is a very, very normal experience for people who have that degree of anxiety. 

This also includes other anxiety disorders like phobias, panic disorder, PTSD, and eating disorders. I know when I had my eating disorder, I felt so stuck, “How am I ever going to climb out of this deep hole that I’m in?” And that in and of itself made me feel depressed. I had what we call secondary depression. My primary condition was an eating disorder, and then I had a secondary depression because of how heavy and how overwhelming my primary condition was. 

If that’s something that you resonate with, I first want to acknowledge and recognize that this is very normal, very common, but also very treatable, particularly if you have a mental health professional who can help you. But again, I want to go back and say, just because you have anxiety or intrusive thoughts, doesn’t mean that you will be anxious and depressed for the rest of your life. With mastery and tools and recovery and practice and patience and compassion, you can actually slowly peel those layers of depression and anxiety away. 


So then we move over now and look at, why does depression cause anxiety? If your primary diagnosis or your primary disorder is depression, meaning that’s the first disorder you had and you didn’t have an anxiety disorder before that, or that’s the disorder that is the largest and the one that takes up the most space in your life. When we are depressed, often people will have anxiety about how much that depression is going to impact them in their life. Similar to the last points we made about anxiety. A lot of my patients and a lot of you folks have written in or messaged me or in my comments on Instagram talking about the overwhelming fear of relapse and the overwhelming fear of going back to those dark days when depression was so strong and you couldn’t get out of bed, and it was almost traumatizing how painful and how much suffering you are experiencing. It is, again, very normal to have a large degree of anticipatory anxiety about how that may impact you. 

Now, in addition, depression in and of itself will say some pretty mean things. Actually, let me rephrase that—will always lie to you about who you are, your worth, your future, your place in the world. When you hear those things on repeat, of course, you’re going to have anxiety about, will that come true? Is that possible? Oh my goodness, that’s not what I want for my life. This is not how my life was supposed to go. The messages and the narrative of depression in and of itself can create an immense degree of anxiety. 


Now, let’s take a look now, as promised, to look at how common anxiety and depression are. I’m actually going to read you some statistics here that I got from some really reputable journal articles, and I will link them in the show notes. 

One research said that generalized anxiety disorder affects 6.8 million adults in the United States. That’s 3.1% of the population, and that’s just in the United States. That’s not talking about the world. Yet, only 43.2% of them are receiving treatment. That’s from the National Institute of Mental Health. Now, what’s interesting about that, as I remember sharing before, is being untreated increases your chances of having both. Because as you can imagine, if you’re having a disorder and it’s not improving, you’re going to feel more depressed about it and you’re going to feel more anxious about that. 

Statistics also show that women are twice as likely to be affected as men with generalized anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder often co-occurs with major depression. They are almost always going to go together. Now, we also know that depression is a very common illness worldwide, with an estimated 3.8% of the population affected. That’s 5% for adults and 5.7% for adults older than 60 years. That’s very interesting as well to see how our age can impact these disorders, and that comes directly from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation.

We have some really important information here to show that there is a huge overlap between the two. And then it gets murky because then, again, as I mentioned in the intro, is it the chicken or the egg? Which one do we treat? Which one do we look at? Which one came first? Which is the primary? Which is the secondary? 


Let’s talk first about what to do when depression and anxiety mix, because that’s why you’re here. It’s important and what’s cool is to recognize that we have a treatment that can target both. As you all know, I’m a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and we have a lot of research to show that cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT can help with both. Thank goodness, it’s not that you have to go to one particular treatment for one, and then you have to learn a whole other treatment for another. We actually have this one treatment that you can use to address both in different ways. 

Now, CBT is going to be looking at your cognition, your thoughts, which we know with anxiety and depression, there are a lot of irrational, faulty thoughts. It also looks at your behaviors and how those behaviors may actually be contributing to your anxiety and your depression. Not to say that it’s your fault. I want to be really clear here. We are not saying that this is all your fault and you’ve got bad thoughts and you’ve got bad behaviors. That’s why you have both and you’re going to be stuck in both until you change that. Absolutely not. We’re not here to blame. What we’re here to do is be curious about our thoughts and about our behaviors, and then look and do experiments on what helps and what doesn’t.

I’ll give you an example of a really basic CBT skill that I used recently, and that was that somebody I knew was talking about how difficult it is to go to bed. They get really depressed going to bed. It makes them have a lot of thoughts about how they didn’t get done what they wanted to do. They would procrastinate going to bed, but before they know it, it would be 3:00 AM in the morning or even later. They still haven’t yet journeyed through their night routine to go to bed. 

We talked about what would be effective for you, what behavior change would be effective for you to move into the direction that you want. With CBT, we are not looking at 17 different changes at once. We might make one simple change at a time and then look at your thoughts about that. This is a really important way for us to be curious and do experiments and look at what’s effective and what’s not effective and make small little tweaks to your behaviors. 

Now, some examples of this, we go through this extensively in our online course called Overcoming Depression. We also go through this extensively in our online course called Overcoming Anxiety and Panic, where we thoroughly go through your thoughts and then do an inventory of your behaviors. I give tons of examples of little ways that you can change behaviors, moving in ways that will reduce the repetition of these disorders. Let’s talk a little bit about that. 

One really important piece for depression when we’re talking about behavioral therapy is activity scheduling. The less routine you have, the more likely you are to be depressed. Often people with depression tend to lose their routine or they have lost their routine, which can actually contribute to depression. What we might do is we might look at our day and implement or add just one or two things to create some routine. Once you’ve got those things down, maybe you have a morning routine in the morning where you take a walk at eight o’clock, and that’s it for now. Let’s just try on that. And then by lunchtime, we might add in some kind of pleasurable activity. Because we know with depression, as I mentioned at the beginning, depression can take away our pleasure or interest in hobbies. We might introduce those back, even though I know that you’re not going to experience as much pleasure as maybe you used to. But we’re going to experiment and be curious about bringing back things into your life like paint-by-number, crochet, or whatever it might be. 

I personally just took up crocheting when I was in Australia. My mom insisted that I learn how to crochet and it’s quite impressive to me how something so simple can be such a mindful activity. Even though I only do it for 5, 10, 15 minutes a day, that in and of itself can be an incredible shift to our mental health. Again, I want to make clear, none of these alone will snap you out of depression. It’s a series of small baby changes in a direction that is right for you and is in line with your values.

Now, another thing you can do when depression and anxiety mix is to consult with your doctor about antidepressant medications for anxiety & depression or what we call SSRIs. We know that research shows that a combination of CBT and medication is a really effective way to come out of that hole of depression and anxiety. If that’s something you are interested in or willing to consider, please do go to a medical professional or a psychiatrist and talk with them about your particular needs. It can be incredibly helpful. I know for me, during different stages of my life, SSRIs have been so, so helpful. That’s something that you could also consider.

The next thing you can do when depression and anxiety mix is to consider exercise. We actually have research to show that exercise is as effective as medications or SSRIs, which blows my mind. Actually, I think it’s so wonderful that we have this research. In my opinion, add it slowly to your calendar. I’m not here to say this means you have to go out and do an hour class at the gym. It could be as simple as taking a walk around the block. 

Actually, recently, as many of you follow me on Instagram, I am trying to get back to exercising more as I still continue to recover from my chronic illness, POTS. I don’t go and do huge workouts. For me, it’s first starting in baby steps, 5, 10 minutes. Or can I do a plank for 30 seconds? And that’s it to start. I want to again encourage you to take baby steps here and implement just little things at a time. And then ask yourself, how does this feel? Did this help? Did this hinder? How does it feel in my body? And then if you need to, talk to a mental health professional about what would be the best step for you next. Now we also know that exercise aids relaxation, it aids over well-being. It’s incredibly helpful, again, for your mental health. That’s something you can consider and consult with a doctor as well. 

Now another thing you can consider is relaxation techniques. Now here, we’re not talking about doing breathing just to get rid of anxiety. We know that that doesn’t typically work, but there are ways in which you can learn to breathe as an act of self-compassion, of slowing down and acknowledging where you are and slowing down your behaviors, and checking in with yourself. This does include some mindfulness or you can even consider taking up one or two minutes of meditation a day. These techniques can be very helpful for both depression and anxiety. 

Again, I keep teasing this, but I keep having technical issues. We will eventually have a meditation vault for you guys that will have meditations for anxiety and depression specifically and anxiety with intrusive thoughts. I’ve tried my best to continue to add. We’ve got probably over 30 meditations already. That will be available to you soon as well, so do keep an eye out for that.


Now, let’s talk as promised about how OCD causes depression, because I know a lot of you out there have OCD. If you don’t have OCD, stick with this because I’m also going to go through here about insomnia. We do know that statistically, OCD affects 2.5 million adults. That’s 1.2% of the population. That’s just what we know of. That’s not actually the real stats because there are so many people who haven’t reported it because of stigma and shame and so forth. We know here that women are three times more likely to be affected than men. That’s actually not my experience. I think I have a 50/50 in my clientele. But that’s what the statistics show. 

Again, as you can imagine, if you have OCD and you’re completely flooded with intrusive thoughts, you’re doing compulsions for hours, you’re stuck in a mental loop, I think the research shows 80% of people also have depression, up to 85%. Now, that is significant in the overlap and it just shows how much OCD can take you down and really target your worth and your sense of identity and your self-esteem and how much shame and guilt and blame goes along with those. When you’re experiencing that, of course, you’re going to experience some depression or themes of depression, as I said before, hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness. 

If this is the case for you, what we often recommend, again, especially if the primary condition is OCD and then you have depression because of that, we really want to target getting you better from OCD as soon as we can. A lot of the time, when depression is caused by the anxiety disorder, the major treatment goal needs to be getting that primary condition under control. Often once we get that primary condition under control, the depression does lift.

Now, again, it’s different if you’re someone who’s always had depression or had it throughout your life. We still want to go back and look at cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. We also want to look at maybe including a massive self-compassion practice because that is absolutely key for all of these conditions, no matter what, whether they’re coexisting or not. But you can also include other modalities like acceptance and commitment therapy. You could also do other modalities such as dialectical behavioral therapy. That’s particularly helpful if you’re engaging in impulsive behavior or self-harm. You’re having a tremendous degree of suicidal ideation, or sometimes in some cases, suicide attempts. These are other options you can add to your cognitive behavioral therapy if you require it. Because remember, we have to look at you as a person, not just you as a diagnosis. We have to really be certain that we look at all the symptoms, you have a thorough assessment, we’re clear on what’s the primary and secondary condition, and then we can create a treatment plan for you that targets those specific symptoms. 

If you have OCD and you don’t have access to a mental health professional, we do have ERP School, which is an online class for OCD, it’s on demand. You can watch it as many times as you want. You can go to to get any of these courses. But that is there for you. I made it specifically for people who either don’t have access to mental health services, can’t afford them, or have had it in the past and they just want to hear it be said in a different way. Maybe you really like my way of training and teaching and you want to hear it and how I apply it with my patients. All of the courses that I have recorded are exactly how I would treat my clients and how I would walk them through the process. They’re there for you if you would like.  


Now let’s move on to how social anxiety causes depression. Now, this is true for everything, and forgive me because I should have mentioned this before. One of the most common safety behaviors that come out with social anxiety is avoidance, isolation. But I should have mentioned before, that is very true of any anxiety disorder. It’s very true of OCD, it’s very true of post-traumatic stress disorder. When we isolate and we avoid, we do tend to feel more depressed because we have less connection in our life, we have less interaction, which can be a really great way for us to stay present. When we’re in a room by ourselves with our thoughts, that can always create more anxiety and more depression. That’s very common for social anxiety. 

The other thing to remember about social anxiety too is the voice of social anxiety is also very, very mean, just like OCD and generalized anxiety and depression. Thoughts we have when we have social anxiety are often like, “You look like an idiot. You look awkward. What’s wrong with you? Why did you say that? You shouldn’t have said that. They’re going to think you’re stupid.” As you can imagine, those thoughts in and of themselves will create more anxiety, and that secondary depression, that layer of like, “I give up. I can’t do this. This is too hard. What’s even the point of trying?” 


Last of all, we want to talk about what to do when anxiety and depression, or one or the other, cause insomnia. Now, it’s important to recognize here that one of the core symptoms of depression is insomnia or getting too much sleep. It can go either way, but there are some people who have depression and one of their symptoms is they cannot fall asleep. They lay in bed for hours just round and round and round ruminating. That is true for any of the anxiety disorders as well. 

When you have anxiety and you have depression, you go to bed, you turn the lights off, and you are left with your thoughts. If your thoughts are mean, if your thoughts are catastrophic, if your thoughts are very much in the theme of hyper-responsibility or perfectionism, it’s a very high chance that you’re going to get stuck being completely overwhelmed with those thoughts and then have a hard time falling asleep. What happens there, as this is the theme of today, is it becomes a cycle. The less sleep you get, the more anxious you might feel. Or the more that you have anxiety, the more you might be afraid you won’t fall asleep, and that anxiety in and of itself keeps you up and you’re caught in a cycle. 

What I want to offer to you here, as we look at all of these conditions, let’s wrap this up for you, is number one, if you have anxiety and/or depression, you are so not alone. I would say the majority of my patients have both. No matter what anxiety disorder, they have little inklings or massive degrees of depression. That does not mean there’s anything wrong with you and it doesn’t mean you cannot move into recovery. It also doesn’t mean that this is your fault. 

I really want to emphasize here that with compassion and baby steps and PATIENCE, we can slowly come out of this place and get you back out. I strongly encourage you to reach out and have a team around you who can support you, even if you haven’t got access to a mental health professional, your medical doctor, or any friends you may have, family. Maybe it’s using resources like online courses or workbooks. We have, for people with OCD, The Self-Compassion Workbook for OCD. They’re amazing workbooks for depression. One I strongly encourage you to consider is a book by David Burns called Feeling Good. It’s an amazing resource using cognitive therapy for depression. These are things that you can bring in and gather as a part of your resources so that you can slowly find your way out. Hopefully, the clouds will separate and you can see the sky again. 

I truly want to recognize here that this is really hard. We’re talking about two very influential conditions that bully us and can make us feel hopeless. I want to recognize that and validate you and send you a large degree of love because this is hard work. 

As I always say, it is a beautiful day to do hard things. I say that because if we can look for the beauty, that in and of itself is a small step to moving out of these conditions. Look for the beauty in your day, and see doing the hard things as a beautiful thing because, with each hard thing you do, you’re taking one step closer to your recovery. You just focus on one hard thing at a time, and then you focus on the next hard thing and you celebrate your wins, and you of course act as kindly and as compassionately as you can.

Thank you so much for being here. I hope that was helpful. We went all the way through what to do when anxiety causes depression and vice versa. I hope you took so much from today’s video and podcasts. For those of you who are listening on podcast, do know that we will be introducing a lot of these on video on YouTube as well. If you want to see my face, I will be over on YouTube as well. 

I’m so honored that you have spent your time with me. I know how valuable your time is. I do hope that you have a wonderful day. Please do remember it is a beautiful day to do hard things and I am here cheering you on every step of the way.

Aug 4, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. It is so good to have you here talking about hyper-responsibility & hyperresponsibility OCD. A lot of you may not even know what that means and maybe have never heard it, or maybe you’ve heard the term but aren’t quite sure what it entails. And some of you are very well acquainted with the term hyper-responsibility. I thought, given that it’s a theme that’s laced through so many anxiety disorders through depression that we should address it. I think that’s a really great starting point.


Let’s talk about first what is hyper-responsibility. Hyper-responsibility is an inflated sense of responsibility. It is feeling responsible for things that are entirely out of your control, such as accidents, how other people feel about you, how other people behave, events happening in your life. It’s ultimately this overwhelming feeling that the world rests on your shoulders, that it’s up to you and it’s your job to keep yourself and everybody else safe. Even as we look at this definition of what hyper-responsibility is, I’m actually feeling and noticing in my body this heaviness, this weight that you’re carrying, and it is an incredible weight to carry. It is an incredibly stressful role to play. If you’re someone who experiences hyper-responsibility, you often will have additional exhaustion because of this. 

348 Hyper Responsibility When you feel responsible for everyone and everything


One thing I want to clear up as we move forward is first really differentiating the difference between hyper-responsibility and responsibility OCD. When we say “hyper-responsibility,” we’re talking about a heightened sense of responsibility. Actually, let me back up a little bit. We do have responsibility. I am an adult. I’m responsible for my body, I’m responsible for two young children, a dog. Responsibility is one thing. You need to keep them safe, you need to take care of them, you need to show up in respectful ways. But hyper-responsibility is so much more than that. It’s taking an incredible leap of responsibility and feeling responsible for all the teeny tiny things, like I said before, that are out of your control. 

Now, once we’ve determined what responsibility is, then we can also look at responsibility OCD. Now specifically for those who have responsibility OCD is where this sense of hyper-responsibility has crossed over into meeting criteria for having the obsession of hyper-responsibility that’s repetitive, intrusive, unwanted, and you’re also engaging in a significant degree of compulsions that, again, meet criteria for OCD. They could be mental compulsions, physical compulsions, avoidant compulsions, reassurance-seeking compulsions, and so forth. 

The way I like to think of it is on a spectrum. We have responsibility on one side, then in the middle, we have hyper-responsibility, and then it goes all the way over to responsibility OCD. Some people will differentiate them differently in terms of they will say, hyper-responsibility is the same thing as responsibility OCD. But I’m not here to really diagnose people, and I’m not here to tell people that they have OCD if they don’t quite resonate with that. I’ll use me as an example. I 100% struggle with hyper-responsibility in certain areas of my life. But the presentation of that hyper-responsibility, I don’t feel, and I’m sure my therapist doesn’t feel, meets criteria for me to get the diagnosis of OCD. That’s why I want to make sure this is very loose so that you can decide for yourself where you fit on that spectrum. 


A little bit more about hyper-responsibility symptoms or even responsibility OCD symptoms. Examples will include: when something goes wrong, you’re probably likely to blame yourself and feel guilty for the fact that something went wrong. Even disregarding whether it was your fault or not, you’ll feel a sense that this was your mistake, that you should have prevented it. 

Another hyper-responsibility symptom is you might believe that it is up to you to control the outcomes of your life. It is up to you to control the outcomes of other people’s lives—your dependence, your partner, your family members, and so forth, the people at your work, the projects at your work, or at school. 

Another symptom of hyper-responsibility and responsibility OCD is this act of always trying to “fix” the problem. Even when you’ve recognized that there is no solution, you feel this need to just keep chipping away and finding the solution to prevent the bad thing from happening or being responsible for the bad thing. You may spend hours trying to prevent accidents or bad things from happening. What I mean by spending hours is it takes up a significant degree of your time, and it’s usually quite distressing. It’s a heavy feeling. 

There is a difference between responsibility and hyper-responsibility. An example might be my husband found that one of our decks was rickety and shaking, and he felt it was his responsibility to fix that. He did it in a very measured way, in a very rational way, and it was coming from a place of his genuine value and his genuine view that it’s his responsibility to fix that. However, hyper-responsibility would be fixing it, but then also checking every part of it to make sure that it was safe, spending a lot of time going over all the possible scenarios on how it may not be safe, how it could have been safer, what it would mean if something bad happened, replaying. I actually shouldn’t use the word “replay.” It’s almost like future forecasting what would happen and who would be at fault if something bad did happen. 

Again, if we even went further into more responsibility OCD, it might involve repetitively doing these over and over again to get a sense of relief from this hyper-responsibility or to absolutely get security and certainty that nothing bad will ever happen. Often in this case, if I was using this example, maybe they would do the avoidant compulsion of saying, no one’s allowed on the deck, even though it might be a safe, secure deck. That’s just one example. It’s probably not the best example, but I’m trying to use it in contrast to the many ways in which this can play out, especially for those who don’t have hyper-responsibility. 

A thing to remember is, people who don’t have hyper-responsibility may look at the person with hyper-responsibility with a quite perplexed look on their face because to them, they can’t understand why the person feels so heavy loaded with responsibility. And that can be very frustrating, particularly as it shows up in relationships. 

Now, an inflated responsibility may also present as people-pleasing, which is really an attempt to control how people feel about you. It may also present as giving a lot of money or time to charities or groups of people who are less privileged and so forth. Again, let’s get really nuanced. It doesn’t mean if you donate money that you have hyper-responsibility. A lot of these actions people may do from a place of value. But again, we always want to look at the intention of why they’re doing it, and are they doing it to reduce or remove this feeling that they’re having? 

Another symptom of an inflated responsibility is over-researching unlikely threats or possible scenarios. You’re really doing it to try and prevent something bad from happening. Is it possible that someone could fall off a deck? Sometimes I’ll explain it to you, for me personally, often it’s related to the law. For me, it will show up in, “Oh, I’m a boss. I’m someone who has employees. What are all the possible scenarios that legally could impact me? Let me do a lot of research around that.” Until I catch it, and I’m like, “Kimberley, you’re engaging in a ton of reassurance here. Let’s not try to solve problems until they’re actually here and actually a problem.”

Another example of an inflated responsibility is keeping physical or mental lists like, did you do this? Did you do that? Did you do this? That’s really an attempt to make sure nothing bad has happened. 

One other thing is—I remember doing this a lot when I had a baby—checking the baby over and over. I felt that it was my responsibility to keep this baby alive, and yes, it was my responsibility to keep my baby alive. But I had somehow taken it upon myself that if something happened, I would be fully at fault. That it wouldn’t have been my husband’s fault, who’s laying right next to me, who is a fully engaged and loving dad. I had taken it on myself that 100% of the responsibility of her wellness and his wellness, my children are mine, and if something happened, 100% of the fault would be on me. 

I have such compassion for the moms out there who experience this responsibility weight on their shoulders. I think number one, it’s societal. Number two, I think it’s normal, again. But number three, it’s so terrifying because often, not just for moms, for everybody here, the thing that we are worried about are often people we deeply love too. The things that we hold in high value. That’s again why it can be so incredibly painful. 

Now, while these behaviors don’t necessarily, again, mean you have hyper-responsibility or OCD. Again, I want you to think of it like it’s on a spectrum. It is important to know that lots of people with OCD experience hyper-responsibility in many areas of their lives, and that hyper-responsibility shows up in many different subtypes of OCD, many themes of OCD. If you have OCD, you can really put that in your back pocket and keep an eye out and really increase your awareness of how hyper-responsibility is showing up and making it harder for you to overcome your obsessions and compulsions. 

We can all agree as we move forward that hyper-responsibility deeply, deeply impacts somebody’s mental health and their overall well-being. My hope is now to give you some tools, some things that I’ve found helpful for me to manage that—things that I’ve had to practice over and over again. 


Now, before I do that, let’s quickly check in on, often people will ask what causes responsibility OCD or hyper-responsibility. There are a couple of things to think about here. When I’m talking with patients who have OCD, I don’t spend a lot of time digging deep into childhood stuff and bringing up old events and so forth. For some people, that can be incredibly helpful. I tend to find it often does become compulsive and we spend a lot of time there instead of actually targeting the behaviors that are problematic. But for the sake of today, of just giving you some education, we do know that hyper-responsibility CAN, not always, but CAN come from childhood experiences and family dynamics. Often a child may feel it’s their job to take care of other people. Maybe they’ve been taught that. Maybe they’re the eldest sibling and they were given a lot of responsibility. Maybe their parents were very, very strict, and that for them, they felt that they had to maintain that perfect demeanor and perfect school report and so forth. We do know that childhood experiences, that environment that we were raised in can impact someone’s experience of hyper-responsibility. 

We also know that brain disorders like OCD, other anxiety disorders, or even depression, or trauma—trauma is not a brain disorder—these mental health disorders can also exacerbate the theme of hyper-responsibility in people. 

We also know that external pressures, societal expectations, the way our culture raises us can also add to a sense of hyper-responsibility. I know for me, as I’ve thought about this a lot recently, which was a part of the reason why I wanted to do this episode, I am a therapist; it’s an incredible weight of responsibility to be a therapist. I’m surrounded by laws and ethics and licensing boards and all of these rules. I find that the environment of my work can very much nurture my already inclination to have hyper-responsibility. I do think too the environment we are even in as an adult can keep this going. 

And then the last thing I want to look at, which we’ll talk about here in a second, is simply irrational beliefs and rules we keep for ourselves can very much “cause” (I don’t like to use that word) and exacerbate hyper-responsibility. 


Now that we have this and we can get a feel for why someone may experience this, now let’s talk about some strategies for managing hyper-responsibility. Because that’s why you’re here and that’s what I really love to do the most. Let’s talk about it.

First, when I’m managing my own hyper-responsibility or I’m talking with patients about it, the first thing I do is get really clear on what is your responsibility and what is not. I often will do an exercise with my patients and say, “Okay, you are a human being. I want you to write me a job description of what you need to do to be a human being, to exist as a human being.” Let’s say I owned a supermarket and I hired someone to work at the register, the job description would say exactly what is your responsibility. It would say, “You need to turn up at this time, you need to leave at this time. When you come, you need to log in, you need to clock in, you need to put your uniform on. Here’s the things that you need to do that are your responsibility.” And then that employee has a very clear understanding of what their role entails. 

Now, for you as a human, and everybody’s job description looks a little different, I want to first get clear on what is your responsibility. For me, I’ll use an example, I’m a mom, so I do have to be responsible for the well-being of my two children. But let’s get a little clearer on what that means. Does that mean I have to just keep them fed and dressed? Or does that mean for me and my values that I keep them fed and dressed and have a degree of emotional support, but to what degree? This is why I want you to get really clear on what it is for you and your values. 

And then once we do that, you can actually sit with a trusted person—either a family member, a therapist, a mental health provider, or a loved one—and start to question how much responsibility you’re taking on. Of the things on your list, what are the things that are actually not in your control? Not in your control. Because if you have an anxious brain, remember your brain is going to tell you all of the worst-case scenarios. That’s your brain’s job. If you have an anxiety disorder, you’re probably got a hyperactive brain that lists them off like a Rolodex, da da, da, really, really fast. All the worst-case scenarios. 

People with hyper-responsibility often use that Rolodex of information and just start adding that to their job description. “Oh, well, if there’s a possible chance that they could run out and whatever it may be, well then I have to protect for that,” even though it hasn’t happened and it’s highly unlikely. You can start to see, once you are looking at this list of rules you have for yourself, where you’ve pushed from just having a responsibility to having hyper-responsibility. 

Another example might be in relationships. I’ll use again me as an example. My husband and I are going to be 20 years married this year. For years, I took on as my responsibility that I was supposed to keep him happy. Over and over again, I found that I was unable to do this because I’m a human being and I’m faulty and I’m going to make him mad and annoyed sometimes. But I’d taken this responsibility that it was my job to maintain his happiness. And that’s not actually the job description of being a human being. Once I started to go through this with my therapist at the time, I’m starting to see, I’m trying to control things that are out of my control. 

The second thing I want you to think about is once you are clear on what is your responsibility, you have this great roadmap now. Now you have to think about staying in your lane. I may have talked about this on the podcast before, but I talk about this a lot with my patients. Once you’ve determined what is in your control, what is in line with your values, not just what anxiety’s telling you, but what you believe is a healthy limit for you, then you can work at keeping yourself within those parameters and practicing not engaging in picking up responsibility outside of your lane again. 

We always use the metaphor of like, I’m in my car, I can control what kind of car I drive, what speed I go, that’s my responsibility. But let’s say my child is in the lane, metaphorical lane next to me, and they’re speeding like crazy, and they’re driving all over. My kids haven’t got a driver’s license, just stay with me for the metaphor. But let’s say my kid or my partner is in their car and they’re smoking and they’re checking their phone and they’re swaying all over and they’re doing all these things. I have to then determine, if I’m going to respond to that, what is my capacity in my lane. Let’s say it was my husband. I have to basically accept that he’s a full-grown adult who is responsible for himself, which sucks. Believe me, I know. This drove me crazy that I had to let him be in his own lane and I had to stay in my lane. 

I remember having fights with my therapist, not actual fights, but conversations. I’m like, “If we were using this metaphor, he could die. He could get himself into trouble.” She would say, “Yes, and you’re going to have to decide what’s best for you. There’s no right for every one person. We’re not going to treat everyone the same, but you have to take responsibility for how much you engage in trying to control the people around you, and you also have to be willing to allow this to be out of your control sometimes.” You can imagine me sitting in the chair. This was way before COVID. I’m sitting back on the couch and my arms are crossed and I’m all mad because I’m just coming to terms with this idea that I can’t be responsible for everything, that I’m exhausted from trying, that I’m creating a lot of relationship drama because of my attempt to take control and be hyper responsible. I had to give it up. But the giving up of it, the staying in my lane required that I had to feel some really uncomfortable feelings.

Let’s just take a breath for that because it was tough and it is tough. I’m sure if you are experiencing hyper-responsibility, you too are riding strong waves of guilt, regret, shame, anger, resent because of this hyper-responsibility. 

If this is you, what you can also do is really double down with your mindfulness practice. The biggest, most important piece of this is increasing your awareness of where it shows up in your life, in what corner, and how it creeps into little parts of your life, and noticing when it does and why it is. In that moment, maybe the question might be, what is it that I’m unwilling to feel? What am I unwilling to tolerate in this moment, and how might I increase my willingness to feel these feelings of guilt or regret or shame, or anxiety, massive degrees of uncertainty? Can I allow them without engaging in these behaviors that just keep this hyper-responsibility going? It’s a huge test of awareness. And then we double down with kindness, and I’ll tell you why. Because when you have hyper-responsibility, you’re probably going to be plagued with guilt. You feel guilty for all the things happening with someone. We feel anxious because we didn’t get it right. We couldn’t keep the things straight and perfect and it’s really, really heavy. 

In order for us to negotiate with ourselves through those emotions in a non-compulsive way, we have to have a self-compassion practice where we give ourselves permission to get it wrong sometimes. We give ourselves permission to make mistakes sometimes. We allow things to fall apart. That’s the hard part, I think. It feels so wrong to not be fixing things all the time. It can feel so irresponsible to not be preventing things and we have to be willing to navigate and ride through that compassionately.

Now, if you’re someone who really struggles with guilt, I’ve got two podcast episodes that you really need to go and listen to. Number one was Episode 161, which is all about this idea that feeling guilty does not mean you have done something wrong. A lot of people with anxiety, hyper-responsibility, and OCD think and feel that if they feel guilt, it must be evidence that they did something wrong. We have a whole episode, Episode 161 again, where you can go and listen and learn about how our brains make mistakes on this one. 

In addition, if you are someone who has OCD and you really struggle with regret and guilt, we also have another Episode 310. It wasn’t that far gone, that I talked about how regret and guilt are also obsessions. Meaning we have intrusive thoughts, we have intrusive feelings, and sometimes the intrusive feeling is guilt and regret. Please do use that resource as well. 

And then the last thing I would want you to think about here is, for those of you who are in the background listening, but secretly thinking, “But I have screwed up. I have made mistakes. I’ve made so many mistakes and I need to make sure that never happens again,” number one, let me slow down for a sec—I want to first acknowledge that you are a human and you will make mistakes just like I am a human and we will continue to mess up over and over again. Let’s just get that out in the open. Let’s just come to a place where we can acknowledge and humble ourselves with the fact that yes, we are going to make mistakes. A part of you in this moment when you’re saying, “But I’ve made mistakes, I’ve really screwed up,” is that you will not accept that that is a part of being a human. That is the tax on being a human, my friend. You’re going to have to come to a place of acceptance of that. 

Often people say, “That sucks. I don’t want that,” and I’m going to keep saying, “But you will.” They’ll say, “But I don’t want to,” and I’ll say, “But you will.” We could go all day on that one. But if you are someone who actually did screw up, it then again becomes a concept or a practice of when you screw up, how do you handle it? Do you screw up and beat yourself up for days and days and months and months and years or years? Or do you screw up and learn from it and acknowledge your humanness and learn what the mistakes are, and then do your best to pivot within the rules in which you set in what we said was your lane? Because often what happens is we do all this work, we address our job description as being a human and what’s just within your line of values and what’s your regular human responsibility. And then when something goes wrong, they hypercorrect and they go back to these rules that include a lot of control, a lot of preventing, a lot of ruminating, a lot of making sure, and you’ve gone back to being in all of everybody’s lanes. If you’re struggling with this, you can go to Episode 293. I did an episode called “I Screwed Up, Now What?” I really think that that was an episode where I had made a massive mistake and I was navigating through it in real-time and sharing what I thought was helpful. 


If you’re wanting to learn more about responsibility OCD treatment, I’m going to strongly encourage you to look for an exposure and response prevention therapist who will be able to identify your specific subtypes and help apply an ERP plan for you. Now, if you cannot access professional help, you can also go to We have ERP School, which is our online course teaching you how you can practice ERP. The course is not specifically about hyper-responsibility, but it will allow you to do an inventory of your specific set of obsessions, your specific set of compulsions, and put a plan together so that you can start to target these behaviors on your own. You can very much get up and running on your own if you do not have access to professional mental health. The whole point of me having those courses isn’t to replace therapy. It’s there to help you get started if you haven’t got any way to get started. Often people go there because they want to know more and they want to understand the cycle of OCD, and that’s why we made it.

My lovely friends, that is hyper-responsibility. We’re talking about when you feel responsible for anything and everything and everyone. If that is you, let me leave you with this parting message: Please slow down and first recognize the weight that you’re carrying. Sometimes we have to do an inventory of the costs of this hyper-responsibility because it’s so easy just to keep going and keep carrying the load and pushing harder and solving more and preventing more. But I want you to slow down for you as an act of compassion and take stock of how heavy this is on you, how exhausting this is on you, and then start to move towards acknowledging that you don’t have to live this way, you don’t deserve to live this way. That there is another way to exist in the world compassionately and effectively without taking on that responsibility. If you need support, of course, reach out and get support because you don’t have to do it alone. There are ways to crawl out of this hyper-responsibility and get you back into that lane that’s healthy for you. 

I’m sending you so much love. I hope you’re having a wonderful summer for those of you who are in the northern hemisphere. I have just gotten back from the southern hemisphere and I loved getting some sun. I’m so happy just to be here with you and keep working through this stuff with you and addressing these really cool, important topics. 

Have a wonderful day. Do not forget, it is a beautiful day to do hard things. Take care.

Jul 28, 2023

Kimberley: Welcome. This conversation is actually so near and close to my heart. I am so honored to have Jessie Birnbaum and Sandy Robinson here talking about Managing the anxiety of chronic illness and disability. Welcome and thank you both for being here.

347 Managing the Anxiety of Chronic Illness & Disability (with Jesse Birnbaum & Sandy Robinson)

Sandy: Thank you for having us.

Kimberley: For those of you who are listening on audio, we are three here today. We’re going to be talking back and forth. I’ll do my best to let you know who’s talking, but if anything, you can look at the transcripts of the show if you’re wondering who’s saying what. But I am so happy to have you guys here. You’re obviously doing some amazing work bringing awareness to those who have an anxiety disorder, specifically health anxiety OCD, panic disorder. These are all very common disorders to have alongside a chronic illness and disability. Jessie, will you go first in just telling us a little bit about your experience of managing these things? 

Jessie: Yeah, of course. I’ve had OCD since I was a little kid but wasn’t diagnosed until around age 14, so it took a little while to get that diagnosis. And then was totally fine, didn’t have any physical limitations, played a lot of sports. And then in 2020, which seems like it would coincide with the pandemic (I don’t think it did), I started getting really physically sick. I started out with these severe headaches and has continued on and morphed into new symptoms, and has been identified as a general chronic illness. I’m still searching for an overall diagnosis, but I’ve seen a lot of different ways in which my OCD has made my chronic illness worse. And then my chronic illness has made my OCD worse, which is really why Sandy and I are so passionate about this topic.

Kimberley: Thank you. Sandy, can you share a little about your experience?

Sandy: Yeah. Just briefly, I was born really prematurely at about 14 weeks early, which was a lot. And then I was born chronically ill with a bowel condition and I also have a physical disability called [02:31 inaudible] palsy. And then I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was 24, but looking back now, knowing what I do about OCD, I think I would say my OCD probably started around age three or something. So, quite young as well.

Kimberley: You guys are talking about illnesses or medical conditions that create a lot of uncertainty in your life, which is so much of the work of managing OCD. Let’s start with you Jessie again. How do you manage the uncertainty of not having a diagnosis or trying to figure that out? Has that been a difficult process for you, or how have you managed that?

Jessie: It has been such a difficult process because that’s what OCD latches onto, the uncertainty of things. That’s been really challenging with not having a specific diagnosis. I can’t say, “Oh, I have Crohn’s disease or Lyme disease,” or something that gives it a name and validates the experience. I feel like I have a lot of intrusive thoughts and my OCD will latch onto not having that diagnosis. So, I’ll have a lot of intrusive thoughts that maybe I’m making it up because if the blood work is coming back normal, then what is it? I’ll have to often fight off those intrusive thoughts and really practice mindfulness and do a lot of ERP surrounding that to really validate my experience and not let those get in the way.

Kimberley: Sandy—I can only imagine, for both of you, that is the case as well—how has your anxiety impacted your ability to manage the medical side of your symptoms?

Sandy: I think that’s an interesting question because I think both my OCD and my medical symptoms are linked. I think when I get really stressed and have prolonged periods of stress, my bowel condition especially gets a lot worse, so that’s tricky. But I think as I’ve gone through ERP, and I’m now in OCD recovery, that a lot of the skills I’ve learned from being chronically ill and disabled my whole life, like planning, being a good self-advocate at the doctors or at the hospital and that flexibility, I think those tools really helped me to cope with the challenges of having additional anxiety on top of those medical challenges.

Kimberley: Right. Of course, and I believe this to be from my own experience of having a chronic illness, the condition itself creates anxiety even for people who don’t have an anxiety disorder. How have you managed that additional anxiety that you’re experiencing? Is there a specific tool or skill that you want to share with people? And then I’ll let Jessie chime in as well.

Sandy: Yeah. I think the biggest thing is, it was realizing that my journey is my journey and it might be a little slower than other people’s because of all the complicating factors, but it’s still a good journey. It’s my journey, so I can’t really wish myself into someone else’s shoes. I’m in my own shoes. I guess the biggest thing is realizing like my OCD isn’t special because I have these complicating factors, even though I myself am special. My OCD is just run-of-the-mill OCD and can still be treated by ERP despite those medical issues as well.

Kimberley: Right. How about you Jessie? What’s your experience of that? 

Jessie: I’d like to add to what Sandy had said too about the skills from ERP really helping. One of the things I feel like I’ve gone through is there’s so much waiting in chronic illness. You’re waiting for the doctors to get back to you, you’re waiting for test results, you’re waiting for the phone schedulers to answer the phone. I feel like I’ve memorized the music for the waiting of all the different doctors. But there’s a lot of waiting, and that’s really frustrating because the waiting is uncertain. You’re just waiting to get an answer, which typically in my case and probably Sandy’s and yours as well, then just adds more uncertainty anyways. 

But I remember one of the tools that’s really helped me is staying in the present, which I’m not great at. But I remember I had to get an MRI where you literally can’t move. There’s only the present. You’re there with your thoughts, your arms are in, you can’t move at all. It was really long. It was like 45 minutes long. I remember just thinking the colors. What do I see? I see blue, I see red. I thought I had to think of things because then my eyes were closed and I was thinking of different shapes of like, “Oh, in the room before, I saw there was a cylinder shape and there was a cube.” That’s really helped me to stay in the present, especially with those really long waiting periods

Kimberley: For sure. The dreaded MRI machine, I can totally resonate with what you’re saying. It’s all mindfulness. It’s either mindfulness or you go down a spiral, right?

Jessie: Exactly.

Kimberley: You guys are talking about skills. Because I think there’s the anxiety of having this chronic illness or a disability or a medical condition. What about how you manage the emotions of it and what kind of emotions show up for you in living with these difficult things that you experience? Sandy, do you want to share a little about the emotional side of having a chronic illness or a disability?

Sandy: Yeah. I think the first thing that shows up for me emotion-wise, or did at least when I started to process the idea that I have a disability and I have these chronic illnesses and it’s going to be a lifelong thing, was I was in my undergraduate university and I really hadn’t thought much about what it’s like to-- I had thought about having a disability, but I hadn’t thought about the fact that I needed to process that this is a lifelong thing and it’s going to be challenging my whole life. I think when I started to process that, the grief really showed up because I had to grieve this life that I thought I should have of being able-bodied or medically healthy or mentally well, I guess. I had to really grieve that. But I think that grief shows up sometimes unexpectedly for me too because sometimes I feel like I moved past this thing that happened. But then because it’s an ongoing process to navigate chronic illness and disability, the grief shows up again at unexpected times. 

I think the other thing too I’ve navigated was a lot of shame around the idea that I should be “normal.” But of course, I can’t really control how I was born and the difficulties I’ve had. I think something that really helps me there is bringing in the self-compassion. I do think that compassion really is an antidote to shame because when you bring something out to the forefront and say, “This is something that I’ve experienced, it was challenging,” but I can still move forward, I think that really helps or at least it helps me. 

Kimberley: Yeah, I agree. Jessie, what are your experiences?

Jessie: I would say the first two words I thought of were frustration and loneliness. I think there’s a lot of frustration in two different ways. The first way being like, why is this happening? First, I had OCD, and then now I have this other thing that I have to deal with. As Sandy was saying before, there’s a lot of self-advocacy that has to happen when you’re chronically ill, or at least that I’ve experienced, where you have to stand up for yourself, you have to finagle your way into doctor’s appointments to get the treatment that you deserve. But there’s also the frustration that both OCD and my chronic illness, I guess, are invisible. I look totally fine. I look like someone else walking down the street who might be completely healthy. I often feel frustrated that as a 23-year-old, a person who is a young adult, I’m having to constantly go to these doctor’s appointments and advocate for myself and practice ERP, which is not always the most fun thing to do. It’s frustrating to constantly have to explain it because you don’t see it. And then that goes together with the loneliness of being a young adult and being pretty much the only person in the doctor’s offices and waiting rooms who isn’t an older adult or who isn’t elderly. And then they get confused and then I get confused. My OCD will then attack that like, “Everyone else is older. What are you doing here?” I would definitely say loneliness, and I just forgot the other thing. Loneliness and frustration. 

Kimberley: I resonate with what you’re saying. I agree with everything both of you are saying. For me too, I had to really get used to feeling judged. I had to get good at feeling judged, even though I didn’t even know if they were judging me. But that feeling that I was being judged, maybe it’s more magical thinking and so forth. But that someone will say like I have to explain to someone why I can’t do something. As I’m explaining it, I have a whole story of what they’re thinking about me, and that was a really difficult part to get through at the beginning of like, “You’re going to have to let them have their opinions about you. Who knows what they’re thinking?” That was a really hard piece for me as well. I love that you both brought in the frustration and the loneliness because I think that’s there. I love that we also bring in the grief, and I agree, Sandy. Jessie, do you agree in terms of that grief wave just comes at the most random times? 

Jessie: Absolutely.

Kimberley: It can be so, so painful. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s go back to talking about how this interlocking web of how anxiety causes the chronic illness to get worse sometimes, the chronic illness causes anxiety to get worse sometimes. Sandy, have you found any way that you’ve been able to have a better awareness of what’s happening? How do you work to pull them apart or do you not worry about pulling them apart? 

Sandy: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think I have a few strategies. I do try to write everything down. I make notes upon notes upon notes of, this day I had these symptoms. I do automate a lot of tasks in the fact that I have a medication reminder on my phone, so it reminds me to take my pills instead of just having to remember it off the top of my head. Something that really helps is trying to remember that things that work for other people might actually also work for me too, because it’s like, yeah sure, maybe me as a person, I’m unique and my medical situation is interesting or different or whatever. But a lot of good advice for other people, especially for mental health works for me too, like getting outside. Even if I feel really not great and I’m really tired or in a lot of pain, just like getting outside. Anytime I have my shoes on and I’m just outside even for five minutes, I count that as a win. Drinking a lot of water, for me, helps us too. Of course, I’m wary of saying all this because a lot of people might just say, “Oh well, Jessie and Sandy, they just need to do more yoga and that’ll just cure them.” Of course, it’s not that simple. It’s not a cure at all. But at the same time, I try to remember that at least for me, I have common medical issues that a lot of different people have so I can pull on literature and different things that I’ve worked for other people with my conditions. Maybe other people haven’t had this exact constellation that I do, but I can still pull on the support and resources from other people too.

Kimberley: How about you, Jessie?

Jessie: If I could add there, I’m not as good as differentiating. I can tell, like I know when things are starting to get compulsive, which I actually appreciate that I had had so much ERP training before I got sick because I really know what’s a compulsion, what’s an obsession and I can tease that out. But a lot of my treatment has also been really understanding, like maybe I don’t need to know if this is my chronic illness or if this is my OCD because then that gets compulsive. I’ve had to sit in that uncertainty of maybe it is one, maybe it is the other, but I’m not going to figure it out.

Kimberley: You read my mind because as you were both talking, I was thinking the most difficult part for many people that I see in my practice is trying to figure out and balance between advocating going to the doctor when you need, but also not doing it from a place of being compulsive because health anxiety and OCD can have you into the doctor surgery every second day or every second hour. How are you guys navigating that of advocating, but at the same time, keeping an eye on that compulsivity that can show up? Sandy, do you want to go first? 

Sandy: Yeah. I honestly haven’t figured out the perfect formula between trying to figure out like, is this anxiety around the potential that I might be getting sick again and compulsively trying to get things checked out, and the idea that I might have something actually medically going wrong that needs to be addressed. I find it still challenging to tease those things apart. But I think something that does help is trying to remind myself like, not what is normal, because I don’t think normal really exists but what is in the service of my recovery. I can’t have recovery from my disability or my chronic illnesses, but I can’t have OCD recovery. I’m always still trying to think to myself, how can I move forward in a way that both aligns with my values and allows me to move forwards towards my recovery?

Kimberley: How about you, Jessie?

Jessie: It’s so hard to follow that, Sandy. I love that. I would say, I think it’s tough because a symptom that I have is like, I was never really a big compulsive Googler. But I know in OCD world, it’s like, “Don’t go to Google for medical issues. Google is not your friend.” But for my chronic illness recovery or chronic illness journey, Google’s been important. I’ve had to do a lot of research on what is it that I possibly have. And that really helps me advocate my case to the doctors because I’ve had some great doctors, but they’re not spending hours reading medical journals and trying to figure it out to the extent that I care about it because it’s my situation and I want to figure stuff out. Googling has actually helped me a lot in that regard and joining different Facebook groups and actually hearing from other people what their experiences have been. 

I know Sandy and I started a special interest group, which hopefully we’ll talk about a little later, but someone in the group had mentioned that something that really helps them is the community of their doctors and their therapists working together of, oh, I’m going to wait two days if I have this symptom and if it’s still a symptom that’s really bothering me and my therapist thinks it should be checked out, then I’m going to go to the doctor. Having those people who are experts guiding you and helping you with making sure, no, this isn’t compulsive, this is a real medical thing that needs to be checked out—I thought that was really smart and seemed to work for her, so I’d imagine it would work for other people as well.

Sandy: I guess if I can add--

Kimberley: I have a question about that. Yes, please.

Sandy: Oh, sorry. If I can add one more thing, it would just be that, while there’s so many experts on OCD and ERP and your chronic medical issues or your disability or whatever it is for you, you are the only frontline expert in your own experience of your mind and your body and you are the only one who knows what it’s like to exactly be in that, I guess, space. While I 100% think therapy is important, evidence-based treatments are important, I do also think like remembering when you think like, “Oh, this is really hard,” or “I can’t cope,” actually, you can cope, you’re capable and you know yourself best. I think that’s challenging because I know sometimes in ERP, for people who maybe don’t have other complicated medical challenges, they would say, “Don’t Google.” But I think, as just Jessie has explained, sometimes because we have other chronic stuff going on, we do need to do things to help ourself holistically too.

Kimberley: I love that. I’ll speak from my own experience and if you guys want to weigh in, please do. I had to always do a little intention check before I went down into Google like, okay, am I doing this because anxiety wants me to do it, or am I doing it because this will actually move me towards being more informed, or will this actually allow me to ask better questions to the doctor and so forth? It is a tricky line because Google is the algorithm and the websites are set to sometimes freak you out. There’s always that piece at the bottom that says, “It could be this, this, or this,” or “It could be cancer.” That always used to freak me out because that was something that the doctors were concerned about as well. This might be beyond just Googling, but in terms of many areas, how did you make the decision on whether it was compulsive or not? Jessie?

Jessie: It’s tough too because then you’re down the rabbit hole. You’ve already been Googling it and it’s like, “Or this,” and I’m like, “Well, I have to figure out what that is.” Sometimes it does get a little compulsive and then the self-compassion, and also realizing it like, okay, now it’s getting compulsive and I’m going to stop and go about my day. But another thing that I’ve struggled with is the relationship with doctors. Sandy and I have talked about this before with wanting to be the “perfect” patient. I worry that I’m messaging them too much or I’ll often now avoid messaging them because then I don’t want to be too annoying of a patient. I can’t be the perfect patient if I’m messaging them all the time. It really is, like you said, the intention. Am I messaging them because I want to move forward with this and I want an answer, or am I messaging them because there’s a reason to message them and I need their medical advice? There’s just so much gray in it. Again, not necessarily having that specific answer, it can be very tricky.

Kimberley: It truly can. How about you, Sandy?

Sandy: I think the biggest thing for me, and I’m still trying to figure out the right balance for this, is weighing how urgent is this medical symptom. Am I-- I don’t know, I don’t want to say something that would put someone into a tailspin, but do I have a medical symptom going on right now that needs urgent attention? If so, maybe I should go to my doctors or the ER. Or is the urgency more mental health related, feeling like an OCD need to get that reassurance or need to know, and just separating the urgency of the medical issue that’s going on right this second versus the urgency in my head. 

Kimberley: Amazing. You guys have created a special interest group and I’d like to know a little more about that. I know you have more wisdom to tell and I want to get into that here a little bit more. But before you do, share with us how important that part of creating this special interest group is, how has that benefited, what’s your goals with that? Tell us a little bit about it, whoever wants to go first.

Jessie: Sandy and I actually met in an online OCD support group, and I found those online groups to be really helpful for my OCD recovery and mostly with feeling less shame and stigma. Met some amazing people clearly. And then I remember Sandy had mentioned in one of the different groups that she had a chronic illness. When I was going through my chronic illness journey, I felt really alone. As I was saying before, the loneliness is one of the biggest emotions that I had to deal with. I looked online, and now online support groups are my thing. Let’s just Google chronic illness support groups. I thought it would be as easy as OCD support groups, and it wasn’t. It was very challenging and it was really hard to find one. 

I found one that was state-based. For my state, it was me and three women. I think one was in their eighties, the other two were in their nineties, and they were very sweet. But we were at very different lifestyle changes. We were going through very different experiences. I remember I reached out to Sandy and I said, “Do you have any chronic illness support groups that you’ve been attending?” Even in that group with the elderly women, there were so many things that they were saying that helped them with their chronic illness and my OCD would totally have latched onto all of it. I was like, “I can’t do that with my OCD.” There’s so much overlap that it just seemed like there needed to be this dual chronic illness and OCD. Sandy had said she had the same issue, like it was really hard to find these groups. 

