Links to Jon’s Books https://www.amazon.com/
Work with Jon https://www.sheppardpratt.org/care-finder/ocd-anxiety-center/
This episode of Your Anxiety Toolkit is brought to you by CBTschool.com. CBTschool.com is a psychoeducation platform that provides courses and other online resources for people with anxiety, OCD, and Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. Go to cbtschool.com to learn more.
To learn about our Online Course for OCD, visit https://www.cbtschool.com/erp-school-lp.
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I want you to go back and listen to that. That is where I walk you through Mental Compulsions 101. What is a mental compulsion, the types of mental compulsions, things to be looking out for. The reason I stress that you start there is there may be things you’re doing that are mental compulsions and you didn’t realize. So, you want to know those things before you go in and listen to the skills that you’re about to receive. Oh my goodness. This is just so, so exciting. I’m mind-blown with how exciting this is all for me.
First of all, let’s introduce the guest for today. Today, we have the amazing Jon Hershfield. Jon has been on the episode before, even talking about mental compulsions. However, I wanted him to status off. He was so brave. He jumped in, and I wanted him to give his ideas around what is a mental compulsion, how he uses mental compulsion treatment with his clients, what skills he uses. Little thing to know here, he taught me something I myself didn’t know and have now since implemented with our patients over at my clinic of people who struggle with mental compulsions. I’ve also uploaded that and added a little bit of that concept into ERP School, which is our course for OCD, called ERP School. You can get it at CBTSchool.com.
Jon is amazing. So, you’re going to really feel solid moving into this. He gives some solid advice. Of course, he’s always so lovely and wise. And so, I am just so excited to share this with you. Let’s just get to the show because I know you’re here to learn. This is episode two of the series. Next week we will be talking with Shala Nicely and she will be dropping major truth bombs and major skills as well, as will all of the people on the series. So, I am so, so excited.
One thing to know as you move into it is there will be some things that really work for you and some that won’t. So, I’m going to say this in every episode intro. So, all of these skills are top-notch science-based skills. Each person is going to give their own specific nuanced way of managing it. So, I want you to go in knowing that you can take what you need. Some things will really be like, yes, that’s exactly what I needed to hear. Some may not. So, I want you to go in with an open mind knowing that the whole purpose of this six-part series is to give you many different approaches so that you can try on what works for you. That’s my main agenda here, is that you can feel like you’ve gotten all the ideas and then you can start to put together a plan for yourself. Let’s go over to the show. I’m so happy you’re here.
Kimberley: Welcome, Jon. I’m so happy to have you back.
Jon: Hi, Kimberley. Thanks for having me back.
Kimberley: Okay. So, you’re first in line and I purposely had you first in line. I know we’ve had episodes similar to this in the past, but I just wanted to really get your view on how you’re dealing with mental compulsions. First, I want to check in, do you call them “mental compulsions” or do you call it “mental rumination”? Do you want to clarify your own idea?
Jon: Yeah. I say mental compulsions or mental rituals. I use the terms pretty interchangeably. It comes up at the first, usually in the assessment, if not then in the first post-assessment session, when I’m explaining how OCD works and I get to the part we say, and then there’s this thing called compulsions. And what I do is I describe compulsions as anything that you do physically or mentally to reduce distress, and this is the important part, specifically by trying to increase certainty about the content of the obsession.
Why that’s important is I think we need to get rid of this myth that sometimes shows up in the OCD community that when you do exposures or when you’re triggered, you’re just supposed to freak out and deal with it, and hopefully, it’ll go away on its own. Actually, there are many things you can do to reduce distress that aren’t compulsive, because what makes it compulsive is that it’s acting on the content of the obsession. I mean, there might be some rare exceptions where your specific obsession has to do with an unwillingness to be anxious or something like that. But for the most part, meditation, breathing exercises, grounding exercises, DBT, certain forms of distraction, exercise – these can all reduce your physical experience of distress without saying anything in particular about whether or not the thought that triggered you is true or going to come.
