This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 193.
Hello, my loves, how are you?
So, recently, I’ve been having lots of conversations with my patients and my clients around one really helpful metaphor around managing mental compulsions.
Now, before we go into this, let me just do a quick overview. We have obsessions, which show up in the form of intrusive thoughts, intrusive feelings, like anxiety and uncertainty and doubt and guilt and disgust. There’s intrusive thoughts, there’s intrusive feelings, there’s intrusive sensations, which is whatever physical sensations you experience that are intrusive and repetitive, and then intrusive urges. Urges like this urge – you feel like you’re going out of control and you’re about to hurt someone or you’re about to harm someone or do something that is ineffective or not helpful in your life.
We have these intrusive thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges, and sometimes images as well. It might be a quick flash image of something scary. In effort to either solve that or remove that or lessen the discomfort of that, we engage in a compulsion. Now, the compulsion could be physical, like washing your hands or moving an object or so forth, checking something, or it can be mental. I’m really specifically, in this episode, talking about mental compulsions – the mental compulsion of trying to solve and ruminate on an obsession. A lot of you have said that mental compulsions are one of the most difficult to reduce or prevent or stop, and I think that’s very, very, very common.
When I’m talking with my patients about this, usually, they report that once they have the obsession, because we know that – let’s sort of just preface – trying to prevent the thought or suppress the thought won’t work. You’re going to have these thoughts. Thoughts suppression usually makes you have the thought even more.
We’re not talking about thoughts suppression here, but what we are talking about is, once you identify that you’ve had the thought, how much attention do you give it and how much leash do you give it? This is the metaphor I want you to think of.
When you’ve had this intrusive thought, think of the thought like a really baby puppy, like a really active bouncy baby puppy, and you’ve got the baby puppy on a leash. You’re taking the puppy for a walk.
Now often I’ll ask my patients, “When you take your puppy for a walk, particularly if you live in a suburban or city area, which I do, do you give the puppy a long leash or do you give it a short leash? As you’re walking down the sidewalk, are you letting the puppy walk down the middle of the road with a long leash, and then it jumps over the sidewalk into the garden, it pees on the garden and then wraps its leash around your legs, and then it takes you off into some at the park that you don’t want to go into? Does it walk down a street that you don’t want to walk down? Or do you keep the leash shorter? And what you’re doing there is you’re pulling it back. You’re not allowing it to go into areas that you don’t want it to go.”
Now, that’s what I want you to think of in regards to mental compulsions. Once you know that you’ve had an intrusive thought, your job is to keep that thought on a short leash, meaning you don’t explore the whole neighborhood and what it means and what it could happen, and this could happen, and that could happen, and let’s go down the rabbit hole of trying to figure this out. Instead, you want to keep it on a shorter leash. Again, in this case, you’re being really skilled in what road you’re letting yourself go down or what rabbit hole you’re letting yourself go down. The whole idea here is, keep your intrusive thoughts on a short leash.
You still have the dog. You’re not trying to get rid of the dog. You’re not cutting the leash short and going, “Runaway, I don’t want you.” You’re saying, “I have this thought. It’s going to be here. I’m going to be very intentional on where I allow this thought to go. I’m going to be very intentional on how much I let this thought be the focus of the walk I’m taking.”
As you’re walking your dog, you’re not only looking at your dog. You’re also looking at the path that you’re walking on so you don’t trip. You’re looking at the nature around you. You’re waving to the neighbor or however. You’re engaging with the outside world. You’re not just gripping and holding the leash and fighting it.
This is important for you as you manage your mental compulsion. I’m going to say to you, this may be the most important skill you’ll learn. The skill of managing mental compulsion is so important if you have generalized anxiety, OCD, social anxiety, health anxiety, depression. It’s so important that we are skilled at setting boundaries with our mental compulsions or our rumination and our worry. All of these things are the same. Worry is just a form of mental compulsion.
What we want to do is, if you notice that you’re going way down the wrong street and you’re going in the direction of doing mental compulsions, you may want to yank on that chain and say no, as you would with your dog. “We’re not going down that street. We don’t poop in people’s yards. We don’t poop in our own yard. We stay on the sidewalk.” And then the dog tries to go the other direction into that person’s garden, and you say, “No, sorry. We’re not doing that today. We’re staying on this path. You can be here. The thought can be here, but I will not let it determine what I do on my walk.”
This is so important. Just think of it. Think about when you’re in your daily life, do you allow your thoughts to be on a tremendously long leash and do they go wherever they want and they’re pulling you in every direction, or are you in the practice of shortening that leash and taking more control over where you let your head go?
Now, a major thing to remember: It’s entirely okay if you suck at this. You are going to suck at this. Please, don’t be hard on yourself. This is a practice. There are some days I am excellent at this. There are some days I am terrible at this. That is okay. It’s similar to anything in your life. You’re going to have ups and downs. But really reflect as often as you can, what’s the intrusive thought, what’s the intrusive feeling, sensation, urge, image. That’s the obsession. We don’t want to control that, but we do want to work on being skilled at how we respond. That’s the most important piece.
Be gentle. Be kind. Be diligent. Be patient. You will get this with time. Keep that dog on a shorter leash, if you can. Be gentle with the puppy on the leash too. Don’t yank on it too hard because we don’t want to get into a wrestle with our thoughts. Okay?
I love you. I hope that is helpful. Please, please let me know your thoughts on this. It’s just a metaphor, so it may be helpful for some and some maybe not for others. I just am so grateful that I get to spend this time with you.
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Thank you so much. I love you, guys. Have a nice walk, my friends. It’s a beautiful day to do hard things.