I think we’re really lucky that the International OCD Foundation was such a good partner for us and they were so kind in helping us get this special interest group started. I’m interested to hear what Sandy says, but it’s been so helpful for me to see that there are other people who deal with a lot of these challenges. Of course, I wouldn’t want anyone else to have these experiences, but being able to talk about it, being able to share has just been so helpful. I was really quite amazed to see the outreach we had and how many people struggled with this and that there really weren’t any resources. It’s been pretty amazing for me and I’m really lucky that we’ve been able to have this experience.

Kimberley: Amazing. Sandy?

Sandy: Similar to Jessie, I had found some resources for OCD support groups both locally to me in Ontario and online, and that was great. The sense of community really helped my OCD recovery. But then when it came to the chronic illness disability part, there was just a gap. As Jessie said, we started this special interest group and I think it’s called—Jessie, correct me if I’m wrong—Chronic Illness/Disability Plus OCD is our official title. Basically, it’s for anyone who has a chronic illness or disability and OCD, or is a clinician who’s interested in learning more. Our goals really are to create a community, but also create resources for the wider OCD community to help people who are struggling with chronic illness or disability and OCD or clinicians. 

The sense of community has been great. I think for my own recovery OCD-wise, it’s been really motivating to be able to help found and facilitate this group because it’s showed me that I really don’t have to be in this perfect state of recovery to have something valuable to contribute. I just have to show up in an imperfect way and do my best and that is enough in itself, and that the fact that I don’t have to get an A+ in recovery because that’s not even a thing you can get. I just have to keep trying every single day and try to live my values. I think this SIG’s been a great opportunity to embody those values as well of community and advocacy. It’s just been great.

Kimberley: Oh, I love it so much and it is such an important piece. I actually find the more I felt like I was in community, that in and of itself managed my anxiety. It was very interesting how just being like, “Oh, I’m not alone.” For some reason, my anxiety hated this idea that I was alone in this struggle. I totally just love that you’re getting this group and I’ll make sure that all of the links are in the show notes so people can actually access you guys and get connected. 

I have one extra question before I want to round this out. How do you guys manage the—I’m going to use the word “ridiculous”— “ridiculous” advice you get from people who haven’t been what you’ve been going through? Because I’ve found it actually in some cases to be quite even hilarious, the suggestions I get offered. Again, I know patients and clients have had a really difficult time because they might have been suggested an option, and then their anxiety attaches to like, “Well, you should do that,” and so forth. Sandy, do you want to go first in sharing your experience with “ridiculous” advice?

Sandy: I guess to give a brief example, a practitioner who I’ve worked with for quite a while, who I think is great and a wonderful person and wonderful practitioner, had in the last couple months suggested that maybe I should just try essential oils to manage my bowel condition. What actually was needed was hospitalization and surgery. It’s that kind of advice from both well-meaning practitioners or just people in my life that can be not what you need to hear and maybe not as supportive as they’re hoping it would be. I guess for me, I manage it mostly by saying, “Thank you, that’s a great idea,” even when it’s not really a great idea. I just say to myself or maybe to a support person later, “That was not the best advice.” Just debriefing it with someone I think is really helpful, someone that I trust. 

Jessie: Kimberley, I love this. I think, Sandy, our next SIG, we should ask this and hear all the ridiculous advice that people have been given because it’s true. There’s so many things that are so ridiculous. I’m going to shout out my mom here who I love more than anything in the world, but even my mom who lives with me some of the time and sees what I go through, one time she called me (she’s going to kill me) and she said, “I heard there’s a half-moon at 10:30 AM your time and if you stand outside, it will heal some of your rear rash.” I was like, “What? That’s absurd.” She was like, “I know, I think it’s absurd too, but you need to do this for me.” With that, you see she just wants me to get better. As Sandy was saying, people really want to help and this is a way they think they can help. I’ve also been told like, “Oh, if you mash up garlic and then you put--” it was like this weird recipe, then you want to had it. Just ridiculous things. But people are really well-meaning and they want to help. Unfortunately, those often don’t really help. But now I can laugh about it and now text my mom and be like, “You’ll never guess what so-and-so said,” or text Sandy and we could have a good laugh about it. But that’s what’s nice about community. You’re like, “Wait, should I do this essential oil thing?” And then you realize from others, “No, that’s probably not the best route to go.”

Kimberley: For me, with anxiety, self-doubt is a big piece of the puzzle. Self-doubt is one of the loudest voices. When someone would suggest that, I would have a voice that would say, “It’s not going to hurt you to try.” And then I would feel this immense degree of self-doubt like, “Should I? Should I not? What do you think?” “You could try. You should try.” I’m like, “But I literally don’t have time to go and stand in the sun and do the thing,” or in your example. I would get in my head back and forth on decision-making like, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” “It wouldn’t hurt.” “It sounds ridiculous, but maybe I should.” And that was such a compulsive piece of it that would get me stuck for quite a while. It’s often when it would be from a medical professional because it really would make you question yourself, so I fully resonate with that. Sometimes I wish I could do a hilarious Instagram post on all of the amazing advice I’ve been given throughout the time of having POTS. Some of it’s been ridiculous. 

Let me ask you finally, what advice would you give somebody who has an anxiety disorder and is at first in the beginning stages of not having these symptoms and not knowing what they are? Jessie, will you go first?

Jessie: Yeah. I would say a big thing, as we’ve been talking about, is finding that community whether that be reaching out to us with the SIG or whether that be finding a Facebook group or online group or whatever it may be, because it has helped me so much to reach out and be in a community with others who really understand. There’s nothing like people who truly get it. And then I would say to validate like, this is really tough. Having OCD is tough. Having a chronic illness or disability is tough, and having both is very, very tough. Validate those symptoms too because I think there’s a lot of people that will say, “Oh, you have an anxiety disorder, you’re probably making that up,” and that comes up a lot. Just validating that and really trying to find other people who are going through it because I think that’s just irreplaceable.

Kimberley: Sandy?

Sandy: I think the biggest thing to echo Jessie would be try to find community. I think for me, for my OCD recovery journey, Instagram has particularly been great because there’s so many wonderful OCD advocates or clinicians on Instagram. It’s really a hub for the OCD community. I would say check out Instagram and once you follow a couple of people from the OCD community, the algorithm will show you more so it’s nice that way. I think the other thing is that being disabled or having a chronic illness can really chip away your confidence. Just reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can in a really hard situation, and it may be a long-term situation, but just because your life is different than other people doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be a great life.

Kimberley: I’m actually going to shift because I wanted to round it out then, but I actually have another question. Recently, we had Dr. Ashley Smith on talking about how to be happy during adversity. I’m curious, I’ll go with you, Sandy, first because you just said, how do you create a wonderful, joyful life while managing not only an anxiety disorder, but also chronic illness or disability? What have you found to be helpful in that concoction per se?

Sandy: I listened to that episode with Dr. Smith and that was a wonderful episode. If people haven’t listened to it, I recommend it. I listened to it twice because I just wanted to go back and pick out the really interesting parts. But I think for me, the combination of finding things that are both meaningful from a values and an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) perspective, meaningfulness, finding those things that matter to me, but also finding the things that challenge me. If I’m having a really bad pain day or fatigue day, the things that challenge me might just be getting out of bed, or maybe I’m really depressed and that’s why I can’t get out of bed. Either or, your experience is valid, and just validating your own experience and bringing in that self-compassion and saying, what is something that can challenge me today and bring me a little closer to recovery? Even if it’s going to be a long journey, what’s this one small thing I can do, and break it down for yourself.

Kimberley: Amazing. I love that. What about you, Jessie? 

Jessie: I would say I’ve been able to find new hobbies. I’m still the same person. I’m still doing other things that I found meaningful and this doesn’t. Well, it is a big part of my life. It’s not my entire life. I’m still working and hanging out with friends and doing things that regularly bring me happiness. But just a small example, I said before, I used to play sports and love being really active and that gets a little harder now. But something I found that I really love is paint by numbers because they’re so easy. They’re fun, they’re easy, you don’t have to be super artistic, which is great for me. I’m able to just sit down and do the paint by numbers. Even recently I had friends over and it was like a rainy day and we all did a craft. Even though it was a really high-pain day for me, I was in a flare of medical symptoms, I was still able to engage with things that I find meaningful and live my life.

Kimberley: I love that. Thank you. That’s so important, isn’t it? To round your life out around the disability or the chronic illness or your anxiety. I love that. We talked about those early stages of diagnosis, any other thing that you feel we absolutely have to mention before we finish up? Sandy?

Sandy: I guess to quote someone you’ve had on the podcast before, Rev. Katie, I find her content amazing and she’s just a lovely person. But she always says, you are a special person, but your OCD is not special. Your OCD isn’t fundamentally different or it’s never going to get better. You got to remember that you are the special person and your OCD doesn’t want you to recognize that you are the thing that’s special, not it. Just be able to separate yourself from your anxiety disorder or your chronic illness or your disability, saying, “I’m still me and I’m still awesome, and these things are just one part of me.”

Kimberley: So true. I’m such a massive Katie fan. That’s excellent advice. Jessie?

Jessie: To go the other route, I think you said right with people who are first going through this. I would say we recently did a survey of our SIG, so people who have chronic illness and OCD. We haven’t done all the data yet, but the thing that really stood out was we asked the question like, have you ever felt invalidated by a medical professional or mental health professional, and every single person said yes and then explained. Some people had a lot to say too. I think I’ve really learned in this process that you have to be a self-advocate. It’s very challenging to be an advocate when you’re going through a mental disorder, a physical disability, and/or both. It’s required. Really standing up for yourself because it’s going to be a tough journey and there’s so much light in the journey too. There’s so many positive things and so much “happiness” from the episode before, but there’s also a lot of difficulties that can come from being in the medical world as well as the mental health world and really trying to navigate both of them and putting them together. Really try to advocate for yourself or find someone who could help you advocate for yourself and your case because I think that’ll be really helpful.

Kimberley: So true. You guys are so amazing. Jessie, why don’t you go first, tell us where people can get resources or get in touch with you or the SIG, and then Sandy if you would follow.

Jessie: We have an Instagram account where we’ll post-- we’re experiencing with Canva. We’re really working on Canva and getting some graphics out there about the different things that come up when you have both of these conditions. And then that’s where we post our updates for the special interest group. Sandy, correct me if I’m wrong. @chronically.courageous is our Instagram handle. And then in there, the link is in our bio to sign up for the special interest group. You get put on our email list and then you’ll get all the emails we send with the Zoom links and everything. And then you could also go to the International OCD Foundation’s website and look at the special interest groups there and you’d find ours there.

Sandy: The other thing is we meet twice a month. We meet quite frequently and we’d love to have you. So, please check out our Instagram or get at our email list and we would love you to join.

Kimberley: You guys, you make me so happy. Thank you for coming on the show. I’m so grateful we’re having this conversation. I feel like it’s way overdue, but thank you for doing the work that you’re doing. Thank you so much.

Jessie: Thank you. Sandy: Thanks for having us.

Jul 21, 2023

346 Thriving in Relationships with OCD (with Ethan Smith and Rev. Katie O’Dunne)

Kimberley: My tummy already hurts from laughing too much. I’m so excited to have you guys on. Today, we are talking about thriving in relationships with OCD and we have Rev. Katie O’Dunne and Ethan Smith. I’d love for you both to do a quick intro. Katie, will you go first?

Katie: Yeah, absolutely. My name is Reverend Katie O’Dunne. I always like to tell folks that I always have Reverend in my title because I want individuals to know that ordained ministers and chaplains can in fact have OCD. But I am super informal and really just go by Katie. I am an individual who works at the intersection between faith and OCD, helping folks navigate what’s religious scrupulosity versus what is true authentic faith. I’m also an OCD advocate on my own journey, helping individuals try to figure out what it looks like for them to move towards their values when things are really, really tough. Outside of being a chaplain and faith in OCD specialist and advocate, I’m also an ultramarathon runner, tackling 50 ultramarathons in 50 states for OCD. As we get into stuff with Ethan today, Ethan is my biggest cheerleader throughout all of those races. I’m sure we’ll talk all about that too, running towards our values together.

Ethan: My name is Ethan Smith. Katie is my fiancé. I’m a national advocate for the International OCD Foundation, a filmmaker by trade, and a staunch advocate of all things OCD-related disorders. Definitely, my most important role is loving Katie and being her biggest cheerleader.

Katie: Since you said that, one of my things too, I am the fiancé of Ethan Smith. Sorry.

Ethan: Please note that this is an afterthought. It’s totally fine.

Kimberley: No, she knew you were coming in with it. She knew.

Ethan: Yeah, I was coming in hot. Yup, all good.


Kimberley: Thank you both for being on. I think that you are going to offer an opportunity for people to, number one, thriving in Relationships with OCD, but you may also bring some insight on how we can help educate our partners even if they don’t have OCD and how they may be able to manage and navigate having a partner with OCD. I’m so excited to have you guys here. Thank you for being on. Can you first share, is it easier or harder to be in a relationship with someone with OCD? For you having OCD?

Ethan: I’ll let Katie start and then I’ll end.

Katie: Yes. No, I think it’s both. I think there are pros and cons where I think for so long being in relationships with individuals who didn’t have OCD, I desperately wanted someone to understand the things that I was going through, the things that I was experiencing, the intensity of my intrusive thoughts. I was in so many relationships where individuals felt like, well, you can just stop thinking about this, or you can just stop engaging in compulsions. That’s not how it works. It has been so helpful to have a partner through my journey who understands what I’m going through that can really say, “I actually get it and I’m here with you in the midst of that.” But I always like to be honest that that can also be really, really challenging where there are sometimes points, at least for me, having OCD with a partner with OCD, where if we are having a tough point at the same time, that can be really tough. It can also be really tough on a different level when I see Ethan struggling, not reassuring him even more so because I know how painful it is and I want so badly to take that away. There are times that that can feed into my own journey with OCD when I see him struggling, that my OCD latches onto his content, vice versa. There’s this amazing supportive aspect, but then there’s also this piece I think that we have to really be mindful of OCD feeding off of each other. 

Ethan: I was just making notes as you were-- no, go ahead. 

Kimberley: No, go ahead, Ethan. I’m curious to know your thoughts.

Ethan: Katie made all great points, and I agree. I mean, on the surface, it makes a lot of sense and it seems like it’s fantastic that we both can understand each other and support each other in really meaningful and value-driven ways. I always like to say that we met because of OCD, but it by no means defines our relationship or is at the heart of our relationship. It’s not why we work. It’s not what holds us together. I think Katie brings up two good points. First of all, when I would speak and advocate with parents and significant others and things like that, and they would say, “I’m having a really hard time not reassuring and not enabling,” I’d be like, “Just don’t, you’re making them sicker. Just say what you got to say and be tough about it.” Then I got in a serious relationship with Katie and she was suffering and hurting, and I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t say hard things to her.” I became that person. I suddenly understood how hard it is to not engage OCD and to say things that aren’t going to make her comfortable. I struggle with that. I struggle with standing my ground after a certain amount of time and wanting to desperately give in and just make her feel better. I just want her to feel better. 

For me personally, I lived alone for 10 years prior to meeting Katie, and those 10 years followed my successful treatment and recovery from OCD. For me, my mother was my safe person. I learned during treatment and therapy that you don’t talk about your OCD around your parents anymore. You just don’t. That’s not a conversation you have. I found myself, other than within therapy, not ever talking about my OCD. I mean, advocacy, yes, but my own thoughts, I never talked about it. 

Starting to start a relationship with Katie, I suddenly had someone that understood, which was wonderful, but it also opened up an opportunity for OCD to seek reassurance. I’m an indirect reassurance seeker. I don’t ask for it as a question; I simply state what’s on my mind, and just putting it out there is reassuring enough for me. For instance, like, “Oh, this food tastes funny.” Whether she says it does or it doesn’t, I really don’t care. I just want her to know that I think that it does, and it could be bad. I think this is bad. I’m not saying, “Do you think it’s bad?” I’m like, “I think it’s bad. I think there’s something wrong with this.” I’ve had to really work and catch myself vocalizing my OCD symptoms because having a partner that understands has given my OCD permission to vocalize and want to talk about it. That honestly has been the biggest challenge for me in this relationship.


Kimberley: So interesting how OCD can work its way in, isn’t it? And it is true. I mean, I think about in my own marriage, at the end of the day, you do want to share with someone like, “This was hard for me today.” You know what I mean? That makes it very complicated in that if you’re unable to do that. That’s really interesting. Let’s jump straight to that reassurance seeking piece. How do you guys navigate, or do you guys create rules for the relationship? How are you thriving in Relationships with OCD related to reassurance seeking or any compulsion for that matter?

Katie: A couple different things. I think part of it for us, and we by no means do this perfectly, I’d have to have conversations about it even-- yes, Ethan, you might do it perfectly, but even in the last week, we’ve had conversations about this where what Ethan responds well to is very different from what I respond well to. I think that is really important to note, especially when there’s two partners with OCD, that it’s not one size fits all. It’s not because I understand OCD that I know exactly how to respond to him. It’s still a conversation. For me, I respond really well if I’m seeking reassurance or I’m struggling to a lot of compassion where he doesn’t respond to the content, but tells me, “I know that this is really hard. This sounds a lot like OCD right now, but let’s sit with it together. I know that it sucks, but we can be in the midst of this. We aren’t going to talk about it anymore, but I love you. We’re going to watch a show. We’re going to do whatever it is we’re going to do, we’re going to be in it together.” I respond really well to that. 

Ethan, on the other hand, does not respond quite as well to that and actually responds better to me being like, “Hey, stop talking about that. We are not going to talk about this right now. I have heard this from you so many times today. No, no, no, no.” He responds in a harsher tone. That’s really hard for me because that is not naturally what comes out of me, nor what is helpful for me. Sometimes the compassion that I offer to Ethan becomes inherently reassuring and is just not something that’s helpful for him, so we have to have these conversations. Vice versa, sometimes when I’m really struggling, he’ll forget the compassion piece works for me and is like, “Hey, Katie, no. Stop doing that.” I’m like, “Seriously? This is really hard.” Being able to have those conversations. 

Kimberley: How do those conversations look, Ethan? Can you share whatever you’re comfortable sharing?

Ethan: Yeah. Katie hit over the head, first of all. We are definitely products of our therapists when we’re struggling. For those of you that may or may not know, Katia Moritz, she is hardcore, like here’s what it is, and I’m a product of that. There’s like, “Nope, we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to have it. OCD is black and white, don’t compulse, period. End of story.” Katie is like, “Let’s take a moment.” My natural instinct on how I respond to her is very different to what she needs and vice versa. We’ve learned that. I would say that the rule in our household is we’re a no-content household. I’m not saying we succeed at that all the time, but the general rule is we’re not a content household. We don’t want a no content. You can say that you’re struggling. You can say that you’re having a hard day. You can say that OCD is really loud today. Those are all okay things. But I don’t want to hear, and Katie doesn’t want to hear the details because that inevitably is reassuring and compulsy and all of those things. That’s our general rule. I’ll talk for me, and I don’t know, Katie, I’ll ask you ahead of time if it’s okay to share an example of our conversation, but my stuff, like I said, it’s covert reassurance seeking and she does it too. We’re both very covert. We’re like well-therapized and we know how to--

Katie: It’s really funny because I can tell when he’s sneaky OCD reassurance-seeking. Nobody else in my life has ever been able to tell when I’m secretly seeking reassurance. It’s actually frustrating because he can call me on it because he’s really good at it too. There’s some level of accountability with that.

Ethan: For sure. For me, I’ll get stuck on something and I’ll just start verbalizing it. That’s really the biggest thing I think, unless Katie has some other insight, and she may. But for me, verbalization of my thoughts, not specifically asking for a specific answer and simply saying, “Oh, my chest feels weird. I’m sure I’m dying. My heart is about to give out.” How are you going to respond to that? What are you going to say right now? And that’s my system. She’ll be like, “Okay, yup. You may.” To be honest, I’ll call Katie out, she really struggles with giving me-- she’s like, “Ethan, I’m sure you’re fine.” I’m like, “Why did you say that?” She does. She really struggles with--

Katie: It’s interesting because I work with folks with OCD all the time and I don’t reassure them, but it’s so interesting because it feels so different with my partner knowing how much he’s struggling and I just want to be like, “You know what this is, it’s fine.” But yeah, working on that

Kimberley: If he’s struggling, then you said sometimes you will struggle, it makes sense that in that moment you’re like, “You’re fine, you’re fine.” You don’t want them to have a struggle because you know it might even impact you, I’m guessing.

Katie: Well, yeah. It’s funny, all of Ethan’s stuff is around bad things happening to him. All of my stuff is around bad things happening to other people. If Ethan’s worried something bad’s going to happen to him, I’m like, “No. I can’t handle that. I don’t want to worry that you’re going to die. Let’s not put that on the table.”

Ethan: We discovered it was true love when my OCD was worried about her. She’s like, “Baby, it’s about me. It’s not about you.” It’s true love. No question.

Katie: He had never had obsessions about someone else before. I was so excited. He was like, “Am I going to kill you in your sleep? Is that going to happen?” I was like, “Oh my gosh, you do love me. So sweet.”

Ethan: But to answer your question, conversely, when Katie is struggling, she gets loopy and she directly asks for reassurance. I can definitely get frustrated at it at a certain point. I always feel like one time is appropriate. “Do you have a question or concern? Do you think blah, blah, blah?” “No, I don’t think so. I think that’s totally appropriate.” And then the second time, “Yeah, but do you...” I was like, okay, now we’re starting to move into OCD land and I stay compassionate up to a certain point and then I’ll get frustrated because it will be so obvious to me. As she said, myself is so obvious to her. I just want to be like, “Katie, can you see this makes no sense at all?” But when she’s really struggling, not just the superficial high-level or low-level OCD hierarchy stuff, when she’s really, really deeply struggling, it’s challenging. I really struggle with not giving her the reassurance that her OCD craves because I can’t stand to see her suffer. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t know as much about OCD as I do because I actively know that I’m helping OCD, but giving her that instant relief in the moment, it just pains me. 

We’ve definitely changed our relationship style as we’ve gotten to know each other and been able to say things like, “I know this doesn’t feel good. I don’t want to say these things to you, but I really, really don’t want to help OCD and hurt you. I really, really want to help you get better in this moment and hurt OCD and just put it to bed, so I’m not going to answer that.” We’ve had to have those communicative conversations to be able to address it when it does cross the line. 

I will say we’re pretty well., we do pretty good, but that’s not to say that there aren’t times where we can both get in a rabbit hole. To Katie’s point and to your point, it gets sticky sometimes. I literally never checked an oven in my entire life till I moved in with Katie. And then now she’ll mention it or I’ll be closing up the lights and I’ll be like, I’ve never looked and thought about it. But Katie talks about it and that’s one of her things, and like, “It latched on. I’ll take it,” and like, “No, no, no. Ethan. Everything’s going to burn down.” Yes, moving on.

Katie: Likewise, I’ve never checked my pills multiple times to make sure that I didn’t take too many or worried that there was glass inside of my glass from hitting it. I mean, there’s things that were Ethan’s that I now think about. It’s really interesting because I think we actively work to not give into those things, but that’s definitely a process to you where they were things that I never would’ve gotten stuck on before. We have these conversations too of being able to call each other out. Well, actually, comedy is a really big thing in our house too, so we also like to call it out in a way of like, “Hey, you’re stealing my themes. Stop it. That’s mine. Come on, let me have that stomach bug thing.”

Kimberley: Isn’t that so interesting, though? We constantly get asked what causes OCD, and we never can really answer the question. We say it’s a combo of nature and nurture and you guys are touching on the nurture piece in that, yes, we are genetically predisposed to it, but that other people’s anxiety around things can create anxiety for us. I actually feel the same way. There are so many things my husband is anxious about, or my kids. Now I’m hyper-vigilant about it. That’s so interesting that you guys are seeing that in real life. 


Ethan: Yeah, for sure. And then Katie brought up a great point, which is, I think the most challenging times, and they don’t happen often, is when we’re both struggling simultaneously. How do you support each other in that moment? First of all, what’s very funny is we like to joke we both have OCD and we’re both only children. It’s one of those households. Literally, we’ll cook a frozen pizza and we’ll sit there and size up the half to figure out which one’s bigger and then be like, “Are you sure you want that one? I want that.” It’s a thing. 

When we’re both struggling, it’s like, “No, you need to listen to me.” “No, no, no, no. You need to listen. It’s my thing. It’s my thing.” It’s been few and far between where we’ve both really been significantly struggling simultaneously, but we’ve managed it. We learn how to be able to struggle and listen and support. It’s no different than advocating when you’re not feeling your best. You can still be compassionate and sympathetic and offer advice that is rooted in modalities of treatment and still be struggling at the same time. We may not get the empathy that we want because maybe we’re just not in a place or we’re pouring from an empty cup or whatever, but fortunately, those times aren’t that frequent. But when they do happen, we’ve navigated and managed really well, I think.  

Katie: And even just-- oh, sorry. 

Kimberley: No, please, Katie. Go ahead. 

Katie: I was going to say, even with that, having conversations around it, I think, has been really helpful. We’ve had moments of being really honest. Particularly earlier this year, I had some tough stuff that happened and I was in a place of grief and then also OCD was coming into that. Ethan, it lined up at some points with some difficult points that you had. There were some times that you were honest about saying, “I am just not in a place to respond to this right now in this moment in a healthy way.” I think that’s actually one of the best things that we can do too. Of course, OCD sometimes gets frustrated at that, “Hey, why can’t you talk about it right now?” But I think having those honest conversations as a couple too so that we can both offer care to ourselves and to one another in the midst of those times that we’re struggling is really, really important.


Kimberley: You answered actually exactly what I was going to say. There are times when we can’t be there for our partner. When that is the case, do you guys then go to your own therapist or to a loved one? Not to get reassurance or do compulsions, but just have a sense of containment and safety. Or are you more working towards just working through that on your own? How do you guys navigate thriving in Relationships with OCD when your partner is tapped out?  

Katie: We both have our own therapist and that’s really, really helpful. We both actually have conversations together with the other person’s therapist. Ethan will meet with his therapist and we’ve had times when he’s struggling where I’ll come in for a half session to talk about, hey, what’s the best way to respond to him and vice versa. I’ll meet with my therapist separately, but we might bring him in for 20 or 30 minutes for him to learn, hey, what’s the best way to respond to Katie right now? We both have those separate spaces to go and talk about both what we’re navigating and what we need, but also how to respond to our partner and then collaborate with one another’s therapist. I mean, that has been so helpful for me because there have been points where I don’t know how to respond to what Ethan’s navigating. To hear directly from his provider as opposed to feeling like I have to take on that role is so crucial. And then, Ethan, you meeting with my therapist earlier this year, oh my goodness, was so helpful because she had given me all this insight that I just wasn’t in a place to be able to share because I was struggling. For you to hear that directly from her and what she thought that I needed I think was a huge step forward for us.

Ethan: Yeah. It’s nuanced. It’s not a one size fits all. Yes, it’s all ERP or ACT or DBT or whatever. But it’s all specific to what we’re all going through. I will say it’s funny because as we’re talking, I’m like, “I didn’t ask Katie if these things I could say or not.”

Katie: I’m afraid to say that. You can literally say anything. I pretty much talk all the time about all this.

Ethan: For sure. I think one of the things that really, really helped our relationship in terms of navigating this is, when I first met Katie and we started dating, she wasn’t seeing a therapist actively. It was challenging because as someone that is well-versed in OCD, we would constantly talk about things and she would divulge a lot of information to me. I started to feel like I didn’t want to take on an advocate or therapist’s role with her. I wanted to be her boyfriend. I was really struggling because I really wanted to support her and I really wanted to be. That was never a question, it was not supporting her. But for the same reason that we tell parents like, “Don’t police your kids, be their parents,” and hear how that can backfire, it was really challenging to navigate being a significant other and also supporting her, but not becoming that person that her OCD goes to. 

I think her finally landing on a therapist that was right for her and good for her where she can get that objectivity that she needs and I can too learn what she needs from me as a partner, not that there was anything wrong with our relationship, but really allowed our relationship to grow and really allowed us to focus on what we should be focusing on, which is each other and who we are to each other and what’s important to our lives and our family. Our therapists can handle our OCD. That doesn’t mean that OCD doesn’t get involved. It does. But for the most part, that was really where our relationship really got to level up. We both were able to turn to our therapists, but also include each other in treatment so we can have open and honest conversations about what’s going on. 


The other thing I’ll say is, we have no secrets. We literally have no secrets. As a first timer to a long-term relationship, because my OCD Obsessions wouldn’t let me have a long-term relationship any longer than four or five months, as a first-timer in the three-year club on May 9th, I really feel like that is such a crucial piece to our relationship. We watch reality shows and it’s like, “You went through my phone,” and it’s like, “Well, I don’t care. She knows my passwords. I have nothing to hide.” 

I always say that individuals with OCD would make the worst thieves. Could you imagine? I put myself in a position of robbing a house. There’s no way I wouldn’t worry that one piece of DNA was not left in that house. I find hair on my pillow all the time. There’s no possible way I could ever burglarize anyone and not think I would be caught. We’re not transparent because we know that that will alleviate our OCD. We’re transparent because I think honesty is really important in a relationship and so is communication. We always advocate that having therapy and having access to treatment shouldn’t be an exception at all. That should be the standard. It should be accessible, should be affordable, should be effective. Absolutely, no question there. But with that being said, Katie and I were both fortunate enough to have really good treatment and I think our relationship reflects that. Not to say that we’re perfect all the time, but I think we’re too highly therapized individuals that began our relationship with honesty and communication and have continued that through and through. I think that has enabled us to not only grow as a couple but also helped us manage our own OCD and the OCD of each other and how we interrelate.


Kimberley: Right. I think that is so true. As you’re talking, I’m thinking of people who are at the very beginning stages. They didn’t have any idea about OCD and they’ve been giving reassurance, they’ve been asking for reassurance, and there’s tantrums because the person isn’t giving the right reassurance. What would you encourage couples to do if they’re newly to treatment, newly to their diagnosis, and their goal is to be thriving in Relationships with OCD?

Katie: There’s so many different things, and I know this is different for every person, but even if they’re new to that process, getting their partner involved in therapy, meeting with their therapist, having them learn about OCD, again, Ethan talked about, not from a space of the partner becoming the therapist, but having an understanding of what the person is going through so that they’re not reassuring, so that they’re not accommodating. But I say this to folks all the time, again, so that you’re not also being so hard and so rigid so that you can still be the person’s partner in the midst of that. I think being able to understand what their triggers are, what their symptoms are, what’s coming up, so that you can say, “Hey, I’m your partner. I love you. I can’t answer that, but I’m here.” 

I think figuring out what that looks like with the provider, but also with the partner is just so beyond important to have an effective relationship, one, so that you’re not just closing it off so that you can’t talk about it, but two, so that, as Ethan said, you don’t become the therapist because that’s not healthy either. I think we have in our relationship almost tried both extremes at different points of, “Hey, we’re not going to talk about it at all,” or “Oh, we’re going to talk about everything and we’re going to totally support each other through every aspect.” I think with each person, it’s finding that balance of how we can be a couple with open and honest communication, but we’re actually still each other’s partners and not each other’s therapists.

Kimberley: Yeah. Do you have any thoughts, Ethan?

Ethan: I was just thinking. I mean, she nailed it. I don’t know that I have anything to add to that, whether you both have OCD or one of you has OCD. I was actually thinking earlier on in the relationship, and about divulging your OCD and when it’s appropriate. We get so many questions from so many people about, when I’m dating, when am I supposed to let them know? When am I supposed to talk about it? I have very aggressive feelings about OCD and dating, and as amazing as somebody may look and be like, “Oh my God, I would love to be in a relationship with a partner that has OCD because then I don’t have to explain anything.” I did not date to specifically find somebody with OCD. When I met Katie, we were friends long before we were together. 

Katie: We always say that, like he was my best friend that I happened to meet through the OCD community, that we fell in love during COVID because he was my best friend, and because we had so much that connected us beyond OCD. I know you said this earlier, Ethan, but we get the question all the time, “Oh, if I just had a partner with OCD...” and that is not. If all we had in common was our OCD, this would not work out because it actually can make it even more challenging. But it’s what’s beyond that. I always think we shouldn’t be in a relationship or not in a relationship based on our diagnosis. It’s about who the person is and how we can support them for who they are.

Ethan: Yeah, for sure. You actually raised a good point. I was going to talk about, and we can maybe come back to it, when to talk about your OCD to your partner, when it’s appropriate, when you feel it’s appropriate, this difference between wanting to confess about your own OCD and feeling like they need to know right now that I have OCD so I’m not dishonest with them and I don’t hit them with the big secret down the road. We can talk about that. But you raised-- wow, it was a really interesting point that I totally forgot. Katie, what did you just say? Go ahead.

Katie: No, I was just talking about not being in a relationship because of the OCD and really having-- 

Ethan: I remember.

Katie: Okay, go ahead. You got it.  


Ethan: Yeah. I’d be curious to Kim’s thoughts. But I think with OCD individuals, whether it’s a significant other or family and friends, and I’ve been talking about this a lot lately, we’ve talked about, okay, how do I get someone to understand what OCD is? How do I help them understand what I’m going through? We did a town hall on family dynamics last week for the IOCDF and we’ve had multiple conversations about this. I’d be curious to Kim’s thoughts. I think there’s a difference between having a partner or a family member, whatever, being able to support you in an effective, healthy, communicative way, and fully understanding what you’re going through. I think those are two different things. I don’t think that an individual needs to know and feel exactly what you’re experiencing going through to be able to understand and support you. I think as individuals with OCD, we have this inherent need for our partners or people that we care about to know exactly how we feel and exactly what we’re going through. “You need to know my pain to understand me.” I think that is a big misnomer. 

I think honestly, that’s a potential impossible trap for a relationship when you’re dating someone or with someone that doesn’t have OCD. The likelihood of that individual, while you can give them examples, the likelihood of them actually truly understanding your own OCD experience is unlikely. Just like if Katie had had cancer and went through treatment, I’ll never know what that’s like. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be sympathetic and empathetic and support her and learn about the disease state and be able to be a really, really wonderful partner to her. I think for individuals that are in relationships with individuals that don’t have OCD, if you resonate with this, being able to release this idea of like, they need to know exactly what I’ve gone through. Really the real thing they need to know is, how can I be a supportive partner? How can I support you in a meaningful, healthy, value-driven way so we can have the best possible relationship? I don’t know if I ever said that, but Kim, I’d be open to your thoughts. 

Kimberley: No, I agree. Because the facts are, they won’t get it. No matter how much you want them to get it, they will get it, but they won’t have experienced something similar to you. But I think like anything, there’s a degree of common humanity in that they can relate without completely having to go through it. They can relate in that I too know what it’s like to be uncertain or I too know what it’s like to have high levels of anxiety. Or even if they don’t, I too can understand your need for certainty in this moment or whatever it may be. 

I think the other thing to know too is often when someone needs to be understood and they insist on it, that’s usually a shame response. There’s a degree of shame that by being understood, that may actually resolve some of that shame. If that’s the case, they can take that shame to therapy and work through that and get some skills to manage that, because shame does come with mental illness. Often I find some of the biggest fights between couples were triggered by a shame emotion. They felt shame or they felt embarrassed or humiliated, or they felt less than in some way, or the boxing gloves are on. How do you handle, in this case, conflict around-- I don’t know whether you have any conflict, but has conflict came up around this and how do you handle it?


Katie: One piece with the last component, and then I’ll shift into this. I think as you were talking, the shame piece resonates with me so much. I’m definitely someone that even through the OCD experience, guilt and shame are much heavier for me than anxiety or fear or anything else, that feeling really challenging. I think that the biggest piece that helped to combat that actually had to do with my relationship with Ethan, not specifically because he knew every ounce of my themes or what I was going through, but simply because of the empathy that he showed me. I talk often about how because of shame in my OCD journey, one of the reasons I struggled to get better for a long time was I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t feel like I was good enough because of my intrusive thoughts. I didn’t like myself very much. I hated myself actually. Ethan, by loving me, gave me (I’m going to get emotional) permission to love myself for the first time. It wasn’t because he specifically knew the ins and outs of my themes, but simply because he offered empathy and loved me as a human being, and showed me that I could do that for myself. That was a huge step forward for me. I think every partner can do that. 

I used to talk with my students when I was in education about empathy, and I would always say you don’t have to experience the exact same thing that your friend experienced to say, “Oh, I can put myself in your shoes.” To your point, Kim, I know what sadness feels like. I know what this feels like. I know what that feels like. I think just showing empathy to your partner, but also showing them that they truly do deserve love in the midst of whatever they’re experiencing with their OCD can be such a healing component. I just wanted to say that, and now I’ve forgotten the other part of your question. 

Ethan: Well, wait, before she asks it, can I piggyback? 

Kimberley: Yeah. 

Ethan: I’m going to just offer to Katie. Katie’s shared that story before and it’s really special. Always, I was just being me and seeing something beautiful in her and wanting it to shine. But something that I don’t think I’ve ever talked about ever is what she did for me in that same context. I always saw myself as a really shiny car, and if you saw me surface, I was really desirable. I knew my first impressions were really solid. But if you got in me and started driving, I got a little less shiny as the deeper you went. It was really hard to get close to Katie and let her in. Katie and I haven’t talked about this in a while, but when we started getting intimate, I would never take my shirt off with the light on. I would hold my shirt over my stomach because I was embarrassed about my body. She’s an athlete. I’m not an athlete. When we would walk and I would get out of breath, the level of embarrassment and shame, I would feel like, how could this person love me? Now I’m going to get emotional, but it took me a long time to be able to-- this morning, I was downstairs making breakfast without a shirt. I didn’t think about it. She taught me that the parts of myself that I thought were the ugliest could actually be loved. I had never experienced that beyond my parents. But even beyond that, I don’t know that they had seen pieces of my OCD, pieces of me as a human being, as an individual. Katie taught me about unconditional pure love and that even what I deemed the most disgusting, grossest parts of myself, even seeing those. 

My biggest fear with Katie was her seeing me. I don’t panic often, like have major panic freakouts, but there are a few things that I do. My biggest fear was her seeing me. I kept saying, “Just wait. Wait till you see this, Ethan.” It comes out every now and again. “You won’t love that person.” Early on, I had a thing that I panicked and she was nothing but love and didn’t change anything. For weeks, I was like, “How can you still love me?” 

It doesn’t necessarily relate to your question, but I wanted to share that because I think that for so many that really see themselves as broken or cracked, I think it’s real easy to look really good on the surface. But I think that being willing to be vulnerable and honest and truthful-- and Katie’s the first woman I’ve ever done that with, where I was literally willing to go there despite what my OCD told me, despite what my head told me and my brain told me. I just think that’s also created a really solid foundation for our relationship. I just wanted to share that.

Kimberley: That full vulnerability is like the exposure of all exposures. To actually really let your partner see you in your perceived ugliness, not that there’s ever any ugliness, but that perceived, that’s the exposure of all exposures in my mind. You have to really use your skills and be willing to ride that wave, and that can be really painful. I love that you guys shared that. Thank you for sharing that, because I think that that’s true for even any relationship. That is truly thriving in Relationships with OCD!

Katie: Absolutely.


Ethan: Yeah, for sure. OCD can definitely get sticky even with that. It’ll start to question, well, does she still love me because of that? She says she does, but does she really-- even my brain now goes, “She can’t possibly love my body. That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t make sense.” So funny thing about Katie, we were early on in our dating, we were struggling. She’s laying on me. She’s like, “You’re the most comfortable boyfriend I’ve ever had.” I was like, “Yeah.” And then I started thinking like all she’d ever dated before me were triathletes, like washboard dudes. I was like, “Huh, thank you?” She’s like, “No, no, it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing.” I’m like, “Okay. Yeah.” It’s very funny, but I also loved it.

Katie: I do the same thing with you. I mean, all the time, everything’s still. Three years in, we’re getting married in September, stuff will come up and it’s like, “Wait, you saw this, this part of myself that I think is really ugly. You still love me?” Like, what? It gives me permission every time to love myself.

Ethan: That’s such an interesting relationship dichotomy between the two of us. I don’t mean to venture away from your question, Kim, but it’s so interesting. I don’t see any of the things that she sees in herself. She could freak out for a week and I would still see her as this perfect individual who I couldn’t love more. She feels the same about me. It’s so weird because we see each other in the same light, but we don’t see ourselves in that light. It is amazing and I feel a little selfish here to have a partner to be able to remind me of how I should see myself. I hope that I give Katie that same reminder and reassurance, but it really is amazing to be able to see that within our partner because I’ll do something and I’ll be like, “Wow.” She’s like, “Yeah, that didn’t change anything for me.” I’m like, “Really?” Because that’s how I feel like, “Oh, okay.” Because that’s how I feel when you do. “Okay, we’re on the same page.”

Kimberley: Let’s just delete the last question because I want to follow this. I love this so much. It actually makes me a bit teary too, so we might as well just cry together. What would you say to do for those who don’t understand OCD and maybe perceive it as “ugliness”? I’m sure there are those listening who are thinking, “I wish my partner could see beyond my anxiety and how I cope.” What advice would you give to them? 

Katie: Ethan, you go first.

Ethan: It’s a hard question. It’s a hard question to answer. It’s thundering and you get it twice since we’re in the same house. I think one thing I was going to say before, and maybe this will get tight, and this doesn’t answer your question directly, Kim, but I’m hoping we can get to it, is when somebody asks me like, “I have OCD and I want to date and get in a relationship, well, how do I do that?” I have very strong feelings about that particular question because I don’t want to dive into acceptance and commitment therapy and this whole concept of being able to do both things simultaneously, which is very value driven and we’re going to feel the feels and have the ick and we don’t have to wait for the perfect moment. But I’ve always believed that if your OCD at that time is so severe that it’s going to heavily impact your relationship, and the reason that you have to tell the person that you’re interested in all about your OCD is because you have expectations of that person to reassure and enable, and you’re going to need that from that person, I would always say, you might not want to get in a relationship right now. That may not be the best timing for you to get in a relationship. 

I always would want somebody to ask themselves like, if you’re in therapy and you’re in treatment or wherever you are in your process and you know that you shouldn’t be seeking things from somebody and reassurance, enabling and so forth and so on, then that’s a different conversation. But I think at first, being honest and true to ourselves about why we’re divulging, why we want them to know about our OCD, and what we’re going to get out of this relationship—doing that from the beginning, I think, then trickles over into your question, Kim, about like, what if they don’t understand? What if they don’t get it? Because going into a relationship with this idea of, “Well, they need to know so they can keep my OCD comfortable,” is very different than my OCD doesn’t necessarily play a prominent role in my life, or maybe it does, but I’m in treatment and I need them to know and then they may not understand. I think that that’s like a different path and trajectory. Katie? Yeah, go ahead. 

Katie: I think that’s such an important component. It’s interesting. I heard a very different side of the question. I was thinking about maybe someone who is already in, whether it’s a romantic relationship or--

Ethan: No, that was the question. I didn’t know what to say yet, so I was being like, “Well...” Yeah, no, that was the question. You heard that right.


Katie: It was really important too. This might sound really simplistic, but I think it’s so important. Just based on, oh my goodness, my experiences with feeling for such a long time, I was defined by my OCD or defined by my intrusive thoughts, or, oh, how could anybody love me in the midst of all of this? I want everybody to hear that regardless of how your OCD is making you feel right now, or how you’re feeling, you are not defined by your OCD. You are not defined by your intrusive thoughts. You are not defined by your disorder. You are an amazing human being that is worthy of love in all of its forms, and you’re worthy of love from yourself. You’re also worthy of love from a partner. I think sometimes there’s this feeling of, well, I don’t deserve love because of my OCD, or I don’t deserve someone to be nice to me or to treat me well. I’ve also seen folks fall into that trap. I’ve been in relationships that weren’t particularly healthy because I felt like I didn’t deserve someone to be kind to me because of my OCD, or like, oh, well, I’m just too much of a pain because of my obsessions or my compulsions, so of course, I don’t deserve anything good in this sense. 

I want you to hear that wherever you are in your journey, you do deserve love and respect in all of its forms, and that the people that are around you, that truly love you, yes, there are moments that are hard just like they are for me and Ethan, where sometimes there might be frustrations. But those people that truly love you authentically, I really believe will be with you in the midst of all of those highs and lows, and continue to offer you love and respect and help you to offer yourself that same love and respect that you so deeply deserve.

Kimberley: I love that. I think that that speaks to relationships in general in that they’re bumpy and they’re hard. I think sometimes OCD and anxiety can make us think they’re supposed to be perfect too, and we forget that it’s hard work. Relationships are work and it takes a lot of diligence and value-based actions. I think that that is a huge piece of what you’re bringing to the table. I want to be respectful of your time. Closing out, is there anything that you feel like you want the listeners to hear in regards to relationships and yourself in a relationship? Do you want to go first, Ethan?

Ethan: Sure. Yeah, I agree. Let Katie close out. She’s amazing. I just want to echo, honestly, the last thing that Katie said was perfect, and I wholeheartedly agree. What would I want to bring into a relationship? I want to bring in my OCD or myself, what is going to be my contribution to a relationship, a romantic relationship. I definitely would want to bring me into it. I want to bring Ethan and not Ethan’s OCD. That doesn’t mean that Ethan’s OCD won’t tag along for the ride, but I definitely don’t want Katie to be initially dating my OCD. I wanted her to date Ethan. 

I think what Katie said about that directly relates in the sense that love yourself, value yourself, realize your worth, know your worth. It’s so hard with OCD, the shame and the stigma and just feeling like your brain is broken and you don’t deserve these things, and you don’t deserve love. What’s wrong? It’s so hard. I mean, I say it humbly. When I say go into a relationship with these things, I know it’s not that simple. But I think that if you can find that place where you know what you have to offer as a human being and you know who you are and what you have to give, and it doesn’t have to be specific. You don’t have to figure yourself out of your life out, simply just who your heart is and what you have to give like, I don’t know who I am entirely; I just know that I have a lot of love to give and I want to give it to as many people as possible—own that and don’t be afraid to leave crappy relationships that are good, that because it’s feels safe or comfortable, it’s the devil you know in terms of how it relates to your OCD. You’re not broken. You’re not bad. You shouldn’t feel shame. OCD is a disorder. It’s a disease, and you deserve, as Katie said, a meaningful, beautiful love relationship with whomever you want that with. You deserve that for yourself. Stay true to who you are. Stay true to your values. If that’s where you are now, or if it isn’t where you are now, be willing to take a risk to be able to find that big, as Katie says, beautiful life that you deserve. It’s out there and it’s there. 

To Kim’s point, I’m sorry, this is a very long last statement, so I apologize. But to Kim’s point, relationships are hard and life is hard. I really believed when I got better from OCD that in six months, I was going to meet my soulmate, make a million dollars, and everything would be perfect. Life did not happen like that at all. It’s 15 years later. But at a certain point, I was like, “I’m never meeting my person. OCD is not even in the way right now, and I’m never meeting my person. I’m never going to fall in love. I’m never going to get married.” Now we’re four months away from my wedding to being married to the most amazing human being. I truly believe that that exists for everyone out there in this community. Living a life that is doing things that I never would imagine in a million years. Please know that it’s there and it’s out there. If you put in the work, whether it happens the next day, the next year, or the next decade, it’s possible and it’s beautiful. Embrace it and run towards it. 

Kimberley: Beautiful. Katie?

Katie: I feel like there isn’t much I can add to that. I’m going to get teary listening to that. I think I’ll just close similar to what I was sharing before for anyone listening, whether it is someone with OCD or a partner or a family member, whomever that is, that you deserve love and compassion from yourself and from every single person around you. You are not defined by your OCD. It is okay, especially if you’re a partner, if you don’t respond perfectly around OCD all the time, because you know what, we are in the midst of a perfectly imperfect journey, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. But if you continue to lead with love, with empathy, and with compassion, and with trusting who you are, not who the OCD says you are, I truly believe that you’ll be able to continue to move towards your personal values, but also towards your relationship values, and that you so deeply deserve that.

Kimberley: Oh, I feel like I got a big hug right now. Thank you, guys, for being here. I’m so grateful for you both taking the time to talk with me about this. Most of the time when someone comes to see me and we talk about like, why would you ever face your fear? Why would you ever do these scary hard things? They always say, “Because I’ve got this person I love,” or “I want this relationship to work,” or “I want to be there for my child.” I do think that is what Thriving in Relationships with OCD is all about. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 

Katie: Thank you for having us.Ethan: Thank you for having us.

Jul 14, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. 

Alright, alright, alright. You may already notice the sound of my voice has shifted, the tone has shifted, and that is on purpose. Actually, I’ve never thought of this, but it’s true. I often show up when I’m ready to do a podcast. I sit in front of my microphone, I’m in front of my desk, I take a deep breath and I just talk to you from a place of centeredness and calm, gathering as much wisdom as I can. That is a part of what I’m bringing today. But my other hope is I want to shift the tone a little bit because that’s what you have to do when you’re addressing this particular topic, which is motivation during depression. We’re talking about how to get things done during depression. That’s what we’re here for today.

Thank you for being here. My name is Kimberley Quinlan. I’m a marriage and family therapist. I’m an OCD and anxiety specialist, and a lot of what I do is manage depression. That is because nearly 85% of cases of an anxiety disorder also have depression. That’s because anxiety is hard and it creates these feelings of depression inside us. 

Today, I wanted to talk about how to cultivate motivation during depression because so often when we’re talking about either just managing depression or managing another mental health condition, you’re usually required to do a lot of homework, use a lot of skills, and also go about daily functioning. That is really hard when you’re experiencing depression. 

345 Motivation during depression


One thing I wanted to talk about first is just to get you guys familiar with what we call the depression motivation cycle. This is something that I talk to my clients about. I wouldn’t say it’s a science-based theory, but definitely, I think a lot of us will resonate with this. What I mean by the depression motivation cycle is when you have depression, you experience symptoms of depression, which I’ll share here in just a few minutes. But you experience these symptoms that cause you to then have lower motivation. But when you have lower motivation, you tend to not get to your daily functioning activities and you tend to maybe avoid some of the hard things in your life, which then causes more depression. And then once you have more depression, that often ends up leading you back into the cycle of having even less motivation because you’re feeling so hopeless, and the cycle continues and continues and widens and widens and spreads throughout your life.

My hope today is that we can work towards breaking that cycle. I’m not going to overpromise that we will break it today because I’m always going to be as honest and realistic as I can with you guys. I don’t want to oversell that this is going to be a simple snap of the fingers, I have the solution for you. No, there’s a slow, gradual breaking of this cycle. 

Number one, do I believe you can do this work? Absolutely. I want to heavy-load you with confidence at the front end, but also very much validating that it’s a process, it’s a practice. I want you to be as gentle with yourself as you can as we talk about this today. 

Let’s take a breath, but let’s also stay in our mindset. 


In understanding motivation during depression, we must consider, like I just said, common depression symptoms. We must understand them. One of the common depressive symptoms is hopelessness. Hopelessness is feeling like there is no hope for you. You might be having a lot of depressive thoughts such as, “What’s the point? There’s no hope. It’s not getting better.” These are symptoms of hopelessness.