So, once I’ve described that, then hopefully, it opens people up to realize, well, it could really be anything and most of those things are going to be mental. So then, we go through, “Well, what are the different mental ways?” We know the physical ways through washing hands and checking locks and things like that. But what are all the things you’re doing in your mind to convince yourself out of the distress, as opposed to actually working your way through the distress using a variety of distress tolerance skills, including acceptance?
Kimberley: Right. Do you do the same for people with generalized anxiety or social anxiety or other anxiety disorders? Would you conceptualize it the same way?
Jon: Yeah. I think for the most part, I mean, I do meet people. Some people who I think are better understood as having generalized anxiety disorder than OCD, and identifying with that concept actually helps them approach this problem that they have of dealing with uncertainty and dealing with worry and dealing with anxiety on close to home, regular everyday issues like finance and work and health and relationships and things like that. And there’s a subsection of that people who, if you treat it like OCD, it’s really helpful. And there’s a subsection if you treat it like OCD, they think, “Oh no, I have some other psychiatric problem I have to worry about right now.”
I’m a fan of treating the individual that the diagnostic terms are there to help us. Fundamentally, the treatment will be the same. What are you doing that’s sending the signal to your brain, that these ideas are threats as opposed to ideas, and how can we change that signal?
Kimberley: Right. I thank you for clarifying on that. So, after you’ve given that degree of psychoeducation, what do you personally do next? Do you want to share? Do you go more into an exposure option? Do you do more response prevention? Tell me a little bit about it, walk me through how you would do this with a client.
Jon: The first thing I would usually do is ask them to educate me on what it’s really like to be them. And so, that involves some thought tracking. So, we’ll use a trigger and response log. So, I keep it very simple. What’s setting you off and what are you doing? And I’ll tell them in the beginning, don’t try too hard to get better because I want to know what your life is really like, and I’ll start to see the patterns. It seems every time you’re triggered by this, you seem to do that. And that’s where they’ll start to reveal to me things like, “Well, I just thought about it for an hour and then it went away.” And that’s how I know that they’re engaging in mental review and rumination, other things like that. Or I was triggered by the thought that I could be sick and I repeated the word “healthy” 10 times. Okay. So, they’re doing thought neutralization.
Sometimes we’ll expand on that. One of the clinicians in my practice took our thought records and repurposed them as a mental behavior log. So, it’s what set you off. What did you do? What was the mental behavior that was happening at that time? And in some cases, what would’ve been more helpful? Again, I rely more on my patients to tell me what’s going on than on me to tell them “Here’s what’s going on,” so you get the best information.
Kimberley: Right. I love that. I love the idea of having a log. You’re really checking in for what’s going on before dropping everything down. Does that increase their distress? How do they experience that?
Jon: I think a lot of people find it very helpful because first of all, it’s an act of mindfulness to write this stuff down because it’s requiring you to put it in front of you and see it, which is different than having it hit you from inside your head. And so, that’s helpful. They’re seeing it as a thought process. And I think it also helps people come to terms with a certain reality about rumination that it’s not a hundred percent compulsion in the sense that there’s an element of rumination that’s habitual. Your mind, like a puppy, is conditioned to respond automatically to certain things that it’s been reinforced to do. And so, sometimes people just ruminate because they’re alone or sitting in a particular chair. It’s the same reason why people sometimes struggle with hair-pulling disorder, trichotillomania or skin picking. It’s these environmental cues. And then the brain says, “Oh, we should do this now because this is what we do in this situation.” People give themselves a really hard time for ruminating because they’ve been told to stop, but they can’t stop because they find themselves doing it.
So, what I try to help people understand is like, “Look, you can only control what you can control. And the more that you are aware of, the more you can control. So, this is where you can bring mindfulness into it.” So, maybe for this person, there’s such a ruminator. They’re constantly analyzing, figuring things out. It’s part of their identity. They’re very philosophical. They’re not thinking of it as a compulsion, and many times they’re not thinking of it at all. It’s just happening. And then we increased their awareness, like, “Oh, okay. I got triggered. I left the building for a while. And then suddenly, I realized I was way down the rabbit hole, convinced myself that’s something terrible. So, in that moment I realized I’m supposed to stop, but so much damage has been done because I just spent a really long time analyzing and compulsing and trying to figure it out.”
