Your Anxiety Toolkit - Anxiety & OCD Strategies for Everyday

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Jan 12, 2024

Welcome back, everybody. This is Part 2 of Your 2024 Mental Health Plan, and today we are going to talk about the specific tools that you need to supercharge your recovery. This podcast is called Your Anxiety Toolkit. Today, we are going to discuss all the tools that you are going to have in your tool belt to use and practice so that you can get to the recovery goals that you have. Let’s go.

For those of you who are here and you’re ready to get your toolkit, what I encourage you to do first is go back to last week and listen to Part 1 of this two-part series, which is where we do a mental health recovery audit. We go through line by line and look at a bunch of questions that you can ask yourself, journal them down, and find specifically what areas of recovery you want to work on this year. 

Now, even if you’re listening to this as a replay and it’s many years later, that’s fine. You can pick this up at any point. This episode and last week’s episode actually came from me sitting down a few weeks ago and actually going, “Okay, Kimberley, you need to catch up and get some things under control here.” You can do this at any time in a month from now or a year from now. We’re here today to talk about tools, so let’s get going. 

EP 369 Your 2024 Mental Health Recovery Plan-Part2

First, we looked at, when we did our audit, the general category. The general question was, how much distress are you under? How much time is it taking up, and how do you feel or what are your thoughts about that distress? That is a very important question. Let’s just start there. That is an incredibly important question because how you respond to your distress is a huge indicator of how much you will suffer. 

If you have anxiety and your response is to treat it like it’s important, try to get it to go away, and spend your time ruminating and wrestling, you’re going to double, triple, quadruple your suffering. You’re already suffering by having the anxiety, but we don’t want to make it worse. 

If you’re having intrusive thoughts and you respond to them as if they’re important and need to be solved, again, we’re going to add to our suffering. If you have grief, shame, or depression and you’re responding to that by adding fuel to the fire, by adding negative thoughts, or by saying unkind things to yourself, you’re going to feel worse. How do you respond? 


Tool #1 you’re going to need in this category is willingness. When you identify that you’re having an emotion, how willing are you to make space for that emotion? I’m not saying give it your attention; I’m saying, are you willing to just allow it to be there without wrestling it, trying to make it go away? Are you willing to normalize the emotion? Yeah, it makes complete sense that I’m having a hard time, or that all humans have these emotions. How willing can you be? 

Often, what I will ask my patients is, out of 10, if 10 being the highest, how willing are you? We’re looking for eights, nines, and tens here. If you’re at like a six, seven, that’s okay. Let’s see if we can get it up to the eights, nines, and tens. 


Another tool (Tool #2) is respond with values, not fear or emotion. We want to work at being very clear on what our values are, what is important to us. Because if we don’t, emotions will show up. They will feel very, very real. When they feel very, very real, you’re likely to respond to them as if they’re real. Again, adding fuel to the fire, adding to the suffering. Instead, we want to respond with values. 

If you have fear, you’re going to ask yourself, do I want to respond based on what fear is telling me, or my values, my beliefs, the principles, the things that are important to me? If you’re depressed, do you want to respond based on what depression is telling you to do? Like, "Give up, it’s hopeless, there’s no point." Or do you want to get back in touch with what matters to you? What would you do if depression wasn’t here? What would you do if anxiety was not here? 

The third tool I’m going to give you, and this is a huge one—I’m going to break it down into different categories—is mindfulness. Now, if you’ve been here on Your Anxiety Toolkit, you already know that I think mindfulness is the most important tool, one of the most important tools you will have in your tool belt. You should be using it in your tool belt every day. It’s like if you actually had a tool belt, it’d be like the hammer, the thing you probably use the most. 

Mindfulness involves four things, and this is the way I want you to think about it. 


Number one, it’s awareness. Mindfulness is being present and aware of what is happening to you internally. Being able to identify, I feel sad, I feel anxious, I notice uncertainty, I’m noticing I’m having thoughts about A, B, and C. That awareness can help you stay in line with your values, but stay present enough to respond wisely. 

Mindfulness is also presence. I’ve already given you that word. It’s being in the here and now. Fear always wants us to look into the future; mindfulness is being in the here and now. Depression often always wants us to look at the past and ruminate on the past and what went wrong or what will potentially go wrong in the future; mindfulness is only tending to the here and now, what’s actually happening. 

When I’m anxious and I become present in my body, I realize that the thing that I’m afraid of hasn’t happened yet. If it is happening, if the thing that I’m afraid of is happening, then I can still go, “Okay, what’s happening in the present? How can I relate to it?” As we’ve discussed in earlier tools, how can I relate to it in a way that doesn’t add to my suffering? Can I make some space for it? Can I be willing to have it? Can I respond with values? Really getting present in this moment will give you some space to act very skillfully. 


The next mindfulness tool is non-judgment. We have to be non-judgmental. Often, when I’m with my patients or with my students, they will often say, “I’m having anxiety, and it is bad and wrong, and I’m wrong for having it, and it shouldn’t be here.” All of that is a judgment. 

I often bring them back to the fact that anxiety, while yes, it is uncomfortable, it is neutral. Let me say that again. Anxiety, while it is uncomfortable—it’s not fun—it is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. It just is your present experience. This work becomes how willing are you to feel discomfort. How willing are you to widen your distress tolerance for this thing that you’re experiencing, and how can you practice not judging it as bad? 

The thing to remember is, if you have an emotion, a sensation, or a thought, and you appraise it as bad, your brain will remember that for next time. So next time you have it, it will more likely send out a bunch of cortisol and adrenaline and a bunch of stress hormones when you have that emotion, that sensation, or that thought. And that’s how we can break this cycle by practicing non-judgment. 


The fourth piece of mindfulness that I want you to consider is wisdom and insight. This is not a typical mindfulness tool, I would say, but it’s an important piece of our work.

When we have mental struggles, when we have emotional struggles, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of believing our thoughts and our feelings, going into that narrative, and getting into that story. When we do that, again, we make things worse. We tend to act on those emotions and that distress instead of our values.

A lot of mindfulness, if you can practice being present, if you can practice being aware, if you can practice being non-judgmental, you then get to be steady in wisdom. You get to check the facts and respond according to the facts and the reality. You get to be level in how you respond. It doesn’t mean your anxiety will go away. It just means that you’re thinking in a way where you can make decisions. You’re connected to your prefrontal cortex, where you can make good decisions for yourself, not just respond to the emotions that you’re having. That’s sort of like a bigger picture, but that’s sort of more like the result of practicing mindfulness. 

When we last week went through the audit of your mental health recovery, we also addressed safety behaviors. Now these were avoidance, reassurance seeking, mental compulsions, physical compulsions, and there is a fifth one, but we’ll talk about that later. We really went through and thoroughly investigated, did an audit, did an inventory of how many of these behaviors and what specific behaviors you do. Again, if you didn’t listen to that episode, go back and look at that because it will help you put together a really good inventory of what’s going on for you.

Now, I want to address a couple of things when it comes to these. If you’re someone who does a lot of avoidance, I’m going to strongly encourage you to use Tool #4, which is find ways to face your fear. Identify all the things that you are afraid of and you’re avoiding, and find creative ways to face your fear and make it fun.

If you’re afraid of something, try to find ways to make it fun that line up with your values. If you’re afraid of airplanes but love to travel, pick a place when you first start this that you’re interested in going to. Have it be something that you have been wanting to go to for a long time. Do it with someone you enjoy doing it with. If it’s something miscellaneous around the house, include the people around you, make it fun, put the music on that you want. You’re not doing that to take the discomfort away; you’re doing it so that it’s so deeply based on your values, so deeply based on what’s important to you, and purposely every day, find ways to face your fears. 

Now, if you have OCD specifically and you want help with this, we have a full, comprehensive course called ERP School. If you go to, you can get access to that, and it will take you step by step on how to do that for OCD. 

If you have generalized anxiety or panic disorder, we have a step-by-step process for how you can do that. It’s called overcoming anxiety and panic. 

If you have depression, we actually have a whole comprehensive course for depression as well on how you can face the depression, how you can undo the way that depression has you avoiding things and procrastinating, and how it’s demotivating you. That course is there for you as well at CBT School. 

If you’re someone who struggles with mental compulsions, we actually have a free six-part mental compulsion series here on Your Anxiety Toolkit. It’s completely free. I’ll leave the links for that in the show notes below. But that will help you walk through it with six amazing clinicians from around the world, like the best ones that we can get, talking specifically about different ways to manage mental compulsions. But it does involve a lot of the tools we’ve already talked about—a lot of mindfulness, a lot of facing your fear, a lot of willingness, a lot of awareness. These are things that you can be using specifically to interrupt those safety behaviors.

Now, another tool (Tool #5) is distress tolerance, because as you face your fear, you’re going to have some uncomfortable feelings. Distress tolerance is an opportunity for you to lean into that discomfort a little more. It’s very skill-based. Let me give you a couple of ideas. 


Number one would be this idea of a beginner’s mind. Usually, when we’re uncomfortable, our natural human instinct is to get out of here. Like, “Let’s go. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to feel it. Let’s run away.” Another instinct is to fight. Like, “Oh, I want to wrestle with it.” 

Beginner’s mind is the opposite of that. It’s the practice of being curious. We actually have a whole podcast episode on beginner’s mind. Think of it like you’re a baby. I always say, imagine you’re like one or two and you hand the baby a set of keys. Now, if you handed a set of keys to an adult, they’d be like, “Yeah, that’s keys.” They wouldn’t really stop to look at the keys. But if you give it to the baby, they’re so curious, they’re so open-minded, and they look at the keys like I’ve never seen these. They’re shiny, but they’re hard, but they’re bumpy. They have these round things. What do you do with them? I’ll put them in my mouth. What do they taste like? What do they feel like? They’re so willing to see these keys as if it’s the first time they’ve ever seen them because it's the first time they’ve ever seen them. 

As adults, we have to practice being curious, just like that. When we’re uncomfortable, we can be curious instead of nonjudgmental and go, “Okay, let’s be curious about this. What does it feel like? I wonder what it’s like if I’m willing to feel it. How long does it last? Can I let it be there? I wonder what will happen if I let it be there and go and do this or face the fear.” Let’s be curious instead of having a fixed mindset of, “I can’t feel this. I can’t handle it. I don’t want to,” and so forth. Beginner’s mind is very important in helping you relearn the perceived stress or the perceived danger of a certain thing. 