In addition to hopelessness, or maybe instead of hopelessness, if you have depression, you may experience the depression symptom of helplessness. Helplessness is where you feel like no one can help you. That your problem is different or separate to other people’s or too big than everybody else’s, and that there’s no one out there that can help you. That’s important to notice because one of the lies depression tells us is you are the only one that has this particular type of depression and you are the only one that can’t be helped, and that that means something about you. There’s some innate flaw about you that makes your life hopeless. It’s all lies. I just want you to know that.

Another common depression symptom is worthlessness—feeling like you’re not enough, you’re not worthy. You don’t deserve to be here, to be loved, to be in connection with. Maybe you feel like you don’t deserve kind, wonderful, loving things or even pleasure. Worthlessness isn’t a very common piece of depression. As you can imagine, just hearing these words that I’m saying, it’s a horrible feeling. It’s a very deep, dark, gray place to be, and it’s not your fault. 

Another common depression symptom is sleepless nights. You’re unable to sleep or oversleeping, sleeping day and night, hitting the alarm over and over again, turning it off, going back to bed, not getting to your daily functioning.

Another huge one is exhaustion. People with depression will often go from many, many medical tests because they’re so exhausted and they think it must be a medical condition. You definitely should seek medical care and have an assessment always. But often it’s not a medical condition; it’s a common symptom of depression. 

In depression, no motivation to do anything is common. In depression, no motivation to eat, to exercise, to engage in daily activities is also very, very common. Often daily functioning will be depleted completely if it’s a severe case of depression. 

My hope today, first of all, to acknowledge this for you and validate this for you and hopefully bring a ton of hope, is to also talk about concepts that can help boost your motivation during depression because it’s not your fault. But there are ways we can slowly climb out of this deep, dark hole that we often can get into when we have depression.


Okay, let’s do it. We’re going to talk about how you can increase your motivation during depression. The first thing I want to encourage you to do is to embody this idea of becoming a kind coach. Now, for those of you who have read The Self-Compassion Workbook for OCDthat’s a book I wrote in 2021—it talks a lot about the kind coach. Maybe you’re already familiar with it. Or recently in Episode 343, we did a whole episode about talking back to anxiety, and that was all about using the kind coach voice to help get you through these difficult times. We also talked that you could also use that skill with depression. 

What I mean by the kind coach is that when things are hard, when you are suffering, you tend to yourself in a way that is kind and you coach yourself forward. Often what we do is we criticize ourselves forward. Meaning we say, “Get up, you lazy thing, and just get your teeth brushed,” or “You’re such a loser if you don’t brush your teeth,” and we use self-criticism to motivate. I’m here to tell you, the science shows us that self-criticism, while it does get people to do things for the short term, it actually for the long term makes people more depressed. It reduces motivation, it increases procrastination, it lowers a person’s self-esteem and their sense of wellbeing. We want to take the pedal off of using self-criticism and move our pedal and accelerator towards talking to ourselves and coaching ourselves in a way that is kind. 

What I’m not saying is that’s saying, “You’re the best, you’re wonderful.” That’s fine. If you want to try that, you can. But the kind coach from my perspective doesn’t usually talk like that. It’s usually encouraging like, “Just do one thing at a time. You can do it. One more minute,” and really focusing in on what are your strengths and how can we highlight those, and also what are your challenges and how can we not use those against you. We all have challenges. Let’s say you’re someone who has a challenge with time management. Maybe in that area, we really lean on, “What strengths do I have that I can rely on when it comes to time management,” instead of just saying, “You suck at time management, there’s no point.” I want you to practice being a kind coach. If you want more information about that, go back to listening to Episode 343. 

Another way to boost motivation when depressed is what we call activity scheduling. Now this is a science-based skill that we use when we are practicing cognitive behavioral therapy, which is an evidence-based treatment for depression. Now for those of you who have taken Overcoming Depression, which is our online course for depression, if you’re interested, you can go to and you can enroll in that course. It’s an on-demand course where you can learn exactly the same skills that I would give my clients, but you’ll be using them on your own. It’s a self-led course and you have unlimited access to all of those strategies and skills. But we talk a lot about this behavioral skill of activity scheduling. 

What I mean by that is, one of the biggest things that takes motivation away is a lack of routine, a lack of structure in our day. What we do when we first start treating someone with depression, or we’re starting to target depression, is we break the day up into sections. It might be two sections in the morning and two sections in the afternoon and one in the evening, and we’ll say, “Okay, you just have to do one thing in each of those sections.” You get to pick. It could be as simple as brushing your teeth, but you’ll put it in your schedule and you’re going to give yourself permission that that’s the only thing you have to do in that section if you’re unable to do that at the present. 

Let’s say that you’re more in a high functioning area and you’re already doing a lot, but you’re also engaging in a lot of depressive rumination. We might actually keep your schedule the same, but schedule in times during your schedule to check in, use some skills, maybe do some journaling, maybe using some mindfulness activities and so forth. But we can actually use the scheduling to reduce problematic behaviors. 


Now, one of my go-to depression meditation tips for everybody is to set realistic goals and expectations for yourself. One of the things I notice about people with depression, and I’m also including myself here because I too have struggled with depression during different seasons of my life, is that we really want to achieve a lot with our lives. We have this idea of what life should look like. We have this idea of how great it can be, which is such a wonderful quality. But the flip side of that wonderful quality is that we have such rigid expectations for ourselves, and when we don’t meet them, we beat ourselves up. 

Often what we can do is we can check in with these expectations and these unrealistic goals. We can check and say, “Okay, is this helping me be motivated?” Almost always, it’s no. Let’s say I’m sitting across from a patient in my office, I might say to them, “What would be a goal that you actually feel like you can achieve this week or today or this month?” When they set the bar a little lower, all of a sudden, a tiny inkling of motivation comes into them. From that place, they start to move forward. Whereas if they set these really high goals, they can’t access motivation. It’s so huge, it just feels hopeless. Again, it feels helpless. They feel worthless, those themes of depression. The motivation doesn’t light up inside them and they don’t do any of it. They don’t take even a baby step. If that’s you, I don’t want you to feel called out; I want you to feel understood. I want you to feel validated. I’m hoping that you can give yourself permission to set a goal that’s realistic, and it’s just for now. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Well, geez, I’m never going to amount to anything if I set this low bar.” But the truth is, we start small and then we increase it over time. 

Another thing to consider when addressing motivation during depression using your activity scheduling is incorporate self-care and healthy habits and whatever that means for you. If you’re someone who has depression and you’re not eating because of it, you’re going to have a low energy. When you have low energy, you don’t have any motivation to do anything. Incorporating scheduled meals, even if they’re not even that healthy to start with. It could be just whatever you can tolerate for the time being. But getting that nutrition into your body may be also what helps with motivation. 

If you’re someone who is so depressed, unable to be out in nature and exercise, which we know based on science helps with depression, maybe you could schedule three minutes where you look out the window if that’s all you can do, or take a hike with a friend, or maybe just sit outside on a chair. Whatever it may be. I really don’t want to put expectations on you guys. I think it’s very personal, so you’ll have to think for yourself, “What is one thing I could do today that would really cultivate self-care?”

A really important thing when you’re depressed is, it’s so important. I really want to emphasize this: Finding a support group, a team of support—a loved one, a family member, a friend, a therapist—support groups, actual structured groups is so important to help with that cycle of depression too. Remember we talked about that cycle of depression and motivation? Sometimes just feeling like you’re not alone in and of itself can create a little motivation, or feeling like you’re not alone can reduce that depression just a little bit, which can then help with that motivation piece. 

One other thing to consider here, and I myself do this with my best friend, is I use her not only as support, but as an accountability buddy. I’ll tell you, actually, something I’ve struggled with recently is, as many of you know, we’ve gotten a puppy and out the window went my exercise plan. My exercise plan is so important for me in managing my medical condition, but it went out the window. I messaged her and I said, “Listen, I don’t want you to feel any responsibility about this, but I am just telling you, this is what I’m committing to. You don’t have to do anything. I’m just telling you so that you’re my accountability buddy. Every day that I do the thing I said I’m going to do, I’m going to send you a thumbs up emoji.” I said, “You don’t even have to do anything. I just need you to be there so I can be my sounding board.”

There have been other seasons in my life where I’ve had things that I needed to get done, and I would say to her, “Can you be my accountability? Do you have the capacity?” She’s like, “Yes, of course. What do you need?” I’ll say, “I need you to text me on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to remind me to do such and such.” That’s fine too. Again, that doesn’t make you a loser. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It doesn’t mean anything. It just means we’re using effective skills to get you back on the bandwagon. 

Now, that being said, there are some key components of getting motivated during depression and these key components, also what I would call a mindset, is leaning towards your values, getting really clear about what is it that you want out of your life. Again, let’s go realistic, but let’s look at the long term. Sometimes when we are depressed, the whole future looks like it’s hopeless. What we want to do is kindly get in touch with your why. Like what can you bring to the table? Why are you here? What do you want? What can you bring to the table for others or for yourself? I want to slow down here a little. I get that you might have no answers to that right now, and that’s okay. It might be as simple as just going, “Okay, what’s one value of mine that I want to lean on during this difficult time?” Values can help us make decisions about what’s best for us. 

Another mindset shift that I want you to move towards is, don’t live your life according to what depression is telling you to do. Make choices based on the direction of your life you’re wanting to go. If you used to love swimming, try swimming again. If you used to love drawing, try doing more drawing, even if you’re depressed. Because what we know is that those hobbies, personal interests, more creative expression using your body, can actually create spaces for you where you’re opening your mind up to other things, not just putting your attention on your depression. A lot of my patients have said that they don’t want to go out and be with people or go on a hike or something, but once they’re there, they deeply feel the benefit of it. Sometimes it’s a matter of putting our attention on how you’ll feel once you get that thing done. Try to find things that bring you some joy or some fulfillment. But again, for this first part, don’t put too much pressure on that either because you mightn’t feel a lot of that to start with. But over time and with repetition, you will.

Another really important piece, and you’re already hopefully doing it right now, is to lean on the people who are sources of inspiration for you. Hopefully, if it’s me, I’m honored. For me, it’s often like poetry, people who’ve been through it. I love Jeff Foster. He is a poet who has had depression and suicidal ideation and he’s just talks about it in such a beautiful, mindful way. I find it to be a very safe landing place when you’re feeling really down.

And then the last thing to consider when addressing motivation for depression is, actually, after you’ve done any activity that you had to muster up a lot of energy to do, you celebrate. If you miss the celebrating part, you miss an opportunity to generate more motivation to keep going. If you do something hard and you go, “Whatever, it’s no big deal. I should have been able to do it yesterday,” you’re missing an opportunity. What I want you to do is throw a mini party in your mind. Or if that’s impossible, just text someone and say, “I did a hard thing today and it was...” and tell them what it was, so that you are celebrating, you are rewarding, you are congratulating yourself for taking steps towards these small victories. It’s so important. 

And then the last thing I’m going to offer to you, which is a catchall for all of this is, don’t do it alone. If you have access, like I said before, to a therapist, a support group, it doesn’t even have to be a paid one; it could be a Facebook group. But being in a community, being in a group of people who get what it’s like for you can be a game changer. If you do have access to professional help, absolutely go and get help because they often will bring your attention to things you weren’t noticing, thought patterns that you didn’t realize that you had, and that can be so incredibly beneficial. 

Now, with all of that said, I want to also emphasize this idea of, again, my voice hopefully is a little different and I’m trying to cheer you on. Let’s go. You could totally do this. Baby steps. What I want to remind you of is, surround yourself with people who lift you up, who have a high vibe if you can. If you haven’t got access to those people in real life, lean on singers and celebrities and even social media platforms that are encouraging, that are inspirational. A lot of my clients have said that Pinterest has been even helpful for them in that they go onto Pinterest and they google inspiring quotes. That could actually be something so simple that gets them up to brush their teeth.

I hope that’s helpful. If you are interested in looking into Overcoming Depression, our online course, talking a lot about different skills you can use, go to or reach out to a therapist in your area. I really hope that this has sparked a little teeny tiny light inside you, and if so, I will be so happy. 

Do not forget, it is a beautiful day to do the freaking hard things. Do not forget it. Write it on a piece of paper and read it off as many times as you need to remind yourself it’s okay that it’s hard, it’s not a bad thing that it’s hard, and that you can do those hard things.

Sending you love. Have success. I’m sending you every ounce of love that I have. Talk to you soon.

Jul 7, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. Today we are talking about a topic that I commonly get asked as a clinician, I commonly get asked as an advocate for anxiety online and so forth, which is how to let go of intrusive thoughts. I think that this is such an interesting question because words matter.

For those of you who know me, you’re going to know that words really do matter when it comes to managing anxiety and we have to get it “right.” When I say “right,” what I’m really saying is our mindset about anxiety and intrusive thoughts and any emotion really that is uncomfortable, we have to approach it with a degree of skill, effectiveness, and wisdom. My hope is to help you move in that direction. I know you’re already in that direction, but hopefully, this episode will be really powerful. I’m going to give you a metaphor that I hope really, really helps you. It really helps me. I’ve talked about it on the podcast before, but I feel like it’s important so I have to talk about it again. 

344 How to Let go of Intrusive Thoughts

When we talk about this idea of how to let go of intrusive thoughts, we have to ask, what do we mean by that? Often when people first start seeing me as a clinician or they start seeing my therapist—we have a private practice in Calabasas, California—we commonly will get, “Okay, just I’m here. I’m ready to do the work. Teach me how to let go of intrusive thoughts.” A lot of the beginning stages of treatment is educating on how letting go, meaning not having them anymore or quickly avoiding them or distracting against that, could actually be what’s making your anxiety worse.

For those of you who’ve taken ERP School, which is our online course for OCD. If you’re interested, you can go to to learn more about that course. That’s where you can learn how to manage your own OCD. It’s an on-demand course. But we talk a lot about understanding that trying to push thoughts away or suppress thoughts, not having them actually reinforces the problem. I also want to mention, it makes total sense that your goal is to be able to have the thoughts and have no discomfort related. Like I just want to have the thoughts and I don’t want them to bother me, and I just want them to create no suffering at all. I get that. That is a very normal desire to have. But what we want to do here is, when we’re talking about how to “let go” of intrusive thoughts, what we are really talking about is how we can be skillful in how we respond to them, because we know, based on science, that we can’t control our intrusive thoughts. Often there are mechanisms in the brain that’s making it very difficult for you to pump the brakes on thoughts, which is why you’re struggling with so many of them, and they’re happening so repetitively. We know this. 

When I first learned about mindfulness, one of the most important metaphors that just shook me to the core—it really changed the way that I learned to deal with thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, urges, and all the things—was to think of my thoughts like water in a stream, and that my mind is this stream of water. As you’re thinking like these beautiful green banks, and there’s the river in the stream, and it’s flowing in one direction. What happens for us when we’re experiencing our mind is we hit a rock in the stream. When we hit that rock, we want to imagine that that rock is a metaphor for an intrusive thought. Here you are, you’re the water. You’re just rolling over all of the banks and commandeering back and forth, and then all of a sudden you hit this very sharp, jagged rock. Of course, your reaction is to get jolted and go, “Oh my goodness, what is this? Why is this here? I’m just trying to get from A to B.” Often what we do is when we hit the rock, we make a huge splash. The splash goes everywhere. We’re like, “Wait, what happened?” When we do this, we actually create a lot of pandemonium for ourselves. 

Now, that’s what we do. But if we were to think about a stream, what does the stream water normally do when it hits a rock? It hits the rock, it notices the shape of the rock, and then it gently goes around them. It doesn’t stop to go, “Is this a good rock or a bad rock? How do I feel about this rock? What does this rock mean about me? Why is there a rock here? There shouldn’t be a rock here.” The water just notices the rock, observes that the rock’s here. It doesn’t make a huge splash. It doesn’t try to go under it. It doesn’t try to stay on the left side of the bank and avoid it. It just notices the rock and it goes around it and it moves on. 

Mindfulness is just that. Mindfulness is observing what shows up from a place of non-judgment, from a place of non-attachment. What I mean by that is that the water’s not attached to what this rock means about them. It doesn’t assign value to the rock. It doesn’t say the river is bad now because we have a jagged rock, or it doesn’t say the river is good because it’s a small rock. It just says “rock” and it goes around it. Mindfulness is also very present. It notices it. It doesn’t stop there and go, “Okay, I’m going to spend a lot of time solving this and I’ll get to the end of the river in my own jolly time.” It is often being moved by gravity, so it just keeps moving. It doesn’t slow down too much for that rock. 

That’s the way I want you to now practice approaching your intrusive thoughts or your emotions, if you’re having other emotions, like strong waves of guilt or shame or sadness and whatever it may be. You’re going to notice the obstacle or the object. Be non-judgmental, not get caught up in a story about what it means about you that there is a rock in your stream of water, and you’re going to go around it. I was going to say quickly, but that’s not actually the right word. You’re going to go around it from a place of not gripping. Not gripping to that rock and so forth. 

Now, here is where the metaphor continues. For those of you who are listening, my guess is, in your stream, in your mind metaphorically, you hit one rock, you go around it, but very, very quickly comes another rock. And then you might practice that and go, “Okay, all right, I did one. I’m going to notice this rock as well. I’m not going to assign value to it. I’m just going to notice it, be aware of it, be non-judgmental of it, and do my best to go around it without making too big of a splash.” You do it the second time. But then what happens? Another rock comes. 

Often what my patients say to me, or like I said to you at the beginning, followers on Instagram or you listeners of the podcast will say, “I get what you’re saying.” One of the most common questions we get in ERP School in the portal where people ask questions is, “I get what you’re saying, but what happens if they just keep coming and coming and they just don’t stop?” That’s where I would say, again, the stream doesn’t get involved in a conversation about what this mean. It just hits the rock and goes around the rock and moves to the next one and the next one and the next one, and it takes one rock at a time. 

What we often do—and I’m the worst at this, I have to admit—is once we’ve hit 4, 5, 6 rocks, we then shift our gaze not on the present moment, but we look down the stream and we go, “Oh my goodness, I see nothing but rocks. This is going to be a bad day. All I could see is my future is going to contain a lot of rocks. I can see them on the horizon, I give up,” which is okay. I want to first really validate you, that is a normal human emotion, a normal human instinct to be like, “I give up, there’s too many rocks.” But our job isn’t to be looking into the future, trying to solve the many rocks that we are going to face. Because as soon as we do that, we lose our skills, we lose our cool, we lose our motivation, we lose our resilience. Just the same as if we looked up the stream where we’ve been and we go, “Oh my gosh, what a terrible day. Look how many rocks I hit today. It was nothing but rocks.” We could get in trouble that way as well. Mindfulness is only paying attention to one rock metaphorically at a time. Staying as present as you can. 


Often people will say to me, “Well, how do I get rid of rocks? Isn’t there a way to get rid of rocks?” I love this. What they’re really asking, just in case you lost the metaphor, is they’re asking, how do I get rid of intrusive thoughts? How do I get rid of them? Here is where I think the metaphor is really clever, because when you think of a stream and you think of the rocks in a stream, like the actual stream—our family spends a lot of time rafting; my husband is an amazing raft, I guess you would say, and my kids love it too—what I always think that’s so interesting is when you’re in rapids or ripples, the rocks actually aren’t jagged anymore. Often when rocks have been hit by water enough times, the jaggedness of them gets washed away and the rocks become actually quite smooth. I think it’s such an amazing metaphor here for the work that we do, which is when we are mindful, when we are non-judgmental, when we are present, when we don’t attach it to what it means about us, the thoughts become less powerful, less painful, less jagged, less sharp, less of an ouch. That’s true in science with actual streams on water and for us in our minds too. 


Now, it’s not uncommon for people to be curious about how long intrusive thoughts can last. Because often when we have them, before we’ve learned these skills and before we’ve learned mindfulness, we have them. And then because we are so averse to them and we’re so afraid of them and they’re so painful, it can feel like they last for a very, very long time, and that’s true. They can be so repetitive that it feels like you just don’t get a break. 

But what I have found to be true, as a clinician who’s watched hundreds of clients practice this, is when you start to apply mindfulness, they can be quite fleeting, these intrusive thoughts. They can pass quite quickly. I want to be really honest with you. What I’m not saying is that they will stop returning. Again, I want to really keep reinforcing because that’s not our goal. Our goal isn’t to say, how can we get rid of them as fast as we can, or how can we get them to not be here. I’m not saying that, but I can vouch for this in that when you do practice treating intrusive thoughts like a rock in a stream, they do tend to be less prolonged. Not always. I want to keep saying not always. There will be days where you’ll have lots and lots, there’ll be days when you won’t. Again, we’re going to practice not attributing value or judgment to that. But I have found this to be very true, that when we are really present and we’re kind and we are non-judgmental, it can actually reduce the suffering so, so much


That’s the metaphor I want you to think about here in regards to how to let go of OCD intrusive thoughts. But I would even go as far as saying, this is the same metaphor I would use when talking with patients who have trauma, and they’re wanting to know how to let go of their PTSD intrusive thoughts because some people with PTSD have intrusive thoughts. I would even go as far as saying that, as I’ve said in the beginning, you can use this skill with any adversity. 


You could use this skill with sadness, you could use this skill with shame, guilt, fear in general. It could be discomfort or some physical sensation of pain that you’re having. We can also let go of these intrusive thoughts related to depression. Noticing a depressive negative thought, seeing it like a rock in the stream, trying to practice non-judgment around that, and moving around it with a sense of kindness and compassion and radical support. That’s what I would love for you to practice. 

I’ve had patients in the past say that they changed the computer screen to a stream just to remind them of that. Or they’ve left a little sticky note on the side of their desk saying thoughts are like a rock in a stream or a rock in a river. There are other ways you could imagine this metaphor as well, but this is the one that I really, really resonate with. If you want to get creative, you can maybe come up with some other forms. But I find it to be so incredible how nature can really teach us about how to be mindful and manage really, really hard things. 

That’s it, guys. That’s what I wanted to share with you. I hope it was helpful. I know this is not easy, by the way. The whole reason I say it’s a beautiful day to do hard things is because this is not easy. This is like hardcore work and I want you to give yourself a lot of claps and hugs and celebrations and high fives for even trying this sometimes in the day.

I really do believe that one rock at a time, even though it mightn’t seem very significant, it accumulates. If you have hit tens or twenties or thirties or hundreds of these rocks, you are on your way. You are doing the work, you are walking the walk, and I really want to celebrate you and honor you for that. 

All right, folks. I hope that was helpful. I am sending you so much love. Keep doing the work. I will see you in a week. Well, you’ll hear me in a week. I hope you’re having a wonderful summer if you’re in the northern hemisphere. I hope you’re having a wonderful winter if you’re in the southern hemisphere, and I will talk to you soon.

Jun 30, 2023


Welcome back, everybody. Today we’re talking about talking back to anxiety, and we’re really talking about the power of positive self-talk. 

Now I know when it comes to this idea of talking back to anxiety, it can get somewhat controversial. In fact, even talking about this idea of positive self-talk can be controversial, and I will be the first to say there is nothing worse than when you’re struggling with something that’s really painful. People say, “Oh, just be positive.” That is not what we’re talking about here today. In fact, I have a personal twist on how I like to consider a positive self-talk. You probably have heard me talk about it before, but I felt like it was time for me to revisit these concepts that I find so incredibly powerful when it comes to talking back to anxiety, or being positive, staying positive, engaging in some form of positive self-talk.


Let’s talk about it. When we consider what we mean, when we say “talking back to anxiety,” what do I really mean by that? First of all, I want to get to one of the controversies. What I’m not saying is that when you have anxiety, you tell it to go away or stop, because we know that when we do that, when we try and suppress anxiety or we try to suppress our intrusive thoughts, it usually means we have more of them. Let’s just get that scientific fact out in the eye. We know that is true. But when we are talking about talking back to anxiety, when I’m talking about it, what I mean is, when you experience anxiety, whether that be in the form of sensations or in thoughts or feelings or images, how do you respond? How do you converse with your anxiety? 

I always make a metaphor with my clients, and I’ve done it here on the podcast before, that I always think of anxiety as this little short Lorax-looking guy that sits on my shoulder. For you, it might look different. But he sits on my shoulder and he’s in a beach chair and he is really lazy and he is wearing sunglasses, and he just wants to mess with me as much as he can, but in the most effective, lazy way. And how does he do that? He does it by knowing exactly what bothers me and throwing that at me first. He’s not going to throw some random thing at me. He’s going to go straight for the thing that he knows I value, because that’s where my anxiety is going to show up the most. And then when he shows up, it’s up to me then to be skilled in how I respond. One of the ways we respond is how we talk back to it.

The first thing I’m going to ask you is, when your anxiety tells you of the thing that you value, talks to you about the thing that scares you, that hits you right in the gut, how do you respond? Do you yell at him and say, “Get off my lawn, you horrible thing.” None of this is bad, I just want you to get to know. How do you respond? You say, “No, no, no, please go away. I don’t want you. I’ll do whatever you say. I’ll do whatever compulsion you tell me to do. I’ll avoid whatever you tell me to avoid if you just quiet down.” 

Some of this, instead of doing that, instead of yelling at anxiety, we yell at ourselves. We say, “What is wrong with you? Why are you always anxious? You’re a loser. You’re bad. What’s wrong with you? Something is seriously broken about you. Why have you got to have anxiety all the time?” You engage in a ton of self-criticism and self-punishment. The ones I just gave you are some negative self-talk examples like, “What’s wrong with you? You’re a loser. You’re such an idiot for having this anxiety. You’re stupid.” I want to remind you that you’re not. This is not about your intelligence; it’s not about who you are, what you are. Your anxiety has nothing to do with any of that. Some of us are just genetically prone to having more anxiety. But we use this negative self-talk. We use this criticism, this self-judgment to try and beat out the anxiety, as if we could beat it out of ourselves. But the facts are, this negative self-talk doesn’t motivate us to change because we were never in control at the start. We can’t control our anxiety and whether it shows up, so that doesn’t work. What we do know that does work is positive self-talk. It is one of the most successful ways of motivating ourselves. 

When anxiety does show up, I want you to explore how you might respond differently to whatever discomfort or whatever form of suffering you’re experiencing. It doesn’t even have to be anxiety. It might be pain, it might be stress, it might be sadness, any emotion. We can actually use these skills with any of these emotions. 


Let’s talk about what I mean by this. What does positive self-talk look like in my definition, not what you may have seen online. Number one, in my definition, positive self-talk—let’s talk about what it actually isn’t—it’s not just positive affirmations. While that’s great, and if that works for you, by all means, keep it. But for me, it never ever lands. I could say the world is safe and good things will happen, and I’m a good person. I could say that all day long and it would not land. It would do nothing for my anxiety. Literally, it just doesn’t. I’ve tried it and it really doesn’t work for me. 

Positive self-talk is also not just telling yourself to be happy or relaxed. That is a huge issue. Because if you’re having anxiety and you’re just telling yourself how you “should feel,” you’re only going to feel judged. You’re only going to feel less in control. You’re only going to feel more hopeless about the situation. 


We’ve talked about what it’s not, and I’m sure there’s other examples that I’ll probably think of here in a minute, but that’s what it’s not. But what it is, is talking to yourself in a voice that I call the kind coach. For those of you who have read The Self-Compassion Workbook for OCD, I talk about this a lot in that workbook, but I also teach this in the course Overcoming Anxiety and Panic, which is learning how to speak to anxiety in a way that motivates us, that leads us more towards our values and our beliefs, that disarms the anxiety. Instead of fighting it, it tends to the fact that you are experiencing something really, really, really uncomfortable. These are key components of overcoming anxiety and panic. In the course, we also go through cognitive changes, behavioral changes, a lot of tools, a lot of mindfulness, a lot of self-compassion. If you’re really wanting to do a deep dive, you can go and check out that course. Go to The course specifically is called Overcoming Anxiety and Panic. But for today, let’s just talk about being a kind coach. 

A kind coach. If you were actually thinking about a coach that you’ve had in the past, or an ideal coach, if you were training for something, a marathon, let’s say, or a competition or something, a kind coach wouldn’t berate you for struggling, because we know, as we’ve already talked about, that beating yourself up and criticizing, it might propel you into some change, but it also creates more anxiety. We are here to try not to make more anxiety just for the sake of making more of it. We know that self-criticism isn’t beneficial. We know that telling someone of their faults and their weaknesses, that only makes us feel worse. It usually sends us into a shame response. When we go into a shame response, the normal human response is to slump over, to get really tired, to feel very unmotivated, to be stuck in this slow-moving body where everything feels heavy. That doesn’t help us. That makes it worse. 

The kind coach knows your challenges, but it also knows your strengths, and it uses your strengths to motivate and propel you towards the thing that you want. Let’s say you’re having anxiety. The kind coach would talk back to anxiety by saying, “I see you’re here. It’s cool. It’s okay that you’re here. I was planning on recording this podcast today at 11 o’clock, and I know you want to tell me about all the terrible things that might happen today, but I agreed that I was going to do this, and it’s really important to me that I do. You could come along, and I’m going to let you be there while I record this podcast.” 

Now, you might hear that none of this is me saying, “I’m going to record this podcast and I’m going to be happy and I’m not going to have any problems with it, and I’m going to finish it. I’m going to feel ecstatic and free and overjoyed.” That’s not what I’m talking about. That’s one example of positive self-talk, but that’s not what I am talking about today, and that’s not what I’m encouraging you to do. I’m encouraging you to learn to be the kind coach for yourself. Meaning you are the one who shows up for you when anxiety shows up. Often when we’re anxious, we step out of that role and we actually go to someone else to try and make us feel better. We go to someone else to reassure us. We go to someone else to soothe us. While there’s nothing wrong with that, we miss an opportunity to be there for ourselves, to be the one who soothes us, to be the one who says, “Hey, I see that you’re going through something hard. I see that this is uncomfortable for you.”


Now, to get a little deeper here, if we were really going to talk about positive self-talk examples, we would also include the kind coach reminding us that we can do hard things. When I think of positive self-talk, I don’t think of, “You’re the best, you’re great. Everyone loves you. You’re perfect.” I think of positive self-talk as being it believes in us, it believes in our ability to really settle into hard, uncomfortable things. 

In the world of social media, and a lot of you guys know I’m on Instagram a lot, I constantly see people saying, “The five quick tips for anxiety,” or “Heal your panic attack fast.” They’re selling you on quick fixes and making it easy. I don’t believe that that’s helpful. I think positive self-talk for anxiety shouldn’t be about saying it’s easy and quick to get over. It should be about saying, “You can do this. You can tolerate this. You can ride this wave of discomfort out. I believe you can because you’ve done it before,” or “I believe you can because humans are incredibly resilient. Even if you haven’t done it before, it’s a skill we will learn together.” That’s how a kind coach talks. 

Let’s say you’ve always avoided something and it creates so much anxiety for you. Basically, your brain is saying, “I’ll never be able to do that one thing.” My kind coach, if I really listened, would say, “I know you haven’t been able to do it in the past, but I have seen you in so many other areas overcome different things that you’ve never done, but then you were able to do it with practice and repetition and kindness and support. I do believe this is another opportunity for you to do that.” That’s what my kind coach would say, and this is something you can start to practice for yourself. 

If this is really hard for you, another way of doing it is saying, “What would a loved one say to me in this example?” And then you just practice saying it to yourself. But this is a grand gesture of self-compassion. It’s a grand gesture of encouragement, motivation, positivity that isn’t toxic, because we know that positivity can sometimes be so toxic and dismiss what we’re going through. This is not that.

Now, when we talk about talking back to anxiety, we may also have to practice this idea of talking back to depression too. What I’m going to encourage you to do here is use exactly the same tools. 


Let’s talk about it. If you have depression, your brain is telling you these lies like, “You’re terrible. Nothing good is going to happen. There’s no point. You’re useless.” Talking back with positivity like you are the best, again, is not going to land. Saying, “You’re wonderful, you’re really great. Great things are going to happen,” some people find that really beneficial. If that’s you, by all means, keep using it. It’s incredibly powerful. But for a lot of us folks, that won’t land. I find it really much more beneficial to talk back to anxiety and depression with this kind coach voice, someone who coaches us through the depression while it’s there, because it’s going to be there. It is here. There’s no point in telling ourselves just to be happy because it is here. I find it to be so incredibly helpful. 


Now, in addition, there is also some controversy around talking back to OCD. A lot of people say, “Doesn’t that become compulsive? Doesn’t that get in the way of the actual foundation of ERP?” Well, what I will say is, once again, it depends on how you’re doing it. If you’re talking back to OCD, which we know is a disorder of uncertainty and doubt, if you’re talking back by going bad things won’t happen, “No, you’re fine. Nothing bad is going to happen,” well then yes, you will be engaging in compulsive self-reassurance or reassurance in general. 

But what I’m talking about here when it comes to talking back to anxiety, specifically related to OCD, is the kind coach will say, “I believe you can handle hard things. Just a few more minutes, let’s ride this wave of discomfort out. Can you tolerate another 10 minutes of uncertainty?” Instead of saying it as a question, it might say, “Let’s do it. Let’s try for another two minutes not engaging in that compulsion.” You’re talking to anxiety, you’re talking to depression, you’re talking to OCD, but you’re not doing it in a way that dismisses how hard it is. You’re not doing it in a way that overlooks the actual reality. Meaning you’re not saying, “Just be happy,” or “Just ignore it,” or “Just think about something else.” You’re not doing it in a way that creates compulsive behaviors that keep you stuck. 

The kind coach encourages you to keep trying. It validates that you’ve had a hard time and that this is hard. It reminds you of your strengths, whatever that is. Maybe it tells you you’re resilient or you’ve done it before. It might gently remind you to use your humor if humor is something that you’re really good at doing. It might remind you of any strength you have. It won’t use your challenges against you. It’s radically, absolutely, unconditionally there for you, even on the low days. It encourages you to just go a little further, try a little bit more, but not in our “get down and give me 20 pushups” way like our mean coach would. It’s saying it in a way that feels doable and motivating and kind. 

That’s what I want you to practice. This, guys, is a skill that you have to practice. Meaning you won’t do it for a couple of hours and then feel on top of the world. Again, this is not about ridding you of your reality of true discomfort. It’s something we practice every day during the easy times and the hard times. This is how we talk back to anxiety. This is the power of positive self-talk when used correctly. 

That’s it. That’s what I want you to practice. What I would do with me, because I’m a little bit of a track it kind of girl, is I would encourage you to track it. To track when you were engaging in the kind coach, what did the kind coach say? I would also track when other people act as the kind coach, maybe a loved one, a family member or a boss, a colleague, a friend—really track what it is that they said to you that helped you propel yourself towards behaviors that are positive in your life and use those to help you really strengthen your own kind coach voice. You may also want to track when you get caught up in self-criticism. Because that too, sometimes when you’re tracking it, it helps us be more aware of it. When we’re more aware, we can catch it sooner and intervene sooner. 

That’s what I would encourage you to do. If you don’t like tracking, that’s fine. I don’t want to push you in a direction that doesn’t work for you. As you always know, I just want you to take what’s helpful here and leave what’s not. But this is a skill I really hope that you do engage in and start to practice. 

If you’re interested in any of the courses I’ve mentioned today, please go to You can also go to my private practice website, which is I am a therapist with nine therapists who work for me, helping people with OCD and anxiety. We are in Calabasas. I would love to connect further with you there. 

Have a wonderful day, everybody, and remind yourself that it is a beautiful day to do hard things.


Jun 23, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. Today we’re talking about sleep anxiety relief. We’re talking about how to get a good night’s rest.

Oh, the beauty of a good night’s sleep. I can’t even tell you and I can’t even explain for me personally how much sleep impacts my mental health and my mental health impacts my sleep. Hence why we’re doing this episode today. 

For those of you who are new, my name is Kimberley Quinlan. I’m a marriage and family therapist in the State of California. I have a private practice. I am the developer of an online program called I’m an author and I am the host of this podcast. 

A few weeks ago, a psychiatrist reached out and said, “I have been listening to you for years, not realizing that I work literally down the street from you.” It made me realize that I never introduced myself on the podcast. I just talk and talk and talk and I actually don’t tell people where I am and what I do and what I offer. So that was a really big lesson. 

Sleep Anxiety Relief How to Get a Good Night's Rest

Let’s talk about sleep anxiety relief. I’m going to tell you a bit of a story first. For years, my daughter has been telling us that she can’t sleep, that she has terrible sleep. She lays awake, staring at the roof. She said she always feels tired during the day and that she “can’t get to sleep” when she tries. We have taken her to the pediatrician and we’ve talked to her about it and checked in, “Are you worrying about anything in particular?” She says, “No, I just worry about getting enough sleep.” Again, she’s saying, “When will I go back to sleep? Will I go back to sleep? Will I wake up at night?” She says she struggles to get comfortable as she settles into bed. 

We took the plunge and took her to a sleep specialist and we were expecting either a sleep disorder diagnosis or a sleep anxiety diagnosis. He did this thorough assessment and asked her all these questions and he was incredible. At the end, he said, “I’m going to tell you, it sounds like you’re getting good sleep. You sound like you sleep very normally for a kid your age and we address some issues that may be happening.” But he said, “A lot of this is about managing anxiety about sleep,” because he tracked like, “You’re getting enough. We will track it during the night. Everything looked good. This is actually about you managing your mind around sleep.” Now I understand that may not be your experience, but this blew me off my feet. I was expecting serious bad news. I have this conversation with my patients so often and it made me feel like, let’s talk about sleep anxiety relief. 


Now, before we talk about sleep anxiety relief, let’s talk about sleep anxiety symptoms because some people who don’t experience this or aren’t sure if they’re experiencing this, I wanted to make sure you feel like you’re in the right place. For those who have sleep anxiety, they experience a lot of anxiety around going to bed or when going to bed. They may report racing thoughts in bed, inability to concentrate when they’re preparing to go to sleep or they’re laying in bed. They might experience a lot of irritability, whether that’s emotional or physical sensations in the body. A lot of jitteriness. There may be also an experience of nervousness or restlessness. They may have feelings of being overwhelmed. Some people report this impending danger or doom as they approach the bed or as they approach bedtime. They may experience a lot of anticipatory anxiety about it. 

There are also some physical sensations or effects of anxiety before bed and that might include some tummy troubles. Kids in particular will report before bed, “My tummy hurts,” and often their tummy hurts is a sign of anxiety. This is true for adults too. They may have an increase in heart rate, which may make them feel like something bad is about to happen. They may have rapid breathing. They may experience sweating. They may experience tense muscles. They may experience trembling, even nausea. These are symptoms that could be your regular day-to-day anxiety, or it could be that you’re specifically managing anxiety related to sleep. 


When talking about sleep anxiety relief, often people talk about this idea of a sleep anxiety cure. Now, I’m not going to give you any specific “cure” today because I don’t know your exact case and you would need to be assessed by a doctor. I encourage you to go and see your doctor if you’re struggling with sleep because it is so important. If you need, go and get a referral for a sleep specialist or do some research. There are some amazing books on sleep as well. 

Now, do I consider that we can overcome sleep anxiety? Yes, 100%. I do believe you can get to a place where you have healthy sleep. Again, I’m always very cautious about talking about the word “cure,” but if we were to really address sleep anxiety relief in terms of what you need to practice, I’m going to first always do a ton of psychoeducation with my patients and with you today about sleep hygiene. 


Think of sleep hygiene as like, how clean your bedtime routine is. Clean, meaning has it got a lot of stuff that dirty up your sleep routine, or does it free up and clean up your sleep hygiene, sleep routine? I’m not talking here in terms of contamination. I don’t want to get that confused. It’s about making your bedtime routine something that is with ease, and even if there’s anxiety, it’s a routine that you follow and you are pretty consistent with it so that you can start to get better sleep. 

Now, how do we do that? First of all, I strongly recommend you first decide when you want to be asleep by or when you want to be in bed preparing to wind down. Pick an actual time. A lot of people miss this step. They just go, “Oh, I’m going to light candles and I’m going to read and hopefully, I’ll fall asleep when I want to.” That’s fine and that’s good. We will talk about that here in a second. But I’m going to strongly encourage you, pick a time you want to be in bed. And then from there, we work backwards. From one hour minimum, from the time you want to be in bed starting to wind down, you must turn off your tech. I know you want to turn off your podcast right now because you don’t want to turn off your tech that early, but I’m going to stress to you that your phone and your device are causing havoc on your bedtime routine unless you are using it for meditation, soothing music, something that actually deeply calms you. But I’m going to say a minimum of one hour, preferably two, you turn off your tech before that time that you picked. Let’s say you picked 10 PM. That’s the time I pick. All phones, technology should be off by 9:00 PM, even 8:30 or 8:00 is better. 

What you do during that hour is that’s when you start to do the wind-down routine or program. Now this doesn’t have to be compulsive, it doesn’t have to be exact to the minute, but what we’re talking about here is now starting to implement things that bring you to a place of comfort. I understand if you’re having a lot of anxiety, you might still feel it in every single part of the sleep routine. That’s okay, but you’re engaging in behaviors that don’t make your anxiety worse. You might be reading. However, if reading is something that makes you hyper-aroused in an anxiety way, maybe it’s not reading. Maybe it’s meditation, maybe it’s listening to an audiobook, not something that’s going to, again, rev you up and get you going. Something boring, something simple, something a little more monotone. It could be listening to sounds. There are so many free YouTube videos with just sounds of the waterfall or rain or birds or waves. If you have a specific sound that you like, I’m sure you can find it. These are all great options. 

You may also want to engage in a wind-down routine. This is my personal routine, you don’t have to follow it, but without too much being pedantic, I have a routine. I go downstairs. I brush my teeth. I floss my teeth. I wash my face. I then go plug in my devices. I go to bed. I get my Kindle out. I actually am fine with the Kindle as long as you’re not reading something too overwhelming because the lighting is different on a Kindle compared to an iPad that shoots light right into your eyes. I might take a glass of water. I make my bed actually before I go to bed. Meaning it’s pretty messy usually, so it’s something I like to feel like the covers are all neat on me. I then allow a wind-down. That’s just me. My husband doesn’t do any of that. He just brushes his teeth, goes to bed, and starts reading. Not that different, but for me, I have more steps. You can do whatever you think is helpful, but sleep hygiene has to be a piece and you have to work backwards by removing the technology. 

Some people say, “What about if I use my phone for my alarm?” That’s fine, I do too. However, if it’s in your room or it’s next to you, that’s fine as long as you can practice some restraint of not picking it up and going on social media because you can lose hours by just picking up your phone and opening up the Instagram app. You can lose hours. 

One thing I’m going to encourage you to do here is consider we have a course called Time Management for Optimum Mental Health and we talk all about scheduling. I’ll give you a little bit of information that I share during the Time Management course. I personally calendar a lot of my life and I have found that that has been very beneficial for my sleep. The reason being is because I have to wake up at 6:15 to get my kids to school. I used to get to bed whenever I could and then I realized I was massively sleep deprived. When I looked at the calendar and I thought, okay, if I have to be up at 6:15 and if I need a certain amount of sleep (I do better on eight hours), I have to be in bed asleep by 10:15. What am I doing? Going to bed at 10:30, I’m already setting myself up for failure. 

When you’re scheduling, you actually look at your wake-up time and you even plan backwards for that on when you need to be in bed. And then you plan backwards from that on when you need to work on your sleep wind-down program. Again, you don’t have to be pedantic, you don’t have to be too hyper-controlled on this. But doing it a couple of times is life-changing in realizing, at the way I’m going, I’m never going to get enough sleep.


Now, in terms of talking about sleep anxiety help or sleep anxiety relief, there are some additional sleep anxiety remedies you may say that may help you. Let me add here, there’s not a ton of research. I try to only bring research-based stuff to you. But a lot of people say things like oils or candles or deep breathing. I mean, we have research on deep breathing. It can be very beneficial. But you can bring in anything that soothes you, certain sense people love. I have a sister and family members who love those satin pillows. That really helps them. Just get a feeling for textures and sensations that also help you to wind down in the evening. 


Now, if you’re doing these things and you’re still really struggling with sleep anxiety and getting to sleep and insomnia, I would encourage you to look into some kind of sleep anxiety treatment. We do have science-based treatments to manage sleep anxiety or even chronic insomnia. One of those things is mindfulness training. In mindfulness training, what we are doing here is we’re training you to be able to get a hold of your attention. Because as you know, anxiety, if you really let anxiety lead the way, it’s going to ping-pong you to all the worst-case scenarios. It’s like what I said about my daughter. Will I fall asleep? Will I wake up? How long will it take? What if I don’t? 

A lot of people also report anxiety around, “I don’t like the feeling of falling asleep. I feel like I’m losing control or feel going to sleep is scary. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” If you’re someone who’s very hypervigilant, being asleep can actually be very triggering for you. 

Mindfulness trains us to stay present and not engage in all of that drama that our brain creates around all the possible worst-case scenarios. It also allows us to practice non-judgment about the anxiety and about the sensations that we’re experiencing, so we can just be present with them and practice. When I say practice, I mean over and over and over again because this is not easy. Practice being willing to be uncomfortable but keep our mind attending to the present instead of the worst-case scenarios. 

Another piece of this when we’re talking about sleep anxiety treatment is general stress management. Now, if you have an anxiety disorder during the day that also starts to leak into the evenings, particularly if you’re someone who has more anxiety in the evenings, you will need to use a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy to manage that anxiety. Or if you have a lot of stress in your life, maybe your work or your school or your relationships are very stressful in this season, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) can be helpful in first looking at your cognition—that’s the cognitive part of CBT—and then also looking at your behaviors.

Now, the cool thing is a lot of the behavior stuff, you and I have already talked about in that sleep hygiene piece. We know that the behavior of being on your phone is not helpful. In addition with sleep hygiene, getting a lot of exercise less than two hours before bed isn’t really great for sleep either because your body’s metabolism is all sped up from that. Those are some behavior changes. Not watching scary movies or very activating movies or books—reading those books is very important behavior changes, or having difficult conversations. 

For me, I have had to learn that if I work after about 7:00 PM, I can’t fall asleep. I need about three to four hours to wind down from work before I can fall asleep. Now that’s not always possible and I understand there’s a lot of privilege that goes with these ideas sometimes, but you just can do the best that you can, and if you can change things, go ahead and try. But those are some behavioral changes you can additionally do. 

Now, if you are somebody who struggles with severe insomnia, in addition to sleep anxiety, because sometimes sleep anxiety goes alongside actual insomnia where biologically you don’t sleep much or you can’t sleep much, there is a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that is being scientifically proven to help called CBT-I. That is a specific form of CBT that is directed towards managing sleep anxiety and insomnia. It is really cool, it’s very effective. It’s very hard to get treatment, but if you do some Google searches, you might be able to find a CBT-I specialist in your area.


In general now, because I’m trying to move us through this and not give you a full-on lecture, let’s just talk about some general sleep anxiety tips. As you’re approaching bed, the first skill I want you to practice is not tending to the noise that your brain creates about how bad this is going to go. For me, my mindfulness mantra is “not happening now.” I’ve done a whole episode on that in the past, not happening now. Meaning I’m not tending to something that has not yet happened. Until it happens, it does me no benefit by trying to focus on it right now. My brain is going to keep saying, “But what if you don’t? What if it’s bad? What if you’re really tired tomorrow? How is it going to go? What if you wake up? What if you have a panic attack at night and so forth?” I’m just going to say over and over, “You know what, it’s not happening now. I’m tending to what is happening.”

Another sleep anxiety tip I really want you to practice is compassion. Be really gentle with yourself, particularly as you start to practice these behavioral changes, and clean up your sleep hygiene. It takes time. The other thing with compassion is also be kind to yourself when you’re tired because a lot of us are exhausted. You have an anxiety disorder. Maybe it’s making it even harder for you to fall asleep. Then you’re tired, so now you’ve got two problems. Be as gentle and kind as you can. Again, when it comes to self-compassion, check in with yourself. Am I doing and engaging in behaviors that are kind towards me and my long-term goal? I’ll tell you what I used to do. When I had young toddlers, by two o’clock I’d be exhausted because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, so I’d have a coffee or a tea. But the tea and the coffee then prolonged how much I could get to bed, and it was made later and later. Again, reducing coffee, tea, some energy drinks is another important piece of sleep hygiene and behavioral changes that will benefit you if you struggle with sleep anxiety or insomnia. 

We have mindfulness, we have compassion. These are really important sleep anxiety tools or tips. Another piece here is, as I’ve said before, engage in things that soothe you. If you’re doing exposures, if you’re doing ERP, try not to do them before bed unless you’ve been instructed by your therapist. Sometimes that’s not helpful. Now, that being said, if you have really severe anxiety around sleep, you may need to do exposures around bedtime as the exposure. That is an actual part of CBT-I. Sometimes they even have you set alarms to wake up at 2:14 in the morning and 4:45 in the morning so that you have to practice these skills over and over. That is okay and that is, again, where this can be very paradoxical, but that will be up to you to decide what’s best for you. 


Another thing to remember is that there is sleep anxiety medicine. You can talk with your doctor about medicines that can help with sleep, help staying asleep, help you regulate what time. Some people take medication a few half an hour before they go to bed so that it helps ease them into sleep. Please do speak with a psychiatrist or a medical doctor about that because I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to be giving you medical advice about that. 

Now, before I wrap up, there’s a couple of specific groups of people I also don’t want to miss here. First, I want to address sleep anxiety in association with depression. Sometimes a symptom of depression is insomnia. If that is the case, you could use some of these skills and I encourage you to, but we don’t want to miss the fact that if depression is what’s causing your insomnia or your sleep anxiety, please seek out a CBT therapist because it’s very important that you address that depression. One of the side effects of having depression can be sleepless nights, so I don’t want to miss that. 

Another thing is, a lot of folks with OCD experience obsessions about sleep. Again, as I was mentioning before, it may mean that you do have to do some exposure around sleep and that would be advised to you because the best treatment for OCD is exposure and response prevention. We actually wrote an entire article about this on the website. If you want to go to and then type in OCD and insomnia, it will be there. We did a whole article on that just a couple of weeks ago. 


That’s it, guys. That’s what I want you to be really looking at. Please remember, and this is the most important part, the biggest message that our sleep specialist gave my daughter was stop putting so much pressure on yourself to fall asleep because the pressure creates anxiety and the anxiety stops you from sleeping. The best sleep anxiety tip I can give you at the outset of this podcast episode is try to take the pressure off. The truth is, even if you’re not sleeping as long as you’re resting, that is enough. You can’t force yourself to fall asleep. It usually creates more frustration, more anxiety. It just creates a lot of irritability. 

Try to take the pressure off. Give yourself many weeks to get this down. It may take tweaks, it may take some reworking. You may require some help from people and assistance from a medical doctor if you need to. You can also reach out to a sleep anxiety specialist or an insomnia specialist who specialize in sleep deprivation anxiety or sleep deprivation in general. If you need sleep anxiety treatment, there are specific treatments out there for sleep anxiety in adults, children, and teens. 

If you’re wanting to come and work with us again, you can go to our website and we have some amazing therapists who can also help. My hope is, soon I will be bringing out some sleep anxiety-guided meditations for you as well. That’s coming down the pipeline here very soon. 

Please take the pressure off. Please be gentle. Just tweak little things. Again, as we always say, it’s a beautiful day to do hard, repetitive things where we practice and we practice. 

I hope that’s been helpful. I hope you do go on to have a good night’s rest here very soon. I will see you next week.

Jun 16, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. Today we are talking about Acceptance Scripts with Dr Jon Grayson. 