So, strategies that increase our awareness of what the mind is doing are extraordinarily helpful because imagine catching it five seconds into the process and being able to say, “Oh, I’m ruminating. Okay, I don’t need to do that right now. I’m going to return my attention to what I was doing before I got distracted.”
Kimberley: Right. I love the idea of this, the log for awareness, because a lot of people say, “Oh, maybe for half an hour a day.” Once they’ve logged it, they’re like, “Wow, it’s four hours a day.” I think it’s helpful to actually recognize this, like how impactful it is on their life. So, I love that you’re doing that piece. You can only control what you can control. What do you do with the stuff you can’t control?
Jon: Oh, you apply heavy doses of self-criticism until you hate yourself enough to never do it again. That’s the other mental ritual that usually happens and people realize, “Oh, I’ve been ruminating,” and they’re angry at themselves. “I should know better.” So, they’re angry at themselves for something they didn’t know they were doing, which is unfair. So, I use the term, I say, “label and abandon.” That’s what you do with all mental rituals. The moment you see it, you give it a name and you drop it. You just drop it on the floor where you were, you don’t finish it up real quick. You don’t analyze too much about it and then drop it. You’re just like, “Oh, I’m holding this thing I must not hold,” and you drop it. Label and abandon.
What people tend to do is criticize then label, then criticize some more and then abandon. And the real problem with that is that the self-criticism is in and of itself another mental ritual. It’s a strategy for reducing distress that’s focused on increasing certainty about the content of the obsession. The obsession, in this case, is “I’m never going to get better.” Now I know I’m going to get better because I’ve told myself that I’m being fooled and that I’ll never do that again. It’s not true. But then you wash your hands. They aren’t really clean either. So, none of our compulsions really work.
Kimberley: Doesn’t have to make sense.
Jon: Yeah. So, I think bringing self-compassion in the moment to be able to recognize it and recognize the urge to self-criticize and really just say like, “Oh, I’m not going to do that. I caught myself ruminating. Well done.” Same thing we do when we meditate. Some people think that meditation has something to do with relaxation or something to do with controlling your mind. It’s actually just a noticing exercise. Your mind wanders, you notice it. “Oh, look at that, I’m thinking.” Back to the breath. That’s a good thing that you noticed that you wandered. Not, “Oh, I wandered, I can’t focus. I’m bad at meditating.” So, it’s really just changing the frame for how people are relating to what’s going on inside.
One, eliminating self-criticism just makes life a lot easier. Two, eliminating the self-criticism and including that willingness to just label the thought pattern or the thought process and drop it right where it is. You can start to catch that earlier and earlier and earlier. So, you’re reducing compulsions. And you’ll see that the activity, the neutralizing, the figuring it out, the using your mental strength against yourself instead of in support of yourself, you could see how that’s sending the signal to the brain. “Wait, this is very important. I need to keep pushing it to the forefront.” There’s something to figure out here. This isn’t a cold case in a box, on a shelf somewhere. This is an ongoing investigation and we have to figure it out. How do we know? Because they’re still trying to figure it out.
Kimberley: Right. How much do you think insight has to play here or how much of a role does it play?
Jon: Insight plays a role in all forms of OCD. I mean, it plays a role in everything – insight into our relationships, insight into our career aspirations. I think one of the things I’ve noticed, and this is just anecdotal, is that the higher the distress and the poorer the distress regulation skills, often the lower the insight. Not necessarily the other way around. Some people have low insight and aren’t particularly distressed by what’s going on, but if the anxiety and the distress and the discomfort and disgust are so high that the brain goes into a brownout, I noticed that people switch from trying to get me to reassure them that their fears are untrue to trying to convince me that their fears are true. And to me, that represents an insight drop and I want to help them boost up their insight. And again, I think becoming more aware of your mental activity that is voluntary – I’m choosing to put my mind on this, I’m choosing to figure it out, it didn’t just happen. But in this moment, I’m actually trying to complete the problem, the puzzle – becoming more aware that that’s what you’re doing, that’s how you develop insight. And that actually helps with distress regulation.