Another really important distress tolerance skill is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is a sort of badass response to fear and emotions by going, “Bring it. Let’s have it. It’s here. There’s nothing I can do. Trying to stop it only makes things worse. And so I’m committed to radically accepting it being here.” Then you can go on to use other tools like your values and willingness, ERP, CBT, and any of those. You can use any of those skills. But you’re coming from a place of just radically accepting that it’s there. 


Another distress tolerance skill is to be uncertain on purpose. “Bring it on.” If you have anxiety, you’re going to have uncertainty anyway. Bring it on. Let’s let it be there. Let’s make another relationship with uncertainty—one that’s not stressful and one where it’s like, I’m allowing it to be there. I actually have some mastery over it because I’ve practiced letting it be there before, and I tolerated it then, and I’m sure I’ll tolerate it again. 

Remember here, you have gotten through 100% of the hard things in your life. You can do it again, and each time we can make this 1% improvement in how skillful we are in response to it.


The next category that we had in the audit was kindness. We talked about questions such as, how do you treat yourself throughout the day? How kind are you? Do you punish yourself for having emotional struggles? And of course, you guys know this is number six, which is self-compassion. We know that self-punishment doesn’t work. In fact, it makes us feel worse. 

Self-compassion is the practice of making you a safe place to have any emotion, any discomfort, have any thought, have any anxiety. You’re willing to have them all, and you’re going to promise yourself and commit to yourself that you’ll be gentle with yourself no matter what. That’s the work. 

Truly, so many of you have said that you’ve been working on that, and you’ve actually made huge strides in that area. We have so much content on Your Anxiety Toolkit on self-compassion. I’d encourage you to go back and listen to any of those. This year I’m going to really heavily emphasize this work, but I really want you to really consider creating a safe place for you to have any emotion, any intrusive thought, any feeling, any discomfort at all, any pain, so that you know that you’re always in a safe place to have those feelings. 


The last category of the audit that we did last week was on mindset. We asked questions like, how willing are you to experience these emotional struggles? When you wake up, what’s the thing you think? Do you think, “Oh no, I can’t handle it, this is going to be terrible, I hope I don’t have any anxiety today, I hope my emotions don’t come or I hope I don’t have any thoughts”? Or do you have a more positive outlook of the day? 

Now, we already talked about willingness. It was one of the first tools that we used. But here, I want you to consider the idea of being positive. Now, I’m not saying positive like, “Oh no, my bad things won’t happen,” or “No, I’m not a bad person, and my fears won’t come true.” That’s not what I’m talking about being positive. I’m talking about remind yourself of your strengths. That is a tool. 

Being complementary and positive is a tool that we don’t use enough. We spend all the time thinking about the worst-case scenario, and we very rarely take time to really think, “I’m actually pretty strong. I’ve actually handled a lot. I’m actually very, very resilient.” Is it possible that you do that too? What can we do to get you to see yourself the way I see you? 

Often, I’ll say to clients, “Oh my gosh, you’re doing so well.” And they’ll be like, “Oh, I kind of am, you’re right.” Or I’ll say, “Wow, look at how you got through that really hard thing.” And they’re like, “No, it’s not a big deal; everyone can do it.” But I’m like, “No, you did that.” 


Please practice being positive towards yourself, having positive regard for yourself, celebrating your wins, thinking positive about your strengths, not just focusing on your weaknesses. 

Now Tool #8, we all know. I say it every single week, which is it’s a beautiful day to do hard things. When we wake up and we think, “Oh no, I don’t want bad things to happen,” we become a victim. What we want to do is we want to stand up and say, “Today is a really beautiful day to do really freaking hard things, and I’m going to practice doing those.”

I want you to think of #8 as a motto, a mantra that you can take with you everywhere. “It is a beautiful day to do hard things.” We don’t need perfect conditions to do hard things either. We don’t need motivation to do hard things. Sometimes we just have to do them, whether we’re motivated or not. And then we see the benefit. We don’t have to wait until you have the right thought, the right feeling, or the right situation. 

Often, I’ll catch myself like, “Oh, I had a little bit of an argument with my husband. No, I’m not going to do hard things today.” No, that’s the day to go do the hard thing. Do it because it’s what brings you closest to your recovery. It brings you closest to the goals that you have. 


Now, Tool #9 is time management. When you wake up in the morning, if dread is the first thing on your mind, time management will help. We have a whole course on on time management, and what it is about is teaching you a few core things.

Number one, schedule your recovery homework first because it has to be the priority. It has to be. Secondly, schedule fun time first. Don’t schedule work. Don’t schedule your chores. Make sure you’re prioritizing these things because recovery requires rest, it requires fun, it requires lightness and brightness, and fulfillment. Doing these hard things takes up a lot of energy, so any way you can, even if it’s for two minutes, manage your time so that you have set in your calendar, set a reminder, the time where you’re going to do the things that you need to do to get your recovery on its way. Prioritize it. 

We have a whole course called Time Management for Optimum Mental Health. You can get it at, and it really outlines how you can do this and how you can practice prioritizing these things, which brings us to Tool #10, which is find a community of people who are doing the same things as you. 

I get it, everyone on Instagram looks like they’re having a jolly time and their life is easy. The truth is, no, they’re not. Find the people who are also struggling with similar adversity. You could go to CBT School Campus, which is a Facebook group we have. On social media, there are so many amazing advocates sharing what it’s like to be doing this work. Come on over and follow me on Instagram at Your Anxiety Toolkit, where I talk a lot about this all the time. There is a community of people who make the most gorgeous comments and are so supportive and encouraging.


Find a community, because if you feel like you’re the only one who’s struggling, it makes it really, really hard. Just know that you’re not alone and that other people are going through hard things. They might not be going through exactly what you’re going through, but this community is filled with millions of listeners. There are other people who are struggling too, so try to find them. Use them as accountability buddies. Touch base with them. 

My best friend and I meet once a week, fire the phone, and check in. How are you doing? What are you doing well with? How are you doing with the goals you set for last week? Try to find someone, if you can, who can be your accountability buddy. If not, maybe ask a loved one or a friend who might be willing to do that. 

There are the 10 tools that I want you to have in your toolkit. You’re not going to use them all the time. You’re not even going to be good at them. I’m even willing to say you’re going to suck at using them, and that is okay. I suck at using these sometimes too. This is not about perfection; this is about pausing, looking at the problem, asking yourself, which of these tools would be most helpful right now? And be curious. Again, use your beginner’s mind. Be curious about trying them, experimenting, giving yourself a lot of celebration in the fact that you tried. 

Again, this doesn’t have to be perfect. We make 1% improvements over here. That’s all I’m looking for—a 1% improvement. Is there something you can do today that will get you 1% closer to your recovery goal? If that is possible, go for it. Give it your best. You will not regret it. I’ve never once had someone regret moving towards their recovery. In fact, I’ve only seen people say, “I’m so grateful I did it.” Even though it might have been late, it’s never too late. 

All right. Have a wonderful day. I know you can do this. I cannot wait for this year. I have so many things I want to talk to you about. 

Have a wonderful day, and I’ll see you next week.

Jan 5, 2024

f you need a mental health plan for 2024, you are in the right place. This is a two-part series where we will do a full recovery audit. And then next week, we’re going to take a look at the key tools that you need for Your Anxiety Toolkit. We call it an anxiety toolkit here, so that's exactly what you’re here to get.

The first step of this mental health plan for 2024 is to look at what is working and what isn’t working and do an inventory of the things that you’re doing, the safety behaviors, the behaviors you’re engaging in, and all the actions that you’re engaging in that are getting in the way of your recovery.

Now what we want to do here is, once we identify them, we can break the cycle. And then we can actually start to have you act and respond in a very effective way so that you can get back to your life and start doing the things that you really, really wanted to do in 2023 but didn’t get to.

If you’re listening to this in many years to come, same thing. Every year, we have an opportunity to do an audit—maybe even every month—to look at what’s working and what’s not. Let’s do it.

Your Mental Health Plan for 2024

Now, one thing I want you to also know here is this is mostly an episode for myself. A couple of weeks ago, I was not coping well. I consider myself as someone who has all the skills and all the tools, and I know what to do, and I’m usually very, very skilled at doing it. However, I was noticing that I was engaging in some behaviors that were very ineffective, that had not the best outcomes, and were creating more suffering for myself. 

Doing what I do, being an anxiety specialist, and knowing what I know as a therapist, I sat down and I just wrote it all out. What am I engaging in? What’s the problem? Where am I getting stuck? And from there, naturally, I did a mental health audit. And I thought, to be honest with you, you guys probably need such a thing as well, so let’s do it together. Here is what I did. Let’s get started with this mental health audit that we’re going to do today. 


  1. General Perspective 

  2. Safety Behaviors 

  3. Safety 

  4. Mindset 

What we’re going to do is we’re going to break it down into four main categories. The first category is your general perspective of your mental health, your recovery, and your internal emotional experience. 

The second category is the safety behaviors you’re engaging in. A safety behavior is a behavior that you do to reduce or remove your discomfort, to get a sense of safety, or to get a sense of control. Sometimes they’re effective, sometimes they’re not, and we’re going to go through that today. 

The third category is actually just safety—looking at how safe you are inside your body with your internal experience. And I’ll explain a lot more of that here in a little bit, so let’s just move on to section number four, which is mindset. What is your mindset about recovery? And we’re going to go through this together. 


As we move forward, I want you to promise me and vow to me as we do this. We are only doing it through the lens of being curious and non-judgmental. This audit should not be a disciplinary action where you wrap yourself over the knuckles and you beat yourself up, and you just criticize yourself for the fact that you’re not coping well. That is not what we’re doing here.


We are ultimately just taking data. We’re just looking at the data of what’s working and what’s not. And then we get to decide what we do differently. And we get to be honest with ourselves about what’s actually happening from a place of compassion, from a place of understanding, knowing that we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Again, I could beat myself up and be like, “You’re a therapist. You do this for a living. What is wrong with you?” But instead, I just recognize.

Of course, you fell off the wagon. Things don’t always work out perfectly when you’re under a high amount of stress or when it’s the holidays, when things feel out of your control. We naturally gravitate to safety behaviors that often aren’t the most effective. That’s just the facts. 