So happy to be here with you as we tie together our series on imaginals and scripts. Today, we have the amazing Dr. Jon Grayson and he is going to talk about acceptance scripts and the real importance of making sure we use acceptance when we’re talking about scripts and imaginals. I’m so excited to share this episode with you. I think it really does, again, tie together the two other guests that we’ve had on the show in this series. 

For those of you who are listening to this and haven’t listened to the other two episodes of the series, go back two weeks. We’ve got the first one with Krista Reed and she’s talking about scripts and the way she uses them. Then we have Shala Nicely and she talks about her own specific way of using scripts. Again, the reason that I didn’t just have one person and leave it at that is I do think for each person, we have to find specific ways in which we do these skills and tools so we can make it specific to your obsessions and your intrusive thoughts. One explanation or one version or variety of this is probably not enough. I want to really deep dive in this series so that you feel, number one, you have a good understanding of what an imaginal and a script is. Number two, you know how to use them, you know the little nuanced pieces of information that you need to help make sure OCD and your OCD-related disorder doesn’t make it a compulsion because it can. I really wanted to get some groundwork so that you feel confident using imaginal and scripts in your own treatment and your own recovery.

Again, for those of you who are a little lost and feel like you need a better understanding of OCD, of how OCD works, how it keeps you stuck, the cycle of OCD and you want to make your own individual OCD and ERP plan, you can go to We have a full seven-hour course that will walk you through exactly how I do it with my patients, and you can do that at your own pace. It’s an on-demand course. It is not therapy, but it will help you if you don’t have access to therapy or if you’re really just wanting to understand and do a deep dive and understand what ERP is and how you can use it. That is there for you. But if you are someone who is just wanting to get to the good stuff, let’s go over to the episode with Dr. Jon Grayson. Thank you, Dr. Jon Grayson, for coming on the show again. Always a pleasure to have such amazing people who really know their stuff. I’ll enjoy this episode with you. Let’s go.

Ep 341 Acceptance scripts (with Jon Grayson)

Kimberley: Welcome, Dr. Jon Grayson. I’m so happy to have you back.

Jon: It is always fun to be with you.

Kimberley: Okay. It’s funny that you are number three, because I probably need you to be number one. Almost all of the scripting I ever learned was from your book. I think that even Shala Nicely came on and spoke about how a lot of what she does is through your book as well. Let’s just talk about the way in which you walk people through an imaginal or a script. Now do you call it imaginal or script? Do you think they’re synonymous? Do you have a different way of explaining it?

Jon: I think jargon-wise, they’re synonymous. I think by definition-- I feel weird saying that by definition because we made it up. I came up with the name “script” because originally, imaginal exposure suggested I’m just dealing with all the horrors and person’s just going to think about it. I changed the name to “script” because I was including both. What are you being exposed to? What might happen and why would you take this risk? Because I feel like the script is not only to get used to the material, but we remind the person, why am I doing this? What am I getting out of taking this horrible risk? Why would I want to live with that? 


Integral to the Acceptance Script is the whole idea of learning acceptance. Because too often, I think the biggest problem I see in most therapists is they just jump into doing exposure without making sure the person has done level 1 acceptance, which is “I want to live with uncertainty,” because to say “I want to live with uncertainty” is to say, “I am willing to cope if the worst things happen.” It’s not just this general idea, it’s like going to the extreme. “I’m willing to live, even if this happens. I’m willing to drive a car knowing that I might get paralyzed and disfigured in a car crash.” I think that’s acceptance because if you’re telling me you’re never going to crash in a car and you know that’s true, I guess that’s a nice comforting thought that you might be in for a shock. We’re willing to take that risk. I think across the board, it’s always willing to live with the worst possible. 

Scripts try to encapsulate that. They’re trying to help bring the person not only to confront their fear but remind them of all the ways they want to cope with it. It is not a reassurance thing because let’s face it, the worst thing happening, saying “I’ll cope with the worst” is not really reassuring in a sense because it’s something you really don’t want to happen. But I guess the goal is, first of all, if it happens, you will do something that’s coping or not. 

I think non-acceptance-- God bless you. I’m glad we’re live so people can see you were sneezing. I just didn’t go into a religious ecstasy. I think we see non-acceptance insidiously all over the place without realizing it. In the beginning of the pandemic, so many people were going like, “Well, this can’t last all summer. I can’t deal with that.” That is a statement of avoidance and non-acceptance. I was listening to that and in the back of my mind, it’s like, “Let’s see. Everything they’ve told us makes it seem like this is going on for two years because they’re not finding a vaccine.” Seriously, you can’t take it. You’re not going to do it. What are you going to do? In retrospect, everybody would have to admit, “Well, yeah, it was not fun, it was awful, but I lived through it.”

Acceptance would’ve been, “Well, how am I going to try to make the best of this?” Making the best of it isn’t wonderful, which I guess brings us to the first point about acceptance because I think in the Western world, we make everything glossy and pretty and beautiful. Acceptance is just this wonderful land of zen happiness. It’s like I’m accepting everything is so good and, in reality, the best way to describe acceptance is that it sucks in the short run. In the short run, acceptance means “I’m going to be willing to embrace what seems to me the second-best life. This is what I want, I can have it, I will embrace this.” 


The prime reason to do acceptance is you don’t have a choice. The other world doesn’t exist. In the beginning of the pandemic, Kathy and I were doing our pandemic walk, my wife Kathy. We were doing our pandemic walk. I remember because you’re terrified of everybody and you’re walking looking around. Kathy says to me, “God, this would be such a great day if all this wasn’t happening.” I said to her, “You’re wrong, Kathy,” which for all the listeners should immediately cue them into the idea that being married to a psychologist is not necessarily fun. I said to her, “It is a beautiful day. We’re with each other. Here we are. We’re holding hands, taking a walk. It’s really pretty. We’re going to be spending the whole day together.” The truth is, it is a great day AND it’s horrible that all of this is happening. I think acceptance is always AND. We always talk about letting stuff be there as if it’s very passively like, “Oh, I can just let it be there and not bother me.” No, it’s really horrible.

Let me tell this really horrible story, which I can’t remember if I’ve told on here, but it’s a more graphic description of what acceptance looks like, if I may. A young girl was brought to me, 17, was really in terrible shape. I mean, she had been hospitalized, she had suicide attempts. So anxious, she couldn’t tolerate being in a counsel’s office for more than one hour when she first came in. Her meds were a mess. Over the next three months, we got her meds in line and she really worked incredibly hard considering where she was. And then in December, they asked, could she be in my support group? I said, “Well, it’s not really for kids.” They talked me into things, “We think she’s mature.” First of all, whenever she spoke up in the group, whatever she said would be brilliantly insightful that would just knock everybody out. She did not look old, but nobody could believe she was only 17. 

As the year went on, we were tapering off sessions. The last time I saw her in June, her parents, her and her brother were driving out to the desert outside of LA looking for a vacation getaway place. On their way there, a drunk driver in her third DUI rammed the car and killed my patient Ruby and her 14-year-old brother. I don’t have to tell you how devastated the parents were. I could talk a lot of stories that are amazing about them because I saw them starting about three weeks after their loss. At which point they said, “We want to be more than the parents of dead kids, but we can’t imagine anything else.” I said, “Well, I can tell you what treatment will be like, but it just seems like words.” They agreed it’ll be just words, but it’s just nice to hear there’s something. They coped amazingly well. But the only good thing about coping, in this case, is it’s better than not coping. Maybe that’s true a lot of the time.

After a year and a half, they did buy the place where they were going to that they were looking for that day. They bought it because it made them feel closer to the kids. They didn’t push that away at all. After a year and a half, they were at the place. It was one night where there was a meteor shower. They go, “Oh, we’re going to go out and watch the meteor shower.” They go out at midnight, lay down on their backs and both immediately burst into tears because this 17-year-old, 14-year-old were actually the kind of kids they would’ve happily gone out there with their parents and enjoyed the whole time. I said to the dad, “Was it a pretty meteor shower?” He said, “Yeah.” 

“Are you sorry you saw it?”


I said the truth, “It was a beautiful meteor shower AND it’s horrible that your kids were murdered.”

It’s a dark sense of humor and said, “Well, I thought we’d have at least a few moments. I said, “Yeah, that wasn’t happening.” That’s acceptance. They were living in the present. They could enjoy things and there was a hole in their heart. The alternative to that is comparing life to every second of life to how much better it would be. Whenever I compare life to a fantasy, I ruin the present. I have nothing. 

I think the reason for acceptance is to make the best of whatever we can have. I think one of the wonderful things sometimes is that a lot of what we avoid is not something so devastating. It’s maybe more in our head what we’re trying to avoid. But a low probability event is not a no probability event. If that’s what I’m scared of, low odds are comforting because I want no odds. Am I answering your question?

Kimberley: You are. I think it’s a really great opportunity for us to segue. You’ve talked about the first step being to familiarize yourself with uncertainty before doing scripts and acceptance. You’ve beautifully explained this idea. For the listeners, you can also go back. Dr. Grayson has been on the show before. You can listen to it. We’ve talked a lot about that, which is so beautiful and I think very much compliments what you’re saying. Let’s talk about the script that you’re speaking of. Once you’ve done that work of acceptance, how would you--

Jon: I may have to call you Ms. Quinlan since you referred to me as Dr. Grayson. 

Kimberley: No, call me Kimberley. 



Jon: When considering how to accept uncertainty, that first step, are you willing to learn to live with uncertainty? That step is variable of talking in therapy for the first session. I’ve had some people take three months before they agree like, it’s not like I really have a choice, and that’s really what we’re getting. What are you losing to that? I can’t remember if I just said this before, but one of the biggest things that I end up teaching therapists who have been around the field for years is do not start exposure until the person has actually agreed that they’re willing to learn to do this because obviously, they can just accept uncertainty. Then we’re done with session 1. It takes one session to three months. The loose measure is to accept uncertainty to say if the worst happens, I will try to live with it and I will try to cope with it. If somebody says to me, “If that happens, I’ll kill myself.” No, no. That’s an avoidance. In this scenario, you are condemned to life. You’re going to have to figure out how to cope no matter how awful. 

In scripting, the idea of a script is not only to provide the imaginal exposure, which is like this terrible thing might happen. Because a lot of times, people go, if you say X might happen, “I don’t want to think about it.” As I said to you in the beginning of the show, I can get any parent into an immediate statement of denial by saying, “What if your kids die,” the response of almost every parent is, “I don’t want to deal with that. I don’t want to think it through.” But if you’re being tortured by the thought, that normal level of denial, which I don’t think is the ideal way to handle it, but you already can’t do it because you keep going into, “What about no, what about no, what about, no?” 

How to write an Acceptance Script

The very first step of how to write an  acceptance script is essentially asking the question, “why would I take this risk?” Because within that statement is part of your answer of why I’m going to pursue acceptance. It is not the same as acceptance, but it’s why I’m being motivated to go after this. 

Kimberley: What would that look like? How would you word that?

Jon: As to why would I take this risk? 

Kimberley: Uh-hmm.

Jon: I’m trying to think of how horrible to go. 

Kimberley: Let’s pick an example because I think examples are helpful. Let’s say someone has relationship OCD and they’re afraid they’re making the wrong choice in their partner.

Jon: You picked one, I think, that’s not necessarily the most horribly devastating consequences on one hand compared to like, am I an old child molester? 

Kimberley: You go there.

Jon: I have a really wonderful acceptance thing I do with that, so we will go there. But with the ROCD, I want to know, am I making this terrible mistake with my spouse? What we’re asking them to accept is never knowing.

Kimberley: You’d just say that in the script? 

Jon: No, because we’ll talk to them and we’ll talk about why like, why am I willing to never know for sure? Because some of it is like they’re looking into a relationship with the thermometer and taking the measure every minute. What’s the temperature now? What’s the temperature now? There’s this fantasy that I should have no questions. I mean, depending on how deep they’re in, I should find no one else attractive, but every moment should be great and I should have no complaints. Well, that is a fantasy marriage. 

Kathy and I took a trip to France and it was an incredible trip. Of course, when you say going to Paris, everybody’s eyes glaze over. We ate at a patisserie every morning, but let’s face it, it’s just a damn croissant. One place had the best café au lait. We were there for two days, but it was great. We saw the Catacombs where we had to wait in line for three hours in the hot sun. Went to a really fine restaurant, but we’re not super foodies, so we’re not necessarily going to like it. The experience can’t just depend on, “This was great food,” or “This is terrible, we just spent a lot of money for what.” We go in knowing that. It was a great vacation. A great vacation. It’s not like every second is great. Three hours in a hot sun, five-hour bus ride to go see the site, but it was still a great vacation. I think a relationship is like that, so I can’t look at that now. 

I think for the person with ROCD, we’re going to say they are not perfect. Like any relationship, we want a hundred things and we’re only getting 70 of them. It should be more than 20, but we’re only getting 70. Are you making a mistake? Now, most people with ROCD can say they don’t want to leave right now or sometimes they want to leave because of the anxiety. It’s like, then you have to stay. I don’t want you talking about all your fears and confessing because if you are wrong, you’re just making this person feel bad for no reason. 

My thought is, you can leave this relationship when you know for two weeks solid you want to leave with no question. No question. You know it is, sure, as you know you’re sitting there because they generally accept that. We have to point out what are the realities of a relationship. Everyone on their wedding day thinks they’re going to be married forever, but that’s wrong 50% of the time. Whomever we marry, my spouse being an exception, 40 years later, they don’t look as good as you did the day you married them. Technically, you were accepting second best in looks 40 years later.

Kimberley: Did you know the rate of divorce is higher in therapists?

Jon: Wow. So, Kathy and I are really against the odds. This is a little scary to you probably. We started dating in 1970 and this year, it’ll be our 50th anniversary. 

Kimberley: Wow. Congratulations.

Jon: Having met at the age of two and started dating then, we don’t really have much significant history before that. You will get angry and there are going to be things they don’t want to do. Yes, you’re going to have to learn to live not knowing that. That’s going to be part of the script, that you don’t get to know. What if you’re making a mistake? Even if you fell wildly happily in love now and you had no question, really nice feeling. If the relationship seems good, no reason to question it. Now of course, if you have ROCD, you’re checking all these reasons. It’s like you’re not ready to leave yet. Yes, when you’re answering your questions, it’s maybe. Even if I feel wonderfully in love with you, it might be that next year or after 20 years ago, I discover you’ve been having a seven-year illicit affair. I discover, “Oh hey, guess what? You’re leaving me.” There are all kinds of things that could go wrong. Or I’ll ask the person in this relationship, if this relationship was good and you felt constant passion affair and next year your spouse suddenly gets a dread disease that’s going to make them really messed up and crippled and sick for the next years, I guess you’re leaving them. Of course, everybody goes like, “No.” But the bottom line is, that’s good, but that’s not going to be what you signed up for. 

How do we make the best of it? I did this one thing with one couple that worked like magic. I’m saying that worked like magic because I’d do it with everyone across the board, but usually, it doesn’t work like this. This was the low probability. Oh my god, this was the killer intervention as opposed to, this is a start for most people. It was such a cute couple, but I’d given him the thing. “This weekend, when you’re spending time with her, I want you to notice whenever you’re having fun, and although part of you wants to compare it to what it should be, I want you to consciously just notice whatever it is, like if it’s 5%.” Because a lot of times, you’re comparing your current feeling to what it should be. There could be good things happening and you don’t even notice because it’s like, “I was just thinking about this, I was just thinking about this.” He had that assignment to notice it, whatever. He came back and he was like, “We had a great weekend. I still don’t know if I love her or not, but if it could be like this forever, I’m good.” Now, that was a rarity, but that was the beginning of acceptance for most people, just noticing, oh, I’m not miserable every second. I agree a two-minute 20% joy isn’t like, oh wow, that makes it all worth it. But it’s stuff that you don’t notice all along. We’re trying to notice the good and the other stuff.

Acceptance is not a decision; trying to learn it is. But when I talk about that couple who lost two kids, when I say it was more than a year for them to get to acceptance and what acceptance means for them is they didn’t compare every moment to what it would be like if their kids were still alive. In fact, I didn’t know this at the time when I told them that everything goes well after a year. You’ll still have a hole in your heart, but you’ll stop comparing every moment to if they were still alive. They just listened. But the dad wrote a book about mourning and he also did a one-man show called Grief, which I wish I could show everyone. But in one of those places, he said that when I told them that, in his mind, he was saying, “F you! I am never going to stop wishing my kids were alive.” And then he wrote that two years later, he’s come to realize it doesn’t do him or his kids any good to wish they were alive.” He’s in acceptance. He still misses them greatly. He can still cry at them, but he’s no longer making that comparison. I’m mentioning it because that takes time. No one expects a couple, three weeks after their kids are murdered, to be in acceptance. The same with anything I have to accept. 

The person with OCD, they have this goal, but getting to that great state where “I’m living with this and it’s okay, I embrace this life” is hard. Luckily, most of the time what they have to accept isn’t devastating in the sense that nobody dies of AIDS. Am I with the wrong person forever? Well, maybe it’s the second-best life, but that’s the life I’m asking you to live for now, because all of us have no choice.

Kimberley: Right. Let’s break it down. 

Jon: I’m sorry.

Kimberley: No, you’re great. 

Jon: Okay. You’re good at being back on target.

Kimberley: I’m a real visual person too. I don’t know if you know that about me, like if I need to see it visually--

Jon: By the way, that’s fantastic because to say something and show it visually just makes it easier for everyone else around you that you’re talking to. I appreciate what you’re going to do.

Kimberley: Okay. Walk me through the visual here. The first step is what? 

Jon: Why would you take this risk?

Kimberley: Okay, what’s the second?


Jon: The second step of acceptance scripts is, if I do X, here’s a list of the things I’m actually scared might happen. I say actually scared because I want to go, what’s their fear? I can always go beyond even more horrible things, but I need to know what is their actual worst fear.

Kimberley: Right. Let’s say for two if it was relationship OCD, it would be, “I find out I’m in a terrible relationship and I’m stuck with them.” Or if they were having harm obsessions, it would be, “I harm and kill my wife or my grandparent or so forth.” You would write that down.

Jon: Yeah. “Here’s what might happen.”

Kimberley: Okay. What’s step number three?

Jon: If this happens, how would I try to cope with this in a positive way?

Kimberley: That’s key, isn’t it? How would I cope in a positive way?

Jon: Right. And that will often be second best.

Kimberley: Which is acceptance.

Jon: Well, it’s the road to acceptance. Remember, acceptance is not just this logical thing; it’s this emotional thing. I have clients and they appreciate it. It’s like, if we were just doing a therapy test, like say all the right stuff, they could ace therapy right away. They know how to say everything, they can do it. But feeling it takes time and behavior. I not only have to know it; I have to do the work of getting there. I have to go through all this pain. Now, I say, I think going through ERP is as painful as doing rituals. One is just an end of rituals versus endless rituals. I hate to keep going back to this couple, but what I said initially, the only good thing about coping is it was better than not coping. I had told them how well they were coping somewhere in the middle. Again, the dad said, “Wow, I hate to see the other poor bastards,” which was cute. I said, “Yes, but you’ve been in support groups, you’ve seen them.” He suddenly realized, “Whoa, we are coping even though this really sucks.”

Kimberley: In this script—and maybe I’m wrong here, please tell me—I always think of the research around athletes and when they have an injury, there’s research to show that while they’re in the hospital bed with their new hip replacement and whatnot, the sports psychologists are coaching them through visual, imaginal, imagery of them doing the layup again and dunking the ball or turning the corner of the sprinting track or whatever. They’re doing that imagery work to help them play out how they would cope, how they would handle the pain, how they would return. Is that what this process is in step 3? 

Jon: No. Well, that guy or a woman who’s imagining that, does their injury permit that possibility?

Kimberley: Tell me more.

Jon: Are they so injured that they will never be able to do a layup?

Kimberley: No. In this example--

Jon: Or maybe somebody could say the odds are against them, so here’s what you can try to do, and here’s what to expect of how horrible it is to try.” But they might have to say, “You might not get there.” In a marriage, I don’t care how good the marriage is, I cannot say it will definitely work out. I can’t say you will definitely work out your problems. If I’m married for 20 great years, and then we have these three years at hell and I find out that you’ve been cheating on me the last two years, did I make a mistake? Or should I have left you four years ago, how would I know four years ago and should I have not tried, and all these questions that don’t have an answer. All I know is where I am now. 


I like to say success is not making the right decision. It’s coping with the consequences of whatever decision you have made. I feel regret is cheating because regret is, again, I’m going into denial as soon as I have a regret. I should have done X. X would’ve been different. I don’t know if it would’ve been better. This failed. X being better is one possibility, but there are a whole lot of other ones where maybe it wouldn’t have been as good. All I can ever do is, what is next? That person in the relationship with ROCD, what do I need to do next? What have I learned? Somebody with ROCD did get divorced and gets into a relationship where they have the ROCD, but it’s such a better relationship. It’s not like you should have gotten out sooner because you know what, maybe if you didn’t go into that other relationship, maybe you wouldn’t have been ready for this one. Maybe you needed to go through your ROCD and go through all the crap to have this good one. Dumping that person sooner and getting into another relationship might have been better, or maybe you would’ve picked worse. We don’t get to know. All we know is what is from this moment on. 

Part of the exposure is, okay, X might happen. What are the possibilities of coping? Again, I think I said, in my scenarios, the person can’t do suicide. They’re condemned to life and say, why I kill myself? That’s just a way of not thinking in the present. I want you to be stuck thinking about how you would try to cope with this. A lot of times, people have been so distant from it that it just seems like a screaming wall. It is like getting a phone call that somebody you love died. The whole world stops, and that’s where people stop thinking. But in the real world, something happens after you get that information. 

Part of the exposure is to go through what happened next, what are some possibilities? I always say to somebody, “I don’t know if I can cope with the worst things that could happen to me, but I know that there are brave people who have. I don’t know if I can be like them, but they’re a model that I hope I will do that.” What if you don’t cope? Well, then I’ll be in deep trouble. My current plan is, the best I can do is I hope I will cope. I don’t want to be paralyzed and disfigured in a car crash. I hope I would cope. I don’t have to know that I’d cope because I’m going to wait till I get there to try to find out. But I might try to imagine it. 

We’re going to imagine what would you actually do. In this relationship, how will I live never knowing? I’m taking the ROCD, how will I live? What if this is wrong? It might be wrong. What’s decent right now? What do you like? Because again, no person is perfect. How do I get into the state of that? Do I ever send people to marital counseling? If I see actual problems, I will, but I am not sending them to marital counseling to get rid of the ROCD. I’m sending them to get rid of actual problems. With or without those problems, they still have ROCD. I’m just eliminating, okay, here’s some definite reasons to get out. But once they’re resolved, then you’re still stuck with the ROCD.


Kimberley: Is there a fourth step of acceptance scripts? 

Jon: Kind of. It’s embedded in it, which is part of why I would take this risk, is what’s resulting from not taking this risk? What are the graphic horrible things that keep happening to you because you keep avoiding, including the torture you feel, the hours loss, humiliation from doing things? How are you actually hurting the people you think you love? Because a lot of times in ROCD, they can say they care about the person. I’ll always ask somebody, do you love your kids or love your spouse?” They’ll say, “Yeah.” “Will you do anything for them?” They’ll say yes. I’ll say, “I’m sorry, you’re a liar.” How do you hurt your family and loved ones with your ROCD? Not being present, yelling at them because they didn’t do something, and all the other ways that one might, asking for reassurance endlessly being in pain in the neck. I will point out, you have a choice in your relationship. I’m going beyond ROCD. But you get to pick between, are you going to serve your fear or your love? You keep choosing fear over love. 

Part of acceptance does have to do with what my values are. Who is the person I want to be? Here’s another reason I need to do acceptance, because here’s life without acceptance. Most people who we see, we can say, the idea of trying to not accept and do avoid, I think you’ve done an amazing experiment of checking out that method. I think the results are clear, it sucks, so it’s time to try this other method. It’s like, why am I doing acceptance? Because I think, again, in our society we just make acceptance sounds so wonderful. But that’s just an idea. Why would acceptance actually be worth it? I have to think about why would it actually be worth it. I have to be motivated to do it. And then I’m stuck with this in-between thing that a lot of the time I’m doing a separate, recognizing I am not there yet, which by the way, there’s this great book that this wonderful person wrote on self-compassion, because I need self-compassion during treatment because I’m not where I want to be. It’s like I’m doing this really hard work and it’s not there yet. The best I get to say is, I’m working hard, I see some improvement, but yes, I’m not there yet and mourning. 

Learning to live the second-best life takes time. I keep saying second-best life. I don’t actually mean it in some sense, but that is the feeling that when I’m working towards acceptance, that it is. I think in some cases, it’s not really a second-best life. I think a lot of times, if I overcome a fear, it’s like, this is great. Other times it is. I’ve had some people with a moral OCD about something they’ve done in the past and they’re going through all these contortions to try to convince themself that it’s not really bad even though they actually think it’s bad, but maybe here’s why it’s not bad. Part of the acceptance is, oh yeah, that was a bad shitty thing. You feel guilty about that. What is forgiving yourself mean? Shockingly, almost nobody knows what forgiving yourself means. How are you going to get to that point? But I have to accept, yeah, that was bad. That hurt people or whatever it is by whatever standards. Again, depending on who we’re talking about, it’s like, “Oh, I guess we have to have you accept being as bad as everyone else.” In some other cases, no, that was really bad.


Kimberley: It’s great. The last part of the question is, what happens when I refuse to accept? What is the result of not taking this risk or even not accepting this, which is you have additional pain, right? The pain just keeps going and going and going.

Jon: Right. That’s right. End of pain. Endless pain.

Kimberley: Yeah. If they’ve used these somewhat prompts and people can go to your book and work through a lot of them, I know on your website there are a lot of worksheets as well. Once they’re writing these prompts, is there anything else you feel is important for them to know about this process or to be aware of or be prepared for in this process?

Jon: I am pausing. The next revision of the book might be your inspiration. Well, because I know that it is way, way, way, way easier said than done. The core treatment for all OCD is the same. However, I have a completely different set of things I say depending on the presentation, because they each have their own set of things that the individual has to be focused on working to accept and live with. Although I think in my book I attempt. When I talk about each presentation, I do try to go over those and I’ve seen that for many people as helpful. But I also see for many people who’ve read the book, and even though they’ve read it, it ends up different for them to actually have to discuss it out loud. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t been able to think about it without realizing they avoid thinking about it. Sometimes because I think not all the connections are obvious, which I know is a really vague statement. I think I can go on, but I have to wait for you to ask a question. 

Kimberley: Okay. We’re running out of time, so I want to make sure I’m respecting your time.

Jon: Don’t respect my time, by the way. I set aside way extra time. This is on you if we end.

Kimberley: Once you do those questions, you would then walk them through the four steps that you went through with scripting as well. 

Jon: Yes, and some other horrible things because the horrible show, that should have been illegal. Actually, it’s not on anymore. I think you can still find that on YouTube. Toddlers & Tiaras and the crazy mothers who make their little girls try to be in beauty pageants. You know what, if you look at the pictures of the kids, it’s like, oh my God, they’re sexualizing this eight-year-old. But when you say that word, that means you can see what they have done. You recognize the sexual aspect. You know what, if I go and take this picture apart, this horrifies people when I say it. It’s like, if you look at their legs, it’s like, yeah, they have good legs. Now, nobody wants to say that, and it’s like, “Oh.” That’s our first response. But if I have POCD, I see that, “Oh my god, what’s wrong with me?” It’s an acceptance that we can see something and recognize a piece of it. 

I think the most difficult POCD is the people who “I don’t want to be attracted to a 15-year-old.” I can say, if I show you this picture and tell you they’re 18, oh, that’s okay. If I show you the same picture and tell you they’re 15, no, that’s okay. It’s like somehow magically, I find that the picture, the attractive is the picture is right or wrong if I tell you the age, which of course makes no sense. The picture is attractive or not independent of that. It’s accepting, yes, I might find a whole lot of things. Again, what we think makes us accept or not do we act on it. 

Kimberley: It’s interesting because as you know, we just got a new puppy. It’s taking over all of the Quinlan family and our lives. I had a moment where our puppy loves his belly to be scratched and right there is his genitals. I can see the projection of my mind of like, “What if you just touched that? Or what if you pulled that back?” The imagery, I could see myself doing it. Thankfully I have all these skills where I’m able to go, “Oh, there’s a thought.” I did feel that hot, sticky anxiety flow going through.

Jon: If you don’t change diapers regularly, I’m sorry, it’s a weird experience and I don’t care who you are, you’re going to think about that. If you’re changing a little person and there you are, you’re pumping their genitals because you got to clean it up and wipe it, you know what you’re doing and the healthy thing is like, “Okay, weird thoughts. This is normal.” If I have OCD, it’s like, “Why would I even think that?” Well, it’s normal.

Kimberley: It’s funny because I was noticing myself going through some of these imaginal scripting steps myself. Instead of going, “No, no, no, no, no, you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t, you couldn’t. That’s terrible.” It was like, “All right.” This is the last question I want because you’ve given some great examples. As I was having this thought, I noticed the choice—I used the word “choice” on purpose—to get really edgy with it and try not to have it. My body language is all tight and I was gritting my teeth, or I was like, “Kimberley, just let it flow. Let the thoughts come.” As you’re doing this with your patients, is there any piece of you where you are bringing their attention to whether their shoulders are all tight and their jaw is all tight and their hands are all tight, or does that not matter?

Jon: Nothing not matters, maybe, but that’s not always true. I thought you’d enjoy that. I think it depends on how much that’s part of their conscious fear response. I mean, I think if they’re doing their dog and it’s like, “Oh my God, am I excited by this,” the answer I would be working on is, “I’m not really sure. Maybe I am in some deep way. I’m not going to play with the genitals now and that’s the best I get to know.”

Kimberley: Yeah. Agreed. I love this. Thank you. Again, I want you to say, where are the resources that people can go to get your concrete workbooks and your worksheets?

Jon: I love how you make me have so many more books and worksheets. All the paperwork that appears in my book appears for free for anybody on the site In the Kindle and audio version, they couldn’t have those, so I was obsessed to have the Kindle version so I made that available. My book has most of my repertoire except about 20 minutes. Those are the main places. I hate to do this, but most of the time, when it comes to OCD books, I will say to people, there are a bunch of books that I would recommend, I think, that are roughly equal. But I think the one that most agrees with me happens to be mine, so I mention a few of the other good books. There is only one other book seriously that I tell people to get because I think it’s different, and that is your book, which is amazing because generally, I hate books that label themselves “self-compassion” because it’s just a version of be nice to yourself in a lot of words. I feel your book gives these not easy-to-do steps that make it work. Although as I said to you last time, it is just you used too many exclamation points.

Kimberley: I will forever decline your opinion on my exclamation points and my emojis. If you ever text with me, you’ll know that I over emoji and I over exclamation points.

Jon: I’m okay with that in text. 

Kimberley: Thank you for that wonderful compliment. I do agree, yes, I have been blamed for the exclamation mark issue before, but I stand up and I stand with it.

Jon: I like to warn people because I want them to know, oh no, don’t worry. This isn’t as you would put it all flowers and unicorns. It’s a great book with too many exclamation points.

Kimberley: No, it’s funny because my mom helped me edit it while I was in a 14-day quarantine in a Sydney hotel for COVID. She would go through and she would add exclamation marks. She was adding e emojis and hearts and smiley faces and I was like, “Oh, we are going crazy here.”

Jon: Now I know where you got it from.

Kimberley: We’re all love. Thank you for that. It’s a very huge compliment. Thank you so much for being here and talking about this. Again, I love having you on talking just a little deeper into the topic and a bit more abstract, which I think is helpful too. Is there anything else you want to conclude on here?

Jon: I would love to have some really cool, all-summarizing conclusion. The truth is, I can just talk endlessly. I’m just going to thank you for having me on and I am always willing to come talk with you.

Kimberley: I would say, the point that I love that you made today, which I will add for you, is the word AND. The word AND is so important in this conversation.

Jon: That’s a great summary because I think so many of our ideas, it’s not like they’re new, they get refined with time. In a way, something we’ve been saying all along and suddenly there’s this very slightly different way of saying it, but it summarizes it in a way that makes it more understandable, and AND I think does that for a lot of understanding mindfulness and acceptance.

Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you so much.Jon: You take care.

Jun 9, 2023

Today we are talking all about ERP Scripting with Shala Nicely. Welcome back, everybody. We are on Week 2 of the Imaginals and Script Series. This week, we have the amazing Shala Nicely on the show. She’s been on before. She’s one of my closest friends and I’m so honored to have her on. 

For those of you who are listening to this and haven’t listened to any of the previous episodes, I do encourage you to go back to last week’s episode because that is where we introduce the incredible Krista Reed and she talks about how to use scripts and imaginals. I give a more detailed intro to what we’re here talking about if this is new for you.

This will be a little bit of a steep learning curve if you’re new to exposure and response prevention. Let me just quickly explain. I myself, I’m an ERP-trained therapist, I am an OCD Specialist, and a part of the treatment of OCD and OCD-related disorders involve exposing yourself to your fear and then practicing response prevention, which is reducing any of the safety behaviors or compulsions you do in effort to reduce or remove whatever discomfort or uncertainty that you feel. Now, often when we go to expose ourselves to certain things, we can’t because they’re not something we can face on a daily basis or they’re often very creative things in our mind. This is where imaginals and scripts can come in and can be incredibly helpful. 

If you want a more detailed understanding of the steps that we take regarding ERP, you can go to, which is where we have all our online courses. There is a course called ERP School that will really do a lot of the back work in you really understanding today’s session. You don’t have to have taken the course to get the benefits of today’s session because a lot of you I know already have had ERP or are in ERP as we speak, or your clinicians learning about ERP and I love that you’re here. Honestly, it brings me so much joy. But that is there for you if you’re completely lost on what’s going on today, and that will help fill you in on the gold standard treatment for OCD and the evidence-based treatment for OCD and OCD-related disorders. 

That being said, let’s get on with the good stuff. We have the amazing Shala Nicely. I am so honored again to have you on. You are going to love how applicable and useful her skills and tools are. Let’s just get straight over to Shala. 

340 ERP Scripting with Shala Nicely

Kimberley: Welcome, Shala. I am so happy to have you back. I know we have a pretty direct agenda today to talk about imaginals versus scripting in your way in which you do it. I’d love to hear a little bit about, first, do you call it imaginals or do you call it scripting? Can you give me an example or a definition of what you consider them to be?


Shala: Sure. Well, thank you very much for having me on. Love to be here as always. I’ll go back to how I learned about exposure when I first became a therapist. I learned about exposure being two different things. It was either in vivo exposure, so in life. Meaning, you go out and do the thing that your OCD is afraid of that you want to do, or it was imaginals where you imagine doing the thing that you want to do that your OCD is afraid to do. Research shows us that the in vivo is more effective, but sometimes imaginals is necessary because you can’t go do the thing for whatever reason. But I don’t think about it like that anymore. That’s how I learned it, but it’s not how I practice it. 

To help describe what I do, I’ll take you back to when I had untreated OCD or when I was just learning how to do ERP for myself because I think that would help it make sense what I do. When I was doing ERP, I would obviously go out and do all the things that I wanted to do and my OCD didn’t want me to do. What I found was that I could do those things, but my OCD was still in my head, getting me to have a conversation about what we were doing in my mind. I might go pick up a discarded Coke can on the side of the road because it’s “contaminated,” and I would then go either put it in the trash, which would be another exposure because that would be not recycling. There are layers of exposures here. But my OCD could be in my head going, “Well, I don’t think that one is contaminated. It doesn’t look all that contaminated because it’s pretty clean and this looks like a clean area so I’m sure it’s not contaminated. What do you think, Shala?” 

“Oh, I agree with you.”

“Well, we threw it away, but I bet you, these people, they’re going to get wherever we threw it. They’re actually going to sort it out and it’s going to get recycled anyway.” There was this carnival in my head of information about what was going on. 

I determined what I was doing because I was doing the exposure, but I wasn’t really getting all that much better. I was getting somewhat better but not all that much better. What I realized I was doing is that I’m having these conversations in my head, which are compulsive. In my recovery journey, what I was doing was I was going to a lot of trainings, I was reading a ton of books, and I talk about this in Is Fred in the Refrigerator?, my memoir, because this was a pretty pivotal moment for me when I read Dr. Jonathan Grayson’s book, Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I know you’re having him on this series as well. I read his book and he talks so much in there about writing scripts to deal with the OCD—writing scripts about what might happen, the worst-case scenario, living with uncertainty, and all that kind of stuff. That really resonated with me and I thought, “Aha, this is what I need to be doing. I need to be doing ERP scripting instead of having that conversation in my head with the OCD. Because when I’m doing exposure and I’m having a conversation with OCD in my head, I’m doing exposure and partial response prevention. I am preventing the physical response, but I’m not at all preventing the mental response, and this was slowing down my recovery.”

The way I like to think of imaginals—you think about imagine like imagination—is that the way I do imaginal exposures, which I just call ERP scripting, is that I’m dealing with OCD’s imagination. People with OCD are exceptionally creative. If you’re listening to this and you think, “Well, not me,” for proof, all you have to do is look at what your OCD comes up with and look how creative it is. You guys share the same brain, therefore, you are creative too. All that creativity. When you have untreated OCD, it goes into coming up with these monstrous scenarios of how you’re harming others or harming yourself. You’re not ever going to be able to handle this anxiety or uncertainty or icky feeling or whatever, and it builds these scary stories that get us stuck. 


What I’m trying to do with imaginal exposure or scripting is I’m trying to deal with OCD’s imagination because in the example I gave, I was picking up the Coke can and my OCD was using its imagination to try to reassure me all the ways this Coke can was going to be okay or all the ways this Coke can was going to eventually get recycled. I needed to deal with that. Really, the way I do ERP Scripting for myself and for my clients is I’m helping people deal with OCD’s imagination in a non-compulsive way. For me, it is not a choice of in vivo or imaginal; it is in vivo with imaginal, almost always, because most people that I see anyway are doing what I did. They are doing physical compulsions or avoidance and they’re up in their head having a conversation with their OCD about it. I’m almost always doing in vivo and imaginals together because I’m having people approach the thing that they want to do that OCD doesn’t want them to do, and I’m having them do scripts. The Coke can may or may not be contaminated. The fact that it’s sitting here and it looks pretty clean may or may not mean that it’s got invisible germs on it. I don’t know. The Coke can may or may not get recycled, it may or may not end up in recycling, but somehow contaminate the whole recycling thing that has to throw all that other recycling away because it touched it. I’m trying to use my imagination to make it even worse for the OCD so that we’re really facing these fears. 

That’s how I conceptualize imaginal exposure. It’s not an AND/OR it’s an AND for me. Some people don’t need it and if they don’t need it, fine. But I find it’s very helpful to make sure that people are doing full response prevention in that they’re permitting both the physical and the mental compulsive response.


Kimberley: Does everyone need ERP scripting? When you say some people don’t need it, what would the presentation of those people be?

Shala: That for whatever reason, they are good at not having the conversation with OCD in their heads. This is the minority of people anyway that I work with. Most people are pretty good at having compulsive conversations with OCD because the longer you have untreated OCD, the more you end up taking your physical compulsions and pulling them inward and making the mental compulsion so that you can survive. If you can’t really do all that physical checking at your office because people are going to see you, you do mental checking. That’s certainly what I did. People become good at doing this stuff in their head and it becomes second nature. It can be going on. I talk about this a lot in Fred, I could do compulsions while I was doing anything else because I could do them in my head. Most people are doing that and most people have been doing that for long enough by the time they see somebody like me that if I just say, “Well, stop doing that,” I mean I’m never going to see them again. They’re not going to come back because they can’t stop doing that. That’s the whole reason they called me. 

I’m giving them something else to do instead. It’s a competing response to the mental compulsions because they don’t know how to stop that. They’re not aware of what they’re doing, they don’t know how to stop the process, so I’m giving them something to do instead of that until they build the mental muscles to be able to recognize OCD trying to get them to have a conversation and just not answer that question in their head. But it takes a long time to develop that skill. It took me a long time anyway. 

Some people, for whatever reason though, are good at that. If they don’t need to do the scripting, great. I think that’s wonderful. They don’t have to do it. The strongest response you can ever have to OCD is to ignore it completely, both physically and mentally. If you can truly ignore it in your head, you don’t even need to do the scripting. It’s a stronger response to just do what you want to do that upsets OCD and just go on with your day.


Kimberley: Amazing. So How do you do ERP Scripting? If you’re not one of those people and OCD loves to come up with creative ideas of all the things, what would be your approach? You talked about imaginals versus scripting. Can you play out and show us how you do it?

Shala: I mean, I guess imaginals in the traditional way that it is defined versus scripting. The way I would do it is we would design the client and I would design whatever their first exposure is going to be. Let’s say that it would be touching doorknobs. They’re going to be in their location and I’m going to be in my location. They’re going to be wherever we’ve decided they’re going to touch the doorknobs. Maybe it’s to the outside of their house, for instance. I’m there on video with them and we have them touch the doorknob. 

And then I asked them, “Well, what is OCD saying about that?” 

“Well, OCD says that I need to go wash my hands.” 

I will say, “Well, are you going to go do that?” 


I’m like, “Well, let’s tell OCD that.” 

“Okay, OCD, I’m not going to wash my hands.” 

“Now what’s OCD saying?” 

“Well, OCD is saying that I’m contaminated.” 

“Well, let’s say I may or may not be contaminated.” 

So far, we’ve got, “I’m not washing my hands and I may or may not be contaminated.” Okay, now I’ll ask them their anxiety level. When they say, “Gosh, I’m at a four,” I’ll say, “Is that good?” They’ll often say, “No, I wish it were zero.” I’ll be like, “I’m sorry, what? What did you say? You want your anxiety to be zero? I must have misheard that. Is four good?” Finally, they understand, “Oh, well, four is not good because we could be higher.” 

“What would be better than four?” 

“Anything above a four.” 

I’m working with them on that. We might start to throw some things in the script. I want to be anxious because this is how I beat my OCD, so bring it on. 

I’ll ask again, “What’s your OCD saying?” 

“Well, it’s saying that I’m going to get some terrible disease.” 

“Well, you may not get a terrible disease.”

I’m questioning back and forth the client as we’re working on this, until we’ve got enough of a dialogue about what’s going on in their head that we can then create a script. A script might look something like, “Well, I may or may not be contaminated. I may or may not get a dread disease, but I’m not washing my hands and I’m going to do this because I want my life back. It makes me anxious and I may or may not get a dread disease.” And then we’ll focus in on what’s bothering OCD most. Maybe it’s, at the beginning, the dread disease. “Well, I may or may not get a drug disease. I may or may not get a dread disease. I may or may not get a dread disease. I may or may not get a dread disease.” We might sing it, we say it over and over and over and over and over again, and look for what the reaction from the OCD is. If the OCD is still upset, then we still go after that. If it starts moving, “Well, what’s OCD saying now?”

“Well, OCD is saying now that if I get a dread disease, then I won’t be able to do this thing that I have coming up that I really want to do.”

“Well, okay, I may or may not get a dread disease and I may or may not miss this important event as a result.” We add that in. 

We do that and do that and do that and do that for whatever the period is that we’ve decided is going to be our exposure period. And then we stop and then we talk about it. What did we learn? What was that like and what did you learn? Really focusing on how we did more than we thought we could do. We withstood more anxiety than we thought we could withstand. What did we learn about what the OCD is doing? I’m not so concerned about what the anxiety is doing. I mean, I want it to go up. That’s my concern. I’m not all that concerned about whether it comes down or not. I do want it to go up. We talk about what we learned about the anxiety that gosh, you can push it up enough and you can handle a lot more than you thought you did. That would be our exposure. 

And then we would plan homework and then they would do that daily, hopefully. I have forms on my website that people can then send me their daily experience doing these exposures and I send them feedback on it, and that’s what we’re working on. We’re working on doing the thing that OCD doesn’t want you to do that you want to do, and then working on getting better and better at addressing all of the mental gymnastics in your head. 

Now, if somebody touches the doorknob and they’re like, “Okay, I can do this,” and then their anxiety comes up and comes back down and they can do it without saying anything, great, go touch doorknobs. You don’t need to do scripting. Often, I don’t know if somebody needs to do that until we start working on it. If they don’t need to do the scripting, great. We don’t do the scripting. Makes things easier. But often people do need to. That’s generally how I do it. Obviously, lots of variations on that based on what the client is experiencing. 

Kimberley: This is all thing, you’re not writing it down. Again, when you go back to our original training, for me, it was a worksheet and you print it out, you’d fill out the prompts. Are you doing any of this written or is this a counter to the mental compulsions in your head?

Shala: None of this is written. The only time I would write it out is after that first session. When you’re really anxious, your prefrontal cortex isn’t working all that well, so you may have trouble remembering what we did, remembering the specific things that we said, or pulling it up for yourself. When you’re doing your exposure, you’re so anxious. I might type out some of what we said, the main things, send it to the clients, and have that. But really to me, scripting is an interactive exercise and I want my clients to be listening to what the OCD is saying for the sole purpose of knowing what we’re going to say. Because when we start doing exposure, what we’re often trying to do is keep pace with the OCD because it’s got a little imagination engine running and it’s going to go crazy with all the things that it’s going to come up with. We’re trying to stay on that level and make sure we’re meeting all its imagination with our own imagination.

As we get better and better at this, then I’m teaching people how to one-up the OCD and how to get better than the OCD as it goes along. But it’s a dynamic process. I don’t have people read scripts because the script that we wrote was for what was going on whenever we wrote the script. Different things might be going on this time. What we’re trying to do is listen to the OCD in a different way. I don’t want people listening to it in a compulsive way. I want people listening to it in a, “I’ve got to understand my foe here and what my foe is upset about so I can use it against it.” That’s what we’re doing. There might be key things, little pieces we write down, but I’m not having people write and read it over and over. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what I do. Everybody has a different way to approach this. This is just my way. 

Kimberley: Right. I was thinking as you were talking, in ERP School, I talk about the game of one-up and I actually do that game with clients before I do any scripting or imaginals or exposures too. They tell me what their fear is, I try and make it worse. And then I ask them to make it even worse, then I make it even worse, because I’m trying to model to them like, we’re going here. We’re going to go all the way and even beyond. If we can get ahead of OCD and get even more creative, that’s better. 

Let’s play it back and forward. You talked about touching a doorknob and all of the catastrophic things that can happen there. What about if someone were to say their thoughts are about harming somebody and they have this feeling of like, I’ve been trained, society has trained me not to have thoughts about harming people or sexual thoughts and so forth? There’s this societal OCD stigmatizing like we don’t think those things. We should be practicing not thinking those things. What would you give as advice to somebody in that situation? 

Shala: I would talk a lot about the science about our thoughts, that the more that you try to push a thought away, the more it’s going to be there. Because every time you push a thought away, your brain puts a post-it note on it that says, “Ooh, she pushed this thought away. This must be dangerous. Therefore, I need to bring it up again to make sure we solve it.” Because humans’ competitive advantage—we don’t have fur, we don’t have fangs, we don’t have claws, we don’t run very fast—our competitive advantage is problem-solving. The way we stay alive is for cave people looking out onto savannah and we can see that there are berries here, there, and yawn. But that one berry patch over there, gosh, you saw something waving in the grass by it and you’re like, “I’m going to notice that and I’m going to remember that because that was different, but I also don’t want to go over there.” Your brain is going to remember that like, “Hmm, there was something about that berry patch over there. Grass waving could be a tiger. We need to remember that. Remember that thing, we’re not going to go over there.” We’re interacting with thoughts in that way because that’s what kept us alive. 

When we get an intrusive thought nowadays and we go, “Ooh, that was a bad thought. I don’t know. I should stay away from that,” our brain is like, “Oh, post a note on that one. That one is like the scary tiger thought. We’re going to bring that up again just to make sure.” Every time we try to push a thought away, we’re going to make it come back. We talk a lot about that. We talk a lot about society’s norms are whatever they are, but a lot of society’s norms are great in principle, not that awesome in practice. We don’t have any control over what we think about. The TV is filled with sex and gore, and violence. Of course, you’re thinking those things. You can’t get away from those images. I think society has very paradoxically conflicting rules about this stuff. Don’t think about it but also watch our TV show about it. 

I would talk about that to try to help people recognize that these standards and rules that we put on ourselves as humans are often unrealistic and shame-inducing and to help people recognize that everybody has these thoughts. We have 40, 60, 80,000 thoughts a day. I got that number at some conference somewhere years ago. We don’t have control over those. I would really help them understand the process of what’s going on in their brain to destigmatize it by helping them understand really thoughts are chemical, neuronal, whatever impulses in our brain. We don’t have a lot of control over that and we need to deal with them in a way that our brain understands and recognizes. We need to have those thoughts be present and have a different reaction to those thoughts so your brain eventually takes the post-it note off of them and just lets them cycle through like all the other thoughts because it recognizes it’s not dangerous. 


Kimberley: Right. I agree. But how far can you go in ERP Scripting? Let’s push a little harder then. This just happened recently actually. I was doing a session with a client and he was having some sexual pedophilia OCD obsessions playing up, “I’ll do this to this person,” as you were doing like I may or may not statements and so forth. And then we played with the idea of doing one up. I actually went to use some very graphic words and his face dropped. It wasn’t a drop of shock in terms of like, “Oh my gosh, Kimberley used that naughty word.” It was more of like, “Oh, you are in my brain, you know what I’m thinking.” And then I had to slow down and ask him, “Are there any thoughts you actually aren’t admitting to having?” Because I could see he was going at 80% of where OCD took him, but he was really holding back with the really graphic, very sexual words—words that societally we may actually encourage our children and our men and women not to say. Do you encourage them to be using the graphic language that their OCD is coming up with?

Shala: Absolutely. I’m personally a big swearer.  That’s another thing I talk about in--

Kimberley: Potty mouth.

Shala: I’ll ask clients, “What’s your favorite swear word? Let’s throw swear words in here.” I want to use the language that their OCD is using. If I can tell that’s the language their OCD is using, well, let’s use that language. Let’s not be afraid of it. 

The other thing I do before I start ERP with anyone is I go through what I consider the three risks of ERP so they understand that what happens during our experience together is normal. I explain that it’s likely we’re going to make their anxiety worse in the weeks following exposure because we’re taking away the compulsions bit by bit, and the compulsions are artificially holding back the anxiety. I explained that their OCD is not going to roll over because they’re doing ERP therapy now. Nobody’s OCD is going to go, “Oh gosh, Shala is in ERP. I think I’ll just leave her alone now.” No, the OCD is going to ratchet it up. You’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, you’re not doing your compulsions, so let’s make things scarier. Let’s make things more compelling. Let me be louder. Your OCD can get quite a bit worse once you start doing ERP because it’s trying to get you back in line. When somebody is in an exposure session and their OCD is actually going places, they never even expected them to go, and I’ll say that’s what we’re talking about, “That’s just the OCD getting worse, that’s what we wanted. This is what we knew was going to happen.” We’re going to use that against the OCD to help normalize it.