Kimberley: Right. Tell me, I love you’re using this word. So, for someone who struggles with distress regulation, what kind of skills would you give a client or use for yourself?
Jon: So, there are many different skills a person could use. And I hesitate to say, “Look, use this skill,” because sometimes if you’re always relying on one skill and it’s not working for you, you might be resistant to using a different skill. In DBT, they have something called tip skills. So, changing in-- drastic changes in temperature, intense exercise, progressive muscle relaxation, pace breathing. These are all ways of shifting your perspective. In a more global sense, I think the most important thing is dropping out of the intellectualization of what’s happening and into the body. So, let’s say the problem, the way you know that you’re anxious is that your muscles are tense and there’s heat in your body and your heart rate is elevated. But there are lots of circumstances in your life where your muscles would be tense and your heart rate will be up and you’ll feel hot, and you might be exercising, for example.
So, that experience alone isn’t threatening. It’s that experience press plus the narrative that something bad is going to happen and it’s because I’m triggered and it’s because I can’t handle the uncertainty and all this stuff. So, it’s doing two things at once. It’s dropping out of the thought process, which is fundamentally the same thing as labeling and abandoning the mental ritual, and then dropping into the body and saying, “What’s happening now is my hands are sweaty,” and just paying attention to it. Okay, alright, sweaty hands. I can be with sweaty hands. Slowing things down and looking at things the way they are, which is not intellectual, as opposed to looking at things the way they could be, or should be, or might have been, which again is a mental ruminative process.
Kimberley: Right. Do you find-- I have found recently actually with several clients that they have an obsession. They start to ruminate and then somewhere through there, it’s hard to determine what’s in control and what’s not. So, we want to preface it with that. But things get really out of control once they start to catastrophize even more. So, would you call the catastrophization a mental rumination, or would you call it an intrusive thought? How would you conceptualize that with a client? They have the obsession, they start ruminating, and then they start going to the worst-case scenario and just staying there.
Jon: Yeah. There’s different ways to look at it. So, catastrophizing is predicting a negative future and assuming you can’t cope with it, and it’s a way of thinking about a situation. So, it’s investing in a false project. The real project is there’s something unknown about the future and it makes you uncomfortable and you don’t like it. How do you deal with that? That’s worth taking a look at. The false project is, my plane is going to crash and I need to figure out how to keep the plane from crashing. But that’s how the OCD mind tends to work.
So, one way of thinking about catastrophizing is it’s a tone it’s a way-- if you can step back far enough and be mindful of the fact that you’re thinking, you can also be mindful of the fact that there is a way that you’re thinking. And if the way that you’re thinking is catastrophizing, you could say, “Yeah, that’s catastrophizing. I don’t need to do that right now.”
But I think to your point, it is also an act. It’s something somebody is doing. It’s like, I’m going to see this through to the end and the hopes that it doesn’t end in catastrophe, but I’m also going to steer it into catastrophe because I just can’t help myself. It’s like a hot stove in your head that you just want to touch and you’re like, “Ouch.” And in that case, I would say, yeah, that’s a mental ritual. It’s something that you’re doing.
I like the concept of non-engagement responses. So, things that you can do to respond to the thought process that aren’t engaging it directly, that are helping you launch off. Because like I said, before you label and abandon. But between the label and abandon, a lot of people feel like they need a little help. They need something to drive a wedge between them and the thought process. Simply dropping it just doesn’t feel enough, or it’s met with such distress because whenever you don’t do a compulsion, it feels irresponsible, and they can’t handle that distress. So, they need just a little boost.
What do we know about OCD? We know that the one thing you can’t do effectively is defend yourself because then you’re getting into an argument and you can’t win an argument against somebody who doesn’t care what the outcome of the argument is. The OCD just wants to argue. So, any argument, no matter how good it is, the OCD is like, “Great, now we’re arguing again.”
Kimberley: Yeah. “I got you.”