Let’s do this from a non-judgmental standpoint. We are literally just gathering data. How we handle this is a big part of recovery. Okay? Let’s do it. 


Let’s first look at the first section of your recovery audit. This is a general category. We’re going to ask some questions. You can get a pen and notepad, or you could just listen and think about this, pause it, take some stock of what’s been going on for you. But I do strongly encourage you to pause, sit down, write your answers on a piece of paper, on a Google Doc, or whatever you love to do. All right, here we go. 


Number one, generally, how much of the day do you experience anxiety, hopelessness, or some kind of emotional distress, whatever it is that you experience? You could give a percentage, a grade, or an amount of hours. How much of the day do you experience emotions that are out of your control? We’re only here to get data on how much this thing is impacting your life.

You might say all day, every day. That’s okay. You might say, “A couple of hours every day that I experience panic,” or “A couple of hours every day I’m having intrusive thoughts.” It doesn't matter; just put it down. If you’re someone who has more depressive symptoms, you might say, “For six hours of the day, I experience pretty severe depression.” Whatever you’re experiencing, you can write it down. 

The second question in this category is, what are your thoughts about the emotional distress that you just documented? What are your thoughts about them? If you have anxiety, are your thoughts “I shouldn’t have anxiety”? Because what we gather there is if for, let’s say, two hours a day, you’re having anxiety, but for four hours a day, you’re saying, “I shouldn’t have it. I’m bad for having it. What’s wrong with me? Something is wrong. I’m terrible,” and so forth, we want to understand, what are the specific thoughts you’re having about the emotional distress? 

If you have OCD and you’re having a lot of intrusive thoughts, what are your thoughts about that? “Oh, my thoughts make me a bad person. Oh, my intrusive thoughts mean I must want to do the thing that I’m having thoughts about.” If you’re having depression, what are your thoughts about that? “Oh, I’ll never get better, that I’m weak for having this struggle, that I should be able to handle it better. I should be able to get out of bed and function normally.” We want to really understand your general mindset and perspective of what you’re going through. 

Often, we spend a lot of time thinking about why we have the problem. Why do I have this? What’s wrong with me? What did I do wrong? Why is this happening? Was it my past? Was it something that happened to me? Spending a lot of time trying to figure out why. That’s the general category. 


The second category, safety behaviors, is probably one of the most important, but there is a good chance I’m going to say that about every category, so let’s just go through them. 

The first question in safety behaviors is, how much of the day do you spend ruminating, thinking, going over and over the problem, trying to solve it? How many minutes, how many hours, or what percent of the day do you spend ruminating? 

We’ve already identified how much of the day you spend with the original, initial problem. But how much of the time do you actually spend engaging in the behavior of mental compulsions, mental rumination, sort of that real stressful solving practice? Write it down. Again, we’re not judging here. Even if you wrote 100% of the day, all day, every day for a year or 10 years, it doesn’t matter, okay? 

The next question in safety behaviors is, if you zoomed out and looked at your entire life, what is it that you are avoiding because of this internal emotional experience, whether it be anxiety, uncertainty, depression, grief, whatever it might be, panic? Whatever it is, what is it specifically that you’re avoiding? 

Some people say, “I’m avoiding a certain street. I’m avoiding a certain person. I’m avoiding a certain event. I’m avoiding an emotion. I’m avoiding a feeling. I’m avoiding a thought. I’m avoiding a specific book on a specific bookshelf. I’m avoiding a specific movie on the internet or on TV. I’m avoiding a specific topic in every area of my life.” Be as specific as you can. What is it that you are avoiding to try and reduce or remove your distress inside your body? Document all of it. 

I tell my patients, it doesn’t matter if this takes 17 pages; just document it down. Don’t judge yourself. Once we have the data, we can next week meet and work on a solution here. Or as you go through this, if you’ve already clearly identified that you have, let’s say, OCD, generalized anxiety, panic, or depression, we have specific courses on that will walk you through these and give you specific solutions to specific problems. That is there for you as well. 

We will next week go through the main tools you’re going to need. But if you really want to target a specific issue, we may have a course specifically in that area that will help you. If not, there are other areas where you can get resources and therapy as well. But this is going to help you get really clear on what specifically is going on for you. What is it that you’re engaging in that’s getting in the way?

The next safety behavior category is, how do you carry your body throughout the day? Are you hypervigilant? Are you tense? Are you rushing around? That was me. That’s when I was like, “Oh, Kimberley, you are going down the wrong channel.” Because I noticed in many areas of my day, I was rushing, trying to avoid some emotions, trying to check boxes, rushing around, hypervigilant, looking around, what bad thing is going to happen next. How are you carrying this in your body? 

If you had an eating disorder, it might be, “I’m tensing my stomach and pulling it in and trying to not eat and trying to suppress hunger and thirst.” If that’s happening, okay, let’s document. If you’re having panic, are you squinting, pushing away thoughts, trying to avoid a sensation in your body? We want to get to know what is happening with our bodies.

A patient of mine a couple of weeks ago said, “I just hold my breath all day. I really do. I probably take half the breath that someone without anxiety takes.” Write it down if you notice that’s what you’re doing in your body. Again, not your fault; we’re just here to look at the data. 

The next category of safety behaviors is, how often do you seek reassurance per day? How often do you consult with Google to reduce your anxiety? How often do you ask family and friends questions about your fear to get a sense of certainty or to reduce your anxiety? 

Sometimes this can be tricky. You might even just mention a topic to notice their facial expression to see how they respond, or you might report to them something that happened to see if they’re alarmed so that you then know whether you should be alarmed and engage in some behavior, worrying, ruminating, and so forth. 

How often are you trying to get to the bottom of anxiety and you’re noticing that it’s repetitive, and over and over again, you’re getting stuck in these rabbit holes of Googling or asking friends and families, often asking them questions they don’t even know the answer to? 

Often, our family members, because they love us, will give us an answer based on probability, but they actually don’t know. And therefore, your brain-- you’re very smart. I know this because all my clients with anxiety often in depression are. You’re very smart. You know they don’t know the answer, so your brain doesn’t compute it as a real certainty anyway. Your brain is going to immediately go, “Well, how do they know? They probably don’t know any better than I do,” and it’s going to want more and more questions to be asked. How often do you seek reassurance per day, or how much of the day do you spend seeking reassurance? 

And then the last safety behavior here is physical behaviors. This is more common for folks with OCD, phobias, or health anxiety. What physical behaviors do you engage in? Meaning, do you rearrange things? Do you move things? Do you check things? Do you turn things on and off? Lock doors, unlock doors, lock them again. How much are you engaging in physical behaviors to reduce your anxiety? 

Again, I will also say this is very true for generalized anxiety. Often, people with generalized anxiety disorder spend a lot of time just engaging in this high-level functioning of checking boxes, getting things done, always being the busiest person in the room. And while yes, that does get rewarded by our society because, “Oh, look at them go, they’re getting all the things done,” they’re doing it to avoid or remove discomfort or uncertainty. So we want to get a thorough documentation of all of those things. Again, do not beat yourself up if it’s a long list. Those will help us next week when we talk about tools. 


We move on now to the third category, which is kindness and safety. And now we’re talking about how do you respond to yourself and your experience of anxiety. We also talked about this through the lens of safety. Safety is when you’re feeling uncomfortable, you’re having an emotion such as anxiety, grief, sadness, dread, anger. When you have those emotions, is your brain and body a safe place to allow those emotions to exist, or is it an unsafe place in that you push it away, judge yourself, tell it shouldn’t be there, rid it out, get rid of it, banish it, avoid it, abandon it, all the things? 

Question #1: How do you treat yourself throughout the day? Out of 10, how kind are you to yourself? Really think about it. How do you treat yourself? 

If you thought objectively about yourself as a friend, would you want yourself as a friend around? Probably not. Maybe you’ve been listening to Your Anxiety Toolkit for some time and you’ve already really developed these skills, but really, really honestly, how kind are you to yourself? If you were another friend, would you invite yourself over? Probably not because you wouldn’t invite a friend over who’s like, “What is wrong with you? You’re crazy. You shouldn’t be doing that. You’re so silly. Why are you spending all this time? You’re lazy. You’re dumb. You’re stupid for asking these questions.” So really think about that. 

The second question is, do you punish yourself for having these emotional struggles? And if so, how? Do you blame yourself? Do you shame yourself? Do you engage in a lot of guilt behavior, guilting yourself for these behaviors? Do you withhold pleasure from yourself? 

I’ve had so many clients tell me that they will not allow themselves to have the nice toilet paper, and they get themselves the scratchy, one-ply toilet paper because of their intrusive thoughts or because they’re depressed and they don’t check the boxes that their friends on Instagram have checked. Therefore, they don’t deserve the nice shampoo, or they don’t deserve nice sheets, or they don’t deserve to rest. They basically punish themselves for their emotional struggles, and we don’t want to do that. 

I know you know this already, but we want to know specifically. Do an inventory. Give yourself some days here to really do a thorough audit of what’s going on in your life. You might find that you don’t eat or you eat foods that aren’t delicious. One thing in my eating disorder recovery was, let’s really try to eat foods that are genuinely delicious. And if it’s not delicious, don’t eat it. Well, of course, if you need to eat and you need to function and you don’t have great options, that’s fine. Just eat for the sake of nourishment. But if you’re at a restaurant, eat the thing that’s delicious. Are you engaging in not allowing yourself to have those pleasurable things?

The last question in the area of kindness and safety is, what specifically do you say to yourself when things get hard? What specifically do you say to yourself? 

Often, people say, “No, I’m really kind to myself. I’m really good. I work out.” But then, when things get hard, everything goes down the drain. They start beating themselves up. When they don’t win at work or they don’t get a good grade or when they’re having a bad anxiety or depression day, that’s when they start beating themselves up. What do you say to yourself specifically when things get hard or when things get painful? Write it down. 


All right. We’re moving into the last section, which is mindset, because remember, we’re looking at 2024. We’re looking at the next six months, three months, or one month, and we’re really looking at how can we supercharge your recovery. 

Here’s the question: How willing are you to experience these emotional struggles in your body? Out of 10, how willing are you? 

Most of my patients report like a four, five, and a six, which is still great. I’m happy with that. It’s better than one, two, and three. And if you’re at a one, two, and three, it’s okay. We can start somewhere. Okay? What I’m looking for when I’m with my patients or when I’m with myself is a solid eight, nine, and 10 of willingness. 