Then I also explain to people that people with OCD don’t like negative emotions more than your average bear, and we tend to press all the negative emotions down under the anxiety. When you start letting the anxiety out and not doing compulsions, then you can also get a lot more emotions than you’re used to experiencing so that people recognize if they cry during the exposures, if it’s a lot scarier than they thought, if they have regret or guilt or other feelings, that’s just a normal part of it. I explain all that. When things inevitably go places where the client isn’t anticipating they’re going to go like in a first exposure, then they feel this is just part of the process. I think it makes it so that it’s easier to go those graphic places because you’re like, “Yeah, we expected OCD to go the graphic place because it’s mad at you.”

Kimberley: It normalizes it, doesn’t it? 

Shala: Yeah. Then we go to the graphic place too. I tell clients that specifically because this is a game and I really want them to understand this is what your opponent is likely to do so that they feel empowered so we can go there too and trying some to take the shame out of it. When you said the graphic word and your client had a look on their face and it was because how did you even know that was in my head, because you were validating that it’s okay to have this thought because you knew it was going to be there. I think that’s a really important part of exposure too.


Kimberley: So, how long do you do ERP Scripting for? Let’s say they’re doing this in your session or they’re at home doing their assigned homework. Let’s say they do it for a certain amount of time and then they have to get back to work or they’re going to do something. But those voices, the OCD comes back with a vengeance. What would you have them do after that period of time? Would they continue with this action or is there a transition action or activity you would have them do?

Shala: That’s a great question. It depends a lot on really the stage of therapy that somebody is in and what is available to them based on what they’re going to be doing. Oftentimes, what I will ask people to do is to try to do the exposure for long enough that you’ve done enough response prevention that you can then leave the exposure environment and not be up in your head compulsively ruminating. Because if you were doing exposure for 20 minutes, you’ve done a great job, but then you leave that exposure and you are at a high enough anxiety level where it feels compelling. Now you have to fix the problem in your head even though you just did this great exposure. Then we’re just going to undo the work you just did. I try to help people plan as much as they can to not get themselves in a situation where they’re going to end up compulsively ruminating or doing other compulsions after they finish. But obviously, we can’t be perfect. Life happens. 

I think some of the ways you can deal with that, if you know it’s going to happen, sometimes they’ll ask people to make recordings on their phone and they just put in their earpieces or their earbuds or whatever and they can just listen to a script while they’re doing whatever they’re doing. Nobody has to know what they’re doing because so many people walk around with EarPods in their ears all the time anyway. That’s one way to deal with it. 

Another way to deal with it is to try to do the murmuring out in your head as best as you can. That’s really hard because they’re likely to just get mixed up with compulsive thoughts. You can try to focus your attention as much as you possibly can on what you’re doing. That’s going to be the strongest response. It’s hard for people though when they get started to do that. But if you can do that, I think that’s fine, and I think just being compassionate with yourself. “Okay, so I am now sitting here doing some rituals in my head. I’m doing the best I can.” If you’re not in a situation where you can fully implement response prevention in your head because you’re in a meeting and you got to do other stuff and you’ve got this compulsive stuff running in the background, just do the best you can. And then when you’re at a place where you can do some scripting, some more exposure to get yourself back on top of the OCD, then do that. But be really compassionate. 

I try to stress this to all my clients. We are not trying to do ERP perfectly because if you try to do it perfectly, you’re doing ERP in an OCD way, which isn’t going to work. Just be kind to yourself and recognize this is hard and nobody is going to do it perfectly. If you end up in a situation where you end up doing some compulsions afterwards, well, that’s good information for us. We’ll try to do it differently or better next time, but don’t beat yourself up.  

Kimberley: It’s funny you brought that up because I was just about to ask you that question. Often clients will do their scripting or their imaginal and then they have an obsession, “What if I keep doing compulsions and it’s not good to do compulsions?” Would you do scripting for that?

Shala: Oh yeah. I may or may not do more compulsions than I used to be doing. I may or may not get really worse doing this. I may or may not have double the OCD that I had when I started seeing trauma. This may or may not become so bad that they have to create a hospital just to help me all by myself. We try to just create stuff to deal with that. But also, I’m injecting one up in the OCD, I’m injecting some humor, how outlandish can we make these things? I try to have “fun” with it. Now I say “fun” in quotes because I know it’s not necessarily fun when you’re trying to do this, but we’re trying to make this content that OCD is turning into a scary story. We’re trying to make it into a weapon to use against the OCD and to make this into a game as much as we can.

Kimberley: I love it. I’m so grateful for you coming on. Is there anything that you want the listeners to know as a final piece for this work that you’re doing?

Shala: Sure. I think that there are so many different ways to do exposure therapy. This is the way that I do it. It’s not the only way, it’s not necessarily the right way; it’s just the way I do it and it’s changed over the years. If we were to record this podcast in five years or 10 years, I probably will be doing something slightly different. If your therapist is doing something differently or you’re doing something differently, it’s totally fine. I think that finding ERP in a way that works for you, like finding how it works for you and what works best for you is the most important thing. It’s not going to be the same for everybody. Everybody has a slightly different approach and that’s okay. 

One thing that people with OCD can get stuck on, and I know this because I have OCD too, is we can be black and white and say there’s one right way. Well, she does it this way and he does it that way and this is wrong and this is right. No, if you’re doing ERP, there are all sorts of ways to do it, so don’t let your OCD get into the, “Well, I don’t think you’re doing this right because you’re not doing this, that, or the other.” Just work with your therapist to find out what works best for you. If what I’ve described works well for you, great. And if it doesn’t, you don’t have to do it. These are just ideas. Being really kind and being really open to figuring out what works best for you and being very kind to yourself I think is most important.

Kimberley: Amazing. Tell us where people can get more information about you. Tell us about your book. I know you’ve been on the podcast before, but tell us where they can get hold of you.

Shala: Sure. They can get a hold of me on my website, I have a newsletter I send out once a month that they can sign up for called Shoulders Back! Tips & Resources for Taming OCD. In it, I feature blogs that I write or podcast episodes, other things that I’m doing. It’s all free where I’m talking about tips and resources for taming OCD. I have two books: Everyday Mindfulness for OCD that I co-wrote with Jon Hershfield and Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life, which is my memoir. It is written somewhat like a suspense novel because as all of you know who have OCD, living with untreated OCD is a bit like living in a suspense novel. My OCD is actually a character in the book. It is the villain, so to speak. The whole book is about me trying to understand exactly what is this villain I’m working against. Then once I figure out what it is, well, how am I going to beat it? And then how am I going to live with it long term? Because it’s not like you’re going to kill the villain in this book. The OCD is going to be there. How do I learn to live in a world of uncertainty and be happy anyway, which is something that I stole from Jon Grayson years ago. I stole a lot from him. That’s what the book is about.

Kimberley: It’s a beautiful book and it’s so inspiring. It’s a handbook as much as it is a memoir, so I’m so grateful that you wrote it. It’s such a great resource for people with OCD and for family members I think who don’t really get what it’s like to be in the head of someone with OCD. A lot of my client’s family members said how it was actually the first time it clicked for them of like, “Oh, I get it now. That’s what they’re going through.” I just wanted to share that. Thank you so much for being on the show. I’m so grateful to have you on again.

Shala: Thank you so much for having me. It was fun.

Jun 2, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. Thank you for joining me again this week. I’m actually really excited to dive into another topic that I really felt was important that we address. For those of you who are new, this actually might be a very steep learning curve because we are specifically talking about a treatment skill or a tool that we commonly use in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and even more specifically, Exposure and Response Prevention. And that is the use of imaginals or what we otherwise call scripts. Some people also use flooding. 

We are going to talk about this because there are a couple of reasons. Number one, for those of you who don’t know, I have an online course called ERP School. In ERP School, it’s for people with OCD, and we talk about how to really get an ERP plan for yourself. It’s not therapy; it’s a course that I created for those who don’t have access to therapy or are not yet ready to dive into therapy, where they can really learn how to understand the cycle of OCD, how to get themselves out of it, and gives you a bunch of skills that you can go and try. Very commonly, we have questions about how to use imaginals and scripts, when to use them, how often to use them, when to stop using them, when they become compulsive and so forth. 

In addition to that, as many of you may not know, I have nine highly skilled licensed therapists who work for me in the state of California and Arizona, where we treat face-to-face clients. We’re actually in Los Angeles. We treat patients with anxiety disorders. I also notice that during my supervision when I’m with my staff, they have questions about how to use imaginals and scripts with the specific clients. Instead of just teaching them and teaching my students, I thought this was another wonderful opportunity to help teach you as well how to use imaginals and why some people misuse imaginals or how they misuse it. I think even in the OCD community, there has been a little bit of a bad rap on using scripts and imaginals, and I have found using scripts and imaginals to be one of the most helpful tools for clients and give them really great success with their anxiety and uncertainty and their intrusive thoughts. 

Here we are today, it is again a start of another very short series. This is just a three-week series, talking about different ways we can approach imaginals and scripts and how you can use it to help manage your intrusive thoughts, and how you can use it to reduce your compulsions. 

It is going to be three weeks, as I said. Today, we are starting off with the amazing Krista Reed. She’s been on the show before and she was actually the one who inspired this after we did the last episode together. She said, “I would love to talk more about imaginals and scripts.” I was like, “Actually, I would too, and I actually would love to get some different perspectives.”

Today, we’re talking with Krista Reed. Next week, we have the amazing Shala Nicely. You guys already know about Shala Nicely. I’m so happy to have her very individual approach, which I use all the time as well. And then finally, we have Dr. Jon Grayson coming in, talking about acceptance with imaginals and scripts. He does a lot of work with imaginals and scripts using acceptance, and I wanted to make sure we rounded it out with his perspective. 

One thing I want you to think about as we move into this series or three-part episode of the podcast is these are approaches that you should try and experiment with and take what you need. I have found that some scripts work really well with some clients and others don’t work so well with other clients. I have found that some scripts do really well with one specific obsession, and that doesn’t do a lot of impact on another obsession that they may have. I want you just to be curious and open and be ready to learn and take what works for you because I think all of these approaches are incredibly powerful. 

Again, in ERP School, we have specific training on how to do three different types of scripts. One is an uncertainty script, one is a worst-case scenario script, and the last is an acceptance script. If you’re really wanting to learn a very structured way of doing these, head on over to and you can sign up for ERP School there. But I hope this gets you familiar with it and helps really answer any questions that you may have. 

Alright, let’s get over to the show. Here is Krista Reed.

Imaginals: “A Powerful Weapon” for OCD with Krista Reed

Kimberley: Welcome back, Krista Reed. I am so happy to have you back on the show.

Krista: Thank you. I am elated to be able to chat with you again. This is going to be great.

Kimberley: Yeah. The cool thing is you are the inspiration for this series.

Krista: Which is so flattering. Thank you. 


Kimberley: After our last episode, Krista and I were having a whole conversation and you were saying how much you love this topic. I was like, “Light bulb, this is what we need to do,” because I think the beautiful piece of this is there are different ways in which you can do imaginals, and I wanted to have some people come on and just share how they’re doing it. You can compare and contrast and see what works for you. That being said, number one, do you call it an imaginal, do you call it a script, do you think they’re the same thing, or do you consider them different?

Krista: I do consider them differently because when I think about script, I mean, just the word script is it’s writing, it’s handwriting in my opinion. I mean, scripture is spoken. That’s something a little bit different, but scripting is writing. When I think of an imaginal, that is your imagination. I know that I already shared with you how much I love imaginals because in reality, humans communicate through stories. When we can, using our own imagination, create a story to combat something as challenging as OCD, what a powerful concept. That’s exactly why I just simply love imaginals.

Kimberley: I can feel it and I do too. There’s such an important piece of ERP or OCD recovery or anxiety recovery where it fills in some gaps, right?

Krista: Yes, because imaginals, the whole point, as we know, it’s to imagine the feared object or situation. It could evoke distress, anxiety, disgust. Yet, by us telling those stories, we’re poking the bear of OCD. We’re getting to some of that nitty gritty. Of course, as we know that, not every obsession we can have a real-life or an in vivo exposure. We just simply can’t because of the laws of science, or let’s be real, it might be illegal. But imaginals are also nice for some people that the real-life exposure maybe is too intense and they need a little bit of a warmup or a buy-in to be able to do the in vivo exposure. Imaginal, man, I freaking love them. They’re great. 

Kimberley: They’re the bomb. 

Krista: They really are. 


Kimberley: You inspired this. You had said, “I love to walk your listeners through how to do them effectively. I think I remember you saying, but correct me if I’m wrong, that you had seen some people do them very incorrectly. That you were very passionate because of the fact that some people weren’t being trained well in this. Is that true or did I get that wrong?

Krista: No, you absolutely got it right. Correct and incorrect, I think maybe that is opinion. I’ll say that in my way, I don’t do it that way. That’s a preference. But this is an inception. We’re not putting stories into our clients’ minds. The OCD is putting these stories into our clients’ minds. If you already have a written-out idea of a script, of like fill in the blanks, you are working on some kind of inception, in my opinion. You are saying that this is how your story is supposed to be. That’s so silly. I’m not going to tell you how your story is supposed to be. I don’t know how your imagination works. When we think of just imagination, there’s so many different levels of imagination. 

Let’s say for instance, if I have somebody who comes into my office who is by trade a creative writer, that imaginal is probably going to be very descriptive, have a lot of heavy adjectives. Just the way it’s going to be put together is going to be probably like an art in itself because this is what that person does. If you have somebody who comes in and creativity is not something that is part of a personality trait, and then I have a written fill-in-the-blank thing for them, it’s not going to be authentic for their experience. They’re going to potentially want to do what I, the therapist, might want them to do. It’s not for me to decide how creative or how deep that person is to go. They need to recognize within themselves, is this the most challenging? Is this the best way that you could actually describe that situation? If that answer is yes, it’s my job as a therapist to just say okay.

Kimberley: How would one know if it’s the most descriptive they could be? Is it by just listening to what OCD has to say and letting OCD write the story, but not in a compulsive way? Share with me your thoughts. 

Krista: I think that that’s almost like a double-edged sword because that of itself can almost go meta. How do I know that my story is intense enough? Well, on the surface we can say, “Is it a hard thing to say.” They might say yes, and then we can work through. But if I’m really assessing like, “Is it hard enough, is it hard enough,” and almost begging for them to provide some type of self-reassurance, they might get stuck in that cycle of, is this good enough? Is this good enough? Can it be even more challenging? 

Another thing I love about imaginals is the limit doesn’t exist, because the limit is just however far your imagination can take you. Let’s say that I have a session with a client today and they’re creating an imaginal. I’m just going to give a totally random obsession. Maybe their obsession is, “I am afraid that I’m going to murder my husband in his sleep,” harm OCD type stuff, pretty common stuff that we do with imaginals. They do the imaginal and they’re able in session to work through it. It sounds like it was good. In the session, what they provided was satisfactory to treatment. And then they come back and say, “I got bored with the story,” which a lot of people think that that’s a bad thing. That’s actually a good thing because that’s letting you know that you’re not in OCD’s control of that feared response and you’re actually doing the work. However, they might still have the obsession. I was like, “Okay, so you were able to work through this habituate or get bored of that. Now, let’s create another imaginal with this obsession.” Because it’s all imagination, the stories, you can create as many as you possibly can or as you possibly want to. 

I’m actually going to give you a quote. He’s a current professor right now at Harvard. He is a professor of Cognitive and Educational Studies. If you look this guy up, his name is Dr. Howard Gardner—his work is brilliant. He has this fantastic quote that I think is just a bomb when it comes to imaginal stuff. His quote is: “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” Think about that. What a powerful statement that is. Isn’t that just fantastic? Because we can hear that as the stories OCD tells us as being hard. Okay, cool story, bro, that is your weapon OCD, but guess what? I’m smarter than you and I brought a way bigger gun and this gun isn’t imaginal and I’m going to go ahead and one up you. If I come back that next week in my therapist’s office and I’m able to get bored with that, I can make a bigger gun.

Kimberley: I love that. It’s true, isn’t it? I often will say, “That’s a good story. Let me show you what I’ve got.” It is so powerful. Oh my gosh. Let’s actually do it. Can you walk us through how you would do an imaginal?

Krista: This is actually something that I created on my own taken from just multiple trainings and ERP learning about imaginals, because one of the things that I was realizing that a lot of clients were really struggling with is almost over-preparing just to do the imaginal. Sometimes they would write out the imaginal and then we would work through that. But what I was finding is sometimes clients were almost too fixated on words, reading it right, being perfect, that they were almost missing out on the fact that these are supposed to be movies in our mind.

Kimberley: Yeah. They intellectualize it.

Krista: Exactly. I created a super simple format. I mean, we really don’t have a lot of setup here. It’s basically along the lines of the Five Ws. What is your obsession and what is your compulsion? Who is going to be in your story? Who is involved? Where is your story taking place? When is your story taking place? And when is already one of those that’s already set because I tell people we can’t do anything in the past; the past has already existed. You really need to be as present as possible. But the thing is that you can also think. For instance, if my obsession is I’m going to murder my husband in his sleep tonight, part of that might be tonight, but part of that might also be, what is going to be my consequence? What is that bad thing that’s going to happen? Because maybe the bad thing isn’t necessarily right now. Maybe that bad thing is going to be I’m not going to have a relationship with my children and what if they have grandchildren? Or what if I’m going to go to hell? That might not necessarily exist in the here and now, but you’re able to incorporate that in the story. When is an interesting thing, but again, never in the past, needs to start in the present, and then move forward. 

And then also, I ask how. How is where I want people to be as descriptive as possible. For instance, if I say, and this is going to sound gritty, you’re fearful that you’re going to murder your husband tonight. Be specific. How are you going to murder your husband? Because that’s one of the things that OCD might want us to do. Maybe it is just hard enough to say, “I’m going to murder my husband.” But again, we’re packing an arsenal here. Do you want to just say that? Because I can almost guarantee you OCD is already telling you multiple different ways that it might happen. Which one of those seems like it might be the hardest? Well, the hardest one for me is smothering my husband with a pillow. Okay, that’s going to be it. That’s literally my setup. That’s literally my setup, is I say that.

Actually, I have one more thing that I have to include. I have all that as a setup and then I say, “Okay, at the very end, you are going to say this line, and it’s, ‘All of this happened because I did not do the compulsion.’” If I were going along with the story of I murdered my husband, I suffocated him with a pillow, and in my mind, the worst thing to happen is I don’t have a relationship with my kids and grandchildren, and the compulsion might be to pray—I’ll just throw that out—the last line might be, “And now, I don’t have a relationship with my children or grandchildren all because I decided to not pray when the thought of murdering my husband came up in my mind.” That is the entire setup. 

And then I have my clients get their phones out and push record. They don’t have to do a video, just an audio is perfectly fine. I know some therapists that’ll do it just once, but I actually do it over and over again. Sometimes it could be a five-minute recording, it could be a 20-minute recording, it could be a 40-minute recording. The reason for that being is if we stop just after one, we might be creating accommodation for that client, because I want my clients to be in that experience. That first time they tell that story after that very brief setup, they’re still piecing together the story. Honestly, it’s really not until about the third or fourth time that they’ve repeated that exact same story that they’re really in it. I am just there and every time they finish—I’ll know they finish because they say, “And this happened all because da da da da da”—I say, “Okay, what’s your number?” That means what’s your SUDS? And they tell me they’re SUDS. I might make a little bit, very, very minimal recommendations. For instance, if they say, “I murdered my husband,” I say, “Okay, so this time I want you to tell me how you murdered your husband.” Again, they say the exact same story, closing their eyes all over again, this time adding in the little bit that I asked for. We do that over and over and over again until we reach 50% habituation. Then they stop recording. That is what they use throughout the week as their homework, and you can add it in so many different ways. 

Again, keeping along with this obsession of “I’m afraid I’m going to kill my husband tonight,” I want you to listen to that with, as you probably have heard this as well, just one AirPod in, earbud, whatever, keep your other ear outside to the world. This is its way to talk back to OCD. Just something along the lines of that. I want you to the “while you’re getting ready for bed.” Because if the fear exists at night and your compulsions exist at night, I want you to listen to that story before you go to bed. It’s already on your mind. You’re already in it, you’re already poking the bear of OCD. It’s like, “Okay, OCD, you’re going to tell me I’m going to kill my husband tonight? Well, I’m going to hear a story about me killing my husband tonight.” Guess what? The bad thing’s going to happen over and over and over again. 

It’s such a powerful, powerful, powerful thing. Because it’s recorded, you can literally listen to it in your car. You can listen to it on a plane. You can listen to it in a waiting room. I mean, there’s no limit. 

Kimberley: It’s funny because, for those of you who are on social media, there was this really big trend not long ago where they’re like what they think I’m listening to versus what I’m actually listening to, and they have this audio of like, “And then she stabbed her with the knife.” It’s exactly that. Everyone thinks you’re just listening to Britney Spears, but you’re listening to your exposure and it’s so effective. It’s so, so effective. I love this. Okay, let’s do it again because I want this to be as powerful as possible. You did a harm exposure. In other episodes, we’ve done a relationship one, we’ve done a pedophile one. Let’s pick another one. Do you have any ideas? 

Krista: What about scrupulosity?

Kimberley: I was just going to say, what about scrupulosity?

Krista: That one is such a common one for imaginals. We hear it very frequently, “I’m going to go to hell,” or even thinking about different other religions like, “Maybe I’m not going to be reincarnated into something that has meaning,” or “It’s going to be a bad thing. Maybe I’m insulting my ancestors,” or just whatever that might be. Let’s say the obsession is—I already mentioned praying—maybe if I don’t read the Bible correctly, I’m going to go to hell. I don’t know. Something along the lines of that. If that’s their obsession, chances are, there’s probably somebody that maybe they have a time where they’re reading the Bible or maybe that we have to add in an in vivo where they’re going to be reading or something like that. A setup could potentially be, what is your obsession? “I’m afraid that any time I read my Bible, I’m not reading it correctly and I’m going to go to hell.” What is your compulsion? “Well, my compulsion is I read it over and over and over again and I reassure myself that I understand it, I’m reading it correctly.” Who’s going to be in your story? This one you might hear just, “Oh, it’s just me.” Really, OCD doesn’t necessarily care too much if anybody else is in this story. Where are you? “I’m in my living room. It’s nighttime. That’s when I read my Bible.” When is this taking place? “Oh, we can do it tonight.” Let’s say it’s tonight. 

Interestingly enough, when you have stuff that’s going to go to hell, that means, well, how are you getting to hell to begin with? Because that’s not just something that can happen. Sometimes in these imaginals, the person has to die in order to get there, or they have to create some type of fantastical way of them getting to hell. 

I actually had a situation, this was several years ago, where the person was like, “Well, death doesn’t scare me, but going to hell scares me,” because, in some cultures and some religions, it’s believed that there are demons living amongst us and so forth. “It’s really scary to think about, what if a demon approaches me and takes me immediately to hell and I don’t get to say goodbye to my family, my family doesn’t know.” Just even like that thought. We were able to incorporate something very similar to that. 

Just to make up an imaginal on the spot, it could be, I’m reading my Bible. I’m in my living room, I’m reading my Bible, and the thought pops up in my brain of, did you read that last verse correctly? I decide to just move on and not worry about reading my Bible correctly. Well then, all of a sudden, I get a knock at the door and there’s these strange men that I’ve never seen in my life, and they tell me that they’re all demons, and that because I didn’t review the Bible correctly, I’m going to go to hell. I would go on and on and probably describe a little bit more about my family not missing me, I don’t get to see my kids grow up, I don’t get to experience life, the travel, and the stuff that’s really important to me, incorporate some of those values. I don’t get to live my value-based life. And then at the very end, I was summoned and taken to hell by demons, all because I had the thought of reading my bible correctly and I decided not to.”

Kimberley: I love it, and I love what I will point out. I think you use the same model as me. We use a lot of “I” statements like “I did this and I did that, and then this happened and then I died,” and so forth. The other thing that we do is always have it in present tense. Instead of going, “And then this happens, and then that happens,” you’re saying as if it’s happening.

Krista: Yeah. Because you want it to feel real to the person. In all honesty, and I wonder what your experience has been, I find some of the most difficult people to do imaginals with our children. Even though you would think, “Oh, they’re so imaginative anyways,” one of the biggest things I really have to remind kids is, I want you to be literally imagining yourself in that moment. Again, I see this with kids more than adults, but I think it just depends on context and perspective. We’ll say, “Well, I know that I’m in my living room,” or “I know that I’m in your office, so this isn’t actually happening to me in this moment.” You almost have to really work them up and figure out, what’s the barrier here? What are you resisting?

Kimberley: That’s a good question. I would say 10 to 20% of clients of mine will report, “I don’t feel anything.” I’ll do a Q and A at the end of this series with common questions, but I’m curious to know what your response is to a client who reads like, “I kill my baby,” or “I hurt my mom,” or “I go to hell,” or “I cheat on my husband,” or whatever it is, but it doesn’t land. What are your thoughts on what to do then?

Krista: A couple of things pop up. One, it makes me wonder what mental compulsions they’re doing. And then it also makes me wonder, are we going in the right direction with the story? Because again, like I mentioned before, if a client comes back and they’ve habituated to one thing, but they’re still having the obsession, well, guess what? We’re just telling stories. Because the OCD narrative is typically not just laser-focused—I mean, it can be laser-focused, but usually, it has branches—you can pick and choose. I’m going to go ahead and guarantee, that person who is terrified of killing their husband ensure they’re not going to see their grandchildren and children. I’m going to go ahead and waiver that there’s probably other things that they’re afraid of missing. 

Kimberley: Yes. That’s what I find too, is maybe we haven’t gotten to the actual consequence that bothers them. I know when I’ve written these for myself, we tend to fall into normal traps of subtypes, like the fear that you’ll harm somebody or so forth. But often clients will reveal like, “I’m actually not so afraid that I’ll harm somebody. I’m really afraid of what my colleagues and family would think of me if I did.” So, we have to include that. Or “I’m afraid of having to make the call to my mom if I did the one thing.” I think that that’s a really important piece to it, is to really double down on the consequence. Do you agree?

Krista: Oh, I agree a hundred percent. You got to figure out what is that core fear. What are you really, really trying to avoid? With harming somebody, is it the consequences that might happen afterwards? Is it the feeling of potentially snapping or losing control? Or is it just knowing that you just flat out, took the life of somebody and that that was something that you were capable of? I mean, there’s so many different themes, looking at what does that feared self like, what does that look like, and maybe we didn’t hit it last time.

Kimberley: Right.

Krista: I know this is going to sound silly and I tell my clients this every once in a while, is I’m not a mind reader. What I’m asking you, is that the most challenging you can go and you’re telling me yes, I’m going to trust you. I tell them, if you are not pushing yourself in therapy to where you can grow, I’m still going to go to bed home and sleep tonight just fine. But I want you to also go home and go to bed and sleep just fine. But if you are not pushing yourself, because we know sleep gets affected super bad, not just sleep, but other areas, you’re probably going to struggle and you might even come back next week with a little bit more guilt or even some shame. I don’t want anybody to have that. I want people to win. I want people to do well in this. I know this stuff is scary, but I’m going to quote somebody. You might know her. Her name is Kimberley Quinlan. She says, “It’s a beautiful day to do hard things.” I like to quote her in my practice every once in a while. 

Kimberley: I love her. Yes, I agree with this. The way you explained it is so beautiful and it’s logical the way you’re explaining it too. It makes sense. I have one more question for you. Recently, I was doing some imaginals with a client and they were very embarrassed about the content of their thoughts. Ashamed and guilty, and horrified by their thoughts. I could see that they were having a hard time, so I gave them a little inch and I went first. I was like, “Alright, I’m going to make an assumption about what yours is just to break the ice.” They were like, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what it is.” There was a relief on their face in that I had covered the bases. We did all of the imaginal and we recorded it and it was all set. And then at the end I said, “Is there anything that we didn’t include?” They reported, “Yeah, my OCD actually uses much more graphic words than what you use.” I think what was so interesting to me in that moment was, okay, I did them the favor by starting the conversation, but I think they felt that that’s as far as we could go. How far do you go?

Krista: As far as we need. 

Kimberley: Tell me what that means.

Krista: Like I mentioned before, the limit does not exist and I mean, the limit does not exist. This is going to sound so silly. I want you to be like a young Stephen King before he wrote his first novel and push it. Push it and then go there. Guess what? If that novel just doesn’t quite hit it, write another one, and then another one, and let’s see how far you can go. Because OCD is essentially a disorder of the imagination, and you get to take back your imagination by creating the stories that OCD is telling us and twisting it. I mean, what an amazing and powerful thing to be able to do. I’m sure you’re the same in that you know that there’s a lot of specialists that don’t believe in imaginals, don’t like imaginals, especially when it comes to issues with pedophilia OCD. I think we also need to not remind our clients because that would be reassurance, but to tell these specialists, we’re not putting anything into our client’s heads that aren’t there to begin with. Just like you said, if your client is thinking like real sick, nasty core, whatever, guess what? We’re going to be going there. Are you cutting off the heads of babies in your head? Well, we’re going to be talking about stories where you’re cutting off the heads of babies. If that’s what’s going on, we’re going to go there.

Kimberley: What’s really interesting, and this was the example, is we were talking about genitals and sexual organs and so forth. We’re using the politically correct term for them in the imaginal. Great. Such a great exposure. Vagina and penis, great. Until again, they were like, “But my OCD uses much more graphic words for them.” I’m like, “Well, we need to include those words.” Would you agree your imaginals don’t need to be PC?

Krista: I hope my clients watch this, and matter of fact, I’m going to send this to them, just to be like, no, no. Krista’s imaginals with her clients. Well, not my imaginals. Imaginals that are with my clients. Woah, sometimes I’m saying bye to my client. I’m like, “I think I need a shower.”

Kimberley: Again, when people say they don’t like imaginals or they think that it’s not a good practice, I feel like, like you said, if OCD is going to come up with it, it gives an opportunity to empower them, to get ahead of the game, to go there before it gets there so that you can go, “Okay, I can handle it.” I would often say to my clients, “Let’s go as far as we can go, as far as you can go, so that you know that there’s nothing it can come up with that you can’t handle.”

Krista: I think that where it gets even more complex is when we’re hitting some of the taboo stuff. Not only pedophilia, but something like right now that I’m seeing a lot more of in my office is stuff relating to cancel culture. This fear that what if I don’t use somebody’s pronouns correctly? What if I accidentally say an inappropriate racial slur? I will ask in session and I’ll be super real. It’s hard for me to hear this stuff because this goes outside of my values. Of course, it goes outside of their values. OCD knows that. That’s why it’s messing with them. I’ll say, “Okay, so what is the racial slur?” My clients are always like, “You really want me to say it?” I said, “We’re going to say it in the imaginal.” I realized how hard that is to stomach for therapists. But in my brain, the narrative that OCD is pushing, whether it is what society views as OCD or taboo OCD, it doesn’t matter. We still have to get it out. It is still hard for that client. If that’s hard for that client to think of an imaginal or a racial slur, it is almost the exact same amount of distress for somebody maybe with an imaginal that I’m afraid I’m getting food poisoning. 

We, as clinicians, just because we’re very caring and loving people, sometimes we can unintentionally put a hierarchy of distress upon our clients like, okay, I can do this imaginal because this falls with my values, but I don’t know if I can do this imaginal because pedophilia is something that’s hard for me to do and I don’t want to put my client through that. Well, guess what? Your client is already being put through that, whether you like it or not. It’s called OCD.

Kimberley: Right. Suppressing it makes it come on stronger anyway. Love that. I think that the beauty of that is there is a respectful value-based way of doing this work, but still getting ahead of OCD. Is that what you’re saying?

Krista: Absolutely. OCD tries to mess with us and think, what if you could be this person? Well, like I mentioned before, if a story is like a weapon, well, I’m going to tell a story to attack OCD because it’s already doing it to me.

Kimberley: Yeah. Tell us where people can hear more from you, get your resources because this is such great stuff.

Krista: Thank you. I’d say probably the best way to find me and my silly videos would be on my Instagram @anxiouslybalance.

Kimberley: Amazing. And your private practice?

Krista: My private practice, it’s A Peaceful Balance in Wichita, Kansas. The website is

Kimberley: Thank you so much. I’m very grateful for you for inspiring this whole series and for also being here as a big piece of the puzzle.

Krista: Thank you. I’m grateful for you that you don’t mind me just like this. I’m grateful for you for letting me talk even though clearly, I’m not very good at it right now. You’re amazing.

Kimberley: No, you’re amazing. Thank you. Really, these are hard topics. Just the fact that you can talk about it with such respect and grace and compassion and education and experience is gold. 

Krista: Thank you. At the end of the day, I really truly want people to get better. I know you truly want people to get better. Isn’t that just the goal?

Kimberley: Yeah. It’s beautiful. Krista: Thank you. 

May 26, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. Today, we are going to have a discussion, and yes, I understand that I am here recording on my own in my room by myself, so it’s not really a discussion. But I wanted to give you an inside look into a discussion I had, and include you hopefully, on Instagram about a post I made about being busy. 

Now, let me tell you a little bit of the backstory here. What we’re really looking at here is, is being busy a compulsion or an effective behavior? Here’s the backstory. I am an anxious person. Nice to meet you. Everybody knows it, I’m an anxious person. That’s what my natural default is. I have all the tools and practice using all the tools and continue to work on this as a process in my life. Not an end goal, but just a process that I’m always on, and I do feel like I handle it really, really well. In the grand scheme of things, of course, everyone makes mistakes and recovery is an up-and-down climb. We all know that. But one thing I have found over and over and over and over again is my inclination to rely on busyness to manage my anxiety. 

338 Staying Busy VS. Compulsive Busy-ness (and How to tell the difference)

The reason I tell you this over and over is it’s a default to me. When I’m struggling with anything, I tend to busy myself. Even when I had the beginning of an eating disorder, that quickly became a compulsive exercise activity because trying to manage my eating disorder created a lot of anxiety, and one way I could avoid that anxiety and check the eating disorder box was to exercise, move my body. Even though I fully recovered from that, and even though I consider myself to be doing really well mentally overall, I still catch myself relying on work and busyness as a compulsion, as a safety behavior to reduce or remove or avoid my anxiety. 

I made a post on this and it had overwhelming positive responses. Meaning, I agree, there was a lot of like, “Oh, I feel called out or hashtag truth.” A lot of people were resonating with this idea that being busy can be a very sneaky compulsion that we do to run away from fear or uncertainty or discomfort or sadness and so forth. But then some of my followers, my wonderful followers came in hot—when I say “hot,” like really well—with this beautiful perspective on this topic and I really feel like it was valid and important for us to discuss here today.

Let’s talk about that, because I love a good discussion and I love seeing it from both sides. I love getting into the nitty gritty and determining what is what. Let’s talk about me just because it’s easy for me to use an example. Let’s say I have a thought or a feeling of anxiety. Something is bothering me. I’m having anticipatory anxiety or uncertainty about something. My brain wants to solve it, but because I have all these mindfulness tools and CBT tools, I know there’s no point in me trying to solve it. I know there’s no point in me ruminating on it. I’m not going to change it or figure it out. I have that awareness, so I go, “Okay, now I’m going to get back to life,” which is a really wonderful tool. But what I find that I do is I don’t just get back to life. I, with a sense of urgency, will start typing, cleaning, folding laundry, whatever it is, even reading. I will notice this shift in me to do it fast, to do it urgently, to try and get the discomfort to be masked, to be reduced. 

And then, of course, I want to share with you, what I then do is when I catch that is I go, “Okay.” I feel the rev inside me and then I ease up on it. I pump the brakes and I try to return back to that activity without that urgency, without that resistance to the anxiety, or without that hustle mentality. But it is a default that I go to that often I don’t catch until later on down the track. It’s usually until I start to feel a little dizzy, I feel a little lost, a little bit overwhelmed. And then I’m like, “Oh, okay, I’m overusing busyness to manage my anxiety.”

The perspective that I loved was people saying, and one in particular said, “I want us to be really careful around that message because I think that some people can hear this idea that being busy is a compulsion and then start to question their own normal busyness throughout the day.” I’ll use the exact terms because I thought it was so beautifully said. They said, “You have to be pretty careful with how you explain this to some people with OCD because we’re told to lean into our values or live a ‘value-based’ life, and that does require us to be busy,” and I wholeheartedly agree. 

I think that’s where I’m coming from. I want to offer to you guys that I want you to just check in and see if you’re using busyness, this urgent, rushing movement, or frantic experience in your body to avoid discomfort. And if so, that’s good to know. Let’s not judge that. Let’s not beat you up. Let’s not be unkind. Let’s just acknowledge that that is a normal response to having anxiety. In fact, it’s a big part of what’s kept us alive for all these years. That’s true. And we can return back. Once we catch that we’re doing those behaviors, we can return back to staying effective in our skills. But I don’t want you guys to worry that you are overusing busyness. 

I think that the discussion I had online was to say, isn’t this a wonderful opportunity for us to see how anxiety or OCD or any anxiety disorder can make a really healthy behavior into a compulsive behavior? You might flip between the two, it mightn’t be all or nothing. An example of that might be prayer. Prayer is a beautiful practice for those who are spiritual. However, we can sometimes overuse prayer in a compulsive manner in this urgent, frantic, trying to get anxiety to go away manner, and then it’s being misused. 

There may be sometimes you use prayer in this beautiful non-compulsive way and there’ll be other times when you’re absolutely using it as a safety behavior. Same goes for cleaning, same goes for thinking through your problems. There will be times when thinking through problems and solutions is a very effective behavior. However, there will be other times if you’re doing it with a sense of urgency to make the discomfort go away or you’re doing it to try and figure out something that you know you won’t figure out because there’s really no solution to it—that’s something for us to keep an eye out for.

There are so many ways in which this can get blurred. Asking for help and reassurance. It’s not a problem to go to your loved ones and say, “I have this really huge presentation at work, would you let me rehearse it to you and you can give me feedback?” That’s an effective behavior. However, if we are doing that repetitively and we are doing it coming from this desperate place of urgency to get certainty and removal of discomfort, that’s how we may determine whether the behavior is a safety behavior that we want to start to reduce.

I want to just offer this to you. If we’re being honest, this episode isn’t really about just the busyness. It’s being able to, again, for yourself, determine are the behaviors you’re doing being done because they line up with your values? Are they being done with a degree of willingness to also bring anxiety with you? I think that’s a huge piece of the work that I have to catch, which is, okay, I’m rushing, I’m hustling, I’m engaging in busyness just for the sake of trying to get rid of that discomfort. Can I pause and return back to that behavior? Because it might be a behavior or an activity I need to get done. But can I do it with an increased sense of willingness to bring anxiety along for the ride? Can I do it with a sense where I’m not trying to train my brain that anxiety is bad? Can I just say, “Yeah, it’s cool. Anxiety is here, let’s bring it along”? 

I want to, again, reinforce to you guys, it’s okay that you haven’t figured this out because it’s probably ever-changing. There will be times when you are engaging in compulsive busyness and there’ll be other many times in which you’re not. What I would encourage you to do is not to spend too much time trying to figure out which is which, because that can become a compulsion as well. A lot of this is just accepting that nothing is perfect and just moving one step at a time moving forward as you can kindly and compassionately. 

The only other thing I want to address here is this idea of a good distraction and a bad distraction. I think that this has been an argument or a complex discussion in the anxiety field for a long time. When I first was trained as an anxiety specialist, there were all these articles that talked about bad distraction, that distraction is bad and we shouldn’t do it, and we should just have our anxiety and let it be there and then focus on it and so forth. I actually don’t agree with that. In fact, I would go as far as to say, a real mindful practice would be taking the judgment out of destruction in general and saying that distraction is neither good nor bad. What distraction is, is up to you to decide whether it’s helping you and is helpful behavior that brings you closer to your recovery goals or not. I don’t want you to spend too much time trying to figure it out either, again, because I think it gets us caught in this mental loop of, am I doing recovery right? Am I doing my treatment right? Am I using the skills perfectly? 

I think when we get to that point, we’re too far in the weeds and we have to pause and let it be imperfect and let it be uncertain and do our best not to try and solve that one, because often how would we know? There isn’t actually an answer to what’s bad and what’s good. I wouldn’t encourage you to place good and bad labels on those kinds of things because that usually will just keep you in a loop of anxiety anyway. 

That’s just a few ideas on this idea of being overly busy being a compulsion. I really want to make sure I say one more time. I think there is absolutely an opportunity for us to consider that busyness is also neither good nor bad. It just is, and that you for yourself can determine whether it’s helpful for you to stay busy or not. What I will say—and I will use this as an example, I think I actually did a podcast episode on this—not long ago, my parents were voyaging across the Drake Passage, which is a very dangerous body of water that takes you from South America to Antarctica. It’s usually very, very calm or it can be incredibly dangerous to pass the Drake Passage. For the 18 hours that they were passing that, I engaged in a lot of busyness. I would say it wasn’t compulsive either. It was, I knew they were doing something scary. I knew that it would be probably fine, but it was still uncertain. I knew that there was nothing I would do to make my anxiety go down during that 18 hours. I knew I probably wouldn’t get a good sleep because I love them dearly and I want them to have a safe trip. I just said to myself, “I’m going to mindfully go from one activity to another. Because I don’t want to engage in a bunch of mental rumination, I’m just going to gently stay busy.” I think that’s fine. I think that that is effective. In fact, I was very proud of how I handled that. I was able to resist the urge to text them at two in the morning and be like, “Take a photo of the waves. I want to see that you’re okay.” You know what I mean? 

I want to just offer to you that to check in whether your busyness is compulsive, be gentle with yourself either way to discuss with your mental health provider on what is a great way for you to engage in this kind of behaviors and for you to come up with your own protocol on how to determine when you’ve crossed over from being busy into compulsive busyness. That’s it. I think that from there, you can be gentle with yourself and practice being uncertain about what’s right and wrong. 

I hope that was helpful. I’m very much just chatting to you. I didn’t do a whole ton of prep for this. I just wanted to include you in the conversation on “Is being overly busy a compulsion?” I wanted to give you some ideas and things to look out for and I hope that it helps you move forward towards the recovery that you’re looking for. Have a wonderful, wonderful day. If you guys want additional resources from me, you can head over to We have all kinds of online options there for you. If you’re looking for one-on-one therapy, if you live in the state of California or Arizona, you can go to and I look forward to chatting with you next week.

May 19, 2023

Hello and welcome back, everybody. We have an amazing guest today. This is actually somebody I have followed, sort of half known for a long time through a very, very close friend, Shala Nicely, who’s been on the show quite a few times, and she connected me with Dr. Ashley Smith. Today, we are talking about happiness and what makes a “good life” regardless of anxiety or of challenges you may be going through. 

Dr. Ashley Smith is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She’s the co-founder of Peak Mind, which is The Center for Psychological Strength. She’s a speaker, author, and entrepreneur. She has her own TED Talk, which I think really shows how epic and skilled she is. 

Today, we talk about how to be happy. What is happiness? How do you get there? Is it even attainable? What is the definition of happiness? Do we actually want it or is it the goal or is it not the goal? I think that this is an episode I needed to hear so much. In fact, since hearing this episode as we recorded it, I basically changed quite a few things. I will be honest with you, I didn’t actually change things related to me, but I changed things in relation to how I parented my children. I realized midway through this episode that I was pushing them into the hamster wheel of life. Ashley really helped me to acknowledge and understand that it’s not about success, it’s not about winning things, it’s not about achievement so much, while they are very important. She talks about these specific things that science and research have shown to actually improve happiness. 

I’m going to leave it at that. I’m going to go right over to the show. Thank you, Dr. Ashley Smith, for coming on. For those who want to know more about her, click the links in the show notes, and I cannot wait to listen back to this with you all. Have a great day, everybody. 

337 How to be happy (when you have anxiety)

Kimberley: Welcome, Dr. Ashley Smith. I’m so happy to have you here.

Dr. Ashley: I am excited to be here today. I’ve wanted to be on your podcast for years, so thank you for this.

Kimberley: Same. Actually, we have joint friends and it’s so good when you meet people through people that you trust. I have actually followed you for a very long time. I’m very excited to have you on, particularly talking about what we’re talking about. It’s a topic we probably should visit more regularly here on the show. We had discussed the idea of happiness and what makes a good life. Can you give me a brief understanding of what that means or what your idea about that is?

Dr. Ashley: Yeah. Oh, this is a topic that I love to talk about. When I think about it, I have a little bit of a soapbox, which is that I think our approach to mental health is broken. I say that as someone who is a mental health practitioner, and I really love my job and I love working with people and helping. But what I mean by that is our traditional approach has been, “Let’s reduce symptoms. Let’s correct the stuff that’s ‘wrong’ with someone.” When it comes to anxiety or depression, it’s how do we reduce that? And that’s great. Those are really important skills, but we’ve got this whole other side that I think we need to be focusing on. And that is the question of how do we get more of the good stuff. More happiness, more well-being. How do we create lives that are worth living? That’s not the same as how do we get rid or reduce anxiety and depression.

In the field of psychology, there’s this branch of it called Positive Psychology. I stumbled on that 20 years ago as a grad student and thought, “This is amazing. People are actually studying happiness. There’s a science to this.” I looked at happiness and optimism and social anxiety and depression and how those were all connected. Fast forward, 15 years or so, I really hit a point with my professional life and my personal life where I was recognizing, “Wait a minute, I need more. I need more as an individual. The clients I work with need more. How do we get more of this good stuff?” This is the longest preamble to say, I did a deep dive into the science of happiness and learned a lot over the years, and I want to be really clear about a couple of things.

When we talk about happiness, a lot of people think pleasure. “I want good experiences, I want to enjoy this.” That’s a part of it, this positive emotion that we all call happiness or joy. But that’s only a piece of it. There’s actually this whole backfiring process that can happen when we chase that. If I’m just chasing the next pleasant event, what that actually does is set me up to not have a happy life. Think about it. I mean, I love chocolate, and if I eat that unchecked because it brings me pleasure, at some point, it’s going to take a toll on my health. What does that actually do to my well-being and happiness? 

What was really interesting getting into this area was, it’s not just this transient state of pleasure or enjoyment, but they’re the other factors that contribute to a good life. It’s things like relationships. It’s things like meaning and purpose. It’s engagement. It’s achievement even. It’s these things that are not always pleasant in the moment, but that really contribute to this sense of satisfaction with life or contentment with life. I think it’s really important that we need to be looking at what are the ingredients that really make a good life. 


Kimberley: I love this, and I love a good recipe too. I like following recipes and ingredients. It’s funny, I’m actually in the process of getting good at cooking and I’m realizing for the first time in my life that following instructions and ingredients is actually a really important thing, because I’m not that person. First of all, what is a good life? When I looked at that, I actually put it in quote marks. What is a good life? What do you think? You explained it; it’s not chasing pleasure. We know that doesn’t work, otherwise, you just buy a bunch of stuff you don’t want and behave in ways that aren’t helpful. Not to also villainize pleasure, it’s a great thing, but what would you describe as a good life?

Dr. Ashley: On the one hand, it’s the million-dollar question. Philosophers and scientists and religious leaders and all kinds of people have been trying to answer that question for eons. I don’t know that I have it nailed down. I think I’m humble enough to say I have my own ideas about it. To me, what makes a good life, it’s really when the way we spend our time lines up with what’s important to us, when we’re living in accordance with our values to use some psych buzzwords, but when we’re doing the things that really matter. I think also part of a good life is having daily rhythms and lifestyle habits that support us as biological creatures. I want to contrast that with the demands of modern life, which are that we should be productive 24/7, that we should be multitasking. People sacrifice sleep and movement and leisure time and stillness. I think all of that compromises us. It impacts us on a neurological level. Our brains are part of our system. If we’re not taking care of our system, they’re not going to function optimally. That gets in the way of a good life. 

When we’re sacrificing relationships, when I look at all of the research, when I look at my own experience, a huge component of a good life is having quality relationships. Not quantity, quality. Trusting ones that are full of belonging and acceptance that are two-way support streets, those are really important. I think a lot of times, modern life compromises that. We get pulled in all of these other directions.

Kimberley: Yeah. Oh my gosh, there’s so many things. I also think that anxiety and depression pull us away from those things too. You are anxious or you’re depressed and so, therefore, you don’t go to the party or the family event or the church service. That’s an interesting idea. I love this. Tell us about this idea of meaning. How do we find meaning? I’ll just share with you a little bit of my own personal experience. I remember when I was actually going through a very difficult time with my chronic illness and I know I was depressed at the time. It was the first time in my life where I started to have thoughts like, “What’s the point?” Not that I was saying I was suicidal, but I was more like, “I just don’t understand why am I doing all this.” I think that that’s common. What are your thoughts on this idea of the meaning behind in life?

Dr. Ashley: That’s a fantastic question. I have a vision impairment, so I’m legally blind. It’s a really rare thing and it’s unpredictable. I don’t know how much sight I will lose. Ultimately, the doctors can’t tell me there’s no treatment options. It’s just I go along and every so often, there’s a shift and I see less. For me, I hit that same point you were talking about back in 2014 when I had to stop driving. I was anxious and I would say depressed and really wallowing in this, “What does this mean for my life? I can’t be independent. People aren’t going to associate with me personally or professionally when they see this flaw.” It was a dark point. For me, that’s when I went back to the science of happiness when I finally got tired of being stuck and I realized my anxiety skills and my depression skills. They’re helpful and I practice what I preach, but it wasn’t enough. And that’s really what propelled me back into this science of happiness where I figured, you know what, someone has to have done this. 

I did come across this theory of well-being called the PERMA factors. These are like the ingredients that we need. I’m getting back to that because the M in this is meaning. With this, the PERMA factors, P is positive emotion. That’s the pleasure, the joy, the happiness. Cool. I know some strategies for boosting that. E is engagement. Are you really involved and engaged in what you’re doing? Are you present? Are you hitting that state of flow? R is the relationships, A (skipping ahead) is achievement, but M is this meaning, and it’s a hard one to figure out. 

I remember then, this started what I was calling my blind quest for happiness where I started to think about, what do I need to do? How do I experiment? How do I live a happy life despite these cards I’ve been dealt? We don’t get to choose them. You’ve got a chronic illness, I have a vision impairment, listeners have anxiety and depression, and we get these cards. I think of it like if life is a poker game, we don’t get to choose the cards we’re dealt, but by golly, we get to choose how to play them, and that’s important. I think a lot of times people can turn adversity into meaning.

For me, I’m now at a point where it’s not that I don’t care about my vision, it’s just I really accepted it. It is what it is, it’s going to do what it’s going to do, and I’m focusing on the things I can control. That has given me a sense of meaning. I want to help other people live better lives. I want to help other people crack the code of how our brains work against us and how do we play our cards well.

If we go to all of this, “meaning” is really just finding something that’s bigger than you are, finding something to pursue or contribute to that’s bigger than you. I think when we look at anxiety and depression, the nature of those experiences is that they make us very self-involved. I mean, people with anxiety and depression, in my experience, have giant hearts, tons of empathy, but it locks our thinking into our experience and what’s going on in these unhelpful thoughts. 

When we can connect with something bigger than us, it gets us outside of that. 

If I go back to grad school, writing my dissertation was decidedly not a fun experience. Would I do it again? Yes. Because it was worth it on this path to my reason for being—helping people live better lives. Sometimes I think when we have this meaning, this purpose, this greater good, it helps us endure the things that I want to say suck.

Kimberley: You can say suck.