Jon: Yeah. So, what are our options? What are our non-engagement response options? One, which I think is completely undersold, is ignoring it. Just ignoring it. Again, none of these you want to only focus on because they could all become compulsive. And then you’re walking around going, “I’m ignoring it, I’m ignoring it.” And then you’re just actually avoiding it. But it’s completely okay to just choose not to take yourself seriously. You look at your email and it’s things that you want. And then in there is a junk mail that just accidentally got filtered into the inbox instead of the spam box, and mostly what you do is ignore it. You don’t even read the subject of it. You recognize that in the moment, it’s spam and you move on as if it wasn’t even there.
Then there’s being mindful of it. Mindful noting. Just acknowledging it. You take that extra beat to be like, “Oh yeah, there’s that thought.” In act, they would call this diffusion. I’m having a thought that something terrible is going to happen. And then you’re dropping it. So, you’re just stepping back and be like, “Oh, I see what’s going on here. Okay, cool. But I’m not going to respond to it.” And then as we get into more ERP territory, we also have the option of agreeing with the uncertainty that maybe, maybe not. “What do I know? Okay. Maybe the plane is going to crash. I can’t be bothered with this.” But you have to do it with attitude because if you get too involved in the linguistics of it, then it’s like, well, what’s the potential that it’ll happen? And you can’t play that game, the probability game.
But it is objectively true that any statement that begins with the word “maybe” has something to it. Maybe in the middle of this call, this computer is going to explode or something like that. It would be very silly for me to worry about that, but you can’t deny that the statement is true because it’s possible. It’s maybe. So, just acknowledging that, be like, “Okay, fine. Maybe.” And then dropping it the way you would if you had some thought that you didn’t find triggering and yet was still objectively true.
And then the last one, which can be a lot of fun, can also be overdone, can also become compulsive, but if done well can make life a little bit more fun, is agreeing with the thought in an exaggerated humorous, sarcastic way. Just blowing it up. So, you’re out doing the OCD. The OCD is very creative, but you’re more creative than the OCD.
Kimberley: Can you give me examples?
Jon: Well, the OCD says your plane is going to crash. He said, your plane is going to crash into a school. Just be done with it, right? And that kind of shock where the bully is expecting you to defend yourself and instead, you just punched yourself in the face. He’s like, “Yeah, you’re weird. I’m not going to bother you anymore.” That’s the relationship one wants with their OCD.
Kimberley: That’s true. I remember in a previous episode we had with, I think it was when you had brought out your team book about saying “Good one bro,” or “brah.”
Jon: “Cool story, brah.” Yeah.
Kimberley: Cool story brah. And I’ve had many of my patients say that that was also really helpful, is there’s a degree of attitude that goes with that, right?
Jon: Yeah. And because again, it’s just a glitch in the system that, of course, you’re conditioned to respond to it like it’s serious. But once you realize it is, once you get the hint that it’s OCD, you have to shift out of that, “Oh, this is very important, very serious,” and into this like, “This is junk mail.” And if you actually look at your junk mail, none of it is serious. It sounds serious. It sounds like I just inherited a billion dollars from some prince in Nigeria. That sounds very important. I
Kimberley: I get that email every day pretty much.
Jon: Yeah. But I look at it and immediately I know that it’s not serious, even though the words in it sound very important.
Kimberley: Yeah. So, for somebody, I’m sitting in the mind of someone who has OCD and is listening right now, and I’m guessing, to those who are listening, you’re nodding and “Yes, this is so helpful. This is so helpful.” And then we may finish the episode and then the realization that “This is really hard” comes. How much coaching, how much encouragement? How do you walk someone through treatment who is finding this incredibly difficult?
Jon: I want to live in your mind. In my mind, let that same audience member is like, “This guy sucks.”
Kimberley: My mind isn’t so funny after we start the recording. So, you’re cool.