Of all the things that I push the most, how willing are you to actually have your emotional discomfort? Often, people are like, “I don’t want it. I’m in too much pain. I’ve had too much pain, Kimberley. Don’t even ask me to. You don’t even understand. I’ve been in pain for years,” and I get it. What we do resist persists. So we want to first ask ourselves, how willing are we to allow this discomfort to be in our body, this emotion to be in our body, or this thought to be present in our awareness? 

The last question here is, when you wake up, what is your mindset about tackling the day? Do you wake up and go, “Oh no, God, I don’t want this,” or do you wake up and go, “No, no, no, no. Please, no anxiety today. Please, no thoughts today. Please, no depression today. Please, let this be a good day,” or do you wake up and say, “This will be a bad day”? Just take note of it. You’re not wrong for any of them, but we want to get a little bit of a temperature check on how you start the day. 

Now, one thing to know, often these thoughts are automatic. You don’t have control of them. Again, I’m not here to say they’re wrong, but what we will talk about next week is ways in which you can change how you respond to some of those automatic negative thoughts, or even your intrusive thoughts, and really look at how we can create a mindset for you. 

Let me give you just a quick rundown before we move forward. 

Number one, we will be doing tools next week, and I’ll be going deep into that. And that will be the focus of mine for 2024. My biggest focus for 2024 is really doubling down on making sure you guys know what the tools are in your toolkit and which ones work for you, and you get to work from that. 

Then I’m actually recording another podcast with Chris Trondsen, where we talk about common mindset roadblocks when it comes to recovery, and we will be giving you strategies there as well. Stick around for that. If you are listening to playbacks here, make sure you listen to all three episodes of this, because I think it will be so important now that you’ve done an inventory and you know what’s going on. 

All right. That’s that. That is your mental health audit. Write it all down. Give yourself plenty of love. Congratulate and celebrate the fact that you did this hard thing, and I will see you next week to talk about the tools you need—the specific tools in your anxiety toolbelt—to help you go and live a life where anxiety is not in charge, not in the driver’s seat, and where you live according to your values, what is important to you. Anxiety and emotions do not get to make your decisions, and that’s my goal for you. 

Have a great day. As always, I always say it’s a beautiful day to do hard things. You did a hard thing today. Thank you for sticking with me. This is not fun work. I get it. But it is important work, and you do deserve to get this really out on paper so that we can get you going in the direction that you want to go. 

As always too, take what you need, leave the rest. If some of these questions don’t really fly for you or they’re very triggering, just do the best you can. I don’t ever want people to feel like what I’m saying is the rule and you have to do it. 

Take what you need. Leave the rest, and I’ll see you next week. Have a good one, everyone.

Dec 22, 2023

Kimberley: Could I have PTSD or trauma? This is a question that came up a lot following a recent episode we had with Caitlin Pinciotti, and I’m so happy to have her back to talk about it deeper. Let’s go deeper into PTSD, trauma, what it means, who has it, and why we develop it. I’m so happy to have you here, Caitlin.

Caitlin: Yes, thank you for having me back.


Kimberley: Can you tell us a little bit about you and all the amazing things you do?

Caitlin: Of course. I’m an assistant professor in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at Baylor College of Medicine. I also serve as the co-chair for the IOCDF Trauma and PTSD in OCD Special Interest Group. Generally speaking, a lot of my research and clinical work has specifically focused on OCD, PTSD, and trauma, in particular when those things intersect, what that can look like, and how that can impact treatment. I’m happy to be here to talk more specifically about PTSD.


Kimberley: Absolutely. What is PTSD? If you want to give us an understanding of what that means, and then also, would you share the contrast of—now you hear more in social media—what PTSD is versus trauma?

Caitlin: Yeah, that’s a great question. A lot of people use these words interchangeably in casual conversation, but they are actually referring to two different things. Trauma refers to the experience that someone has that can potentially lead to the development of a disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder. When we talk about these and the definitions we use, trauma can be sort of a controversial word, that depending on who you ask, they might use a different definition. It might be a little bit more liberal or more conservative. 

I’ll just share with you the definition that we use clinically according to the DSM. Trauma would be any sort of experience that involves threatened or actual death, serious injury, or sexual violence, and there are a number of ways that people can experience it. We oftentimes think of directly experiencing trauma. Maybe I was the one who was in the car accident. But there are other ways that people can experience trauma that can have profound effects on them as well, such as witnessing the experience happening to someone else, learning that it happened to a really close loved one, or being exposed to the details of trauma through one’s work, such as being a therapist, being a 911 telecommunicator, or anyone who works on the front lines. 

That’s what we mean diagnostically when we talk about trauma. It’s an event that fits that criteria. It can include motor vehicle accidents, serious injuries, sexual violence, physical violence, natural disasters, explosions, war, so on and so forth—anytime when the person feels as though their bodily integrity or safety is at risk or harmed in some way. 

Conversely, PTSD is a mental health condition. That’s just one way that people might respond to experiencing trauma. In order to be diagnosed with trauma, the very first criterion is that you have to have experienced trauma. If a person hasn’t experienced an event like what I described, then we would look into some other potential diagnoses that might explain what’s going on for them, because there are lots of different ways that people can be impacted by trauma beyond just PTSD.


Kimberley: Right. What are some of the specific criteria for being diagnosed with PTSD?

Caitlin: PTSD is comprised of 20 potential PTSD symptoms, which sounds like a lot, and it is. It can look really different from one person to the next. We break these symptoms down into different clusters to help us understand them a little bit better. There are four overarching clusters of PTSD symptoms. There’s re-experiencing, which is the different ways that we might re-experience the trauma in the present moment, such as through really intrusive and vivid memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or feeling really emotionally upset by reminders of the trauma. 

The second cluster is avoidance. This includes both what we would call internal avoidance and external avoidance. Internal avoidance would be avoiding thinking about the trauma, but also avoiding any of the emotions that might remind someone of the trauma. If I felt extremely powerless at the time of my trauma, then I might go to extreme lengths to avoid ever feeling powerless again in my life. In terms of external avoidance, that’s avoiding any cue in our environment that might remind us of the trauma. It could be people, places, different situations, smells, or anything involving the senses. That’s avoidance. 

The third cluster of PTSD symptoms is called negative alterations, cognitions, and mood, which is such a mouthful, but it’s basically a long way of saying that after we experience trauma, it’s not uncommon for that experience to impact our mood and how we think about ourselves or other people in the world. You’ll see some symptoms that can actually feel a little bit like depression, maybe feeling low mood, or an inability to experience positive emotions. But there’s also this kind of impact on cognition—an impact on how I view myself and my capabilities, maybe to the extent that I can trust other people or feel that the world is dangerous. Blame is really big here as well.

And then the last cluster of symptoms is called hyperarousal. This is basically a scientific word for your body—sort of kicking into that overdrive feeling of that fight, flight, freeze response. These include symptoms where your body is constantly in a state of feeling like there’s danger or threat. This can impact our concentration. It can impact our sleep. We might have angry outbursts because we’re feeling really on edge. We may feel as though we have to constantly watch our backs, survey the situation, and make sure that we are definitely going to be prepared and aware if another trauma were to happen. 

Those are the four overarching symptom clusters. But somebody only actually needs to have at least six of those symptoms to a clinically significant and impairing way.

Kimberley: Right. Now, I remember early in my own treatment, a clinician using terms like little T trauma and big T trauma. The example that I was discussing is I grew up on a ranch, a very large ranch. My dad is and was a very successful rancher. Every eight to 10 years, we would have this massive drought where we would completely run out of water and we’d have to have trucks bring in water, and there were dead livestock everywhere. It was very financially stressful. I remember her bringing up this idea of what is a little T trauma and what is a big T trauma—not to say that that’s what was assigned to me, but that was the beginning of when I heard this term.


What does it actually mean for someone to say big T trauma versus small T trauma?

Caitlin: Yeah, this is another common term that people are using. I’m glad that there is language to describe this because a lot of times, when I provide the definition that I gave a few minutes ago about what trauma is according to the DSM, people will hear that and think, “Wait a minute, my experience doesn’t really fit into that criteria, but I still feel like I’ve been really impacted by something. Maybe it’s even making me experience symptoms that really look and feel a lot like PTSD.” Some people can find that really invalidating, like, “Wait a minute, you’re saying that what I experienced wasn’t traumatizing and it feels like it was traumatizing.” 

Those terms can be used to separate out big T trauma, meaning something that meets the DSM definition that I provided—that really more strict definition of trauma. Whereas little T trauma is a word that we can use to describe these other experiences that don’t quite fit that strict criteria but still subjectively felt traumatizing to us and have impacted us in some way. 

What’s interesting is that there’s some research that suggests that the extent to which somebody subjectively feels like something was traumatic is actually more predictive of their mental health outcomes than whether or not it meets this strict definition because we see people all the time who experience big T traumas and they might be totally fine afterwards. And then there are people who experience little T traumas and are really struggling. 

We can use little T trauma to describe things like racial trauma, discrimination, minority stress, the experiences that you described, and even just significant interpersonal losses and things like that.

Kimberley: Yeah. Maybe even COVID. For some, it was a capital T trauma, would you say, because they did almost lose their lives or witness someone? Is that correct? Would you say that some others would have interpreted it as a smaller T and then some wouldn’t have experienced it as a trauma at all?

Caitlin: Yes, I think that’s a great example because there are definitely a lot of folks who don’t necessarily know someone who became really ill, lost their life, or didn’t have that personally happen to them. But there was this looming stress, maybe even related to quarantine and isolation and things like that.


Kimberley: This is really fascinating. I wonder if you could share a little, like, of all the people, what are the factors that you mentioned that increase someone’s chances of going on to have PTSD? Who goes on to get PTSD, and who doesn’t? How can we predict that? What do we know from the research?

Caitlin: This is an interesting question because I think that some people might intuitively think, “Well, somebody experienced this really horrible trauma. Of course, they’re going to go on to develop PTSD.” We actually know that people on the whole can be pretty resilient even in the face of experiencing pretty horrible tragedies. 

Our estimates of exposure to what we would call potentially traumatic experiences range from 70% to 90% of the population, and most of us will experience something at some point in our lives that would need that definition—that strict definition of a trauma. Yet, only about 6 to 7% of people will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives. So there’s this huge discrepancy here. 