Dr. Ashley: Yeah. That’s where it’s not just about how do I get rid of anxiety or depression. Sometimes we can’t. Chronic health conditions, anxiety is chronic. My vision is chronic. I’m not getting rid of this, but how do I live a good life despite that? I think there are a ton of examples throughout history and currently of people doing amazing things despite some hardship. 

Kimberley: Yeah. I love this idea. It’s funny, you talk about being outside yourself. When I’m having a bad day, I usually go, there’s like a 10 minutes’ drive from us that looks over Los Angeles. If let’s say I’m having a day where I’m in my head only looking at my problems, and then I see LA, I’m like, “Oh honey, there is a whole world out there that you haven’t thought about.” I’m not saying that in a critical way, just like it gives me perspective.

Dr. Ashley: I think that’s so important, to realize there’s so much more. When it does shrink our problems, all of a sudden, it’s manageable.

Kimberley: Right. Let’s talk about just one more question about meaning. I’m guessing more about people finding what’s your why and so forth. What would you encourage for people who are very unhappy, have been chasing this idea of reducing anxiety, reducing depression, chasing pleasure, and feeling very stuck between those? Let’s say I really have no idea what my meaning is. What would be your advice to start that process? 

Dr. Ashley: Experimentation. I think experimenting is a lifestyle that I wish everyone would adopt, because what happens is we want to think. We are thinkers. That’s what our minds were designed to do. That’s awesome and sometimes it’s really helpful, but I don’t think we’re going to think our way into passion or meaning or a good life. I think we have to start trying things. What will happen, if you notice, is your mind is going to have a lot of commentary. It’s going to say, “That’s dumb. That’s not going to work. Who are you to try that? You can’t do that.” It’s all just noise that if we look at what is it doing, it’s keeping you stuck. With the experimentation, I’m just a big fan of go try it. Whether you think it’s going to work or not, you don’t know. We want to trust our experience, not what our mind tells us. Trust your actual experience. 

For me, I remember getting my first self-help book. It was actually called Go Find Your Passion and Purpose. Because I was at this crossroads, I had been doing anxiety work for a long time, had plateaued, and was feeling a little bored, and that coincided with the stopping driving. My whole personal world was just in disarray and I was like, “I’m going to go hike part of the Appalachian Trail while I can. While I do that, I’m going to find my purpose in life.” I did not find it, but it was an experiment. I go and I get this experience and I can say, “Okay, I’m not going to be someone who does a six-month hike. I made it four days. Awesome.” But go and experiment with things. I never thought that I would really want to write and I started a blog, and that has turned out to be such a positive experience. Prior to that, my writing experience had been very academic where it was a chore. Now, this is something I really enjoy, or talking to people. 

I would say experiment and continue to seek out those new experiences. One, seeking out new experiences helps on the anxiety side because you’re continually putting yourself into uncertain and new, so your confidence level is going to grow, your tolerance for not knowing grows, and your tolerance for awkward grows. That’s my plug for go try new things, period. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to find something that sparks an interest or that sparks this sense of, “Yeah, this is me.” Notice that. I know you talk a lot about mindfulness, we need to notice what was my actual experience, not what did my head tell me. What did I actually feel? And keep experimenting until you find something. I think that’s really the key.

Kimberley: I love that you said your tolerance for awkwardness. I think that is a big piece of the work because it is a big piece. We talk about tolerating discomfort, tolerating uncertainty, but I think that’s a very key point, especially when it comes to relationships, which I know is one of the factors. Tolerate the awkwardness is key.

Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I think it’s huge. I’ve been seeking out new experiences since 2017. This is going to be my New Year’s resolution. It was such a transformational experience over the course of the year that I’ve just continued it, and I’m trying to get everybody to join me because it’s such an expansive practice. I think it’s great for anxiety and depression, it’s great for humans, it’s been great for me on this quest for a good life. But with this, it means I have put myself into some awkward situations on purpose. Sometimes I know going into it, sometimes I don’t. 

I went to this one, it was called Nia. I practice yoga. That’s cool. That’s very much in my comfort zone. This was yoga adjacent, but it was also an interpretive dance with sound effects. You had to make eye contact with people and dance in these weird ways. I distinctly remember having this conversation with myself when I showed up, “What did you just get yourself into?” And then it was immediately, “Okay, you have two choices here. You can grit your teeth and hate the next hour, or you can embrace the awkward and dance at a three. Because she said, you can dance at a one, itty bitty, at a two or at a three and really go for it.” That for me was my, “All right, let’s just do this.” I embrace the awkward, and that was a turning point. That was amazing. And then now, when I think about good life, I feel like so many doors are opened because I’m not afraid of, “This is going to be awkward.” It’s going to be and you’re going to be okay or it’s going to make a hilarious story. I said, “Go for it.”

Kimberley: You’re here to tell the story. I love it. You didn’t die from awkwardness.

Dr. Ashley: No.

Kimberley: Can you tell me about the P? Can you go through them and just give us a little bit more information? Because I think that’s really important.

Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I love this theory because you can think about it as like, how are my PERMA factors doing? When you’re low, raise them. You know that those are the ingredients for a good life. The P is positive emotion. That is, we do need to spend time in positive emotional states. The more time we’re in the positive emotional states, the better compared to the negative ones like anxiety or sadness, or anger. Now that said, we know if we try to only pursue pleasure, it’s going to backfire. If I’m trying to avoid anxiety, I’m actually going to get more anxiety. But this is where behavioral activation comes in. Do things that are theoretically enjoyable and see if it puts you in a positive state. Again, theoretically enjoyable, because if you’re in the throes of depression, nothing feels enjoyable, do it anyways. And then notice, did it bring on a pleasurable emotional state? Cool. We want to do those things. 

E is engagement. This is when people talk about finding flow or being in the zone. These are the activities that you’re fully engaged in it. Self-consciousness goes away. You lose track of time because you’re just in it. We know that the more consistently we are able to put ourselves in states of flow, the higher our well-being tends to be. Athletes will talk about this a lot. When they’re on the field, they’re in the zone. Musicians, artists. But there are other ways to do this. This is a place for me personally, I didn’t know. I was like, “Well, okay, great. I need E, I need engagement. What puts me in a state of flow?” It took experimentation and noticing. For me, writing does it. Web design, I’m not techy, but when I start to do design projects, I get in that state of flow. It has to be this perfect apex, this perfect joining of skill and pleasure, like enjoyment. If it’s too easy, you will not go into a state of flow. That’s just the P. If it’s too hard, we go into a state of stress or anxiety, so that’s not flow. We have to be right on the cusp of our skillset. It’s hard work, but we’re into it. That’s the E.

R is relationships. We need quality relationships where we are being open, where we are being vulnerable, we’re really connecting with other people. That is huge. I mean, if we look at what’s the best predictor of life satisfaction, it’s quality relationships. This also is doing things for other people. Altruism, ugh, I love this side note. The act of kindness thing hits on three different factors. It feels good to do something good for other people. If you want a mood boost, go do an act of kindness. That reliably boosts our mood. It also improves relationships and it can tap into that meaning. I love that as just a practice. 

The M we talked about, that’s meaning. And then the A, that’s achievement for achievement’s sake. As humans, it feels good to conquer goals. It feels good to accomplish things. And that contributes to our well-being independently of the positive feelings that we get from it, or the meaning in the relationships or the engagement. I’m also a really big fan of set goals and then crush them. It can be silly little things like, I’m going to hold my breath for two minutes. Okay, cool. That’s a silly little thing, but then it feels good to do it. Or it could be something huge like crossing those bucket list things off your list.

Kimberley: You know what’s funny around achievement? I’ve got a couple of questions, but first I want to tell you your stories. Last year, I was struggling to do a couple of things that were really important to me for my medical health. I found an app called Streaks. Have you heard of Streaks? It’s a $5 app. But when you do the action, and for me it was taking my medicine, it does this little spiral and then it’s like, “You’ve done this for three days in a row.” And then tomorrow you click it and then it says, “You’ve done it for four days in a row.” You would think that the benefits of taking my medicine would be enough. But for me, it’s actually knowing I get that little positive reinforcement of like, “Look at me, I’ve taken my medicine for 47 days in a row, or now are like 300 days in a row.” I don’t think I deserve a medal for being able to take my medicine. But for me, that little bit of reward center on the achievement was a huge shift for me. And then it became, how many days did you practice your Spanish in a row? Even like, how many days did you do your Kegels? I’ve got all of the streaks happening and it’s really incredible how that little achievement piece does boost your mood.

Dr. Ashley: Yeah. But what I love about this is you’re also talking about how to hack the system. We’re talking about our brains and this is the stuff that just lights me up, because oftentimes our minds will say, “Well, you should just take your medication. You should just do these things.” Well, that’s not how it works. There’s a million reasons why we don’t do the things we know we should do. But can we figure out how to hack the system? Yeah. Our brains love streaks. They love streaks.  it taps our reward centers, like you’re saying, and so let’s use the tools that work. That got you if your goal is to take your medication consistently. Using our brain’s glitchy wiring to our own advantage is something that’s huge. That did it. And then it does feel good. And then you get some momentum going and then you create a habit around that and it’s fantastic.

Kimberley: Yeah. What about those who are overachieving to the point that it’s bringing their happiness down? What would we do there? 

Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I think that’s a great question and it’s something that comes up a lot, especially when we look at anxiety and perfectionism. At least the way I think about it is coming back to what’s driving this. Is this being driven by fear? Is this being driven by values? For me, I almost think of it as—I’m going to try to make sense with it—is it the -ing or the -ed? Meaning, the doING (I-N-G) or the -ed as in I did this past tense. What I mean by this is, I notice for me when I’m approaching something, say a big goal, like I want to write a book this year. If I can approach that from a place of, “I am doing this because this is important to me, I feel driven to get this message out into the world,” the -ing, the process of doing it, that feels like it’s going to boost my wellbeing when I start to get pulled into the thoughts of the outcome. I’m going to write this book and how many people are going to read it and is it going to sell? I’m really looking at all of this, and underneath that is fear. What if it doesn’t sell? What if people judge it? What if they think it’s stupid? Then I’m focusing on the outcome, kind of when it’s done. That I think is actually going to detract from my well-being because it’s not coming from a valued place; it’s coming from this feared place. 

A lot of times with overachieving, we’re chasing this other people’s expectations or we’re chasing this promise of happiness. When you do this, then you’ll be happy. It’s not going to work like that. It may be for a moment and then the bar just changes again. Now you’ve got another target. We have to come back to this, I think the process or the journey. Are you doing this because it matters to you, or are you doing this because some sort of fear is compelling you? 

Kimberley: Right. I’m just asking questions based on the questions I would’ve had when I was struggling the most. I remember hearing something that blew my mind and I actually want your honest opinion about it. I remember I used to chase happiness, like you talked about, even though I was doing all these things. I was doing all these things, but there was that anxious drive behind it. I remember hearing somebody saying life is 50/50. Even though you’re doing all these things, you’re still going to have 50% great and 50% hard. For me, that was actually very relieving. I think I was caught in and I think a lot of people experienced this like, “Okay, I’m at 50%, how can I get to 55? How can I get to 56?” What are your thoughts on also accepting that you won’t be happy all the time, or what are your thoughts on balancing this goal for happiness or this lifelong playfulness around happiness? 

Dr. Ashley: I agree with you completely. I think we have this cultural myth that we should be happy all the time. If you’re not happy, there must be something wrong. You’re doing something wrong. It sets up even this idea that being happy all the time is possible. It isn’t. If we look at, again, happiness, what people mean by that is a pleasurable or enjoyable state, an emotion that we like. Humans are wired. Two-thirds of our emotions would be under that negative category. Just by the way we’re wired, we’re more likely to have negative emotions, and they’re just messengers. They’re just designed to give us information about a situation. Some of them are going to be dangerous, so we’re going to feel anxious. Or we’re going to lose something we care about, so we’re going to be sad. We’re going to mess up, so we’re going to feel guilty. It’s unrealistic to expect to not have those emotions. I think that is a hundred percent something that we need to work on, just accepting happiness all the time is not possible and pursuing it is like playing a rigged game. 

The other thing, you know how on the anxiety side we talk about facing fears because then you habituate or you get used to them. But that habituation process happens on the pleasurable side too. This is why when we chase happiness, we end up on this hedonic treadmill where it’s, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this thing. And then I’m going to feel really happy,” and you are. And then you’re going to habituate. Your body goes back to baseline so that happiness fades. If you’re looking to an external source, you’re going to get caught up in this always chasing something bigger and better, not sustainable. 

I like to look at happiness as the side effect of living a good life. Do the things that we know matter. Take care of your health and wellbeing. Sleep, eat well, move your body, practice mindfulness, the PERMA factors that we talked about, and live in line with your values. If you’re doing those things, happiness is the side effect of that.

Kimberley: To make that the goal, not happiness the goal. 

Dr. Ashley: Yeah. 

Kimberley: I think that’s very, very true. Again, for me, it was a massive relief. I remember this weight falling off of like, “Oh,” because I think social media makes it so easy to assume that everyone is just happy, happy, happy content, to feel all the things. It was delightful to be like, “Oh no, everyone’s got a 50/50.”

Dr. Ashley: Exactly. When we know that’s normal, then all of a sudden, you can accept it. Like, I’m anxious for now, I’m sad for now. To do that, it does keep us from piling on extra. I have this saying that I love, “Just because life gives you a cactus doesn’t mean you have to sit on it.” A lot of times, we sit on it because we’re ruminating or I don’t want to feel this way and we’re fighting it. And that’s just amplifying it and making it a lot harder. When we can say, “Oh, this is where I’m at today. I’m still going to choose to do the things that I know are good for me, that are part of me, living a good life by my standards or my terms,” that’s going to be the side effect, is I’m going to end up with more happiness down the road, but not chasing it in that moment.

Kimberley: I love this. Thank you for coming on and talking about this. I think this has been enlightening and so joyful to have these conversations. I feel a little lighter, even myself, after chatting with you, so thank you. Tell me how people can hear from you, get in touch with you, learn about your work.

Dr. Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. I have a blog that I publish every week, so if you’re interested in that, you can subscribe at, o you can just check out all of the blog posts. That’s probably the best way to follow me and follow my work. I also have a TEDx Talk that came out pretty recently and you can watch that as well. It’s called Is Your Brain Deceiving You, and talk a little bit about learning to play my cards well.

Kimberley: I love the TED Talk. Congratulations on that. It was so cool. 

Dr. Ashley: Thank you. 

Kimberley: Thank you again for coming on. This has been just delightful. Really it has.

Dr. Ashley: I appreciate you having me.

May 12, 2023

Hello and welcome back, everybody. I’m so happy to be here with you. This is not the normal format in which we do Your Anxiety Toolkit podcast, but I wanted to really address a question that came up in ERP School about how to manage 10 out of 10 anxiety. 

For those of you who don’t know, over at, we have a whole array of courses—courses for depression, generalized anxiety, panic, OCD, hair pulling, time management, mindfulness. We have a whole vault of courses. In fact, we have a new one coming out in just a couple of weeks, which is a meditation vault. It will have over 30 different meditations. The whole point of this is, often people say to me that the meditations that they listen to online can become very compulsive. It’s things like, “Oh, just let go of your fear or make your fear go. Cleanse away and dissolve,” and all the things. That’s all good. It’s just, it’s hard for people with severe anxiety to conceptualize that. That whole vault will be coming out very, very soon. 

336 How to Handle 1010 Anxiety

But this is actually a question directly from ERP School. Under each video of all the courses, there is always a place you can ask questions, and I do my best to respond to them as soon as I can. But I did say to this student, I will actually do an entire podcast on your question because I think it’s so important. 

Here is what they said: “Hi Kimberley, I love all the information you give us. I get so much more out of this than I do with a therapy session for one hour once a week. That being said, I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed. There is just so much information and so many tools.” 

Yes guys, I admit to that. I do tend to heavy-dose all of my courses with all the science. I can bring in as many tools as I can with the point being that I want you to feel like you have a tool belt of tools, in which you can then choose which one you want to use, so I totally get what they’re saying here. 

They said: “When I’m at a 10 out of 10, I’m hardly able to function and it all seems to go out the window. It either seems that noticing works as I run through my list of tools or I can’t even think straight enough to check in with myself or even think about the tools I could use. So, where do I even start in those terrible moments?”

This is a really good question, and I think every single one of my clients in my history of being a therapist has asked this question. I know I have asked this question to my therapist because even as a therapist who has all the tools in those moments, it can feel overwhelming.

What I did here is I pulled all of my followers on Instagram and asked them to give me their tools that they find helpful, and then I’m going to weigh in myself, and then I’m going to encourage you to just practice any of them. Now, often what happens—and this is the case for what obviously someone’s bought a course from me—is when you have all of these options, we fall into the trap of thinking there is a “right” tool to use, and I want to reframe that. In addition, there’s another myth that that one tool will make all your discomfort go away or that will be the tool of all tools for recovery. I want to really normalize that there is no one tool. 

The whole reason that I do Your Anxiety Toolkit is to remind you that you’re going to have to practice multiple different things, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, and it’s okay if it’s not a 10 out of 10 win. Meaning, it’s okay if it’s not perfect. Often I’ll say to clients, use the tools, even if it’s 50% effective. That’s still 50% effective more than what it would be in the past, which might be 0% effective or 1% effective. We take any wins we can take and we use it not as a fact that you’re a failure if it didn’t work, but more as just data on what to use for the next time.

At the end of the day, the goals are: Did it give me a 1 or 2% improvement on how I handled it the last time? 1 or 2%, folks. That’s all I’m goaling for here. Was I kind as I practiced it? And, did it move me towards the five-year you, or the three-year you, or the one-month you? The you who’s in one month, does it move you towards that person that you’re trying to be? I often will think about me through the terms of, what would the five-year me do in this situation? What would the three-year me do? What would the three-month me do? It might be different, and then I just pick one. Knowing it’s probably not perfect, but that’s okay. 

I have polled a whole bunch of people on Instagram because I honestly feel like folks who were in the thick of it actually are better at giving tools than even I am as a trained clinician who’s been through it. Of all of the different responses we got, I’ve actually broken it down into two separate sections per se. We’ve got mindset shifts and tools and actions. Again, these may actually feel again like, “Oh my gosh, now I have even more tools,” which is not a bad problem. 


But I want you in the moment that you’re at a 10 out of 10 to just pick one and be curious about it. I’m going to say here that the one I loved the most—I’m going to just actually give you one of the tools and actions first—is somebody (multiple people wrote this, in fact) said, just take one moment at a time. I have to say at a 10 out of 10 anxiety, that has been the most helpful for myself and for my clients. That when you slow down and you make it really simple, that’s actually the best way to respond. 

We have these bigger concepts like ERP and habit reversal training and mindfulness and all these big concepts. What’s the saying? The rubber hits the road or something like that. When it gets really hard, simplify things, go back to basics, slow down, and just go, “Okay, all I have to do is get through this minute. What can I do in this one minute?” Slow it down. That’s one of the tools and actions. 


The second tool and action is somebody says, “I notice my five senses,” which is a more tactical skill of being present (be an observer) and in the moment, which is your mindfulness skill. For them it might be: What do you see? What do you smell, what do you taste? Some people play games with this. A lot of my clients have said, “When I’m at a 10 out of 10 and I’ve just faced my biggest fear, or I’ve been triggered, I find six different colors.” You’re not doing that to suppress your thoughts or make the fear go away. You’re doing it because that’s response prevention. You’re not engaging in catastrophization and mental rumination. Instead, you’re just being an observer of what’s in your present moment. 


A lot of you folks said, “Breathe, that the only thing I do is breathe.” Again, I love this because it’s simple. Now, does that mean we have to breathe a certain way? A lot of people said three breath-in and four counts out, or box breathing. It doesn’t matter. Please don’t put pressure on yourself. For me, I just really put attention on my breath in and my breath out. I say to myself, “I’m breathing in knowing that I’m breathing in and I breathe out knowing I’m breathing out.” Very, very simple. 


A next person said, “It feels awful, but I do nothing more than just talk to it, accept that it’s here, and breathe.” Again. These are really simple things. What I’m going to encourage you guys to do is just pick one of these things and play with it for a day or a couple of days, whatever it feels good. And then check in and be like, “How did that work? Was that successful at helping me stay present and reduce behaviors that actually create more problems?” 


Someone says, “I just feel my feet on the floor.” Again, these are so basic, but almost everybody’s response wasn’t like, “I practice these very complex skills.” They’re just talking about simple, really basic things. “I put my feet on the floor.”


Someone says, “I splash cold water on my face.” Again, simple. They’re just bringing their attention to sensations in the present. 


Someone said, “I pray.” I love that some of you bring your religion into it or your faith. “I pray and I be quiet.” Some of you might call that a form of meditation. 


This one I really love. Someone said, “I cry. I embrace crying. It’s such a good emotional release.” This one’s really hard for me, you guys. I’m a crier, but when I’m at a high level of anxiety, I feel like there are no tear ducts in my eyes, like I can’t get myself to cry. But really when I do allow myself to cry, it is such a cathartic experience, especially if I do it kindly. 


Someone says they work out. I think that there’s some interesting piece to that. Let me just bring a little nuance to that. When we work out, really what I think we’re doing is we’re putting our attention on something that is very strategic, like 15 bicep curls. Or you get on the treadmill, you listen to some music, and so forth. I love this tool. 


One thing to think about, and the only reason I’m telling you this is just because I myself used to use working out as a skill and it was very helpful. But if you are someone who’s prone to an eating disorder or compulsive exercise, just keep an eye out for that because, for me, my healthy practice of working out ended up becoming a compulsive eating disorder compulsion. Now, for most of you, that’s probably not the case, but I think with any of these things, like any time we overdo it or we do it to make the fear go away or to avoid the fear, we can get ourselves a little bit into trouble there. So just keep an eye out for that. For me, when I heard that, I was like, “Oh gosh, no, I couldn’t do that.” But I think for most of you and many of you, that is a really effective tool. We do have research that exercise is a very, very helpful way of managing anxiety. I do still work out for that exact reason, but we have to be careful of becoming compulsive


Now, of the last of the tools, P.S. It’s actually mine. I did weigh in on the end. My tool and action that I would weigh in, in addition to all of these great ideas, is validate, validate, validate. One of the things I think we miss is when we’re at a 10 out of 10, whether that be anxiety, sadness, depression, stress, panic, whatever it may be, we forget to validate ourself by going, “This is really hard.” It makes complete sense that you can’t think about what tools. You’re at A 10 out of 10. It makes complete sense that this is something that is rocking your world. You could say, “Anybody in this position would struggle to find tools.” 

Validate, validate, validate. That’s a self-validation, guys. A self-validation. It might be simply as much as you saying, “It’s okay that you’re struggling, I got you,” which moves me to the mindset shifts. There’s only four of them, but I thought they were beautiful. The reason I separated them is sometimes when we are in the 10 out of 10, naturally, our brain will send us to get away from here, fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. How can we make the fear go away and get out of this “dangerous” situation? If you can, often you won’t be able to. Again, there is some research that when you’re at a 10 out of 10, it’s very hard to actually have a mindset shift. But on the lower 6s, 7s, and 8s out of 10s, if you practice it, I think it gets a little easier. 

Here are some of the things that a lot of the folks did weigh in on and say. 


Number one mindset shift is, “I remind myself that I don’t have to solve the thoughts I’m having.” Great mindset shift because in those moments, we’re like, “What is the answer? What is the answer? We need to figure it out,” and so forth. I love that. 

The second one is, “I remind myself that I’m resilient and strong.” Total shift, away from, “I can’t handle this, what do I do” to “I’m resilient and strong.” For me—I’ll weigh in here—I often say, “Everything is figureoutable. I’ll figure this one out.” That sentence has changed my life because it takes away the pressure of having to find solutions right now and says, “I’m in a process now. I’ll figure it out. We’ll get to the end of it. It might take some bounces and bumps.”

The third one is of course my all-time favorite, which is, “I can do hard things.” Today is a beautiful day to do hard things. So good. It can remind you that this is a moment to lean into. 

I think this last one here is really important. someone weighed in and said, “I remind myself that being uncomfortable doesn’t mean dangerous.” This is gold, you guys. 

There are some ideas of the people who weighed in and the most common responses. Let me also say, to be honest, a lot of people wrote, “I totally can’t handle it and I just fall apart.” A lot of people were making jokes like, “I throw a tantrum on the floor.” They were basically saying, “I haven’t figured it out yet.” I want to just really emphasize again the importance that it’s okay if you don’t have the 10 out of 10s figured out. We are not here to win all of the challenges. 

I have been thinking about this a lot lately and I’ll actually use this as the final point. In our society and even in the community that I have built here, I have to also acknowledge that we can sometimes overdo the “Face your fears, use the tools, fix yourself, get better.” That message can be very, very helpful but also sometimes a little overachieving, a little condescending, a little pressured. 

I want to just conclude here, if you are early in your recovery and you’re working on the 4s, 5s, and 6s out of 10, you’re doing enough. If you’re in the middle of your recovery or you’re accelerating in your recovery and you’re doing the 7s, 8s, and 9s, it’s okay that you don’t yet have the skills to do the 10s. Don’t focus too much on that. Just keep the expectations realistic. I don’t want you to leave today thinking, “Okay, now I have to go do those tools and I have to handle 10 out of 10s well.” That’s a lot to ask. I don’t handle the 10 out of 10s perfectly. Nobody does. I know so many anxiety specialists who also don’t handle the 10 out of 10s perfectly. Let’s not fantasize that or let’s not make that a thing so that you are constantly feeling like you have to be doing this perfectly. 

Again, do what you can. Practice. This is trial and error. If it does work, great. If it doesn’t work, well good to know. Let’s just try again next time. It mightn’t work next time, that’s fine. Just good to know. We’re not here to always win every battle, but the fact that you asked this question, the fact that your inquiring shows me how much you value your recovery and how much you want to overcome this problem. For that, I applaud you. I applaud everyone listening. I hope that today was helpful for you. 

Again, for those of you who are interested, go to We have a whole vault of different courses you can take. We do have some new ones coming out here this year, which I’m super excited about. We’ve got courses for depression, all the things. You can go and listen to those. They are on demand. You have unlimited access. You can watch them as many times as you want. Take notes. Just listen, whatever you want to do, and I hope that you find them helpful. 

Have a wonderful day, everybody, and I will see you next week.

May 5, 2023

Welcome back, everyone. I am so happy to do the final episode of our Sexual Health and Anxiety Series. It has been so rewarding. Not only has it been so rewarding, I actually have learned more in these last five weeks than I have learned in a long time. I have found that this series has opened me up to really understanding the depth of the struggles that happen for people with anxiety and how it does impact our sexual health, our reproductive health, our overall well-being. I just have so much gratitude for everyone who came on as guests and for you guys, how amazing you’ve been at giving me feedback on what was helpful, how it was helpful, what you learn, and so forth. 

Today, we are talking about PMS and anxiety, and it is so hopeful to know that there are people out there who are specifically researching PMS and anxiety and depression, and really taking into consideration how it’s impacting us, how it’s affecting treatment, how it’s changing treatment, how we need to consider it in regards to how we look at the whole person.

Today, we have the amazing Crystal Edler Schiller on. She is a Psychologist, Assistant Professor, and Associate Director of Behavioral Health for the University of North Carolina Center for Women’s Mood Disorders. She provides therapy for women who experience mood and anxiety symptoms across the lifespan. She talks about her specific research and expertise in reproductive-related mood disorders. She was literally the perfect person for the show, so I’m so excited. 

In today’s episode, we talked about PMS, PMDD, the treatments for these two struggles. We also just talked about those who tend to have an increase in symptoms of their own anxiety disorder or mood disorder when at different stages of their menstrual cycle. I found this to be so interesting and I didn’t realize there were so many treatment options. We talked about how we can implement them and how we may adjust that depending on where you are in terms of your own recovery already. 

I’m going to leave it there and get straight over to the show. Thank you again to Crystal Schiller for coming on, and I hope you guys enjoy it just as much as I did.

335 PMS and Anxiety

Kimberley: Thank you so much for being here, Crystal. This is a delight. Can you just share quickly anything about you that you want to share and what you do?

Crystal: Sure. I’m a clinical psychologist at UNC Chapel Hill. I’m an Associate Director of the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, where we provide treatment to people with reproductive hormones across the lifespan—starting in adolescence, going through pregnancy, postpartum, and all the way up through the transition to menopause. We also do research. My research focuses on how hormones trigger depression and anxiety symptoms in women. I do that by administering hormones, so actually giving women hormones and looking at the impact on their brain using brain imaging and then also studying specific symptoms that they have with that treatment. We’ve given hormones that mimic pregnancy and postpartum, and we also use hormones to treat symptoms as women transition through menopause and look at, like I said, how that impacts how their brain is responding to certain kinds of things in the environment and also how they report that changes their mood. 


Kimberley: Wow. You couldn’t be more perfect for this episode. You’ve just confirmed it right there. Thank you for being here. Before we get started, mostly we’re talking about what we call PMS, but I know that’s actually maybe not even a very good clinical term and so forth. Can you share with us what is PMS and What is the difference btween PMS and PMDD? 

Crystal: Yeah. PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome. It actually is a medical diagnosis and it includes a host or a range of physical symptoms as well as some mild psychological symptoms. It can be things like breast tenderness or swelling, bloating, cramps, menstrual pain, as well as some anxiety, low mood, mood fluctuations. But those tend to be mild in a PMS diagnosis. PMS is really common in the general population. Some studies estimate 30, 40, 50% of women experience these symptoms. Very, very common. On the other hand, premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a condition that is associated with more severe depression and anxiety symptoms. The mood symptoms are more at the forefront, although those physiologic symptoms like the breast tenderness, swelling, pain, cramps can certainly be a part of it. 


Most women with PMDD do have those physical symptoms as well. Pain is a commonly reported symptom in folks with PMDD, but the mood fluctuations are more severe. People spend about half their menstrual cycle usually with pretty severe symptoms. And then once the period starts, those symptoms go away in PMDD. That’s actually part of the criteria for the disorder that the symptoms have to what we call clear out or remit soon after menstrual bleeding starts. So, that’s for the formal diagnosis of PMDD. 

But then all sorts of people with anxiety or depression have what we call a premenstrual exacerbation of symptoms, so it’s also possible to have, let’s say generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, OCD, and have those symptoms get worse during certain periods of the menstrual cycle. We wouldn’t say that that person has PMDD; they just have a premenstrual worsening of symptoms. For some women, that occurs during that time, the week or two leading up to a period, but others have symptoms that are more around ovulation. Other women have symptoms that persist through the period. That’s the interesting thing. But also, the really complicated thing about this space is that there’s so many individual differences where some people have symptoms that sometimes, but not others. And then if you look at symptoms across the menstrual cycle and the next person, it may show a totally different pattern. But then over time, that pattern is maintained. It is clearly a pattern and a function of hormone change, but it can look different between different people.


Kimberley: Why is it so different for different people? Do we understand that yet, or do we not have enough research?

Crystal: We don’t have enough research. This is a relatively new area that one of my colleagues, Dr. Tory Eisenlohr, has been working on at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What she has been finding is that there are different subgroups or subtypes of people with this premenstrual worsening where, like I said, some people have it right before their period; others more around ovulation. Some people seem to have worsening symptoms when their hormone levels are going up. Other people have worsening symptoms when their hormone levels are going down. Some people have worsening symptoms anytime there’s a fluctuation or change. That’s what we see in my research as well. When I start administering hormones in some women, they almost immediately start experiencing anxiety and irritability. And then as soon as I take the hormone away, they feel better. Whereas other women feel terrible until their hormones even out again, and I’ve stopped messing with them so much. It’s really individualized and it probably has something to do with genetic predisposition as well as early environment. It’s this combination of factors.


Kimberley: Right. I could be so off base here, and please just tell me if I am. While we know it’s chemical, hormonal, biological, and genetic, is there also a small percentage of people who have these shifts from a cognitive component to where they’ve maybe had some depressive symptoms in the past, and so that when it comes on, they’re anxious about the symptoms coming on? Does anxiety increase during PMS? Is it as cognitive as well, or are you more looking at just the physiological piece?

Crystal: Both, for sure. First of all, you’re not way off base. That’s totally what I see in the clinic, that as folks have had these experiences with hormonal shifts and they had some anxiety or symptoms of depression during those times, it raises concern as they go through those similar hormonal shifts in the future. It becomes, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like, “Oh my gosh, this time is going to be so horrible, I must prepare for it. Oh no, here it comes.” And then it is terrible because you’re expecting it to be terrible on some level. 


Crystal: There are great treatment options for PMS and PMDD. That’s what we do in cognitive behavioral therapy for these very symptoms, is working through some of those expectations about how things are going to be and what we can actually do to prepare for it so that it doesn’t end up being bad just because we think it’s going to be bad.

But that’s not to say that there isn’t also a hormonal driver because for some people, there clearly is. Again, that’s what makes this work so interesting and complicated, is that it’s both for so many people. And that’s what makes treatment somewhat complicated. CBT can go a long way toward helping with these symptoms. Not everybody, of course, can afford to access CBT. There are medication options as well, but the combination of these treatments seems to work the best for that reason.

Kimberley: Yeah. CBT is good for so many things, isn’t it? 

Crystal: Yeah. 

Kimberley: This is a perfect segue into questions I commonly get. I’m not a medical professional, everybody knows that. I’m a therapist. But people will often report to me that their doctor said, “There’s nothing you can do. It’s your hormones, it’s your cycle. You have to ride it out and ride the PMDD or ride out your OCD or ride out your anxiety or your panic and just wait.” Would you agree with that? If so, or if not, what treatments would you encourage people to consider?

Crystal: Okay, I want people to know that that is absolutely not true. If a medical provider tells you that, go see someone else because it’s just not true. I actually hear the same thing all the time from my own patients and from our research participants too. They raised this concern with their physician; it wasn’t taken seriously. That’s why I do this work because I think it’s really important. We do have good treatments that work. There are a whole bunch of different things that people can try. 


Crystal: Because I mentioned there are different ways in which hormones influence mood symptoms across individuals, the unfortunate news is that we have certainly different medication for pmdd + pms treatments that work for a lot of people, but you have to work with a physician that you like to find the combination or the exact right treatment for you. It’s not like a one-and-done where you would go in and say, “Okay, great, you’re going to put me on this low-dose antidepressant and I will feel better and it will completely take care of this.” The thing that I would really encourage people to do is find a physician who’s willing to work with them and see them regularly in the beginning, once every few weeks, or even more often as they try these different treatments to see what’s going to work. I already mentioned cognitive behavioral therapy. That’s a first-line treatment option for PMDD as well as for this premenstrual exacerbation or cyclic exacerbation of underlying anxiety or depression. 

The other thing that works well for PMDD is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. SSRIs that are used to treat depression and anxiety work well for PMDD but the mechanism is different, which is really interesting. A lot of people I hear from are reluctant to take SSRIs because they’ve heard that they’re difficult to come off of eventually if they wanted to, that you can become dependent on them. The good news for PMDD, for people who are worried about those studies, is actually, you don’t have any dependence on it because you only take it during that period of the menstrual cycle that’s problematic for you. You can take it just those two weeks leading up to the beginning of your period and then stop taking it once the period starts. That has been shown to fully prevent PMDD symptoms in some women. And then some other people take it all the time, like around the whole menstrual cycle just because it’s hard to remember to start it, or because they’re not exactly sure when their period is going to start. If you’re not super regular, it’s hard to know and you might miss that window of opportunity to start it before the mood symptoms. That’s another option. But SSRIs are another first-line treatment option. 

And then some women have really good success with oral contraceptives. Low-dose combined estrogen-progestin contraceptives are what’s recommended. Yaz is the only one that’s FDA-approved to treat PMDD, but it’s not all that dissimilar from any other low-dose combined oral contraceptive. Sometimes it isn’t covered by all insurances. If that one is not covered, I tell people to ask their doctor about what are the other alternatives because you shouldn’t be paying tons and tons of money for your oral contraceptive. 

And then the other thing that often helps, for women who have some symptom relief with Yaz or other oral contraceptives, is to take it continuously because, as I mentioned, it is often that hormone change that seems to provoke symptoms in folks. If you don’t have a period, then you don’t have any hormone change. It’s those placebo pills that cause a period, it’s the switching from a low-dose hormone to then having that withdrawal of progestin that causes a period. But you don’t medically need one. You can ask your doctor to prescribe the hormone continuously and not have a period at all. And that works well for a lot of folks with PMDD as well. And then you can combine all these different treatments. 


And then, in addition, some other non-pharmacologic lifestyle changes to help PMS anxiety and PMDD. Exercise has been shown to help. Regular exercise I think enhances all of our moods. It has the same effect within PMDD. There’s some studies showing that taking calcium seems to reduce symptoms as well. For most of our patients, I just have them start taking a multivitamin and try to boost up that calcium a little bit. But like I said, a lot of people need a combination of treatments. Different SSRIs work in slightly different ways and may be more effective for some people than others. Just because the first SSRI doesn’t work doesn’t mean that you couldn’t try another one. Again, it’s just a matter of finding a physician that’s willing to work with you to find the right combination and dose of these various treatments. Also possible for some people that none of these things work and those cyclic mood symptoms persist. And then there are other more invasive options for folks who don’t have good success with any of these.

Kimberley: Right. I have a couple of questions about that. You’ve just given us an amazing treatment plan, or treatment options for someone who is experiencing PMDD or they’re having more onset of anxiety not to maybe that degree. I just want to clarify, for those who also have a chronic anxiety disorder, I’m assuming, but please again correct me, that they wouldn’t be one of the people who should be coming off of their SSRIs; they should stay on them if you’ve got an additional psychiatric or a mental illness on the side.

Crystal: Correct. I would never advise someone to come off of their SSRI if they’re still having some breakthrough cyclicity in their symptom exacerbation. What I would suggest instead is to try adding on some of these other options. If you’re already on an SSRI and not doing CBT, that’s maybe where I would start, is to first track your mood symptoms relative to your period. This is a step that many people skip. The only way to diagnose PMDD, but also an important indicator for this cyclic exacerbation of symptoms, is to track every day your mood symptoms. You can just do this really easily on a calendar, even in the Notes app on your phone. I just have my patients make a mood rating of 0 to 10. 0 is feeling terrible, awful, worst I’ve ever felt; 10 is the best I’ve ever felt. It can be as simple as that. Or you can even use a smiley face symptom like, okay, feeling happy, feeling terrible. It doesn’t have to be anything special. There are apps and things you can use as well to do this. But what we’re looking for is a regular pattern of mood change relative to the menstrual cycle. Once you’ve established there is a regular pattern, then a CBT therapist can help you, like I said, prepare for those times and use some coping skills or strategies to manage those mood symptoms. 

But I think the treatments are largely the same for people with PMDD versus other anxiety and depressive disorders. But if you have more of a chronic picture that just has some change in symptoms around the menstrual cycle, then you wouldn’t come off your SSRI. That’s just for people with pure PMDD. 


Kimberley: I’m thinking about questions I’m assuming people will ask, and what comes to mind is, as myself as an OCD Specialist and as an anxiety specialist, we use CBT, but there are different types of CBT. We do a lot of exposure and response prevention for OCD and so forth. When we are talking about CBT, I want us to really be clear about what that looks like compared to all these other forms. What would that look like specific to somebody who has these symptoms, particularly around their menstrual cycle? Would it be more focused on the cognitive component or would it be an equal balance between managing cognitive distortions and behavioral activation? If we did behavioral activations, what would that look like?

Crystal: I’m just going to lay my bias out on the table that I tend to lean more on the B side of CBT. I tend to be a behaviorist, and I do a lot of behavioral activation because, in my experience, it tends to work well in this space and for this population of folks. We do some behavioral planning. We track behaviors and mood symptoms. What did you do or not do when you were having that feeling of frustration or irritability and how did that work out for you? We get pretty in the weeds of like, what did you say, and then what happened next, and that sort of thing, and then we figure out like, okay, how do we prevent this kind of exchange from happening in the future when you’re feeling really frustrated or irritable, if it caused problems, because sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes anger, frustration, or irritability serves as fuel to make a behavior change that needs to be made. It’s a signal that something isn’t working well. I don’t want to pathologize all negative emotions because they’re not always bad. 

Anyways, we look at what happened and where are the points at which we could have intervened and we rewind back in time to say, “Okay, how did you sleep the night before that thing happened that didn’t go so well? Were you eating that day? What was that like? Were you already pretty depleted going into this negative interaction with your boss?” How do we prepare for the next cycle to make sure that you are allotting enough time to sleep and protecting that sleep time, not staying up super late, getting emails done or something, but really taking good care of yourself, eating well, drinking enough water, taking care of yourself the way you would take care of a child? And then from there, we talk about, “Okay, let’s say this frustrating thing happens again and you’re noticing yourself getting anxious or frustrated in that moment. What are some tools or skills we could use to respond?” Here, we might use something like taking a break, like, “All right, I noticed I’m getting really upset. I need to take a break from this interaction so that I don’t say something that I might regret.” We might practice a skill like, “Thank you for that feedback. I’m feeling myself just getting flustered. I’m going to take five minutes and then I’d like to come back and have this conversation with you later, or an hour,” or “Can we come back and have this conversation next week,” depending on what it is and how out of sorts the person is feeling. And then using some skills to calm down. These might be mindfulness skills or any kind of self-care, emotion regulation skill that a person could use. 

We tend to start with skills that folks have already had good success with. I’m not teaching Buddhist meditation on the first day of treatment, but instead, it might be simple things like, “Oh, I feel better when I get some sunshine and take a walk outside,” so that might be a good skill we could just use right off the bat. It’s pretty skill-based. And then we create a behavioral plan around that time of the month that tends to be more problematic so that we can keep people feeling well and well supported. A lot of times, that’s all it takes. It doesn’t require much more than that. 

Kimberley: I love that. I love that you’re bringing in the mindfulness piece and a lot of self-care. This is really more of a question of curiosity, but I remember as a young teen, having a lot of PMS, being told you have to drink a lot of water. Is that like an old wives’ tale? Because now I’m telling my daughter. I’m curious, is that an old wives’ tale or is that actually a treatment or a part of the work?

Crystal: I don’t know. I mean, I think Americans probably go a little overboard on water consumption, but I think it’s a good part of self-care to stay well-hydrated as well as well-fed and well-rested. You do lose some water through menstruation, and so it’s probably good practice in general just to keep yourself well hydrated. That doesn’t mean drinking a certain amount of water every day, but just noticing when you’re thirsty and drinking something when you are.

Kimberley: Okay, I’ll be better about that because, like I said, as I tell my daughter, I’m always like, “This is probably an old wives’ tale.” Maybe we could talk this one through together. Let’s say I’m treating somebody. They’ve got severe OCD, severe panic disorder or severe health anxiety, severe social anxiety. They know and they’ve tracked using an app or, as you said, the notes on their phone or on paper, they’ve tracked it. They know around approximately that such and such day of the month, they’re going to probably have an onset of treatment. How prepared should they be in terms of what would that preparation time look like? Is there a strategy you would give people? I know for us, on the clinical side, I’m amping up homework skills for them to manage the actual disorder, but is there something they could be doing on the PMS side that we should remember to do?

Crystal: I think it’s in my mind really specific to the individual and the symptoms that they’re having that they find tend to get worse as well as the physical symptoms. If they’re having a lot of pain around that time, then we want to also work on some pain management. Because when you’re feeling a lot of pain, that can make your anxiety worse. That would be something I would think about in addition to the standardized ramping up of homework that you would ordinarily be doing. Pain management can again look more like mindfulness, some meditative practice, or it can mean talking with one’s doctor about how to manage pain because there are non-addictive ways of managing pain as well.

Kimberley: Right. You mentioned before talking to your doctor. Are you speaking specifically about just a GP or should they be going more to a reproductive doctor, OB-GYN? What kind of medical professional would you encourage people to reach out to? 

Crystal: I think if you have a doctor that you trust, whether it’s a GP, OB-GYN, or even a psychiatrist, all of those are good options. Any of them can help treat these symptoms. Sometimes if the symptoms are really severe, then going to a specialist in reproductive mental health—that person would be a psychiatrist—can be helpful. There aren’t that many of us out there though. I have a number of really wonderful colleagues that I work alongside in our clinic and we treat patients together. I provide the psychotherapy and then they provide the pharmacotherapy and then I also have an OB-GYN on the team who provides the hormonal treatment. Not everyone can access this highly skilled team, however, and I do recognize that. I think starting with a GP or your OB-GYN is a good place to start. Again, if they’re not as knowledgeable as they need to be and they’re telling you, you just have to suck it up and deal with it, that’s not the right person. 

Kimberley: I appreciate you saying that because I do think—I’ll be transparent—even to get somebody as skilled as yourself on the show for this was a really difficult thing. I was surprised how few people really understand it and are knowledgeable about the treatment options. It was harder than I thought and I’m so grateful for you to be here and talk about it with us.

Crystal: I’m really sorry to hear that. I think there are a growing number of people interested in this, and I have a number of wonderful colleagues. But like you mentioned, there aren’t that many of us out there. The bright spot, I would say, is that we have a training program at UNC Chapel Hill with lots and lots of applicants every year. We’re training clinical psychologists and social workers and psychiatrists to do this work.

Kimberley: Amazing. Thank you. Last question: Any final advice you would give someone who is experiencing symptoms of PMS and PMDD in regards to getting better or seeking treatment and help?


Crystal: You’re not alone. It’s not all in your head. You deserve access to treatments that work. There are lots of treatments that work. Unfortunately, our medical system is really complex and sometimes you have to really advocate for yourself in this space. But if you are persistent and know what you’re looking for in a provider, you, I hope, will be able to find one that can be a good advocate and supporter of you to recovery because you don’t have to experience these symptoms by yourself or forever.

Kimberley: Thank you so much for saying that. I think a lot of people feel like they’re crazy or they’ve been told they’re being crazy, which doesn’t help.

Crystal: Yeah. I mean, the word “hysteria” came from studying or psychiatrists working with women who they felt were hysterical and their uterus was traveling around their bodies. The roots of all of this are in this really misogynistic place where many of us are working really hard to overcome that unfortunate history, but there’s often still a lot of stigma and misinformation out there.

Kimberley: I remember in my master’s degree, that was the first part of the history of Psychology, that women who were just having PMS were being totally hyper-pathologized. Horrible.

Crystal: Yeah. Really horrible. I hope that the work that we do makes a difference. I’m so glad that you’re tackling this topic on your podcast. I think this will, I hope, reach a lot of people.

Kimberley: Thank you. Can you tell us where people can get ahold of you, where they might learn about you and the work that you’re doing?

Crystal: Yeah. I have a website, it’s C-R-Y-S-T-A-L I’m actually starting to write a book on this topic, so I really appreciate you reaching out and to know that people have questions about this because that’s what I see where I’m at too. And then the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, if you just Google that, you’ll find our website and you can read more about the different research studies that we’re doing and about our treatment program as well.

Kimberley: Thank you so much and congratulations on writing a book. It’s a big challenge and a big accomplishment.

Crystal: Thanks.

Kimberley: Thank you so much for coming on. It’s been an absolute pleasure.Crystal: It was wonderful being with you today. Thank you so much. Take care.

Apr 28, 2023

In this week's podcast episode, we talked with Dr. Katherine Unverferth on Menopause, anxiety, and mental health. We covered the below topics:

  • How do we define peri-menopause and menopause
  • What causes menopause? 
  • Why do some have more menopausal symptoms than others? 
  • Why do some people report rapid rises in anxiety (and even panic disorder) during menopause. 
  • Is the increase in anxiety with menopause biological, physiological, or psychological? 
  • Why do some people experience mood differences or report the onset of depression during menopause? 
  • What treatments are avaialble to help those who are suffering from menopause (or perimenopause) and anxiety and depression?

Welcome back, everybody. I am so happy to have you here. We are doing another deep dive into sexual health and anxiety as a part of our Sexual Health and Anxiety Series. We first did an episode on sexual anxiety or sexual performance anxiety. Then we did an episode on arousal and anxiety. That was by me. Then we did an amazing episode on sexual side effects of antidepressants with Dr. Aziz. And then last week, we did another episode by me basically going through all of the sexual intrusive thoughts that often people will have, particularly those who have OCD

This week, we are deep diving into menopause and anxiety. This is an incredibly important episode specifically for those who are going through menopause or want to be trained to understand what it is like to go through menopause and how menopause impacts our mental health in terms of sometimes people will have an increase in anxiety or depression.

This week, we have an amazing guest coming on because this is not my specialty. I try not to speak on things that I don’t feel confident talking about. This week, we have the amazing Dr. Katherine Unverferth. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor at The David Geffen School of Medicine and she also serves as the Director of the Women’s Life Center and Medical Director of the Maternal Mental Health Program. She is an expert in reproductive psychiatry, which is why we got her on the show. She specializes in treating women during periods of hormonal transitions in her private practice in Santa Monica. She lectures and researches and studies areas on postpartum depression, antenatal depression, postpartum psychosis, premenstrual dysphoric disorder—which we will cover next week, I promise; we have an amazing guest talking about that—and perimenopausal mood and anxiety disorders. I am so excited to have Dr. Unverferth on the show to talk about menopause and the collision between menopause and anxiety. You are going to get so much amazing information on this show, so I’m just going to head straight over there. Again, thank you so much to our guest. Let’s get over to the show.

334 Menopause and Anxiety

Kimberley: Welcome. I am so honored to have Dr. Katherine Unverferth with us talking today about menopause and anxiety. Thank you for coming on the show.

Dr. Katie: Of course. Thanks for having me.


Kimberley: Okay. I have a ton of questions for you. A lot of these questions were asked from the community, from our crew of people who are really wanting more information about this. We’ve titled it Menopause and Anxiety, but I want to get really clear, first of all, in terms of the terms and whether we’re using them correctly. Can you first define what is menopause, and then we can go from there?

Dr. Katie: Definitely. I think when you’re talking about menopause, you also have to think about perimenopause. Menopause is defined as the time after the final menstrual period. Meaning, the last menstrual period somebody has. It can only be defined retrospectively, so you typically only know you’re in menopause a year after you’ve had your final menstrual period. But that’s the technical definition—after the final menstrual period, it’s usually defined one year after. Perimenopause is the time leading up to that where people have hormonal changes. Sometimes they have vasomotor symptoms, they can have mood changes, and that period typically lasts about four years but varies. I think that people often know that they’re getting close to menopause because of the perimenopausal symptoms they might be experiencing.

Kimberley: Okay. How might somebody know they’re going into perimenopause? I think that’s how you would say you go into it. Is that right? 

Dr. Katie: Yeah. You start experiencing it there. I don’t know if there’s a specific term. 

Kimberley: Sure. How would one know they’re moving in that direction? 

Dr. Katie: Typically, we look for a few different things. One of the earliest signs is menstrual cycle changes. As someone enters perimenopause, their menstrual cycle starts to lengthen, whereas before, it might have been a normal 28-day cycle. Once it lengthens to greater than seven days, over 35 days, we would start to think of someone might be in perimenopause because it’s lengthened significantly from their baseline before. 