Jon: Who is this clown? Again, it’s back to self-compassion. I’m sure people are tired of hearing about it, but it’s simply more objective. It is hard. And if you’re acting like it shouldn’t be hard or you’re doing something wrong as a function, it’s hard because you’re doing something wrong, you’re really confused. How could that be? You could not have known better than to end up here. Everything that brought you here was some other thought or some other feeling, and you’re just responding to your environment. The question is right now where you have some control, what are you going to do with your attention? Right now, you’re noticing, “Oh man, it’s really hard to resist mental rituals. It’s hard to catch them. It’s hard to let go of them. It’s hard to deal with the anxiety of thinking because I didn’t finish the mental ritual. Maybe I missed something and somebody’s going to get hurt or something like that because I didn’t figure it out.”
It is really hard. I don’t think we should pretend that it’s easy. We should acknowledge that it’s hard. And then we should ask, “Okay, well, I made a decision that I’m going to do this. I’m going to treat my OCD and it looks like the treatment for OCD is I’m going to confront this uncertainty and not do compulsions. So, I have to figure out what to do with the fact that it’s hard.” And then it’s back to the body. How do you know that it’s hard? “Well, I could feel the tension here and I could feel my heart rate and my breath.” So, let’s work with that. How can I relate to that experience that’s coming up in a way that’s actually helpful?
The thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is this idea that the brain is quick to learn that something is dangerous. Something happens and it hurts, and your brain is like, “Yeah, let’s not do that again.” And you might conclude later that that thing really wasn’t as dangerous as you thought. And so, you want to re-engage with it. And you might find that’s really hard to do, which is why exposure therapy is really hard because it’s not like a one-and-done thing. You have to practice it because the brain is very slow to learn that something is safe, especially after it’s been taught that it’s dangerous. But that’s not a bad thing. You want a brain that does that. You don’t want a brain that’s like, “Yeah, well, I got bit by one dog, but who cares? Let’s go back in the kennel.” You want a brain that’s like, “Hold on. Are you sure about this?”
That whole process of overcoming your fears, I think people, again, they’re way too hard on themselves. It should take some time and it should be slow and sluggish. You look like you’re getting better, and then you slip back a little bit, because it’s really just your brain saying, “Listen, I’m here to keep you safe, and I learned that you weren’t, and you are not following rules. So, I’m pulling you back.” That’s where that is coming from. So, that’s the hard feeling. That’s the hard feeling right there. It’s your brain really trying to get you to say, “No, go back to doing compulsions. Compulsions are keeping you safe.” You have to override that circuit and say, “I appreciate your help. But I think I know something that you don’t. So, I’m going to keep doing this.” And then you can relate to that hard feeling with like, “Good, my brain works. My brain is slow and sluggish to change, but not totally resistant. Over time, I’m going to bend it to my will and it will eventually let go, and either say this isn’t scary anymore or say like, ‘Well, it’s still scary, but I’m not going to keep you from doing it.’”
Kimberley: Right. I had a client at the beginning of COVID I think, and the biggest struggle-- and this was true for a lot of people, I think, is they would notice the thought, notice they’re engaging in compulsions and drop it, to use your language, and then go, “Yay, I did that.” And then they would notice another thought in the next 12 seconds or half a second, and then they would go, “Okay, notice it and drop it.” And then they’d do it again. And by number 14, they’re like, “No, this is--” or it would either be like, “This is too hard,” or “This isn’t working.” So, I’m wondering if you could speak to-- we’ve talked about it being “too hard.” Can you speak to your ideas around “this isn’t working”?
Jon: Yeah. That’s a painful thought. I think that a lot of times, people, when they say it isn’t working, I ask them to be more specific because their definition of working often involves things like, “I was expecting not to have more intrusive thoughts,” or “I was expecting for those thoughts to not make me anxious.” And when you let go of those expectations, which isn’t lowering them at all, it’s just shifting them, asking, well, what is it that you really want to do in your limited time on this earth? You’re offline for billions of years. Now you’re online for, I don’t know, 70 to 100 if you’re lucky, and then you’re offline again. So, this is the time you have. So, what do you want to do with your attention? And if it’s going to be completely focused on your mental health, well, that’s a bummer. You need to be able to yes, notice the thought, yes, notice the ritual, yes, drop them both, and then return to something.