There are lots of factors, and of course, we don’t have this perfectly nailed down where we can exactly predict, “Okay, this person is going to be fine. This person is going to have PTSD.” It’s really an interaction of lots of factors. But we know that there are some things that can either provide a buffering effect against PTSD or have the opposite effect, where they might put somebody at greater risk. 

One of the biggest things that’s come up in research is social support or the lack thereof, so that when people have really great social support after their trauma, whether it’s after a sexual assault or they’ve come home from combat, that can really buffer against the likelihood of developing PTSD. The reverse is true as well when people don’t have social support. We saw this, for example, after the Vietnam War, where a lot of veterans came home and really were mistreated by a lot of people. Unfortunately, that’s a risk factor for developing PTSD. 

But there are other things too, like coping. Not necessarily using one particular coping skill, but rather having a variety of coping strategies that somebody can use flexibly, even something like humor. We see this as a resilience factor. Obviously, there are times when using humor can serve as a distraction or avoidance, and there are times when it can be really adaptive too.

Obviously, of course, genetics that people may have a predisposition in general towards having mental health concerns. Sex, we know that people assigned female at birth have a higher likelihood of developing PTSD after trauma. 

And then there are things that may be specific to the experience itself, so the type of trauma. Sexual assault is unfortunately a really big risk factor for developing PTSD, whereas there are other trauma types where fewer people go on to develop PTSD from those. 

And then there’s something that we call peritraumatic fear, and that just means the fear that you were experiencing at the time that the event was happening. In the moment that the trauma was happening to me, how scared was I? How much did I feel like I might lose my life? People who experience more of that fear at the time of the event are more likely to go on and develop PTSD. 

But it’s pretty interesting too, because, as with everything, there isn’t just this binary, like you either have it or you don’t have it. I want to normalize this too for anyone who might be listening and maybe has recently experienced something really horrible and is struggling with some of these symptoms that we talked about. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have PTSD or that you’re going to continue to have PTSD. 

Most people, about 50 to 65%, will experience mild to moderate post-traumatic stress symptoms after the event that will just gradually go away on their own. We call that a resilience trajectory. We also have about 10 to 15% of people who have what we call a recovery trajectory, where maybe right away they did have a spike in post-traumatic stress symptoms, right away in that first month or so. But after a year, again, it’s resolved itself. 

And then we have two trajectories that go on to describe people who will have PTSD. That would be a chronic trajectory where somebody would have this elevation in symptoms after the trauma that persists. That’s usually about 15 to 20% of people. And then less likely is what we call a delayed trajectory. This is about only 5 to 10% of people who may have had really mild symptoms right away or perhaps no symptoms at all. And then, after about six to 12 months, it might just all of a sudden skyrocket for whatever reason.


Kimberley: Right. So interesting. I was actually wondering what you often hear about people who, especially as someone who treats OCD and anxiety disorders, often questioning whether there was a trauma they had forgotten. Like, did I repress or am I in denial of a trauma? What can you share statistically about that?

Caitlin: Yeah, that’s a really great question. It’s definitely more of a controversial topic in the field, not because people don’t have the experience of having these recovered memories, but rather because of what we know about how memory works and how fragile it can be, that as clinicians, we have to be really careful that we’re not, in our efforts to help someone, inadvertently constructing a false memory. 

I would say that most of the time, this delayed trajectory of PTSD symptoms is less so about the person not remembering the event, but more so like they just have continued on with their life and are probably suppressing, avoiding, and doing all sorts of things that are maybe keeping it at bay temporarily. And then there may be, in a lot of cases, some big life event that may bring it up, or perhaps another traumatic experience or something like that.


Kimberley: Yeah. I was going to ask that as well, as I was wondering. Let’s say you’ve been through a trauma. You recovered on that trajectory you talked about. Are you more likely to then go on to have PTSD if you repeat different events, or do we not have research to back that up?

Caitlin: That’s a great question. I’m not sure specifically about, depending on which trajectory you were initially on, how that increases the likelihood later on. I can say that repeated exposure to trauma in general is associated with a greater likelihood of PTSD. I would say that, probably regardless of how quickly your symptoms onset, if at all initially, experiencing more and more trauma is going to increase the likelihood of PTSD.


Kimberley: Right. Amazing. Thank you for sharing that. I know that was very in-depth, but I think it helps us to really understand the complexity and the way that it can play out. 

Who can make these diagnoses? I know, as I mentioned to you before, even my daughter has said she found herself on some magazine website that was having her do some online tests to determine whether there was trauma. It seems to be everywhere, these online tests. Can you get diagnosed through an online test? Would you recommend that or not? Who can we trust to make these diagnoses?

Caitlin: That’s a great question. I would not recommend using something like an online test or even a self-report questionnaire to help you figure out if you have PTSD. Now, it can give you a sense of the specific areas that I might be struggling with that I could then share with a licensed provider, who can then make the diagnosis. But if you were to just find a quiz online and take it, and it says you have PTSD, that would not be something that we would consider to be valid or reliable in any way. 

I would recommend talking with a psychologist, a psychiatrist, any sort of general practitioner, an MD, or maybe even someone’s primary care physician. Definitely, if you can get in touch with a licensed provider who specializes in PTSD and can really be sure that that’s what’s going on for you. 

Now, TikTok and all these things exist out there. As with anything on the internet, it can be used for good and it can also be very harmful. I think it just comes down to gathering information that may be helpful but then passing it on to someone who can sift through the misinformation and give you a clearer answer.

Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you for that. I think, as someone myself who’s had their own mental journey, I do remember during different phases of my own recovery where our brains just don’t make sense. I had an eating disorder—a very bad eating disorder—and my brain just couldn’t see clearly in some areas, and me being so frustrated with that. I know lots of people with, let’s say, panic disorder feel the same way or health anxiety, their condition feels so confusing and makes no sense that in the moment of being grief-stricken by this and also very confused, it’s pretty easy to start wondering, “Could this have been a trauma or is this PTSD? This doesn’t make sense. Why am I having this mental health issue?” Especially if it’s not something that was genetically set up in your family. I’m wondering if you can speak to the listeners who may have dabbled in thinking maybe there is a trauma, a big T, a little T, or PTSD. Can you speak to how someone might navigate that?

Caitlin: Most definitely. I’ll validate too that it’s really complex. We use the DSM to help us understand these different diagnoses, but there’s so much overlap. Panic disorder—obviously, panic attacks are the hallmark feature of panic disorder, but people can have panic attacks in PTSD as well. People with eating disorders might have issues with their self-image and their self-esteem. That can happen in PTSD as well, as I mentioned, even with mood disorders. There are symptoms in PTSD that sure look and sound a lot like depression. 

If it feels confusing, “Well, wait a minute, I have this symptom. What does it belong to? What does it mean?” We do really have this very imperfect and overlapping classification system that we use. That being said, it’s a legit question to ask if somebody feels like, as you were saying, “I’ve been struggling with these symptoms, but it really feels like there’s something more here.” 

When we diagnose PTSD, we go through all of the 20 symptoms, some of which I referenced earlier. For each symptom, we’ll ask about when that symptom started for the person relative to trauma and whether or not it’s related to trauma in some sort of way, if there’s some content there to work with. 

For example, somebody maybe wasn’t having any issues with their mood whatsoever, and then they experienced trauma, and all of a sudden, it was just really hard for them to get out of bed. Well, that could potentially be a symptom of PTSD because it started after the trauma. 

One thing that I hear a lot, because unfortunately, childhood trauma is really common, when I ask folks about this, they’ll say, “I don’t know. The trauma happened when I was so young that I don’t even remember who I was before this person that I am now, who’s really struggling.” In that case, people usually have a pretty good insight into this. Like, do you think that this is related in any way? Or maybe, if you have any recollection, you had a little bit of this experience and this symptom initially, and it got worse after the trauma. That, again, could potentially indicate that that’s a symptom of PTSD. 

I would say for those folks who are listening, who are struggling with things like panic attacks, difficulty with eating, mood, whatever it might be, even OCD, which we talked about recently, really checking in with yourself about how and if those symptoms are related to your trauma. If they are, then find someone that you trust that you can talk to about it. Hopefully, a therapist who can help you piece this apart. 

It could still be maybe the disorder you thought it was, maybe it is panic disorder, maybe it is OCD, maybe it is an eating disorder that’s still informed by trauma in some way or impacted in some way, which would be important to be able to process in treatment. Or it could just be PTSD entirely. And then that would be really important to know because that would significantly change what the treatment approach would be.

Kimberley: Yeah. It’s so true of so many disorders. You could have social anxiety and panic attacks because of social anxiety, and a mental health professional will help you to determine what’s the primary, like, “Oh, you have social anxiety and social interactions are causing you to have panic,” and that can sort of help. I think as clinicians, we’re constantly ruling out disorders using our professional hat to do that. I think you’re right. Speak to a professional and have them do our assessment to help you pass that apart. Because I think in general, any mental health disorder will make you feel like something doesn’t feel right, and that’s the nature of any disorder. 

Caitlin: Right. The good news, too, is that, within reason, some of the treatment techniques that we have can be used more broadly. Interoceptive exposures, we can use that for people who have panic disorder, just people who struggle with panic attacks, or maybe people who have OCD or GAD and just feel really sensitive to those sensations in their body that suggest that they might be anxious. Same thing with behavioral activation. We use that for depression, and that can really easily be added to any treatment, whether it’s treatment for PTSD or something else. You’re exactly right, getting clarity on what’s going on for folks, and then what are some of these techniques that might be most helpful for these symptoms?


Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you. You perfectly segue this into the next question, which is, can you describe the treatment or give us names of the treatment for this comparison of trauma versus PTSD? Are they the same treatments? Does it matter whether it’s a big T trauma or a little T trauma? Can you give us some idea of the treatments for these struggles?

Caitlin: Definitely. Most of the evidence-based treatments that exist are specifically for PTSD. Obviously, they touch on trauma, of course, as the reason why somebody has PTSD and where all of these symptoms stem from. But there aren’t as many treatments that are, let’s say, specifically for trauma, at least not in terms of a standardized way of working through that. If somebody’s experienced trauma and they don’t have PTSD, and let’s say they don’t have any diagnoses, but they are still impacted by this experience, just doing behavioral therapy or whatever treatment feels like a good fit for what somebody is trying to work through might be sufficient. And then we have these evidence-based treatments that have been shown to really target PTSD symptoms and help reduce them.