Other symptoms that are really consistent with perimenopause are vasomotor symptoms. Most women who go through perimenopause will have these. These are hot flashes or hot flushes—those are synonyms for the same experience—and night sweats. Hot flashes, as the name describes what it is, they last about two to four minutes. It’s a feeling of warmth that typically begins in the chest or the head and spreads outward, often associated with flushing, with sweating that’s followed by a period of chills and sometimes anxiety. The night sweats are hot flashes but in the middle of the night when someone is sleeping, so it can be very disruptive to sleep. That combination of the menstrual cycle changes plus these vasomotor symptoms is typically how we define perimenopause or how we diagnose perimenopause. Once someone is later in perimenopause, when they’re getting closer to their final menstrual period, often they’ll skip menstrual cycles altogether, so it might be 60 days in between having bleeding. Whereas before, it was a more regular period of time.

I think one of the defining features too is hormonal fluctuations during those times. But interestingly, there’s not much clinical utility to getting the blood test to check hormone levels because they can vary wildly from cycle to cycle. Overall, what we do see is that certain hormones increase, others decrease, and that probably contributes to some of the symptoms that we see around that time as well.

Kimberley: Right, which is so interesting because I think that’s why a lot of people come to me and I try to only answer questions I’m skilled to answer. Those symptoms can very much mimic anxiety. I know we’ll get into that very soon, but that’s really interesting—this idea of hot flashes. I always remember coming home to my mom from school and she was actually in the freezer, except for her feet. It was one of those door freezers. So, I understand the heat that they’re feeling, this hot flash, it’s a full body hot flash stimulant like someone may have if they’re having a panic attack maybe. 

Dr. Katie: Exactly. There are lots of interesting studies really looking at the overlap of menopausal panic attacks and hot flashes too. There’s a lot of this research that’s really trying to suss out what comes first in perimenopause because we know that anxiety predisposes someone to hot flashes and it can predispose someone to panic attacks, which is interesting. It seems like there’s this common denominator there. But I think that that’s a really interesting thing that hopefully we’ll get into this overlap between the two.


Kimberley: I’m guessing this is something I’m moving towards as well. What age groups, what ages does this usually start? What’s the demographics for someone going into perimenopause and menopause?

Dr. Katie: The average age of menopause is 51, and then people spend about four years in perimenopause. Late 40s would be a typical time to start perimenopause. Basically, any age after 40, when someone’s having these symptoms, they’re likely in perimenopause. If it happens before the age of 40 where someone’s having menstrual cycle abnormalities and they’re having these vasomotor symptoms, that might be a sign of primary ovarian insufficiency. It used to be called premature ovarian failure, but that would be a sign that they should probably go see a doctor and get checked out. If it’s after 40, it’s very likely that they’re having perimenopausal symptoms.

Kimberley: Okay. What causes this to happen? What are the shifts that happen in people’s bodies that lead someone into this period of their life?

Dr. Katie: I think there are a lot of things that are going on. I think it’s really important to emphasize that menopause is a natural part of aging. That this isn’t some abnormal process. Nothing is wrong. It’s a natural part of aging. It can still be very uncomfortable, I think. But basically, over time, a woman’s eggs decline and the follicles that help these eggs develop also develop less. There’s this decline in the functioning of the ovaries. There are a few reasons this might be. There are some studies that show that blood flow to the ovaries is reduced as a result of aging, so maybe that makes them function a little bit less. The follicles that remain in the ovaries are probably aging, and then the follicles, which are still there, also might not be the healthiest of follicles, which is why they weren’t used earlier. 

There’s this combination of things that leads to these very significant hormonal changes that start around perimenopause. The first of these is an increase in follicle-stimulating hormone. Follicle-stimulating hormone is released by the pituitary and encourages the ovaries to develop follicles. That increases over time because the follicles aren’t developing in the same way. It’s like the pituitary is trying harder and harder to get them to work. At the same time as these, as the follicles and ovaries are aging, what we see is that the ovaries produce less estrogen and progesterone overall. But there’s still these wild fluctuations that are happening. FSH is going up, but it’s fluctuating up; estrogen and progesterone are going down, but they’re fluctuating down. It’s these really big shifts that seem to cause a lot of the symptoms that we associate with this time.


Kimberley: Is there a reason why some people have more symptoms than others? Is it your genetic component or is there a hormonal component? What’s your experience?

Dr. Katie: I think there are lots of different reasons and we probably need more research in this area. There are definitely genetic components that influence it. For example, we know that women who have family members who went through menopause earlier are likely to go through menopause themselves earlier. There’s some genetic thing that’s influencing the interplay of factors. I think we know that there are certain lifestyles. There are certain behaviors, like certain behaviors in someone’s life that can influence, I think, their symptoms. We know that smoking, obesity, having a more sedentary lifestyle can impact vasomotor symptoms. I think some really interesting research looks at the psychological influences here. We know that women who have higher levels of neuroticism, when they go through perimenopause, have more anxiety and mood changes associated with it. People who have higher levels of somatic anxiety, coming into this perimenopausal transition, can also have a tougher time. I think that makes sense when we think about someone with somatic anxiety. They’re going to be very, very attuned to these small changes in their body. During perimenopause, there are these huge changes that are happening in your body. That can trigger, I think, a lot of anxiety and a focus on the symptoms. 

I think with vasomotor symptoms specifically, like hot flashes and hot flashes specifically, night sweats, not quite as much, we know that there are these psychological characteristics that probably perpetuate and worsen hot flashes. When someone has a hot flash, it’s certainly uncomfortable for most people. But the level of distress can be very different. They’ve looked at the cognitions that occur when people have hot flashes and at some point, people believe like, “Oh, this is very embarrassing, this is very shameful.” That doesn’t help them process it. They might believe, “This is never going to go away. I can’t cope with it.” That’s also not going to help. I think that’s really a target for cognitive behavioral therapy to help people during this time.

Kimberley: It just makes me think too, as somebody who has friends going through this, and you can please correct me, what I’ve noticed is there’s also a grief process that goes along with it too, like it’s another flag in terms of being flown, in terms of I’m aging. I’ve also heard, but maybe you have more to say about people feeling like it makes them less feminine. Is that your experience too, or is that just my experience of what I’ve heard?

Dr. Katie: No, I agree. I think in my clinical experience, people go through it in a lot of different ways. I think that there is this grief. I think it can bring out a lot of existential anxiety. It is a sign that you are getting older. This can bring up a lot of these questions like, who am I? What’s my purpose? Where am I going? But I think it’s really important to remind women that we’re not defined by our reproductive functioning. I think that that’s something that people forget. Were you less of a woman when you were 15 or when you were 10 maybe and you hadn’t gone through puberty? You’re still the same person. But I do think that there’s a lot of cultural stress around this, and I think there are a lot of complexities around the way society sees aging women. I think that those are cultural issues that need to be fixed, but not necessarily a problem within the woman themselves.


Kimberley: That’s really helpful to know and understand. Okay, let’s talk about if I could get a little more understanding of this relationship with anxiety. Maybe you can be clearer with me so that I understand it. Is it more of what we’re saying in terms of like, it’s the chicken and the egg? Is that what you mean in terms of people who have anxiety tend to have more symptoms, but then those symptoms can create more anxiety and it’s like a snowball? Or is that not true for everybody? Can you explain how that works?

Dr. Katie: With regard to the perimenopausal period, what I think researchers are trying to figure out is, do vasomotor symptoms, like hot flashes, lead to anxiety and panic, or do anxiety and panic worsen the vasomotor symptoms? We don’t have a lot of information there. Part of it is because it’s difficult to study. Because when you’re doing symptom checklists, there’s a lot of overlap between a hot flash and a panic attack. It’s just been difficult, I think, to suss out in research. I think what we do know is there was one study that showed that people who have higher levels of anxiety are five times more likely to report hot flashes than women with anxiety in the normal range. Whether or not the anxiety is necessarily causing it, I do think that there’s probably some perpetuation of like, I think that the anxiety is perpetuating the hot flashes, which perpetuates the anxiety. We just don’t know exactly where it starts. 


But I mean, if we just think about it for a second, if we think about what’s common between them, I think that both panic attacks and hot flashes have a quick onset. They have a spontaneous onset, a rapid peak, they can be provoked by anxiety, they can include changes in temperature, like feelings of heat and sweating. They can have these palpitations, they can have this shortness of breath, nausea. And then it’s very common that panic is reported during hot flashes, and hot flashes can be reported during panic. I think there’s this interplay that we’re trying to figure out. I think what’s interesting too is that common antidepressants can treat both panic and hot flashes, which is not something that probably everybody knows. There are probably different reasons that they’re treating each of them, but it is still just this other place where there is this overlap. 

Kimberley: Okay. That’s really interesting. One thing that really strikes me is I actually have a medical condition called postural orthostatic tachycardic syndrome (POTS), and you get really dizzy. I’m an Anxiety Specialist, so I can be good at pulling apart what is what, but it is very hard. You have to really be mindful to know the difference in the moment because let’s say I have this whoosh of dizziness. My mind immediately first says I’m having a panic attack, which makes you panic. I’m assuming someone with that whoosh of maybe a hot flash has that same thing where your amygdala, I’m guessing, is immediately going to be like, “Yeah, we’re having a panic attack. This is where we’re going.” That makes a lot of sense to me.

Now, some people also have reported to me that their anxiety has made them-- and again we have to understand what causes what, and we don’t understand it, but how does that spread into their daily life? What I’ve heard is people say, “I don’t feel like I can leave the house because what if I have a hot flash, which creates then a panic attack,” or “It’s embarrassing to have a hot flash. You sweat and your clothes are all wet and so forth.” Do you have a common example of how that also shows up for people? 

Dr. Katie: Yeah. I think that what you were alluding to is this behavioral avoidance that can happen. We can see that with panic attacks where people sometimes develop agoraphobia, fear of being in certain places. Sometimes they don’t want to leave their home. I think with hot flashes, we do also see this behavioral avoidance when people especially tend to find them very distressing. They catastrophize it when they happen. They worry about social shaming. That avoidance, I think, the way that we understand anxiety is that if you have an anxiety and then you change your behaviors as a result of that anxiety, that tends to perpetuate the anxiety. That’s one of the targets of cognitive behavioral therapy for hot flashes, is really trying to unwind some of this behavioral avoidance. Also, we know that temperature changes can trigger hot flashes. Unfortunately, it looks like strong positive and strong negative emotion can trigger hot flashes, just feeling any end of the spectrum. There are certain other triggers that can trigger hot flashes. I think that it’s just this discomfort and this fear of having a hot flash that I think really generalizes the anxiety during this time. 


There’s also this interesting hormonal component too that’s being studied as well. We’ve talked a little bit about progesterone. But in reproductive psychiatry, we really focus on this metabolite of progesterone called allopregnanolone. I think this is interesting because allopregnanolone is a metabolite of progesterone. We know that progesterone is going like this, up and up and down during this time. Allopregnanolone works on this receptor that tends to have very calming effects. Other things that work at this receptor are benzodiazepines like Xanax and Ativan or alcohol. It has this calming effect. But when it’s going like this, it’s calming and then it’s not, and then it’s calming and then it’s not, up and down rollercoaster. There’s some thought that that specifically might contribute to anxiety during this time. It can be more generalized. It’s not always just related to hot flashes, even though we’ve been more specific on that. It can be the same as anxiety at any point in anyone else’s life, like ruminative thoughts, worry, intrusive thoughts, just this general discomfort. I think this is a really exciting area of research where we’re looking at ways to modulate this pathway to help women cope better. There are studies looking at progesterone metabolites to see if they can be helpful with mood changes during this time.

Kimberley: Interesting. Let’s work through it. As a clinician, if someone presents with anxiety, what I would usually do is do an inventory of the behaviors that they do in effort to reduce or remove that anxiety or uncertainty that they feel. And then we practice purposely returning to those behaviors. Exposure and so forth. From what you understand, would you be doing the same with the hot flashes or is there a balance between, there will be sometimes where you will go in purposely or go out and live your life whether you have a hot flash or not? How do we balance that from a clinical standpoint? Even as a clinician, I’m curious to know. As a clinician, what would I encourage my client to do? Would it be like our normal response of, “Come on, let’s just do it, let’s face all of our fears,” or is there a bit of a balance here that we move towards?

Dr. Katie: It’s more of a balance. I think one of the important things is that what you want to do-- I think the focus is on the cognition here a little bit. I’m not familiar and I don’t think that exposure to hot flashes is intentionally triggering hot flashes repeatedly, like sometimes we do in panic disorders is part of this. What I understand from the protocol is that it’s really looking at the unhelpful cognitions that relate to menopause, aging, and vasomotor symptoms. This idea of like, everybody is looking at me when I’m having a hot flash, this is so shameful. Or maybe it goes further, like no one will like me anymore. Who knows exactly where it can go? We know that when people have cognitive distortions, it’s not really based on rational thinking.

I think other part is you work on monitoring and modifying hot flash triggers, so it feels more in your control like temperature changes and doing those things. I think other things that you do is there’s some evidence for diaphragmatic breathing to help with the management of hot flashes. You teach someone those skills. I think your idea is you want to get them back out there and living their life despite the hot flashes, and also just education. This isn’t going to last forever. Yes, this is uncomfortable, but everybody goes through this. This is a normal part of aging. Also encouraging them to seek treatment if they need it. In addition to therapy, we know that there are medications that can help with this. If the hot flashes are impacting their life in a significant way or very distressing to them, go see a reproductive psychiatrist or go see an OB-GYN who can talk to you about the different options to really treat what’s coming up.

Kimberley: Right. That’s helpful. I want to quickly just add on to that with your advice. I think what you’re saying is when we come from an anxiety treatment model, we are looking at exposure, but when it comes to someone who’s going through this real life, like their actual symptoms aren’t imagined, they’re there, it’s okay for them to modify to not be going to hot saunas and so forth that we know that they’re going to be triggered, but just to do the things that get them back to their daily functioning, but it is still okay for them. I think what I’m trying to say is it’s still okay for them to be doing some accommodation of the symptoms of perimenopause, but not accommodation of the anxiety. Is that where we draw the line?

Dr. Katie: I think that’s a really good way of explaining it.


Kimberley: All right. The other piece of this is as important, which is how depression impacted here. Can you share a little bit how mood changes can be impacted by perimenopause

Dr. Katie: Definitely. We know that there’s a significant increase in not only the onset of a new depression, but also recurrence of prior depressive episodes during perimenopause. It’s probably related to the changing levels of hormones, but also, I think what we’ve alluded to and what we have to acknowledge is there are big life changes that are happening around this time as well. I think cultural views of aging, I think a lot of times people have changes in their relationships, their partners. Their libido can change. There’s so many moving parts that they think that also contributes to it. 

But specifically with regard to perimenopausal depression, we categorize this in the reproductive subtype of depression. At these different periods of hormonal transition, certain women are prone to have a depressive episode. We know that that’s true during normal cycling. For example, premenstrual dysphoric disorder or PMDD is a reproductive subtype of depression. People sometimes get depressed in those two weeks before their period and then feel fine during the week of their period or the week after. During the luteal phase, they experience depression. We know that that group of women also is at increased risk for perinatal depression, so depression during pregnancy and postpartum. And then that same group is also at risk for perimenopausal depression. What we know is that a subset of women is probably sensitive to normal levels of changing hormones, and that for them, it triggers a depressive episode. 

One of the biggest risk factors for depression during perimenopause is a prior history of depression. Unfortunately, the way depression works is that once you have it, you’re more likely to have it in the future. For people who have had depression in their life or have specifically had depression around these times of hormonal transition, it’s probably just important to keep an eye on how they’re doing, make sure they have appropriate support, whether that’s from a therapist or a psychiatrist, and monitor themselves closely.

Kimberley: Okay. This is really helpful to know. We know that people with anxiety tend to have depression as well. Have you found those who’ve had previous depression or previous anxiety also have coexisting in terms of having those panic attacks and depression at the same time?

Dr. Katie: That’s interesting. I haven’t read any research on that. It wouldn’t surprise me. But I think at least for research purposes, they’re separating it. I think clinically, of course, we can see it being all mixed together. But for research, it’s depression or panic and they keep those separate.

Kimberley: Right. One thing that just came to me in terms of just clarifying too is, I’m assuming a lot of people who have health anxiety are incredibly triggered during perimenopause as well, these symptoms that are unexplained but explained. But I’m wondering, is that also something that you commonly see in terms of they’re having these symptoms and questioning whether it means something serious is happening? Has that been something that you see a lot of?

Dr. Katie: Definitely. I think the first time someone has a hot flash, it can be extremely distressing. It’s a very uncomfortable sensation. I think there are other changes that happen during perimenopause that, of course, I think, raise concern. We know that in addition to night sweats, people can just have general aches and pains. They can have headaches. Cognitive complaints can be very common during this time. Just this feeling of brain fog, not feeling as sharp as one used to be. They can have sleep disturbances, which can of course worsen the anxiety and the cognitive complaints, and the depression. I think there can be a myriad of symptoms. Other distressing symptoms, I’m not sure if they necessarily-- I think if you know what’s going on, it’s not quite as distressing, but there can be these urogenital symptoms, like vaginal dryness, vaginal burning. There can be recurrent UTIs, there can be difficulty with urination. There are this constellation of symptoms that I’m sure could trigger health anxiety in people, especially if they have preexisting health anxiety.


Kimberley: Yeah, absolutely. Someone’s listened to this episode so they’re at least informed, which is wonderful. They start to see enough evidence that this may be what is going on for them. What would be the steps following that? Is it something that you just go through and like a fever, you just ride it out kind of thing? Or are there medications or treatments? What would you suggest someone do in the order as they go through it?

Dr. Katie: I think it depends on what’s going on and how they’re experiencing it. If this is distressing, life interfering, if they’re having trouble functioning, they should absolutely seek treatment. I think there are a few different things they can do depending on what’s going on. For depression and anxiety, medications are the first line. Antidepressants would still be the first-line therapy there. There’s some evidence for menopausal hormone therapy, but there’s not really enough. There is evidence for menopausal hormone therapy, but it’s not currently first line for depression or anxiety. If someone had treatment-resistant depression that came up in the perimenopausal transition, I think it’s reasonable to consider menopausal hormone therapy. But currently, menopausal hormone therapy isn’t really recommended for that. 

If someone is having distressing vasomotor symptoms with night sweats and recurrent hot flashes or hot flushes during the day, menopausal hormone therapy is a very good option. That is something to consider. They could go talk to their OB-GYN about it. Certain people will be candidates for it and other people might not. If you think it might be something you’re interested in, I recommend going and speaking to your OB-GYN sooner rather than later. 

Antidepressants themselves can also help with vasomotor symptoms as well. They can specifically help with hot flashes and night sweats. If someone has depression and anxiety and hot flashes and night sweats, antidepressant can be a really good choice because it can help with both of those. There was a really interesting study that compared Lexapro to menopausal hormone therapy for hot flashes, for quality of life, for sleep, and for depression. Essentially, both of them helped sleep quality of life in vasomotor symptoms, but only the Lexapro helped the depression. It really just depends on what’s going on. 

I think another thing that we’ve also talked about is therapy. This can be a big life transition. I think really no woman going through menopause is the same. Some people have toddlers. Some people have grown children who have just left their home. Some people are just starting their career. Some people are about to retire. Relationships can change. I think that it’s really important to take what’s going on in the context of a woman’s life. I think therapy can be really helpful to help them process and understand what they’re going through.

Kimberley: Right. You had mentioned before, and I just wanted to touch on this, vaginal drying and stuff like that, which I’m sure, again, a reason for this series is just how much sexual intimacy and so forth can impact somebody’s satisfaction in life or functioning or in relationships. Is that something that is also treatable with these different treatment models or is there a different treatment for that? 

Dr. Katie: With menopausal hormone therapy, when someone has hot flashes or these other symptoms that we were talking about, not the urogenital ones, they need to take systemic menopausal hormone therapy. They basically need estrogen and progesterone to go throughout their body. When someone is just having these urogenital symptoms, they can often use topical vaginal estrogen. It’s applied vaginally. That can be really helpful for those symptoms as well. I think if that’s something that someone is struggling with that they want treatment for, it’s very reasonable to go talk to their OB-GYN about it because there are therapies that can be--

Kimberley: Right, that’s like a cream or lotion kind of thing. 

Dr. Katie: Exactly. 

Kimberley: Interesting. Oh wow. All right. That is so helpful. We’ve talked about the medical piece, the medication piece. A lot of people also I see on social media mostly talk about these more-- I don’t want to use the word “natural” because I don’t like that word “natural.” I don’t even know what word I would use, but non-medical--

Dr. Katie: Like supplements or--

Kimberley: Yeah. I know it’s different for everyone and everyone listening should please seek a doctor for medical advice, but is that something that you talk about with patients or do you stick more just to the things that have been researched? What are your thoughts?

Dr. Katie: I think that supplements can be helpful for some people. I don’t always find that they’re as effective as medications. If someone is really struggling on a day-to-day basis, I do think that using treatments that have more evidence behind them is better. I think that there are some supplements that have a little bit of evidence, but I do think that they come with their own risks. Because supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA and things like that, I don’t typically recommend them. I think if someone is interested in finding a more naturopathic doctor who might be able to talk to them about those things is reasonable. 

Kimberley: Super helpful. Is there anything that you feel like we haven’t covered or that would be important for us to really drill home and make sure we point out here at the end before we finish up?

Dr. Katie: I think we’ve covered a lot. I think that the most important thing that I really want to stress is this is a normal part of aging. This is not a disease; this is not a disease state. Also, there are treatments that can be so effective. You don’t have to struggle in silence. It is not something shameful. There are clinicians who are trained, who are able to help if these symptoms are coming up. Just not being afraid to go and talk about it and go reach out for help. I think that that can be so helpful and really life-changing for some people when they get the right treatment.

Kimberley: Right. Thank you. Where can we hear about you, get in touch with you, maybe seek out your services?

Dr. Katie: You can find me online. I have a website. It’s just It’s You can follow me on Instagram on the same. If you’re interested to see more of my talks and lectures, I often post those on my LinkedIn page. You can follow me on LinkedIn. I think if you are personally interested in learning more about menopause, there’s a really great book by an OB-GYN, her name is Dr. Jen Gunter, and it’s called The Menopause Manifesto. For anybody who really wants to educate themselves about menopause and understand more about what’s going on in their body and their treatments, I really recommend that book.

Kimberley: Amazing. That’s so good to have that resource as well. Thank you. I’m really, really honored. I know you’re doing so many amazing things and running so many amazing programs. I’m so grateful for your time and your expertise on this.

Dr. Katie: Of course. I’m so glad that you’re doing a podcast on this. I think this is a topic that we really need more information and education out there.

Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you.

Apr 21, 2023

Welcome. This is Week 4 of the Sexual Health and Anxiety Series. I have loved your feedback about this so far. I have loved hearing what is right for you, what is not right for you, getting your perspective on what can be so helpful. A lot of people are saying that they really are grateful that we are covering sexual health and anxiety because it’s a topic that we really don’t talk enough about. I think there’s so much shame in it, and I think that that’s something we hopefully can break through today by bringing it into the sunlight and bringing it out into the open and just talking about it as it is, which is just all good and all neutral, and we don’t need to judge.

Let’s go through the series so far. In Episode 1 of the series, we did sexual anxiety or sexual performance anxiety with Lauren Fogel Mersy. Number two, we did understanding arousal and anxiety. A lot of you loved that episode, talking a lot about understanding arousal and anxiety. Then last week, we talked about the sexual side effects of anxiety and depression medication or antidepressants with Dr. Sepehr Aziz. That was such a great episode. This week, we’re talking about sexual intrusive thoughts. 

333 Sexual Intrusive Thoughts

The way that I structured this is I wanted to first address the common concerns people have about sexual health and intimacy and so forth. Now I want to talk about some of the medical pieces and the human pieces that can really complicate things. In this case, it’s your thoughts. The thoughts we have can make a huge impact on how we see ourselves, how we judge ourselves, the meaning we make of it, the identity we give it, and it can be incredibly distressing. My hope today is just to go through and normalize all of these experiences and thoughts and presentations and give you some direction on where you can go from there. Because we do know that your thoughts, as we discussed in the second episode, can impact arousal and your thoughts can impact your sexual anxiety. 


Let’s talk a little bit today about specific sexual intrusive thoughts. Now, sexual intrusive thoughts is also known as sexual obsessions. A sexual obsession is like any other obsession, which is, it is a repetitive, UNWANTED—and let’s emphasize the unwanted piece—sexual thought. There are all different kinds of sexual intrusive thoughts that you can have. For many of you listening, you may have sexual intrusive thoughts and OCD that get together and make a really big mess in your mind and confuse you and bring on doubt and uncertainty, and like I said before, make you question your identity and all of those things. 

In addition to these intrusive thoughts, they often can feel very real. Often when people have these sexual intrusive thoughts, again, we all have intrusive thoughts, but if they’re sexual in nature, when they’re accompanied by anxiety, they can sometimes feel incredibly real, so much so that you start to question everything. 


Now, in addition to having sexual intrusive thoughts, some of you have sexual sensations, and we talked a little bit about this in previous episodes. But what I’m really speaking about there is sensations that you would often feel upon arousal. The most common is what we call in the OCD field a groinal response. Some people call it the groinal in and of itself, which is, we know again from previous episodes that when we have sexual thoughts or thoughts that are sexual in nature, we often will feel certain sensations of arousal, whether that be lubrication, swelling, tingling, throbbing. You might simply call it arousal or being turned on. And that is where a lot of people, again, get really confused because they’re having these thoughts that they hate, they’re unwanted, they’re repetitive, they’re impacting their life, they’re associated with a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and doubt. And then, now you’re having this reaction in your body too, and that groinal response can create a heightened need to engage in compulsions. 

As we know—we talk about this in ERP School, our online course for OCD; we go through this extensively—when someone has an obsession, a thought, an intrusive thought, it creates uncertainty and anxiety. And then naturally what we do is we engage in a compulsion to reduce or remove that discomfort to give them a short-term sense of relief. But then what ends up happening is that short-term relief ends up reinforcing the original obsession, which means you have it more, and then you go back through the cycle. You cycle on that cycle over and over again. It gets so big. It ends up impacting your life so, so much.


Now, let’s also address while we’re here that a lot of you may have intrusive sexual urges. These are also obsessions that we have when you have OCD or OCD-related disorders where you feel like your body is pulling you towards an action to harm someone, to do a sexual act, to some fantasy. You’re having this urge that feels like your body is pulling you like a magnet towards that behavior. Even if you don’t want to do that behavior, or even if that behavior disgusts you and it doesn’t line up with your values, you may still experience these sexual OCD urges that really make you feel like you’re on the cusp of losing control, that you may snap and do that behavior.

This is how impactful these sexual intrusive thoughts can be. This is how powerful they can be in that they can create these layers upon layers. You have the thoughts, then you have the feelings, then you have the sensations, you also have the urges. Often there’s a lot of sexual intrusive images as well, like you see in front of you, like a projector, the image happening or the movie scene playing out that really scares you, concerns you, and so forth. And then all of those layers together make you feel absolutely horrible, terrified, so afraid, so unsure of what’s happening in and of yourself. 


Let’s talk about some specific OCD obsessions and ways in which this plays out. Now, in the OCD field, we call them subtypes. Subtypes are different categories we have of obsessions. They don’t collect all of them. There are people who have a lot of obsessions that don’t fall under these categories, but these subtypes usually include groups of people who experience these subtypes. The reason we do that is, number one, it can be very validating to know that other people are in that subgroup. Number two, it can also really help inform treatment when we have a specific subtype that we know what’s happening, and that can be very helpful and reduce the shame of the person experiencing them. 


It used to be called homosexual OCD. That was because predominantly people who were heterosexual were reporting having thoughts or sexual intrusive thoughts about their sexual orientation—am I gay, am I straight—and really struggling with having certainty about this. Again, now that we’re more inclusive and that I think a lot more people are talking about sexuality, that we have a lot less shame, a lot more education, we scrapped the homosexual OCD or homosexual obsessions or subtype category. Now we have a more inclusive category, which is called sexual orientation OCD. That can include any body of any sexual orientation who has doubt and uncertainty about that. 

Now remember when we started, we talked about the fact that sexual intrusive thoughts are usually unwanted, they’re repetitive and they don’t line up with our values. What we are not talking about here is someone who is actually questioning their sexual orientation. I know a lot of people are. They’re really exploring and being curious about different orientations that appeal to them. That’s way different to the people who have sexual orientation OCD or sexual orientation obsessions. People with OCD are absolutely terrified of this unknown answer, and they feel an incredible sense of urgency to solve it. 

If you experience this, you may actually want to listen back. We’ve got a couple of episodes on this in the past. But it’s really important to understand and we have to understand the nuance here that as you’re doing treatment, we are very careful not to just sweep people under the rug and say, “This is your OCD,” because we want to be informed in knowing that, okay, you also do get to question your sexual orientation. But if it is a presentation of sexual orientation OCD, we will treat it like that and we will be very specific in reducing the compulsions that you’re engaging in so that you can get some relief. That is the first one. 


Incest sexual OCD or that type of subtype is another very common one. But often, again, one that is not talked about enough in fear of being judged, in fear of having too much shame, in fear of being reported. When people have these types of obsessions, they often will have a thought like, “What if I’m attracted to my dad?” Or maybe they’re with their sibling and they experience some arousal for reasons they don’t know. Again, we talked about this in the arousal and anxiety episode, so go back and listen to that if you didn’t. They may experience that, and that is where they will often say, “My brain broke. I feel like I had to solve that answer. I had to figure it out. I need to get complete certainty that that is not the case, and I need to know for sure.” 

The important thing to remember here is a lot of my patients, I will see and they may have some of these sexual intrusive thoughts, but their partners will say, “Yeah, I’ve had the same thoughts.” It’s just that for the person without OCD, they don’t experience that same degree of distress. They blow it off. It doesn’t really land in their brain. It’s just like a fleeting thought. Whereas people with OCD, it’s like the record got stuck and it’s just repeating, repeating, repeating. The distress gets higher. The doubt and uncertainty get higher. Therefore, because of all of this bubbling kettle happening, there’s this really strong urgency to relieve it with compulsions. 


This is one that’s less common, or should I say less commonly reported. We actually don’t have evidence of how common it is. I think a lot of people have so much shame and are so afraid of sinning and what that means that they may even not report it. But again, this is no different to having thoughts of incest, but this one is particularly focused on having sexual thoughts about God and needing to know what that means and trying to cleanse themselves of their perceived sin, of having that intrusive thought. It can make them question their religion. It can make them feel like they have to stop going to church. They may do a ton of compulsive prayer. They may do a ton of reassurance with certain religious leaders to make sure that they’re not sinning or to relieve them of that uncertainty and that distaste and distress. These are all very common symptoms of people who have sexual intrusive thoughts about God.


These are thoughts about pets and animals, and it’s very common. It’s funny, as we speak, I am recording this with a three-pound puppy sitting on my lap. We just got a three-pound puppy. It is a Malti-Poo puppy dog, and he’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. But it’s true that when you have a dog, you’re having to take care of its genitals and wipe it up and its feces and its urine and clean and all the things, and it’s common to have sexual intrusive thoughts about your pet or about your dog or your cat. Some people, again, with bestiality obsessions or bestiality OCD, have a tremendous repetitive degree of these thoughts. They’re very distressing because they love their dog. They would never do anything to hurt their dog, but they can’t stop having these thoughts or these feelings or these sensations, or even these urges.

Again, all these presentations are the same, it’s just that the content is different. We treat them the same when we’re discussing it, but we’re very careful with addressing the high level of shame and embarrassment, humiliation, guilt that they have for these thoughts. Guilt is a huge one with these sexual obsessions. People often feel incredibly guilty as if they’ve done something wrong for having these obsessions. These are a few. 


Now, for someone who has intrusive sexual thoughts and feelings and sensations and urges about children (POCD), they tend to be, in my experience, the most distressed. They tend to be, when I see them, the ones who come in absolutely completely taken over with guilt and shame. A lot of the time, they will have completely removed themselves from their child. They feel they’re not responsible. They won’t go near the parks. They won’t go to family’s birthday parties. They’re so insistent on trying to never have these thoughts. Again, I understand. I don’t blame them. But as we know, the more you try not to have a thought, what happens? The more you have it. The more you try and suppress a thought, the more you have it. That can get people in a very stuck cycle. 


Let’s move on now to really address different sexual OCD compulsions. 

Now, for all sexual obsessions, or what I should say is, for all obsessions in general, there are specific categories of compulsions and these are things again that we do to reduce or remove the discomfort and certainty, dread, doubt, and so forth. 

1. Trigger Avoidance

This is where you avoid the thing that may trigger your obsession or thought. Avoiding your dog, avoiding your child, avoiding your family member, avoiding people of the sexual orientation that you’re having uncertainty about. 

2. Actual Sex Avoidance

We talked about that in the first episode. We talked a lot about how people avoid sex because of the anxiety that being intimate and sexual causes. 

3. Mental Rumination

This is a really common one for sexual intrusive thoughts because you just want to solve like why am I having it? What does it mean? You might be ruminating, what could that mean? And going over and over and over that a many, many time. 

4. Mental Checking

What you can also be doing here is checking for arousal. Next time you’re around, let’s say, a dog and you have bestiality obsessions, you might check to see if you’re aroused. But just checking to see if you’re aroused means that you get aroused. Now that you’re aroused, you’re now checking to see what that means and trying to figure that out and you’re very distressed. 

We can see how often the compulsion that the person does actually triggers more and more and more distress. It may provide you a moment or a fleeting moment of relief, but then you actually have more distress. It usually brings on more uncertainty. We know that the more we try and control life, the more out of control we feel. That’s a general rule. That’s very much the case for these types of obsessive thoughts. 

5. Pornography Use

A lot of people who have sexual orientation OCD in particular, but any of these, they may actually use pornography as a way to get reassurance that they are of a certain sexual orientation, that they are not attracted to the orientation that they’re having uncertainty about, or they’re not attracted to animals or God or a family member because they were aroused watching pornography. That becomes a form of self-reassurance. 

There’s two types of reassurance. One is reassurance where we go to somebody else and say, “Are you sure I wouldn’t do that thing? Are you sure that thing isn’t true? Are you sure I don’t have that? I’m not that bad a person?” The other one is really giving reassurance to yourself, and that’s a very common one with pornography use. 


There are some sexual intrusive thought examples, including specific obsessions and subtypes, and also compulsions. But one sexual intrusive thought example I also wanted to address is not OCD-related; it’s actually related to a different diagnosis, which is called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Often for people who have been sexually assaulted or molested, they too may experience sexual intrusive thoughts in the form of memories or images of what happened to them or what could have happened to them. Maybe it’s often some version of what happened to them, and that is a common presentation for PTSD. If you are experiencing PTSD, usually, there is a traumatic event that is related to the obsession or the thoughts. They usually are in association or accompanied by flashbacks. There are many other symptoms. I’m not a PTSD specialist, but there’s a high level of distress, many nightmares. You may have flashbacks, as I’ve said. Panic is a huge part of PTSD as well. That is common. If you have had a traumatic event, I would go and see a specialist and help them to make sure that they’ve diagnosed you correctly so that you can get the correct care. 


If you have OCD and you’re having some of these sexual intrusive thoughts, the best treatment for you to go and get immediately is Exposure and Response Prevention. This is a particular type of cognitive behavioral therapy where you can learn to change your reaction, break yourself out of that cycle of obsessions, anxiety, compulsions, and then feed yourself back into the loop around and around. You can break that cycle and return back to doing the things you want and have a different reaction to the thoughts that you have.


Often people will come to me and say, “How do I stop these sexual intrusive thoughts?” I will quickly say to them, “You don’t. The more you try and stop them, the more you’re going to have. But what we can do is we can act very skillfully in intervening, not by preventing the thoughts, but by changing how we relate and respond to those thoughts.” For those of you who don’t know, I have a whole course on this called ERP School. ERP is for Exposure and Response Prevention. I’ll show you how you can do this on your own, or you can reach out to me and we can talk about whether if you’re in the states where we’re licensed, one of my associates can help you one-on-one. If you’re not in a state where I belong, reach out to the IOCDF and see if you can find someone who treats OCD using ERP in your area. Because the truth is, you don’t have to suffer having these thoughts. There is a treatment to help you manage these thoughts and help you be much more comfortable in response to those thoughts. Of course, the truth here is you’re never going to like them. Nobody likes these thoughts. The goal isn’t to like them. The goal isn’t to make them go away. The goal isn’t to prove them wrong even; it’s just to change your reaction to one that doesn’t keep that cycle going. That is the key component when it comes to sexual intrusive thoughts treatment or OCD treatment. That’s true for any subtype of OCD because there are many other subtypes as well. 

That’s it, guys. I could go on and on and on and on about this, but I want to be respectful of your time. The main goal again is just to normalize that these thoughts happen. For some people, it happens more than others. The goal, if you can take one thing away from today, it would be, try not to assign meaning to the duration and frequency of which you have these thoughts. Often people will say, “I have them all day. That has to mean something.” I’m here to say, “Let’s not assign meaning to these thoughts at all. Thoughts are thoughts. They come and they go. They don’t have meaning and we want to practice not assigning meaning to them so we don’t strengthen that cycle.” 

I hope that was helpful for you guys. I know it was a ton of information. I hope it was super, super helpful. I am so excited to continue with this. 

Next week, we are talking about menopause and anxiety, which we have an amazing doctor again. I want to talk about things with people who are really skilled in this area. We have a medical doctor coming on talking about menopause and the impact of anxiety. And then we’re going to talk about PMS and anxiety, and that will hopefully conclude our sexual health and anxiety series. 

Thank you so much for being here. I love you guys so much. Thank you from me and from Theo, our beautiful little baby puppy. I will see you next week.

Apr 14, 2023

Hello and welcome back everybody. We are on Week 3 of the Sexual Health and Anxiety Series. At first, we talked with the amazing Lauren Fogel Mersy about sexual anxiety or sexual performance anxiety. And then last week, I went into depth about really understanding arousal and anxiety, how certain things will increase arousal, certain things will decrease it, and teaching you how to get to know what is what so that you can have a rich, intimate, fulfilling life. 

We are now on Week 3. I have to admit, this is an episode that I so have wanted to do for quite a while, mainly because I get asked these questions so often and I actually don’t know the answers. It’s actually out of my scope. In clinical terms, we call it “out of my scope of practice,” meaning the topic we’re talking about today is out of my skill set. It’s out of my pay grade. It’s out of my level of training. 

What we’re talking about this week is the sexual side effects of antidepressants or anxiety medications, the common ones that people have when they are anxious or depressed. Now, as I said to you, this is a medical topic, one in which I am not trained to talk about, so I invited Dr. Sepehr Aziz onto the episode, and he does such a beautiful job, a respectful, kind, compassionate approach to addressing sexual side effects of anxiety medication, sexual side effects of depression medication. It’s just beautiful. It’s just so beautiful. I feel like I want to almost hand this episode off to every patient when I first start treating them, because I think so often when we’re either on medication or we’re considering medication, this is a really common concern, one in which people often aren’t game to discuss. So, here we are. I’m actually going to leave it right to the doctor, leave it to the pro to talk all about sexual side effects and what you can do, and how you may discuss this with your medical provider. Let’s do it.

332 Sexual Side Effects of Anxiety Medication

Kimberley: Welcome. I have been wanting to do this interview for so long. I am so excited to have with us Dr. Sepehr Aziz. Thank you so much for being here with us today.

Dr. Aziz: Thanks for having me.

Kimberley: Okay. I have so many questions we’re going to get through as much as we can. Before we get started, just tell us a little about you and your background, and tell us what you want to tell us.

Dr. Aziz: Sure. Again, I’m Dr. Sepehr Aziz. I go by “Shepherd,” so you can go ahead and call me Shep if you’d like. I’m a psychiatrist. I’m board certified in general adult psychiatry as well as child and adolescent psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. I completed medical school and did my residency in UMass where they originally developed mindfulness-based CBT and MBSR. And then I completed my Child and Adolescent training at UCSF. I’ve been working since then at USC as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry there. I see a lot of OCD patients. I do specialize in anxiety disorders and ADHD as well.

Kimberley: Which is why you’re the perfect person for this job today.

Dr. Aziz: Thank you. 


Kimberley: I thank you so much for being here. I want to get straight into the big questions that I get asked so regularly and I don’t feel qualified to answer myself. What are the best medications for people with anxiety and OCD? Is there a general go-to? Can you give me some explanation on that?

Dr. Aziz: As part of my practice, I first and foremost always try to let patients know that the best treatment is always a combination of therapy as well as medications. It’s really important to pursue therapy because medications can treat things and they can make it easier to tolerate your anxiety, but ultimately, in order to have sustained change, you really want to have therapy as well. Now, the first-line medications for anxiety and OCD are the same, and that’s SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. SNRIs, which are selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, also work generally, but the best research that we have in the literature is on SSRIs, and that’s why they’re usually preferred first. There are other medications that also might work, but these are usually first-line, as we call it. There are no specific SSRIs that might work better. We’ve tried some head-to-head trials sometimes, but there’s no one medication that works better than others. It’s just tailored depending on the patient and the different side effects of the medication.


Kimberley: Right. Just so people are clear in SSRI, a lot of people, and I notice, use the term antidepressant. Are they synonymous or are they different?

Dr. Aziz: Originally, they were called antidepressants when they first were released because that was the indication. There was an epidemic of depression and we were really badly looking for medications that would work. Started out with tricyclic antidepressants and then we had MAOIs, and then eventually, we developed SSRIs. These all fall under antidepressant treatments. However, later on, we realized that they work very well for anxiety in addition to depression. Actually, in my opinion, they work better for anxiety than they do for depression. I generally shy away from referring to them as antidepressants just to reduce the stigma around them a little bit and also to be more accurate in the way that I talk about them. But yes, they’re synonymous, you could say. 


Kimberley: Sure. Thank you for clearing that up because that’s a question I often get. I know I led you in a direction away but you answered. What is the best medication for people with depression then? Is it those SSRIs or would you go--

Dr. Aziz: Again, these are first-line medications, which means it’s the first medication we would try if we’re starting medication, which is SSRIs. Other medications might also work like SNRIs again. For depression specifically, there are medications called serotonin modulators that are also effective such as vortioxetine or nefazodone, or vilazodone. But SSRIs are generally what people reach for first just because they’ve been around for a long time, they’re available generic, they work, and there’s no evidence that the newer medications or modulators work better. They’re usually first line.

Kimberley: Fantastic. Now you brought up the term “generic” and I think that that’s an important topic because the cost of therapy is high. A lot of people may be wondering, is the generic as good as the non-generic options?

Dr. Aziz: It really depends on the medication and it also depends on which country you’re in. In the US, we have pretty strict laws as to how closely a generic has to be to a regular medication, a brand name medication, and there’s a margin of error that they allow. The margin of error for generics is, I believe, a little bit higher than for the brand name. However, most of the time, it’s pretty close. For something like Lexapro, I usually don’t have any pressure on myself to prescribe the brand name over the generic. For something like other medications we use in psychiatry that might have a specific way that the brand name is released, a non-anxiety example is Concerta, which is for ADHD.

This medication uses an osmotic release mechanism and that’s proprietary. They license it out to one generic company, but that license is expiring. All those patients who are on that generic in the next month or two are going to notice a difference in the way that the medication is released. Unless you’re a physician privy to that information, you might not even know that that’s going to happen. That’s where you see a big change. Otherwise, for most of the antidepressants, I haven’t noticed a big difference between generic and brand names.  

Kimberley: Right. Super helpful. Now you mentioned it depends on the person. How might one decide or who does decide what medication they would go on?

Dr. Aziz: It’s really something that needs to be discussed between the person and their psychiatrist. There are a number of variables that go into that, such as what’s worked in a family member in the past, because there are genetic factors in hepatic metabolism and things like that that give us some clue as to what might work. Or sometimes if I have a patient with co-occurring ADHD and I know they’re going to be missing their medications a lot, I’m more likely to prescribe them Prozac because it has a longer half-life, so it’ll last longer. If they miss a dose or two, it’s not as big of a deal. If I have a patient who’s very nervous about getting off of the medication when they get pregnant, I would avoid Prozac because it has a long half-life and it would take longer to come off of the medication. Some medications like Prozac and Zoloft are more likely to cause insomnia or agitation in younger people, so I’ll take that into consideration. Some medications have a higher likelihood of causing weight loss versus weight gain. These are all things that would take into consideration in order to tailor it to the specific patient.

Kimberley: Right. I think that’s been my experience too. They will usually ask, do you have a sibling or a parent that tried a certain medication, and was that helpful? I love that question. I think it informs a lot of decisions. We’re here really. The main goal of today is really to talk about one particular set of side effects, which is the sexual side effects of medication. In fact, I think most commonly with clients of mine, that tends to be the first thing they’re afraid of having to happen. How common are sexual side effects? Is it in fact all hype or is it something that is actually a concern? How would you explain the prevalence of the side effects?

Dr. Aziz: This is a really important topic, I just want to say, because it is something that I feel is neglected when patients are talking to physicians, and that’s just because it can be uncomfortable to talk about these things sometimes, both for physicians and for patients. Oftentimes, it’s avoided almost. But because of that, we don’t know for sure exactly what the incidence rate is. The literature on this and the research on this is not very accurate for a number of reasons. There are limitations. The range is somewhere between 15 to 80% and the best estimate is about 50%. But I don’t even like saying that because it really depends on age, gender, what other co-occurring disorders they have such as depression. Unipolar depression can also cause sexual dysfunction. They don’t always take that into account in these studies. A lot of the studies don’t ask baseline sexual function before asking if there’s dysfunction after starting a medication, so it’s hard to tell. What I can say for sure, and this is what I tell my patients, is that this sexual dysfunction is the number one reason why people stop taking the medication, because of adverse effects. 


Kimberley: Right. It’s interesting you say that we actually don’t know, and it is true. I’ve had clients say having anxiety has sexual side effects too, having depression has sexual side effects too, and they’re weighing the pros and cons of going on medication comparative to when you’re depressed, you may not have any sexual drive as well. Are some medications more prone to these sexual side effects? Does that help inform your decision on what you prescribe because of certain meds?

Dr. Aziz: Yeah. I mean, the SSRIs specifically are the ones that are most likely to cause sexual side effects. Technically, it’s the tricyclics, but no one really prescribes those in high doses anymore. It’s very rare. They’re the number one. But in terms of the more commonly prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications among the SSRIs and the SNRIs and the things like bupropion and the serotonin modulators we talked about, the SSRIs are most likely to cause sexual dysfunction.

Kimberley: Right. Forgive me for my lack of knowledge here, I just want to make sure I’m understanding this. What about the medications like Xanax and the more panic-related medications? Is that underneath this category? Can you just explain that to me?

Dr. Aziz: I don’t usually include those in this category. Those medications work for anxiety technically, but in current standard practice, we don’t start them as an initial medication for anxiety disorders because there’s a physical dependency that can occur and then it becomes hard to come off of the medication. They’re used more for panic as an episodic abortive medication when someone is in the middle of a panic attack, or in certain cases of anxiety that’s not responding well to more conventional treatment, we’ll start it. We’ll start it on top of or instead of those medications. They can cause sexual side effects, but it’s not the same and it’s much less likely. 


Kimberley: Okay. Very helpful. Is it the same? I know you said we don’t have a lot of data, and I think that’s true because of the stigma around reporting sexual side effects, or even just talking about sex in general. Do we have any data on whether it impacts men more than women?

Dr. Aziz: The data shows that women report more sexual side effects, but we believe that’s because women are more likely to be treated with SSRIs. When we’re looking at the per capita, we don’t have good numbers in terms of that. In my own practice, I’d say it’s pretty equal. I feel like men might complain about it more, but again, I’m a man and so it might just be a comfort thing of reporting it to me versus not reporting. Although I try to be good about asking before and after I start medication, which is very important to do. But again, it doesn’t happen all the time.

Kimberley: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because from my experience as a clinician, not a psychiatrist, and this is very anecdotal, I’ve heard men because of not the stigma, but the pressure to have a full erection and to be very hard, that there’s a certain masculinity that’s very much vulnerable when they have sexual side effects—I’ve heard that to be very distressing. In my experience. I’ve had women be really disappointed in the sexual side effects, but I didn’t feel that... I mean, that’s not really entirely true because I think there’s shame on both ends. Do you notice that the expectations on gender impacts how much people report or the distress that they have about the sexual side effects? 

Dr. Aziz: Definitely. I think, like you said, men feel more shame when it comes to sexual side effects. For women, it’s more annoyance. We haven’t really talked about what the sexual side effects are, but that also differs between the sexes. Something that’s the same between sexes, it takes longer to achieve orgasm or climax. In some cases, you can’t. For men, it can cause erectile dysfunction or low libido. For women, it can also cause low libido or lack of lubrication, which can also lead to pain on penetration or pain when you’re having sex. These are differences between the sexes that can cause different reporting and different feelings, really.

Kimberley: Right. That’s interesting that it’s showing up in that. It really sounds like it impacts all the areas of sexual playfulness and sexual activity, the arousal, the lubrication. That’s true for men too, by the sounds of it. Is that correct? 

Dr. Aziz: Yeah. 

Kimberley: We’ve already done one episode about the sexual performance anxiety, and I’m sure it probably adds to performance anxiety when that’s not going well as well, correct?

Dr. Aziz: It’s interesting because in my practice, when I identify that someone is having sexual performance anxiety or I feel like somebody, especially people with anxiety disorders, if I feel like they have vulvodynia, which means pain on penetration—if I see they have vulvodynia and I feel that this is because of the anxiety, oftentimes the SSRI might improve that and cause greater satisfaction from sex. It’s a double-edged sword here.


Kimberley: Yeah. Can you tell me a little more about What symptoms are they having? The pain? What was it called again?

Dr. Aziz: Vulvodynia.

Kimberley: Is that for men and women? Just for women, I’m assuming.

Dr. Aziz: Just from vulva, it is referring to the outside of the female genitalia. Especially when you have a lack of lubrication or sometimes the muscles, everyone with anxiety knows sometimes you have muscle tension and there are a lot of complex muscles in the pelvic floor. Sometimes this can cause pain when you’re having sex. There are different ways to address that, but SSRIs sometimes can improve that. 

Kimberley: Wow. It can improve it, and sometimes it can create a side effect as well, and it’s just a matter of trial and error, would you say?

Dr. Aziz: It’s a delicate balance because these side effects are also dose-dependent. It’s not like black or white. I start someone on 5 milligrams, which is a child’s dose of Lexapro. Either they have sexual side effects or don’t. They might not have it on 5, and then they might have it a little bit on 10, and then they get to 20 and they’re like, “Doctor, I can’t have orgasms anymore.” We try to find the balance between improving the anxiety and avoiding side effects.


Kimberley: You’re going right into the big question, which is, when someone does have side effects, is it the first line of response to look at the dose? Or how would you handle a case if someone came to you first and said, “I’m having sexual side effects, what can we do?” 

Dr. Aziz: Again, I’m really thorough personally. Before I even seem to start a medication, I’ll ask about libido and erectile dysfunction and ability to climax and things like that, so I have a baseline. That’s important when you are thinking about making a change to someone’s medications. The other thing that’s important is, is the medication working for them? If they haven’t seen a big difference since they started the medication, I might change the medication. If they’ve seen an improvement, now there’s a pressure on me to keep the medication on because it’s working and helping. I might augment it with a second medication that’ll help reverse the sexual side effects or I might think about reducing the dose a little bit while maintaining somewhere in the therapeutic zone of doses or I might recommend, and I always recommend non-pharmacological ways of addressing sexual side effects. You always do that at baseline.