In this crazy world we’re living in now where we’re just constantly surrounded by things to stimulate us and trigger us and make us think, we have lots of things to turn to that aren’t necessarily healthy, but they’re not all unhealthy either. So, it’s not hard to turn your attention away from something and into a YouTube video or something like that. It is more challenging to shift your attention away from something scary and then bring it to the flavor of your tea. That’s a mindfulness issue. That’s all that is. Why is one thing easier than the other? It’s because you don’t think the flavor of your tea is important. Why? Because you’re just not stimulated by the firing off of neurons in your tongue and the fact that we’re alive on earth and that we’ve evolved over a million years to be able to make and taste tea. That’s not as interesting as somebody dancing to a rap song. I get that, but it could be if you’re paying a different kind of attention.
So, it’s just something to consider when you’re like, “Well, I can’t return to the present because it doesn’t engage me in there.” Something to consider, what would really engage you and what is it about the present that you find so uninteresting? Maybe you should take another look.
Kimberley: Right. For me, I’m just still so shocked that gravity works. Whenever I’m really stuck, I will admit, my rumination isn’t so anxiety-based. I think it’s more when I’m angry, I get into a ruminative place. We can do that similar behavior. So, when I’m feeling that, I have to just be like, “Okay, drop away from, that’s not helpful. Be aware and then drop it.” And then for me, it’s just like, “Wow, the gravity is pulling me down. It just keeps blowing my mind.”
Jon: Yeah. That’s probably a better use of your thought process than continuing to ruminate. But you bring up another point. I think this speaks more closely to your question about when people say it’s not working. I’m probably going to go to OCD jail for this, but I think to some extent, when you get knocked off track by an OCD trigger, because you made me think of it when you’re talking about anger. Like, someone says something to you and makes you angry and you’re ruminating about it. But it’s the same thing in OCD. Something happens. Something triggers you to think like, “I’m going to lose my job. I’m a terrible parent,” or something like that. You’re just triggered. This isn’t just like a little thought, you’re like, “Oh, that’s my OCD.” You can feel it in your bones. It got you. It really got you.
Now, you can put off ruminating as best you can, but you’re going to be carrying that pain in your bones for a while. It could be an hour, could be a day, could be a couple of days. Now, if it’s more than a couple of days, you have to take ownership of the fact that you are playing a big role in keeping this thing going and you need to change if you want different results. But if it’s less than a couple of days and you have OCD, sometimes all you can do is just own it. “All right, I’m just going to be ruminating a lot right now.” And I’m not saying like, hey, sit there and really try to ruminate. But it’s back to that thing before, like your brain is conditioned to take this seriously, and no matter how much you tell yourself it’s not serious, your brain is going to do what your brain is going to do. And so, can you get your work done? Try to show up for your family, try to laugh when something funny happens on TV, even while there’s this elephant sitting on your chest. And every second that you’re not distracted, your mind is like, “Why did they say that? Why did I do that? What’s going to happen next?” And really just step back from it and say like, “You know what, it’s just going to have to be like this for now.”
What I see people do a lot is really undersell how much that is living with OCD. “I’m not getting better.” I had this happen actually just earlier today. Somebody was telling me, walking me through this story that was just full of OCD minds that they kept stepping on and they kept exploding and they were distressed and everything. And yet, throughout the whole process, the only problem was they were having OCD and they were upset. But they weren’t avoiding the situation. They weren’t asking for reassurance and they weren’t harming themselves in any way. They were just having a rough time because they just had their buttons pushed. It was frustrating because they wouldn’t acknowledge that that is a kind of progress that is living with this disorder, which necessarily involves having symptoms.
I don’t want people to get confused here and say like, “This is as good as it gets,” or “You should give up hope for getting better.” It’s not about that. Part of getting better is really owning that this is how you show up in the world. You have your assets and your liabilities, and sometimes the best thing to do is just accept what’s going on and work through it in a more self-compassionate way.