A few years back, I think it was 2017, the American Psychological Association reviewed all of the research on PTSD treatments. They reviewed it using lots of different criteria for what it means to feel better after treatment beyond just reducing PTSD symptoms, but also looking at other things too, like mood and suicidality and things like that. They essentially created this list of treatments that they rank orders in different tiers, depending on how effective they were shown to be. 

In the top tier are four treatments. There’s cognitive behavioral therapy just broadly, cognitive therapy also broadly, and then the two specialized treatments are prolonged exposure (PE) and cognitive processing therapy or CPT. I can talk a little bit more about those two if you’d like. 

In the second tier are things like acceptance and commitment therapy, EMDR—these treatments that people may have used themselves and have found really effective, and they are effective. They’re just maybe a little bit less effective for fewer people, if that makes any sense. It’s not to say that EMDR doesn’t work, but rather that there’s just more of an evidence base for things like PE and CPT.


Kimberley: Great. To speak to those two top-tier treatments, can you compare and contrast them for someone just so that they feel they understand the difference?

Caitlin: Yeah. If I had a whiteboard, I would just draw out the CBT triangle, but hopefully, folks listening know that in the CBT triangle, you have your emotions, your behaviors, and your thoughts, and all these things are constantly interacting with one another. We could say, just on a really simplified level, that when we are seeking treatment for PTSD, we want our emotions to be different. We want to feel less emotionally impacted by the trauma that we’ve experienced.

PE and CPT are both under the umbrella of cognitive behavioral therapy, so they both use that triangle. They just get at it a different way. PE starts with the behaviors, knowing that the thoughts and emotions come along for the ride. CPT starts with the thoughts, knowing that the behaviors and the emotions come along for the ride. 

Now, they’re both extremely effective at reducing PTSD symptoms. They’ve done head-to-head comparisons. They’re both great. You’re not going to find one that’s significantly better than another, but you might find one that feels like a better fit for what you’re currently struggling with. 

Cognitive processing therapy, again, starting with the thoughts, cognitive processing, basically involves-- I almost think of this as looking at our thoughts and our beliefs about things and examining them from different lenses. I always picture plucking an apple from a tree. Like, okay, this is a belief that I developed from my trauma. This was really adaptive for me at the time because this belief told me that I can’t trust anyone and I have to always watch my back. Boy, did that help me when I was in combat and I was always watching my back and making sure I was safe. But as I look at it from these different angles, I might realize, well, I’m not in combat anymore, and I’m living in a pretty safe environment with safe people. So maybe this belief doesn’t really serve me anymore. 

You work with your therapist to identify what we call stuck points, which are these really deep-seated beliefs that somebody has about themselves, other people, or the world that either developed from trauma or were reinforced by trauma, because sometimes people will say, “Well, I’ve never trusted people. I’ve always been in an environment where things weren’t safe.” And then there we go, the trauma happened, and it just proved me right. Cognitive processing therapy helps people work through these stuck points and come up with alternative perspectives on these thoughts. 

Prolonged exposure is a lot more similar to what I imagine lots of the folks listening may have done with exposure therapy generally, or exposure and response prevention for OCD. Again, we’re starting with the behavior, knowing that if we target the behavior first, that’s going to change our cognitions, and it’s going to change our emotions. 

PE involves two different types of exposure. The first one being in vivo exposure, which is really similar to just any sort of ERP exposure where you expose yourself to something in the environment that triggers a thought about the trauma or some sort of emotional reaction. You do those over and over again until they feel like no big deal to you, you feel really awesome about yourself, and you can conquer the world because you can. 

And with your therapist, you do an imaginal exposure, which is where, in a really safe environment, you talk through the experience of your trauma and what happened to you. You do this actually in a unique way to really engage with that memory because, as we talked about, that internal avoidance is so common in people with PTSD. This imaginal exposure would be describing the experience in the present tense, painting a picture as though it was a film that was playing out right in front of our eyes, and really digging into the details of, what am I feeling in the moment that this trauma is happening? What am I hearing? What am I sensing? And doing that imaginal exposure, again, with your therapist in a really safe space until it doesn’t have an impact on you anymore. 

I always say this to people when they start PE with me: I know that this may sound nuts right now. But a lot of people who do PE will get to a point where they’ll look at me and say, “I’m so bored telling this story again. I’ve told this story so many times. It doesn’t even bring up this emotional response for me anymore.” That feels really unlikely for people who are just starting out in treatment and are so impacted by this memory, and they do everything in their power to avoid it. But people can and very much do get to a place where they feel like they’ve conquered this memory and it doesn’t control them anymore. 

That’s how PE and CPT work. Again, they both eventually target the same thing. It’s just sort of, which route do you go?


Kimberley: Right. Amazing. Thank you. From my experience too, and actually, this is a question, not a statement—my experience, some people who I’m close with or clients who have been through PTSD treatment also then had to develop some coping skills, mindfulness skills, compassion skills, or maybe sometimes even DBT skills to get them across the finish line. Has that been your experience? What is your feedback from a more scientific perspective?

Caitlin: Yeah, it really depends on the person. There are also combinations of these treatments. There’s a combined DBT and PE protocol out there for folks who do need a little bit more of those skills. Some people do feel like they would benefit from having some of these coping skills, maybe upfront or throughout the course of treatment. But they’ve also done research where they’ve started with that skill-building before they go into PE or CPT, compared to people who go right in. Actually, what they often find is that starting with skill building, sometimes it’s just colluding with avoidance, and it just lengthens the amount of time that somebody needs before they start to feel better. 

I’m glad you asked this question because it’s so common for people with PTSD to feel like, “I can’t. I can’t do this thing. I can’t feel this thing. I can’t talk about this thing.” And they really can. Sometimes if we allow people to really challenge those “I can’t” beliefs, then they’ll realize, “I really thought that I was going to need all this extra support or I was going to need this or this, and I was able to just move right through this treatment.”

Now, of course, again, that’s not the case for everyone. There are some folks who maybe have much more severe PTSD, maybe have some different comorbidities like personality disorders or something else where it might be helpful to involve some of that, or people who had really chronic exposure to, say, childhood trauma. But far and away, people are often much better able to jump right into some of these treatments than they think they are.


Kimberley: Thank you for sharing that. I think that’s super helpful for us to feel hopeful at the end. One more question before you tell us about you and some of the amazing things that you’re doing. Where might people go? As we know, with OCD and health anxiety, we want a specialist to be helping us, ideally. I’ve noticed as a consumer that everybody and their Psychology Today platform says they treat trauma. I’m wondering how we might pass through that and find treatment providers who are skilled in this area. How might they find a trained professional?

Caitlin: I’m glad you mentioned that about Psychology Today. That’s the advice that I give people when they’re using Psychology Today, or really any sort of platform. If this person is saying that they treat everything under the sun, then it’s probably not a person that you want to link up with for something really specialized because it’s-- what is the saying? “Jack of all trades, master of none.” And I start to get suspicious even that this person even does evidence-based treatment for trauma and PTSD when they’ve listed a thousand things. It’s definitely a red flag to consider for those who are listening and maybe have had this experience. 

In terms of finding a therapist, if folks are interested in PE or CPT, there’s actually directories of therapists who’ve been trained and certified in those modalities. You can find them on-- I’m trying to think of the exact website. If you Google “Prolonged Exposure providers,” something will come up, I believe it’s through Penn. You can do the same for cognitive processing therapy. If you Google, I think it’s like “CPT provider roster,” you’ll get a whole list of providers as well.

Now, just because somebody isn’t on there doesn’t mean that they haven’t been trained in these things. There’s just a certification process that some people go through, and then they can get added to this list. If your provider says, “I’m trained in PE, I’m trained in CPT,” I would probably trust that person that, for one thing, they even know what those things are, and I’d be willing to give them a shot.

Also, and I know we mentioned this on the last episode too, for anyone listening who might have PTSD and OCD, I’ve compiled a list of providers on my website—providers who are trained to treat both OCD and PTSD. I have that broken down by state and then a couple of international providers as well. My website is 

In terms of broad resources beyond finding a provider, there are lots of organizations that have put out some really great content about PTSD—videos, handouts, blogs, articles, all sorts of things. I think the biggest place that I send people is the National Center for PTSD. This is technically run through the Veterans Administration, but anyone can use these resources. They’re not only for veterans. It’s very, very helpful. I’d recommend people who want more information to go there. 

You can also find things on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and so on. And then, of course, I mentioned the Trauma and PTSD in OCD Special Interest Group that I co-chair, that folks can sign up for that too, and we send out materials through there as well.

Kimberley: Amazing. I am so grateful for you because I think we’ve covered so much in a way that feels pretty easily digestible, helps put things in perspective, and hopefully answers a lot of questions that people may be having but didn’t feel brave enough to ask. Where can people find out more about you? You’ve already listed your website. Is there any other thing you want to tell us about the work that you’re doing so that we can support you?

Caitlin: On my website, in addition to the treatment provider directory, I also have some handouts and worksheets. Again, these are specific to co-occurring OCD and PTSD. That might be helpful for some folks. I also usually list on there different studies that are ongoing. I have two right now that are ongoing that I can-- oh, actually, I have three—I lied to you when I said two—that people can participate in if they’re interested. There’s one study that we’ll be wrapping up at the end of December. That’s about OCD and trauma. People can email for more information. We also have a study that’s specific to LGBTQIA+ people with OCD that also covers some things related to trauma and minority stress in that study. If folks are interested in participating in that, they can email me at 

And the last one, and I’ll plug this one the most, that if folks are like, “Well, I want to participate in a study, but I don’t know which of those,” or “I only really have a few minutes of my time,” we have a really, really brief survey, and we’re trying to get a representation of folks with OCD from all over the country. For anyone who’s listening and who has OCD and is willing to participate, it’s a 10-minute survey. You can email me at All of these cover the topic of trauma and PTSD within them as well.

Kimberley: Thank you. I’m so grateful for you. You’ve come on twice in one month, and I can’t thank you enough. I do value your time, but I so value as well your expertise in this area and your kindness in discussing some really difficult topics. Thank you.

Caitlin: No, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on. I hope that folks who are listening can feel a little bit more hopeful about what the future can hold for them.