Kimberley: What would that be?

Dr. Aziz: There’s watchful waiting. Sometimes if you just wait and give it some time, these symptoms can get better. I’m a little more active than that. I’ll say it’s not just waiting, but it’s waiting and practicing, whether that’s solo practice or with your partner. Sometimes planning sex helps, especially if you have low libido. There’s something about the anticipation that can make someone more excited. The use of different aids for sex such as toys, vibrators, or pornography, whether that’s pornographic novels or imagery, can sometimes help with the libido issues and also improve satisfaction for both partners. The other thing which doesn’t have great research, but there is a small research study on this, and not a lot of people know about this, but if you exercise about an hour before sex, you’re more likely to achieve climax. This was specifically studied in people with SSRI-related anorgasmia.

Kimberley: Interesting. I’m assuming too, like lubricants, oils, and things like that as well, or?

Dr. Aziz: For lubrication issues, yes. Lubricants, oils, and again, you really have to give people psychoeducation on which ones they have to use, which ones they have to avoid, which ones interact with condoms, and which ones don’t. But you would recommend those as well.

Kimberley: Is it a normal practice to also refer for sex therapy? If the medication is helping their symptoms, depression, anxiety, OCD, would you ever refer to sex therapy to help with that? Is that a standard practice or is that for specific diagnoses, like you said, with the pain around the vulva and so forth?

Dr. Aziz: Absolutely. A lot of the things I just talked about are part of sex therapy and they’re part of the sexual education that you would receive when you go to a sex therapist. I happen to be comfortable talking about these things, and I’ve experienced talking about it. When I write my notes, that would fall under me doing therapy. But a lot of psychiatrists would refer to a sex therapist. Hopefully, there are some in the town nearby where someone is. It’s sometimes hard to find someone that specializes in that.

Kimberley: Is there some pushback with that? I mean, I know when I’ve had patients and they’re having some sexual dysfunction and they do have some pushback that they feel a lot of shame around using vibrators or toys. Do you notice a more willingness to try that because they want to stay on the meds? Or is it still very difficult for them to consider trying these additional things? Are they more likely to just say, “No, the meds are the problem, I want to go off the medication”?

Dr. Aziz: It really depends on the patient. In my population that I see, I work at USC on campus, so I only see university students in my USC practice. My age group is like 18 to 40. Generally, people are pretty receptive. Obviously, it’s very delicate to speak to some people who have undergone sexual trauma in the past. Again, since I’m a man, sometimes speaking to a woman who’s had sexual trauma can be triggering. It’s a very delicate way that you have to speak and sometimes there’s some pushback or resistance. It can really be bad for the patient because they’re having a problem and they’re uncomfortable talking about it. There might be a shortage of female psychiatrists for me to refer to. We see that. There’s also a portion of the population that’s just generally uncomfortable with this, especially people who are more religious might be uncomfortable talking about this and you have to approach that from a certain angle. I happen to also be specialized in cultural psychiatry, so I deal with these things a lot, approaching things from a very specific cultural approach, culturally informative approach. Definitely, you see resistance in many populations.

Kimberley: I think that that’s so true. One thing I want to ask you, which I probably should have asked you before, is what would you say to the person who wants to try meds but is afraid of the potential of side effects? Is there a certain spiel or way in which you educate them to help them understand the risks or the benefits? How do you go about that for those who there’s no sexual side effects, they’re just afraid of the possibility?

Dr. Aziz: As part of my practice, I give as much informed consent to my patients as I can. I let them know what might happen and how that’s going to look afterwards. Once it happens, what would we do about it if it happened? A lot of times, especially patients with anxiety, you catastrophize and you feel this fear of some potential bad thing happening, and you never go past that. You never ask yourself, okay, well now let’s imagine that happens. What happens next? I tell my patients, “Yeah, you might have sexual dysfunction, but if that happens, we can reduce the medications or stop them and they’ll go away.” I also have to tell my patients that if they search the internet, there are many people who have sexual side effects, which didn’t go away, and who are very upset about it. This is something that is talked about on Reddit, on Twitter. When my patients go to Dr. Google and do their research, they often get really scared. “Doctor, what if this happens and it doesn’t go away?” I always try to explain to them, I have hundreds of patients that I’ve treated with these medications. In my practice, that’s never happened. As far as I know from the literature, there are no studies that show that there are permanent dysfunctions sexually because of SSRIs. 

Now, like I said, the research is not complete, but everything that I’ve read has been anecdotal. My feeling is that if you address these things in the beginning and you’re diligent in asking about the side effects of baseline sexual function beforehand and you are comfortable talking with your patients about it, you can avoid this completely. That’s been my experience. When I explain that to my patients, they feel like I have their back, like they’re protected, like I’m not just going to let them fall through the cracks. That has worked for me very well.

Kimberley: Right. It sounds like you give them some hope too, that this can be a positive experience, that this could be a great next step.

Dr. Aziz: Yeah, absolutely.

Kimberley: Thank you for bringing up Dr. Google, because referring to Reddit for anything psychologically related is not a great idea, I will say. Definitely, when it comes to medications, I think another thing that I see a lot that’s interesting on social media is I often will get dozens of questions saying, “I heard such and such works. Have your clients taken this medication? I heard this medication doesn’t work. What’s your experience?” Or if I’ve told them about my own personal experience, they want to know all about it because that will help inform their decision. Would you agree, do not get your information from social media or online at all?

Dr. Aziz: I have patients who come to me and they’re like, “My friend took Lexapro and said it was the worst thing in the world, and it may or not feel any emotions.” I’m explaining to them, I literally have hundreds of patients, hundreds that I prescribe this to, and I go up and down on the dose. I talk to them about their intimate lives all day. But for some reason, and it makes sense, the word of their friend or someone close to them, really, carries a lot of weight. Also, I don’t want to discount Reddit either, because I feel like it’s as a support system and as a support group. I find other people who have gone through what you’ve gone through. It’s very strong. Even pages like-- I don’t want to say the page, but there’s a page that’s against psychiatry, and I peruse this page a lot because I have my own qualms about psychiatry sometimes. I know the pharmaceutical companies have a certain pressure on themselves financially, and I know hospitals have a certain pressure on themselves. I get it. I go on the page and there’s a lot of people who have been hurt in the past, and it’s useful for patients to see other people who share that feeling and to get support. But at the same time, it’s important to find providers that you can trust and to have strong critical thinking skills, and be able to advocate for yourself while still listening to somebody who might have more information than you.

Kimberley: I’m so grateful you mentioned that. I do think that that is true. I think it’s also what I try to remember when I am online. The people who haven’t had a bad experience aren’t posting on Reddit. They’re out having a great time because it helped, the medication helped them, and they just want to move on. I really respect those who have a bad experience. They feel the need to educate. But I don’t think it’s that 50% who gave a great experience are on Reddit either. Would you agree?

Dr. Aziz: Right. Yeah. The people who are having great outcomes are not creating a Reddit page to go talk about it, right?

Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you so much for answering all my questions. Is there a general message that you want to give? Maybe it’s even saying it once over on something you’ve said before. What would be your final message for people who are listening?


Dr. Aziz: I just want to say that when SSRI’s impact your sex life, it’s really important for psychiatry, and especially in therapy, that you feel comfortable sharing your experiences in that room. It should be a safe space where you feel comfortable talking about your feelings at home and what’s going on in your intimate life and how things are affecting you. Your feelings, positive or negative towards your therapist or your psychiatrist, whether things they said made you uncomfortable, whether you feel they’re avoiding something, that room should be a safe space for you to be as open as possible. When you are as open as possible, that’s when you’re going to get the best care because your provider, especially in mental health, needs to know the whole picture of what’s going on in your life. Oftentimes, we are just as uncomfortable as you. And so, again, a lot of providers might avoid it because they’re afraid of offending you by asking about your orgasms. As a patient, you take the initiative and you bring it up. It’s going to improve your care. Try not to be afraid of bringing these things up. If you do feel uncomfortable for any reason, always let your provider know. 

I always tell my patients, I have a therapist. I pay a lot of money to see my therapist, and sometimes I tell him things I hate about him. He’s a great therapist. He’s psychoanalytic. Every time I bring something up, he brings it back to something about my dad. He’s way older than me. But he’s a great therapist. Every time I’ve brought something like that up, it’s been a breakthrough for me because that feeling means something. That would be my main message to everyone listening.

Kimberley: Thank you. I’m so grateful for your time and your expertise. Really, thank you. Can you tell us where people can get in touch with you, seek out your services, read more about you?

Dr. Aziz: Sure. I work for OCD SoCal. I’m on the executive board, and that’s the main way I like to communicate with people who see me on programs like this. You can always email me at S, like my first name, Aziz, that’s A-Z-I-Z, If you’re a USC student, you can call Student Health and request to see me at the PBHS clinic. That’s the Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Services clinic on campus at USC.

Kimberley: They’re lucky to have you.

Dr. Aziz: Thank you.

Kimberley: Yes. I love that you’re there. Thank you so much for all of your expertise. I am so grateful. This has been so helpful.

Apr 7, 2023

Welcome back, everybody. We are on Episode 2 of the Sexual Health and Anxiety Series. Today, I will be the main host and main speaker for the episode, talking about arousal and anxiety. This is a topic that goes widely misunderstood, particularly in the OCD and anxiety field where people are having arousal that they can’t make sense of. It’s also very true of people with PTSD. They’re having arousal that makes no sense to them, that confuses them, that increases anxiety, increases shame, increases guilt, and from there, it all becomes like a huge mess to them. It becomes incredibly painful, and it’s just so messy they can’t make sense of it. 

My hope with this episode is to help you understand the science behind arousal and the science behind arousal and anxiety so that you can move forward and manage your anxiety around arousal and manage your shame and guilt and sadness and grief around arousal, and have a better relationship with your body and with yourself and your soul.

Now, these are more difficult conversations. I have talked about them in the past, and so I want you just to go into this really, really gentle, really open with con compassion and kindness, and curiosity. Your curiosity is going to help you immensely as you move through this series, as you move through some of the difficult conversations we’re going to have, maybe a little bit embarrassing, humiliating, and so forth. Even me telling my kids that I’m so excited, I’m doing a series on sexual health, they’re like, “Mom, you can’t talk about that to other people.” I’m like, “Yes, I can. We’re going to talk about it. Hopefully, when you’re old enough, you’ll be able to listen to this and you’ll be so glad that we’re having conversations around this and taking the shame and stigma, and misinformation out of it.”

I’m going to go straight into the episode. This is our episode on understanding arousal and anxiety. We are going to come on next week talking about an entirely different subject about sexual health and intimacy, sex and anxiety, and arousal and anxiety. I am so excited. Stick around. Enjoy every bit of it. Take as many notes as you can, but please, please be kind to yourself. Let’s get to the show.

331 Anxiety and Arousal


Let’s get into the episode. Let me preface the episode by, we’re talking about anxiety and arousal. If I could have one person on the podcast, it would be Emily Nagoski. I have been trying to get her on the podcast for a while. We will get her on eventually. However, she’s off doing amazing things—Netflix specials, podcasts, vet documentaries. She’s doing amazing things. Hopefully one day. But until then, I want to really highlight her as the genius behind a lot of these concepts. 

Emily Nagoski is a doctor, a psychology doctor. She is a sex educator. She’s written two amazing books. Well, actually three or four, but the ones I’m referring to today is Come As You Are. It’s an amazing book, but I’m actually in my hand holding The Come As You Are Workbook. I strongly encourage you after you listen to this podcast episode to go and order that book. It is amazing. It’s got tons of activities. It might feel weird to have the book. You can get it on Kindle if you want to have it be hidden, but it’s so filled with amazing information and I’m going to try and give you the pieces that I really want you to take away. If you want more, by all means, go and get the workbook. The workbook is called The Come As You Are Workbook: A Practical Guide to The Science of Sex. The reason I love it is because it’s so helpful for those who have anxiety. It’s like she’s speaking directly to us. She’s like, “It’s so helpful to have this context.”

Here’s the thing I want you to consider starting off. A lot of people who have anxiety report struggles with arousal. We’re going to talk about two different struggles that are the highlight of today. Either you have no arousal because of your anxiety, or you’re having arousal at particular times that concern you and confuse you, and alarm you. You could be one or both of those camps. Let’s first talk about those who are struggling with arousal in terms of getting aroused. 

The thing I want you to think about is, commonly, this is true for any mental health issue too. It’s true for depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, dissociative disorders—all of them really. But the thing I want you to remember, no matter who you are and what your experience is, even if you have a really healthy experience of your own sexual arousal and you’re feeling fine about it, we all have what’s called inhibitors and exciters. Here is an example: An inhibitor is something that inhibits your arousal. An exciter is something that excites your arousal. 

Now, you’re probably already feeling a ton of judgment here like, “I shouldn’t be aroused by this, and I should be aroused by this. What if I’m aroused by this and I shouldn’t be,” and so forth. I want us to take all the judgment out of this and just look at the content of what inhibits our arousal or excites our arousal. Because sometimes, and I’ll talk about this more, it’s for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, and that’s okay.


Let’s talk about a sexual inhibitor—something that pumps the brakes on arousal or pleasure. It could be either. There’s exciters, which are the things that are really like the gas pedal. They just really bring on arousal, bring on pleasure, and so forth. 

We have the content. The content may be, first, mental or physical, and this includes your health, your physical health. For me, I know when I am struggling with POTS, arousal is just barely a thing. You’re just so wiped out and you’re so exhausted and your brain is foggy, and it’s just like nothing. That would be, in my case, an inhibitor. I’m not going to talk about myself a lot here, but I was just using that as an example. You might say your anxiety or your obsession is an inhibitor. It pumps the brakes on arousal. It makes it go away. Worry is one. It could also be other physical health like headaches or tummy aches or, as we said before, depression. It could be hormone imbalances, things like that. It’s all as important. Go and speak with your doctor. That’s super important. Make sure medically everything checks out if you’re noticing a dip or change in arousal, that’s concerning you. 

The next one in terms of content that may either excite you or inhibit you is your relationship. If your relationship is going well, you may or may not have an increase in arousal depending on what turns you on. If your partner smells of a certain smell or stench that you don’t like, that may pump the brakes. But if they smell a certain way that you do really like, and really is arousing to you, that may excite your arousal. It could also be the vibe of the relationship. A lot of people said, at the beginning of COVID, there was a lot of fear. That was really, really strong on the brakes. But then all of a sudden, no one had anything to do, and there was all this spare time. All of a sudden, the vibe is like, that’s what’s happening. Now, this could be true for people who are in any partnership, or it could be just you on your own too. There are things that will excite you and inhibit your arousal if you’re not in a relationship as well, and that’s totally fine. This is for all relationships. There’s no specific kind. 

Setting is another thing that may pump the brakes or hit the gas for arousal, meaning certain places, certain rooms, certain events. Did your partner do something that turned you on? Going back to physical, it could also depend on your menstrual cycle. People have different levels of arousal depending on different stages of their menstrual cycle. I think the same is true for men, but I don’t actually have a lot of research on that. But I’m sure there are some hormonal impacts for men as well.

There’s also ludic factors, which are like fantasy, whether you have a really strong imagination that either pumps the brakes or puts the gas pedal in terms of arousal. It could be like where you’re being touched. Sometimes there’s certain areas of your body that will set off either the gas pedal or the brakes. It could be a certain foreplay. Again, really what I’m trying to get at here isn’t breaking it down according to the workbook, but there’s so many factors that may influence your arousal. 


Another one is environmental and cultural and shame. If arousal and the whole concept of sex was shamed or booked down on, or people have a certain opinion about your sexual orientation, that too can impact your gas pedal and your brakes pedal. I want you to explore this not from a place of pulling it apart really aggressively and critically, but really curiously, and check in for yourself. What arouses me? What presses my brakes? What presses my gas? And just start to get to know that. Again, in the workbook, there’s tons of worksheets for this, but you could also just consider this on your own. Write it down on your own. Be aware over the next several days or weeks, just jot down in a journal what you’re noticing.

Now, before we move on, we’ve talked about a lot of people who are struggling with arousal and they’ve got a lot of inhibitors and brake pushing. There are the other camps who have a lot of gas pedal pushing. I speak here directly to the folks who have sexual obsessions, because often if you have sexual obsessions, the fact that your sexual obsession is sexual in nature may be what sets the gas pedal off, and all of a sudden, you have arousal for reasons that you don’t understand, that don’t make sense to you or maybe go against your values.

I’ve got a quote that I took from the book and from the workbook of Emily Nagoski. Again, none of this is my personal stuff. I’m quoting her and citing her throughout this whole podcast. She says: “Bodies do not say yes or no; they say sex-related or not sex-related.” Let me say it again. “Bodies do not say yes or no; they say sex-related or not sex-related.” This is where I want you to consider, and I’ve experienced this myself. Just because something arouses you doesn’t mean it brings you pleasure—main point. We’ve got to pull them apart.


Culture has led us to believe that if you feel some groinal response to something, you must love it and want more of it. An example of this is, for people with sexual obsessions, maybe they have OCD or some other anxiety disorder and they have an intrusive thought about a baby or an animal. Bestiality is another very common obsession with OCD, or could be just about a person. It could be just about a person that you see in the grocery store. When you have a thought that is sex-related, sometimes, because the context of it is that it’s sex-related, your body may get aroused. Our job, particularly if you have OCD, is not to try and figure out what that means, is not to try and resolve like, does that mean I like it? Does that mean I’m a terrible person? What does that mean? I want you to understand the science here to help you understand your arousal, to help you understand how you can now shift your perspective towards your body and your mind and the pleasure that you experience in the area of sexuality.


Let’s talk about the groial resopsne. Again, the body doesn’t say yes or no; they say either sex-related or not sex-related. Here’s the funny thing, and I’ve done this experiment with my patients before, if you look at a lamp post or it could be anything. You could look at the pencil you’re holding, and you think about, and then you bring to mind a sexual experience, you may notice arousal (or the groinal response). Again, it doesn’t mean that you’re now aroused by pencils or pens; it’s that it was labeled as sex-related. Often your brain will naturally press the accelerator. That’s often how I educate people, particularly those who are having arousal that concern it. It’s the same for a lot of people who have sexual trauma. They maybe are really concerned about the fact that they do have arousal around a memory or something, and then that concerns them, what does that mean about me? 

The thing to remember too is it’s not your body saying yes or no; it’s your body saying sex-related or not sex-related. It’s important to just help remind yourself of that so that you’re not responding to the content so much and getting caught up in compulsive behaviors. 

A lot of my patients in the past have reported, particularly during times when they’re stressed, their anxiety is really high, life is difficult, any of this content we went through, they may actually have a hard time being aroused at all. Some people have reported not getting an erection and then it completely going for reasons they don’t understand. I think here, we want to practice, again, non-judgment. Instead, move to curiosity. There’s probably some content that impacted that, which is, again, very, very normal. 


I’m talking with patients. I’ve done episodes on this in the past and we’ve in fact had sex therapists on the podcast in the past. They’ve said, if you’ve lost arousal, it doesn’t mean you give up. It doesn’t mean you say, “Oh, well, that’s that.” What you do is you move your attention to the content that pumps the gas. When I mean content, it’s like touch, smell, the relationship, the vibe, being in touch with your body, bringing your attention to the dance that you’re doing, whether it’s with a partner or by yourself or whatever means that works for you. You can bring that back. Another amazing book is called Better Sex Through Mindfulness. It talks a lot about bringing your attention to one or two sensations. Touch and smell being two really, really great ones. 

Again, if your goal is to be aroused, you might find it’s very hard to be aroused because the context of that is pressure. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really find pressure arousing. Some may, and again, this is where I want this to be completely judgment free. There is literally no right and wrong. But pressure is usually not that arousing. Pressure is not that pleasurable in many cases, particularly when it’s forceful and it feels like you have to perform a certain way. Again, some people are at their best in performance mode, but I want to just remind you, the more pressure you put on yourself on this idea of ending it well, it’s probably going to make some anxiety. Same with test anxiety. The more pressure you put on yourself to get an A, the more you’re likely to spin out with anxiety. It’s really no different. 

Here is where I want you to catch and ask yourself, is the pressure I put on myself or is the agenda I put on myself actually pumping the brakes for me when it comes to arousal? Is me trying not to have a thought, actually in the context of that, does that actually pump the brakes? Because I know you’re trying not to have the thought so that you can be intimate in that moment and engaged in pleasure. But the act of trying not to have the thought can actually pump the brakes. I hope that makes sense. I want you to get really close to understanding what’s going on for you. Everyone is different. Some things will pump the brakes, some things will pump the accelerator. A lot of the times, thought suppression pumps the brakes. A lot of the times, beating yourself up pumps the brakes. A lot of the time, they’re more like goal, like I have to do it this way. That often pumps the brakes. Keep an eye out for that. Engage in the exciters and get really mindful and present. 

A couple of things here. We’ve talked about erections. That’s for people who struggle with that. It’s also true for women and men with lubrication. Some people get really upset about the fact that there may or may not be a ton of lubrication. Again, we’ve been misled to believe that if you’re not lubricated, you mustn’t be aroused or that you mustn’t want this thing, or that there must be something wrong with you, and that is entirely not true. A lot of women, when we study them, may be really engaged and their gas pedal is going for it, but there may be no lubrication. It doesn’t mean something is wrong in those cases. Often a sex therapist or a sex educator will encourage you to use lubrication, a lubricant. I’ve talked to clients and they’re so ashamed of that. But I think it’s important to recognize that that’s just because somebody taught us that, and sadly, it’s a lot to do with patriarchy and that it was pushed on women in particular, that that meant they’re like a good woman if they’re really lubricated. That’s not true. That’s just fake, false, no science, has no basis in reality. 

Now we’ve talked about lubrication, we’ve talked about erection. Same for orgasm. Some people get really frustrated and disheartened that they can’t reach orgasm. If for any reason you’re struggling with this, please, I urge you, go and see a sex therapist. They are like the most highly trained therapists. They are so sensitive and compassionate. They can talk with you about this and you can target the specific things you want to work on. But orgasm is another one. If you put pressure on yourself to get there, that pumps the brakes often. 

What I want you to do, and this is your homework, is don’t focus on arousal; focus on pleasure. Again, it’s really about being in connection with your partner or yourself. As soon as you put a list of to-dos with it is often when things go wrong. Just focus on being present as much as you can and in the moment being aware of, ooh. Move towards the exciters, the gas pedal things. Move away from the inhibitors. Be careful there. Again, for those of you who have anxiety, that doesn’t mean thought suppress, that doesn’t mean judge your thoughts because that in and of itself is an inhibitor often.

I want to leave you with that. I’m going to, in the future, do a whole nother episode about talking more about this idea of arousal non-concordance, which is that quote I used: “The bodies don’t say yes or no; they say sex-related or not sex-related.” I’ll do more of that in the future, but for right now, I want it to be around you exploring your relationship with arousal, understanding it, but then putting your attention on pleasure. Being aware of both, being mindful of both. 

I’m not a sex therapist. Again, I’m getting all of this directly from the workbook, but most of the clients I’ve talked to about this, and we’ve used some worksheets and so forth, they’ve said, “When I put all the expectations away and I just focus on this touch and this body part and this smell and this kiss or this fantasy, or being really in touch with your own body, when I just make it as simple as that and I bring it down to just engaging in what feels good, use it as a north star. You just keep following, that feels good. Okay, that feels good. That doesn’t feel so great. I’ll move towards what feels good”—moving in that direction non-judgmentally and curiously, they’ve had the time of their lives. I really just want to give you that gift. Focus on pleasure. Focus non-judgmentally and curiously, being aware of what’s current and present in your senses.

That’s all I got for you for today. I think it’s enough. Do we agree? I think it’s enough. I could talk about this all day. To be honest, and I’ve said this so many times, if I had enough time, I would go back and I would become a sex therapist. It is a huge training. Sex therapists have the most intensive, extensive training and requirements. I would love to do it. But one day, I’ll probably do it when I’m like 70. That will be awesome. I’ll be down for that for sure. 

I just love this content. Again, I want to be really clear, I’m not a sex therapist and so I still have tons to learn. I still have. Even with what we’ve covered today, there’s probably nuanced things that I could probably explain better, which is why I’m going to stress to you, go and check out the book.

I was thinking about this. Remember I just recently did the episode on the three-day silent retreat and I was sitting in meditation. I remember this so clearly. I’m just going to tell you this quick story. For some reason, my mind was a little scattered this day and something came over with me where I was like, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I didn’t just treat anxiety disorders but I treated the person and the many problems that are associated with the anxiety disorder? Isn’t that a beautiful goal? Isn’t that so? Because it’s not just the anxiety; it’s the little tiny areas in our lives that it impacts.” As soon as I finished the meditation, I went on to my organization board that I use online and it was like, “Arousal. Let’s talk about pee and poop,” which is one episode we recently did. “Let’s talk about all the things because anxiety affects it all.” We can make little changes in all these areas, and slowly, you get your life back. So, I hope this gives you a little bit of your sexual expression back, if I could put it into words. Maybe not expression, but just your relationship with your body and pleasure. 

I love you. Thank you for staying with me for this. This was brave work you’re doing. You probably had cringey moments. Hopefully not. Again, none of this is weird, wrong, bad. This is all human stuff. So, finish up. Again, go check out the book. Her name is Emily Nagoski. I’ll leave a link in the show notes. One day we’ll get her on. But in the meantime, I’ll hopefully just give you the science that she’s so beautifully given us.

Mar 31, 2023

You guys, I am literally giggling with excitement over what we are about to do together. 

Last year, we did a series, the first series on Your Anxiety Toolkit where we talked about mental compulsions. It was a six-part series. We had some of the best therapists and best doctors in the world talking about mental compulsions. It was such a hit. So many people got so much benefit out of it. I loved it so much, and I thought that was fun, let’s get back to regular programming. But for the entire of last year after that series, it kept bugging me that I needed to do a series on sexual health and anxiety. It seems like we’re not talking about it enough. It seems like everyone has questions, even people on social media. The algorithm actually works against those who are trying to educate people around sex and sexual side effects and arousal and how anxiety impacts it. And so here I am. No one can stop us. Let’s do it. 

This is going to be a six-part sexual health and anxiety series, and today we have a return guest, the amazing Lauren Fogel Mersy. She is the best. She is a sex therapist. She talks all about amazing stuff around sexual desire, sexual arousal, sexual anxiety. She’s going to share with you, she has a book coming out, but she is going to kick this series off talking about sexual anxiety, or we actually also compare and contrast sexual performance anxiety because that tends to better explain what some of the people’s symptoms are. 

Once we go through this episode, we’re then going to meet me next week where I’m going to go back over. I’ve done an episode on it before, but we’re going to go back over understanding arousal and anxiety. And then we’re going to have some amazing doctors talking about medications and sexual side effects. We have an episode on sexual intrusive thoughts. We have an episode on premenstrual anxiety. We also have an episode on menopause and anxiety. My hope is that we can drop down into the topics that aren’t being covered enough so that you feel like you’ve got one series, a place to go that will help you with the many ways in which anxiety can impact us when it comes to our sexual health, our sexual arousal, our sexual intimacy. I am so, so, so excited. Let’s get straight to it. 

This is Episode 1 of the Sexual Health and Anxiety Series with Dr. Lauren Fogel Mersy. Lauren is a licensed psychologist. She’s a certified sex therapist, she’s an author, and she is going to share with us and we’re going to talk in-depth about sexual anxiety. I hope you enjoy the show. I hope you enjoy all of the episodes in this series. I cannot wait to listen to these amazing speakers—Lauren, being the first one. Thank you, Lauren.

330 Sexual Anxiety With Lauren Fogel Mersy

What Is Sexual Anxiety Or Sexual Performance Anxiety? Are They The Same Thing?

Kimberley: Welcome. I am so happy to have you back, Dr. Lauren Fogel Mersy. Welcome.

Dr. Lauren: Thank you so much for having me back. I’m glad to be here.

Kimberley: I really wanted to deep dive with you. We’ve already done an episode together. I’m such a joy to have you on. For those of you who want to go back, it’s Episode 140 and we really talked there about how anxiety impacts sex. I think that that is really the big conversation. Today, I wanted to deep dive a little deeper into talking specifically about sexual anxiety, or as I did a little bit of research, what some people call sexual performance anxiety. My first question for you is, what is sexual anxiety or what is sexual performance anxiety? Are they the same thing or are they a little different?

Dr. Lauren: I think people will use those words interchangeably. It’s funny, as you say that, I think that performance anxiety, that word ‘performance’ in particular, I hear that more among men than I do among women. I think that that might be attributed to so many people’s definition of sex is penetration. In order for penetration to be possible, if there’s a partner who has a penis involved that that requires an erection. I often hear that word ‘performance’ attributed to essentially erection anxiety or something to do with, will the erection stay? Will it last? Basically, will penetration be possible and work out? I think I often hear it attributed to that. And then sexual anxiety is a maybe broader term for a whole host of things, I would say, beyond just erection anxiety, which can involve anxiety about being penetrated. It could be anxiety about certain sexual acts like oral sex giving, receiving. It could be about whether your body will respond in the way that you want and hope it to. I think that word, sexual anxiety, that phrasing can encompass a lot of different things.


Kimberley: Yeah. I always think of it as, for me, when I talk with my patients about the anticipatory anxiety of sex as well. Like you said, what’s going to happen? Will I orgasm? Will I not? Will they like my body? Will they not? I think that it can be so broad. I love how you define that, how they can be different. That performance piece I think is really important. You spoke to it just a little, but I’d like to go a little deeper. What are some symptoms of sexual anxiety that a man or a woman may experience? 

Dr. Lauren: I think this can be many different things. For some people, it’s the inability to get aroused, which sifting through the many things that can contribute to that, knowing maybe that I’m getting into my head and that’s what’s maybe tripping me up and making it difficult to get aroused. It could be a racing heartbeat as you’re starting to get close to your partner, knowing that sex may be on the table. I’ve had some people describe it can get as severe as getting nauseated, feeling like you might be sick because you’re so worked up over the experience. Some of that maybe comes from trauma or negative experiences from the past, or some of it could be around a first experience with a partner really hoping and wanting it to go well. Sometimes we can get really nervous and those nerves can come out in our bodies, and then they can also manifest in all of the thoughts that we have in the moment, really getting distracted and not being able to focus and just be present. It can look like a lot of different things.


Kimberley: That’s so interesting to hear in terms of how it impacts and shows up. What about people who avoid sex entirely because of that? I’m guessing for me, I’m often hearing about people who are avoiding. I’m guessing for you, people are coming for the same reason. You’re a sex therapist. How does that show up in your practice?

Dr. Lauren: One of the things that can cause avoidance-- there’s actually an avoidance cycle that people can experience either on their own or within a partnership, and that avoidance is a way of managing anxiety or managing the distress that can come with challenging sexual experiences and trying to either protect ourselves or protect our relationships from having those outcomes as a possibility. There used to be a diagnosis called sexual aversion. It was called a sexual aversion disorder. We don’t have that in our language anymore. We don’t use that disorder because I think it’s a really protective, sensible thing that we might do at times when we get overwhelmed or when we’re outside of what we call a window of tolerance. It can show up as complete avoidance of sexual activity. It could show up as recoiling from physical touch as a way to not indicate a desire for that to progress any further. It could be avoidance of dating because you don’t want the inevitable conversation about sexuality or the eventuality that maybe will come up. Depending on whether you’re partnered or single and how that manifests in the relationship, it can come out in different ways through the avoidance of maybe different parts of the sexual experience, everything from dampening desire to avoiding touch altogether. 

Kimberley: That’s really interesting. They used to have it be a diagnosis and then now, did they give it a different name or did they just wipe it off of the DSM completely? What would you do diagnostically now? 

Dr. Lauren: It’s a great question. I think it was wiped out completely. I haven’t looked at a DSM in a long time. I think it was swiped out completely. Just personally as a sex therapist and the clinician I am today, I don’t use many of the sexual health diagnoses from the DSM because I think that they are pathologizing to the variation in the human sexual experience. I’m not so fond of them myself. What I usually do is I would frame that as an anxiety-related concern or just more of a sexual therapy or sex counseling concern. Because I think as we have a growing understanding of our nervous system and the ways in which our system steps in to protect us when something feels overwhelming or frightening or uncertain, I think it starts to make a lot of sense as to why we might avoid something or respond in the ways that we do. Once we have some understanding of maybe there’s some good sense behind this move that you’re making, whether that’s to avoid or protect or to hesitate or to get in your head, then we can have some power over adjusting how we’re experiencing the event once we understand that there’s usually a good reason why something’s there.

Kimberley: That is so beautiful. I love that you frame it that way. It’s actually a good lesson for me because I am always in the mindset of like, we’ve got to get rid of avoidance. That’s the anxiety work that I do. I think that you bring up a beautiful point that I hadn’t even considered, which is, we always look at avoidance as something we have to fix as soon as possible. I think what you’re saying is you don’t conceptualize it that way at all and we can talk more about what you could do to help if someone is having avoidance and they want to fix that. But what I think you’re saying is we’re not here to pathologize that as a problem here.

Dr. Lauren: Yeah. I see it, I’m trained less in the specifics. I think that makes a lot of sense when you’re working with specific anxiety disorders and OCD and the like. I’ve, as of late, been training in more and more emotionally focused therapy. I’m coming at it from an attachment perspective, and I’m coming at it from somewhat of a systemic perspective and saying, what is the avoidance doing? What is it trying to tell us? There’s usually some good reason somewhere along the way that we got where we are. Can I validate that that makes sense? That when something is scary or uncertain or you were never given good information or you really want something to go well and you’re not sure about it, and it means a lot to you, there’s all kinds of good reasons why that might hit as overwhelming.

When we’re talking about performance anxiety or sexual anxiety, really the number one strategy I’m looking for is, how can we work with what we call your window of tolerance? If your current comfort zone encompasses a certain amount of things, whatever that might be, certain sexual acts with maybe a certain person, maybe by yourself, I want to help you break down where you want to get to and break that into the smallest, manageable, tolerable steps so that what we’re doing is we’ve got one foot in your current window of what you can tolerate and maybe just a toe at a time out, and breaking that up into manageable pieces so that we don’t keep overwhelming your system. That is essentially what my job is with a lot of folks, is helping them take those steps and often what our nervous system needs to register, that it’s okay, that it’s safe, that we can move towards our goals. Cognitively, we think it’s too slow or it’s too small. It’s not. We have to really break that down. 

If there’s something about the sexual experience that you’re avoiding, that is overwhelming, that you’re afraid of, what I do is validate that, makes sense that that maybe is just too much and too big all at once. And then let’s figure out a way to work ourselves up to that goal over time. Usually, slower is faster. 


Kimberley: I love that. I really do. Why do people have sexual anxiety? Is that even an important question? Do you explore that with your patients? I think a lot of people, when I see them in my office or online, we know there’s a concern that they want to fix, but they’re really quite distressed by the feeling that something is wrong with them and they want to figure out what’s wrong with them. Do you have some feedback on why people have sexual anxiety? 

Dr. Lauren: I do. I think it can stem from a number of experiences or lack thereof in our lives. There are some trends and themes that come up again and again that I’ve seen over the years in sex therapy. Even though we’re taping here in the US, we’re in a culture that has a lot of sexuality embedded within the media, there is still a lot of taboo and a lot of misinformation about sex or a lack of information that people are given. I mean, we still have to fight for comprehensive sex education. Some people have gotten explicitly negative messages about sex growing up. Some people have been given very little to know information about sex growing up. Both of those environments can create anxiety about sex. We also live in a world where we’re talking openly about sex with friends, parents teaching their children more than just abstinence, and going into a little bit more depth about what healthy sexuality looks like between adults. A lot of that is still not happening. What you get is a very little frame of reference for what’s ‘normal’ and what’s considered concerning versus what is par for the course with a lifetime of being a sexual person. So, a lot of people are just left in the dark, and that can create anxiety for a good portion of those folks, whether it’s having misinformation or just no information about what to expect. And then the best thing that most of us have to draw on is the Hollywood version of a very brief sex scene.

Kimberley: Yes. I was just thinking about that.

Dr. Lauren: And it’s just so wildly different than your actual reality.

Kimberley: Yeah. That’s exactly what I was thinking about, is the expectation is getting higher and higher, especially as we’re more accessible to pornography online, for the young folks as well, just what they expect themselves to do.

Dr. Lauren: That’s right. We have young people being exposed to that on the internet. We’ve got adults viewing that. With proper porn literacy and ethical porn consumption, that can be a really healthy way to enjoy erotic content and to engage in sexuality. The troubling thing is when we’re not media literate, when we don’t have some of the critical thinking to really remember and retain the idea that this entertainment, this is for arousal purposes, that it’s really not giving an accurate or even close depiction of what really goes on between partners. I think it’s easier for us to maintain that level of awareness when we’re consuming general movies and television. But there’s something about that sexuality when you see it depicted in the media that so many people are still grappling with trying to mimic what they see. I think that’s because there’s such an absence of a frame of reference other than those media depictions.


Kimberley: Right. So good. Is there a difference between sexual anxiety in males and sexual anxiety in females?

Dr. Lauren: I think it can show up differently, certainly depending on what role you play in the sexual dynamic, what positions you’re looking to or what sexual acts you’re looking to explore. There’s a different level or a different flavor of anxiety, managing erection anxiety, managing anxiety around premature ejaculation. They’re all similar, but there’s some unique pieces to each one. All of the types of anxiety that I’ve seen related to sex have some common threads, which is getting up into our heads and dampening the experience of pleasure not being as present in the moment, not being as embodied in the moment, because we get too focused on what will or won’t happen just moments from now. 

While that makes so much sense, you’re trying to foretell whether it’s going to be a positive experience, there is a-- I hate to say like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but there’s a reaction in our bodies to some of those anxious thoughts. If I get into my head and I start thinking to myself, “This may not go well. This might hurt. I might lose my arousal. I might not be able to orgasm. My partner may not think I’m good in bed,” whatever those anxious thoughts are, the thoughts themselves can become a trigger for a physical reaction. That physical reaction is that it can turn on our sympathetic nervous system, and that is the part of our body that says, “Hey, something in the environment might be dangerous here, and it’s time to mobilize and get ready to run.”

What happens in those moments once our sympathetic system is online, a lot of that blood flow goes out of our genital region, out of our chest and into our extremities, to your arms, to your legs. Your body is acting as if there was a bear right there in front of you and your heart rate goes up and all of these things. Now, some of those can also be signs of arousal. That’s where it can get really tricky because panting or increased heart rate or sweating can also be arousal. It’s really confusing for some people because there can be a parallel process in your physiology. Is this arousal or is this anxiety? 


Kimberley: It’s funny that you mentioned that because as I was researching and doing a little bit of Googling about these topics, one of the questions which I don’t get asked very often is, can anxiety cause arousal? Because I know last time, we talked about how anxiety can reduce arousal. Is that something that people will often report to you that having anxiety causes them to have sexual arousal, not fight and flight arousal?

Dr. Lauren: Yeah. I mean, what I see more than anything is that it links to desire, and here’s how that tends to work for some people because then the desire links to the arousal and it becomes a chain. For many people out in the world, they engage in sexual activity to impart self-soothe and manage stress. It becomes a strategy or an activity that you might lean on when you’re feeling increased stress or distress. That could be several different emotions that include anxiety. If over my lifetime or throughout the years as I’ve grown, maybe I turn to masturbation, maybe I turn to partnered sex when I’m feeling anxious, stressed, or distressed, over time, that’s going to create a wiring of some of that emotion, and then my go-to strategy for decreasing that emotion or working through that emotion. That pairing over time can definitely work out so that as soon as I start feeling anxious, I might quickly come to feelings of arousal or a desire to be sexual.

Kimberley: Very interesting. Thank you. That was not a question I had, but it was interesting that it came up when I was researching. Very, very cool. This is like a wild card question. Again, when I was researching here, one of the things that I got went down a little rabbit hole, a Google rabbit hole, how you go down those...

Dr. Lauren: That’s never happened to me.


Kimberley:, what about post-sex anxiety? A lot of what we are talking about today, what I would assume is anticipatory anxiety or during-sex anxiety. What about post-sex anxiety? What is post-sex anxiety?

Dr. Lauren: I’ve come across more-- I don’t know if it’s research or articles that have been written about something called postcoital dysphoria, which is like after-sex blues. Some people get tearful, some get sad, some feel like they want to pull away from their partner and they need a little bit of space. That’s certainly a thing that people report. I think either coexisting with that or sometimes in its place can be maybe feelings of anxiety that ramp up. I think that can be for a variety of things. Some of it could be, again, getting into your head and then doing a replay like, was that good? Are they satisfied? We get into this thinking that it’s like a good or bad experience and which one was it.

Also, there’s many people who look to sex, especially when we have more anxiety, and particularly if we have a more predominantly anxious attachment where we look to sex as a way to validate the relationship, to feel comforted, to feel secure, to feel steady. There’s a process that happens where it’s like seeking out sex for comfort and steadiness, having sex in the moment, feeling more grounded. And then some of that anxiety may just return right on the other end once sex is over, and then you’re back to maybe feeling some insecurity or unsteadiness again. When that happens, that’s usually a sign that it’s not just about sex. It’s not just a sexual thing. It’s actually more of an attachment and an insecurity element that needs and warrants may be a greater conversation. 

The other thing is your hormones and chemicals change throughout the experience. You get this increase of bonding maybe with a partner, oxytocin, and feel-good chemicals, and then they can sometimes drop off after an orgasm, after the experience. For some people, they might just experience that as depressed mood anxiety, or just a feeling of being unsettled.

Kimberley: That’s so interesting. It makes total sense about the attachment piece and the relational piece, and that rumination, that more self-criticism that people may do once they’ve reviewed their performance per se. That’s really helpful to hear. Actually, several people have mentioned to me when I do lives on Instagram the postcoital dysphoria. Maybe you could help me with the way to word it, but is that because of a hormone shift, or is that, again, because of a psychological shift that happens after orgasm?

Dr. Lauren: My understanding is that we’re still learning about it, that we’ve noticed that it’s a phenomenon. We’re aware of it, we have a name for it, but I don’t know that we have enough research to fully understand it just yet. Right now, if I’m not misquoting the research, I believe our understanding is more anecdotal at this point. I would say, many different things could be possible, anything from chemical changes to attachment insecurities, and there’s probably things that are beyond that I’m also missing in that equation. I think it’s something we’re still studying.


Kimberley: Very interesting. Let’s talk now about solutions. When should someone reach out to either a medical professional, a mental health professional? What would you advise them to do if they’re experiencing sexual anxiety or performance anxiety when it comes to sex?

Dr. Lauren: That makes a lot of sense. That’s a great question. What I like to tell people is I want you to think of your sexual experiences like a bell curve. For those who were not very science or math-minded like myself, just a quick refresher, a bell curve basically says that the majority of your experiences in sex are going to be good, or that’s what we’re hoping for and aiming for. And then there’s going to be a few on one tail, there’s going to be some of those, not the majority, that are amazing, that are excellent, that really stand out. Yes, mind-blowing, fabulous. And then there’s the other side of that curve, that pole. The other end is going to be, something didn’t work out, disappointing, frustrating. There is no 100% sexual function across a lifetime with zero hiccups. That’s not going to be a realistic goal or expectation for us. 

I always like to start off by reminding people that you’re going to have some variation and experience. What we’d like is for at least a good chunk of them to be what Barry McCarthy calls good enough sex. It doesn’t have to be mind-blowing every time, but we want it to be satisfying, of good quality. If you find that once or twice you can’t get aroused, you don’t orgasm, you’re not as into it, one of the liabilities for us anxious folks, and I consider myself one of them having generalized anxiety disorder my whole life—one of the things that we can do sometimes is get catastrophic with one or two events where it doesn’t go well and start to jump to the conclusion that this is a really bad thing that’s happening and it’s going to happen again, and it’s life-altering sort of thing. One thing is just keeping this in mind that sometimes that’s going to happen, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the next time you go to be sexual that it’ll happen again. But if you start to notice a pattern, a trend over several encounters, then you might consider reaching out to someone like a general therapist, a sex therapist to help you figure out what’s going on. 

Sometimes there’s a medical component to some of these concerns, like a pattern of difficulty with arousal. That’s not a bad idea to get that checked out by a medical provider because sometimes there could be blood flow concerns or hormone concerns. Again, I think we’re looking for patterns. If there’s a pattern, if it’s something that’s happening more than a handful of times, and certainly if it’s distressing to you, that might be a reason to reach out and see a professional.

Kimberley: I think you’re right. I love the bell curve idea and actually, that sounds very true because often I’ll have clients who have never mentioned sex to me. We’re working on their anxiety disorder, and then they have one time where they were unable to become aroused or have an erection or have an orgasm. And then like you said, that catastrophic thought of like, “What happens if this happens again? What if it keeps happening?” And then as you said, they start to ruminate and then they start to avoid and they seek reassurance and all those things. And then we’re in that kind of, as you said, self-fulfilling, now we’re in that pattern. That rings very, very true. What about, is there any piece of this? I know I’m disclosing and maybe from my listeners, you’re probably thinking it’s TMI, but I remember after having children that everything was different and it did require me to go and speak to a doctor and check that out. So, my concerns were valid in that point. Would it be go to the therapist first, go to the doctor first? What would you recommend?

Dr. Lauren: Yeah. I mean, you’re not alone in that. The concerns are always valid, whether they’re medical, whether they’re psychological, wherever it’s stemming from. If after once or twice you get freaked out and you want to just go get checked out, I don’t want to discourage anybody from doing that either. We’re more than happy to see you, even if it’s happened once or twice, just to help walk you through that so you’re not alone. But the patterns are what we’re looking for overall. 

I think it depends. Here’s some of the signs that I look for. If sex is painful, particularly for people with vaginas, if it’s painful and it’s consistently painful, that’s something that I would recommend seeing a sexual medicine specialist for. There are some websites you can go to to look up a sexual medicine specialist, someone in particular who has received specialized training to treat painful sex and pelvic pain. That would be an indicator. If your body is doing a lot of bracing and tensing with sex so your pelvic floor muscles are getting really tight, your thighs are clenching up, those might be some moments where maybe you want to see a medical provider because from there, they may or may not recommend, depending on whether it’s a fit for you, something called pelvic floor therapy. That’s something that people can do at various stages of life for various reasons but is doing some work specifically with the body. 

Other things would be for folks with penises. If you’re waking up consistently over time where you’re having difficulty getting erections for sexual activity and you’re not waking up with erections anymore, that morning wood—if that’s consistent over time, that could be an indicator to go get something checked out, maybe get some blood work, talk to your primary care just to make sure that there’s nothing in addition to maybe if we think anxiety is a part of it, make sure there’s nothing else that could be going on as well.


Kimberley: Right. I love this. This is so good. Thank you again. Let’s quickly just round it out with, how may we overcome this sex anxiety, or how could we cope with sex anxiety?

Dr. Lauren: It’s the million-dollar question, and I’ve got a pretty, I’ll say, simple but not easy answer. It’s a very basic answer.

Kimberley: The good answers are always simple but hard to apply.

Dr. Lauren: Simple, it’s a simple theory or idea. It’s very hard in practice. One of, I’d say, the main things I do as a sex therapist is help people really diversify what sex is. The more rigid of a definition we have for sex and the more rigidly we adhere to a very particular set of things that have to happen in a particular order, in a very specific way, the more trouble we’re going to have throughout our lifetime making that specific thing happen. The work is really in broadening and expanding our definition of sex and having maybe a handful of different pathways to be sexual or to be intimate with a partner so that, hey, if today I have a little bit more anxiety and I’m not so sure that I get aroused that we can do path A or B. If penetration is not possible today because of whatever reason that we can take path C. When we have more energy or less energy, more time, less time, that the more flexibility we have and expansiveness we have to being intimate and sexual, the more sexual you’ll be.

Kimberley: Just because I want to make sure I can get what you’re saying, when you say this inflexible idea of what this narrow you’re talking about, I’m assuming, I’m putting words in your mouth and maybe what you’re thinking because I’m sure everybody’s different, but would I be right in assuming that the general population think that sex is just intercourse and what you’re saying is that it’s broader in terms of oral sex and other? Is that the A, B, and C you’re talking about? 

Dr. Lauren: Yeah. There’s this standard sexual script that most people follow. It’s the one that we see in Hollywood, in erotic videos. It centers mostly heterosexual vaginal penetration, so penis and vagina sex. It centers sex as culminating in orgasm mainly for the man, and then nice if it happens for the woman as well in these heterosexual scenarios. It follows a very linear progression from start to finish. It looks something like—tell me if this doesn’t sound familiar—a little bit of kissing and some light touching and then some heavier touching, groping, caressing, and then maybe oral sex and then penetration as the main event, orgasm as the finish line. That would be an example of when I say path A or B or C. I’m thinking like that in particular what I just described. 

Let’s call that path A for not that it’s the gold standard, but it’s the one we draw on. Let’s say that’s one option for having a sexual encounter. But I also want people to think about there’s going to be times where that is not on the table for a variety of reasons, because if you think about it, that requires a certain energy, time. There might be certain conditions that you feel need to be present in order for that to be possible. For some people, it automatically goes to the wayside the moment something happens like, “Well, I don’t feel like I have enough time,” or “I’m tired,” or “I’m menstruating,” or whatever it is. Something comes up as a barrier and then that goes out the door. That can include things like anxiety and feeling like we have to adhere to this progression in this particular way. Let’s call that path A. Path B might be, we select a couple of things from that that we like. Let’s say we do a little kissing and we do oral sex and we say goodnight. Let’s say path C is we take a shower together and we kiss and we soap each other’s backs and we hug. That’s path C. Path D is massaging each other, full body. You’ve got all these different pathways to being erotic or sensual or intimate or sexual. The more that you have different pathways to being intimate, the more intimate you’ll be.

Kimberley: That is so relieving is the word I feel. I feel a sense of relief in terms of like, you’re right. I think that that is a huge answer, as you said. Actually, I think it’s a good answer. I don’t think that’s a hard answer. I like that. For me, it feels like this wonderful relief of pressure or change of story and narrative. I love that. I know in the last episode you did, you talked a lot about mindfulness and stuff like that, which I will have in this series. People can go and listen to it as well. I’m sure that’s a piece of the pie. I want to be respectful of your time. Where can people hear more about you and the work that you’re doing? I know that you have an exciting book coming out, so tell us a little bit about all that.

Dr. Lauren: Thank you. I do. I co-authored a book called Desire. It’s an inclusive guide to managing libido differences in relationships. I co-authored that with my colleague Dr. Jennifer Vencill. That comes out August 22nd, 2023 of this year. We’ll be talking in that book mainly about desire. There are some chapters or some sections in the book that do intersect with things like anxiety. There’s some particular instructions and exercises that help walk people through some things that they can do with a partner or on their own to work through anxiety. We’ve got an anxiety hierarchy in there where whatever your goal might be, how to break that up into smaller pieces. We’re really excited about that. I think that might be helpful for some people in your audience. And then in general, I am most active on Instagram. My handle is my full name. It’s @drlaurenfogelmersy. I’m also on Facebook and TikTok. My website is

Kimberley: Thank you. Once again, so much pleasure having you on the show. Thank you for your beautiful expertise. You bring a gentle, respectful warmth to these more difficult conversations, so thank you.

Dr. Lauren: Oh, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me back.

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