Kimberley: Right. I really resonate with that too. I’ve had to practice that a lot lately too of accepting my humanness. Because I think there are times where you catch yourself and you’re like, “No, I should be performing way up higher.” And then you’re like, “No, let’s just accept these next few days are going to be rough.” I like that. I think that that’s actually more realistic in terms of what recovery really might look like. This is going to be a rough couple of days or a rough couple of hours or whatever it may be.
Jon: Yeah. If you get punched hard enough in the stomach and knock the wind out of you, that takes a certain period of time before you catch your breath. And if you get punched in the OCD brain, it takes a certain amount of time before you catch your breath. So, hang on. It will get better. And again, this isn’t me saying, just do as many compulsions as you want. It’s just, you’re going to do some, especially rumination and taking ownership of that, “Oh man, it’s really loud in there. I’ve been ruminating a lot today. I’ll just do the best I can.” That’s going to be a better approach than like, “I’m going to sit and track every single thought and I’m going to burn it to the ground. I’m going to do it every five seconds.” Really, you’re just going to end up ruminating more that way.
Kimberley: Right. And probably beating yourself up more.
Kimberley: Right. Okay. I feel like that is an amazing place for us to end. Before we do, is there anything you feel like we’ve missed that you just want people to know before we finish up?
Jon: I guess what’s really important to know since we’re talking about mental compulsions is that it’s not separate from the rest of OCD and it’s not harder to treat. People have this idea that, well, if you’re a compulsive hand-washer, you can just stop washing your hands or you can just remove the sink or something like that. But if you’re a compulsive ruminator about whether or not you’re going to harm someone or you’re a good person or any of that stuff, somehow that’s harder to treat. I’ve not found this to be the case. Anecdotally, I haven’t seen any evidence that this is really the case in terms of research. You might be harder on yourself in some ways, and that might make your symptoms seem more severe, but that’s got nothing to do with how hard you are to treat or the likelihood of you getting better.
Most physical rituals are really just efforts to get done what your mental rituals are not doing for you. So, many people who are doing physical rituals are also doing mental rituals and those who aren’t doing physical rituals. Again, some people wash their hands. Some people wash their minds. Many people do both. A lot of this stuff, it has to do with like, “I expect my mind to be one way, and it’s another.” And that thing that’s making it another is a contaminant, “I hate it and I want to go away and I’m going to try to get it to go away.” And that’s how this disorder works.
Kimberley: Right. It’s really, really wonderful advice. I think that it’s actually really great that you covered that because I think a lot of people ask that question of, does that mean that I’m going to only have half the recovery of someone who does physical compulsions or just Googles or just seeks reassurance? So, I think it’s really important. Do you feel like someone can overcome OCD if their predominant compulsion is mental?
Jon: Absolutely. They may even have assets that they are unaware of that makes them even more treatable. I mean, only one way to find out.
Kimberley: Yeah. I’m so grateful to you. Thank you for coming on. This is just filling my heart so much. Thank you.
Jon: Thank you. I always love speaking with you.
Kimberley: Do you want to share where people can find you and all your amazing books and what you’re doing?
Jon: My hub is OCDBaltimore.com. That’s the website for the Center for OCD and Anxiety at Sheppard Pratt, and also the OCD program at The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt. And I’m on Instagram at OCDBaltimore, Twitter at OCDBaltimore. I don’t know what my Facebook page is, but it’s out there somewhere. I’m not hard to find. Falling behind a little bit on my meme game, I haven’t found anything quite funny or inspiring enough. I think I’ve toured through all of my favorite movies and TV shows. And so, I’m waiting for some show that I’m into to inspire me. But someone asked me the other day, “Wait, you stopped with the memes.”
Kimberley: They’re like, nothing’s funny anymore.
Jon: I try not to get into that headspace. Sometimes I do think that way, but yeah, the memes find me. I don’t find them.
Kimberley: I love it. And your books are all on Amazon or wherever you can buy books, I’m imagining.
Jon: Yes. The OCD Workbook For Teens is my most recent one and the second edition of the Mindfulness Workbook for OCD is also a relatively recent one.
Kimberley: Amazing. You’re amazing. Thank you so much.
Jon: Thank you.