Find a PE provider:

Find a CPT provider:

For educational resources on PTSD:

To participate in a brief, 10-minute national survey on OCD:

To participate in the OCD/Trauma Overlap Study (closing at the end of December): OCDTraumaStudy@bcm.eduTo participate in a study for LGBTQIA+ people with OCD:

Dec 15, 2023

Radical acceptance when things get hard can be a very difficult practice. In fact, it can be almost impossible. When things get hard, one of the things we often do is we spend a lot of time ruminating about why it’s so hard and what we could have done to prevent it from being so hard. And, instead of using radical acceptance, we often go into beating ourselves up, telling ourselves, “We should have done this; we could have done that. If only we had looked at it this way or treated it this way.” I want us to really zoom in on these safety behaviors that you’re probably doing. Hopefully, today, you leave here committing to reducing or eliminating those behaviors.

Now, I get it. When things are hard, we don’t want to feel the suffering that goes with it. I get it. I don’t want to feel it either. You’re not alone. But when things are hard, often, instead of letting it be hard and feeling our feelings and being kind to ourselves so that we can move into effective behaviors, we get stuck resisting the emotions and doing these other behaviors that increase the shrapnel of the event. I call it ‘shrapnel’ because it does look like that. It creates more damage around us. Let’s look at how we might prevent this. 

Radical Acceptance when things get hard


You’re suffering. The reason I know this is because you’re a human being, and all human beings have sufferings in their lives. Some of us, more than others. If you’re in a season where the suffering is high, I would basically say, the higher the level of suffering, the more you need to listen in. Maybe listen to this multiple times, get your notepad out, and let’s really go to work. 


When you’re suffering and your suffering is high, again, it’s very normal to want to solve why you’re suffering, thinking that yes, that may prevent it from happening in the future, prevent us from having more pain, or prevent us from having to feel our feelings. That’s effective behavior, except... if you’re relying on that and you’re spending too much time doing that, chances are, you’re increasing your shrapnel. If that’s the case, let’s talk about other alternatives. 

When we’re going through difficult things, there is a strong pull toward figuring out why. But my guess is, if you haven’t solved it yet, chances are you won’t. I know this is true for me. It might be true for you, but you’ve probably already identified the problem of one of the things that may be if, in 20/20 hindsight, you could have done differently. And that’s okay, right? There’s many times I’ve looked back and been like, “Yeah, it didn’t handle that well,” or “That didn’t go as well. Maybe now, knowing what I know, I could have done something different.” But often, we spend too much time resisting the fact that it is hard right now. 

If you’re someone who’s spending a lot of time going over and over on repetition, all the things you could have done, chances are, you’re not radically accepting what is. What we want to do first is move to radical acceptance as fast as we can. We’re not saying that you can’t go back and do some effective addressing of what went wrong and what went right. You can do that for short periods of time. But if you’re someone who’s doing it repetitively, catch yourself. We want to move into radical acceptance that yes, things are hard right now.


Often, we resist practicing radical acceptance because of one core reason, and that’s because we don’t want to feel bad. We don’t want to feel the guilt. We don’t want to feel shame. We don’t want to feel the uncertainty. We don’t want to feel sad. We don’t want to feel angry, grief, or panic, whatever it might be. It might be physical pain. We don’t want to feel it.

And so hand in hand goes this work of radically accepting the suffering that you’re experiencing in whatever form, whether it be emotional, physical, spiritual, or other, and then really being willing and creating a safe place to feel those feelings. I’m not saying ruminate on those feelings, make them worse, or agree with everything you’re thinking and feeling. No. I’m just saying, being able to observe that yes, sadness is here, or grief is here, or anxiety is here. It’s showing up in these ways in my chest, in my head, in my shoulders, in my neck, in my hips, in my tummy, wherever it’s showing up for you. First radically accepting it and then being willing to feel those experiences and those sensations. We alternate between those two. We radically accept, then be willing and open. Then we have to go back and radically accept, be willing, and be open.


I want to remind you that it’s okay that you have to do this on repeat. Often, with my patients—and I do this too, I have to admit—we practice radical acceptance, we practice self-compassion, we practice willingness for a little while, and then we get frustrated because it’s not making it go away. It’s not fixing it. It’s not making it disappear. So we go back to trying to solve, “Why is this happening? Why shouldn’t it be this way? What did I do wrong?” instead of knowing that this is a repetitive practice that we commit to over and over again. It’s like brushing our teeth. We don’t do it once and go, “Great, it should be done.” No, we go back, and we’ve accepted that we’ll do it every morning and we’ll do it every night. For some of you, at lunchtime too.

I really want you guys to catch this deep urge and urgency to resist what really is and resist the feelings that go ahead and accompany that experience. We want to move back as fast as we can into radically accepting that it is what it is. 


Now, if you’re anything like me, a part of your brain is going to go, “But it’s not fair. This is not fair. It is too much. Other people don’t seem to be having these problems. It’s not fair that I have this problem. It’s not fair that mine is so big right now and theirs is not.” I get that too. 

Also just acknowledge, you may even want to just validate and go, “Yeah, this is my season. They’ll have theirs.” I promise you, they’ll have theirs. Hopefully not. We don’t want to spread more pain around. But with being a human, it’s 50/50. It’s 50% hard and 50% wonderful, and that’s a part of being human. They’ll have their season; you’re in yours. It is temporary. 

Again, resist the urge to stay in the rumination of “It’s not fair.” You can validate that by going, “Yes, it is not fair. This is a hard deck of cards that I’ve been dealt right now. I’m going to again try to reduce the shrapnel by not engaging in the why me and why did this happen and it shouldn’t have, and it’s not fair.” 

I want to also say it’s okay that you land there. That is a normal part of the grief process to land in that bargaining phase of grief. What we’re really speaking to today is when you get caught in that. 


Now, I am speaking to you about this because I needed to hear this message more than any of you today. This is actually as much for me as it is for you. I think that as I go through very difficult seasons in my life, I find them incredibly humbling because it helps me to see the story that I have told myself, the story that things should go well for me, that things shouldn’t be hard, that I shouldn’t suffer as much as I do in certain areas, that I should somehow magically be able to solve this or control this, and that other people want me to be able to handle this, so therefore, I should be able to. 

I forget my humanness. I keep getting humbled by my humanness. I feel like the world keeps coming to show me, “Kimberley, you’re just like everybody else.” Everybody suffers. How can you lean in and have this be an opportunity to deepen your self-compassion practice, deepen your mindfulness practice, and deepen your ability to feel any emotion that shows up? Because they will, many times in my lifetime. They will continue to show up in different ways because I’m a human, not because I’m a faulty person. All humans have these feelings. 

For you, you also have to remember, these are normal human feelings. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not your fault that you’re having them so strong right now. Resist the urge to go into self-punishment for the fact that you’re suffering. 

Again, radically accept that it is painful right now, and then move into willingness and openness to feel those feelings and create the safest, softest, gentlest landing for you as you navigate these really difficult emotions. As you do it, not to replace it, not to make them go away, but to help guide you through them. 


You can’t bypass emotions. I have learned that one the hard way. You can’t bypass them. If you do, you’re probably increasing your problems. If you’re doing compulsions to get your uncertainty and your anxiety to go away, you’re going to have more of that obsession. If you’re avoiding the thing that’s hard, you’re probably going to feel disempowered, and it’s going to be a bigger problem. If you’re resisting your emotions and you’re resisting your experience, at some point, they will probably blow up and explode, and you’ll feel them a lot. 

Our job, again—and this is my goal for myself, and I hope it’s your goal too—is I want to be a place, a container. I want to be able to experience the full range of emotional experiences safely so that in the future, when hard days come, when I lose loved ones, when I go through hard times, when I witness difficult things, I already know that I have the ability to wade through this. 


The people who are struggling with “I can’t handle this,” they’re the ones who have done everything they can to avoid feeling their feelings, and they haven’t gotten much experience with learning to master emotions. When we do learn that we can have emotions and we do learn that we can tolerate them, then we do learn that we can ride them out. There’s a sense of empowerment, like, “I can do really, really hard things.”

As I’m navigating a tough season, I’m actually blown away and in awe of myself, knowing that I can handle a lot. I’ve handled a lot in other difficult seasons in my life, and I come out of it usually being like, “Wow.” Actually pretty impressed. I feel that way, especially when I stay out of that sort of rumination. I call it the inner tantrum. I have a tantrum like, “It’s not fair, and it shouldn’t be.” 


I wanted to make this a very quick episode. Hopefully, it’s exactly what you needed to hear. 

Number one, if you’re in a difficult season, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. That’s just a human thing. 

Number two, if you’re in a difficult season, let’s back off from trying to solve what you could have done better because, coulda, woulda, shoulda, it’s all 20/20 hindsight. You had no idea. Let’s just leave that alone. Be very aware of that and work towards catching it and moving towards radical acceptance, willingness, and self-compassion. 

If you’re somebody who really needs to improve your self-compassion, we have a whole mindfulness vault called The Meditation Vault. You can go to, and it will guide you through self-compassion practices that were led by me. It’s all audio. It’s all there. I’ll teach you how to do it, and that hopefully will help you have my voice in your head so that you can start to practice self-compassion no matter what shows up for you, no matter what emotion you’re experiencing, no matter what hardship you’re experiencing. 

I hope that’s helpful. Have a wonderful day. I’m sending you all the love, and I will talk to you next week.

Dec 8, 2023

Kimberley: Is ERP traumatizing? This is a question I have been seeing on social media or coming up in different groups in the OCD and OCD-related disorders field. Today, I have Amy Mariaskin, PhD, here to talk with us about this idea of “Is ERP traumatizing” and how we might work with this very delicate but yet so important topic.

Thank you, Amy, for being here.

Is ERP Traumazing? (with Dr. Amy Mariaskin)


Kimberley: Let’s just go straight to it. Why might people be saying that ERP is traumatic or traumatizing? In any of those kinds of terms, why do you think people might be saying this?

Amy: I think there’s a number of reasons. One of which is that a therapy like ERP, which necessitates that people work through discomfort by moving through it and not moving around it or sidestepping it, is different than a lot of other therapies which are based more on support, validation, et cetera, as the sole method. It’s not to say that ERP doesn’t have that. I think all good therapy has support and validation. However, I think that’s part of it. The fact that’s baked into the treatment, you’re looking at facing discomfort and really changing your relationship with discomfort. I think when people hear about that, that’s one reason that it comes up.

And then another reason, I think, is that there are people who have had really negative experiences with ERP. I think that while that could be true in a number of different therapeutic modalities and with a number of different clinicians and so forth, it is something that has gained traction because it dovetails with this idea of, well, if people are being asked to do difficult things, then isn’t that actually going to deepen their pain or worsen their condition rather than alleviate it? That’s my take.

Kimberley: When I first heard this idea or this experience, my first response was actual shock because, as an ERP therapist and someone who treats OCD, I have seen it be the biggest gift to so many people. I’ve heard even Chris Trondsen, who often will say that this gave him his life back, or—he’s been on the show—Ethan Smith, or anyone really who’s been on the show talk about how it’s the most, in their opinion, like the most effective way to get your life back and get back to life and live your life and face fear and all of those things. 


I had that first feeling of surprise and shock, but also then asked more questions and asked about their experience of ERP being very pressured or feeling too scared or too soon, too much too soon, and so forth. Do you have any other ideas as to why people might be experiencing this difficult treatment?

Amy: I do. I think that sometimes, like any other therapy, if you’re approaching therapy as a technician and not as a clinician, and you’re not as a therapist really being aware of the cues that you’re getting from the very brave people sitting in front of you, entrusting their care to you—if we’re not being clinicians rather than technicians, we can sometimes just follow a protocol indiscriminately and without respect to really important interpersonal dynamics like consent and context, personal history, if there’s not an awareness of the power dynamic in the room that a therapist has a lot of power. 

We work with a lot of people as well who might have people pleasing that if you’re going to be quite prescriptive about a certain treatment, you do this, and then you do this, and then you do this without taking care to either lay the foundation to really help somebody understand the science of how ERP works or get buy-in from the front end. I know we’ll talk a little bit more about that, as well as there’s a difference between exposure and flooding. There’s a difference between exposure that serves to reconnect people with the parts of their lives that they’ve been missing, or, as I always call it, reclaims. We want to have exposures that are reclaims, as opposed to just having exposures that generate negative emotion in and of itself. 

Now, sometimes there are exposures that just generate negative emotions, because sometimes that’s the thing to practice. There are some people who feel quite empowered by these over-the-top exposures that are above and beyond what you would do to really have a reclaim. I’m going to go above and beyond for an exposure, and I’m going to do something that is off the wall. I am eating the thing off of the toilet, or I have intrusive thoughts about harming myself, and I’m going to go to the top of the parking garage, and I’m really going to lean all the way over. Would I do that in my everyday life? No. There are some clients for whom that is not something that they’re willing to do or it’s not something that’s important for them to do to reconnect with the life that they want to live, and there are others who are quite empowered. 

If you’re a therapist and you don’t take care to listen to the feedback from clients and let their voice be a part of that conversation, then you may end up, again, as a technician, prescribing things that aren’t going to land right, and that could result in some harm. My heart goes out to anyone who’s had that experience, because I think that’s valid.

Kimberley: I will be completely honest. I think that my early training as an ERP therapy clinician, because I was new, meant that I was showing up as a technician. When I heard this, again, I said my first thought was a little bit of shock, but then went, “Oh, no, that does make sense.” When I was an intern, I was following protocols and I was learning. We all, as humans, make mistakes. Not mistakes so much as if I feel like I did anything wrong, but maybe went too fast with a patient or pushed too hard with a patient or gave an exposure because another person in supervision was saying that that worked for their client, but I was learning this skill of being attuned to my client, and that was a learning process. I can understand that some people may have had that experience, even me. I’m happy to admit to that early in my training, many years ago.

Amy: That’s a great point. I think if we’re all being honest with ourselves, whether it be within the context of ERP or otherwise, there is a learning curve for therapists as well. I think going back to the basic skills and tenets of what it means to have a positive therapeutic relationship is that so much of that has to do with the repair as well. If there are times, because there will be times when you misjudge something or a client says, “I really think that I’m ready to try this,” then we say things like when exposures go awry, when the worst-case scenario happens, or what have you. 

That’s another philosophical question because I think in doing exposures, we’re not necessarily, at least my style, saying the bad thing’s not going to happen. It’s about accepting the risk and uncertainty, which is a reasonable amount. However, I think when those things happen where it does feel like, “Hey, this felt like too much too soon,” or this felt like, “Wow, I wasn’t ready for this,” or “I don’t feel like that’s exactly what I consented to. You said we were going to do this, and then you took an extra step”—I think being able to create an environment where you can have those conversations with clients and they feel comfortable bringing it up with you and you can do repair work is also important. That it’s not just black or white like, “This happened and I feel traumatized.” Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming anybody who’s had that experience, but I’m just saying that I think that happens on a micro level, probably to all of us at some point. 

I think it’s also important to acknowledge, and later we’re going to talk about it, but the notion of the word ‘traumatizing’ is a little bit difficult for me to hear as well because I think from the perspective of an evidence-based practitioner, the treatments that we have, even for so-called big T trauma, many of them integrate in exposure. All of my first-line treatments, including ones that maybe come at it a little bit more obliquely like EMDR or something like that, which is not something that I personally use, are certainly out there as like a second-line trauma treatment. But things like prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapy, they all have this exposure component to them. Even the notion that if there’s trauma, you can’t go there or that talking about hard things is traumatizing. I don’t know. Can we talk a little bit about that? Because I don’t know if that’s something you’ve thought about too, that it’s hard to reconcile.

Kimberley: Yeah. Let me give a personal experience as somebody who had a pretty severe eating disorder. I was doing exposure therapy, but I didn’t get called that, and I didn’t know what to be that at the time. But I had to go and eat the thing that I was terrified to eat. While some people might think, “Well, that’s not a hard exposure,” for me, it was a 10 out of 10. I wanted to punch my therapist in the face at the idea that she would suggest that I eat these things. I’m not saying this is true for other people; I’m just giving a personal experience. I’m actually really glad that she held me to these things because now I can have full freedom over the things that used to run my life. I know that there is nothing on any menu I can’t eat. If I had to eat on any plane, whatever they served me, I knew I was able to nourish my body with what was served to me, which I didn’t have before I did that. 

The other piece is somebody who has also been through trauma therapy. A lot of it required me to go back and relive that event over and over. Even though I again wanted to run away and it felt like my brain was on fire, that too was very helpful. But what was really helpful was how I reframed that event. If I was doing it and, as I was doing it, I was saying, “This is re-traumatizing me,” it was a very bad experience. But if I was saying, “This is an opportunity for me to learn how to have our full range of emotions, even the darker stuff,” that ended up being a very important therapeutic experience for me. That’s just my personal experience. Do you want to speak to that?

Amy: Yeah. I wasn’t planning on speaking to this part of it, but I will say as well that having had a traumatic event—a single event, big T trauma—that happened at my place of employment years ago. This is over 10 years ago now, which involved being held at gunpoint, which involved a hostage-type situation. It’s interesting when you talk about trauma, that you want to tell the whole story, but I’m like, “Oh, we don’t have enough time,” which is interesting because our brains first don’t want to tell the stories or we want to bury them. But suffice to say that after this very painful, very terrifying experience, after which all the hallmark symptoms of hypervigilance and quick to startle and images in my head and avoidance of individuals who looked like this particular individual and what have you. The most powerful thing for me in knowing this as somebody who works in exposure protocols, going back to work and being so kind to myself as I was, again, I come back to this word reclaim. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not something I wish there were. I do wish there’s, “Oh yeah, we just push this button in our brains, and then that’s just where we feel resilient again.” 

But the process of building resilience for me was confronting this environment, reclaiming this environment. I think any exposure protocol has the ability to have that same effect if the framing is there and if it resonates with the person. Being somebody who’s such a believer in exposure therapy for my clients, I was able to step into a role where I came out of that situation feeling so empowered and the ability to hold all of my experience gently and with compassion, as opposed to sweeping it under the rug and then having it come out sideways.

Kimberley: I really appreciate you bringing that up because, similarly, I stowed mine down for many years because I refused to look at it until I was forced by another event to have to look at it. I think that’s a piece of this work too. You have to want to face it as part of treatment. In my case, I either avoid the things that are so important to me or I am going to have to face this; I am going to have to. I showed up and made that choice. I think that’s also a piece of it, knowing that that’s an opportunity for you to go and be kind and to train your brain in different ways. 


We’re speaking directly now about some ideas and solutions to making ERP ethical and respectful. Are there other ways that someone who’s undergoing ERP, considering ERP, or has been through it—other things we might want to encourage them to do moving forward that might make this a more empowering and validating experience for them?

Amy: That’s a great question because I think we can talk about it both from the perspective of clients who are looking for a new therapist as well as what therapists can do. But if we start first with clients and maybe you’re out there, and it’s been something you’ve either been hesitant to engage with because of some of these ideas about it being harmful or you’ve had a negative experience in the past, I do think that there is a mindset shift into feeling really empowered and really willing. 

The empowerment part is coming in and bringing in-- your fears about ERP are also fears that can be worked on. If you’re white-knuckling from the first moment of like, “Okay, I’m in here, I know I’m supposed to do this. I already hate it and it hasn’t started,” sharing that with a clinician. I know I’m used to hearing that. I’m very used to hearing that. I’ve had folks come in who have been in supportive therapy, talk therapy, or other modalities that haven’t been effective for many, many years. There is a part of me-- I’m sorry, this is a tangent, but it’s a little soapboxy tangent. I feel like when I think about my clients who’ve had therapy for sometimes 10, 20 years and it hasn’t been effective, I don’t think we talk enough about how harmful that is for people, like putting your life on hold for 10 or 20 years. I don’t hear the word necessarily ‘traumatizing,’ but that can be harmful as well. People will go through that. 


After these contortions to maybe even avoid ERP because it’s scary, they’ll come in, and I welcome them, saying, “I’m really nervous about this,” because guess what? Saying that aloud is a step in the direction of exposure. You’re owning it. And then having a therapist who can say, “I’m so proud of you for being here.” This is exposure number one. Sitting down on this couch, here we are. Well done, check and check. Because I think that a therapist who’s looking at exposure, not just as what’s on a strict hierarchy, or even from an inhibitory learning perspective, like a menu—exposure is what you’re doing day to day to help yourself get closer to the life that you want and the values you have. When you said, “I can eat anything because I want to nourish my body,” that’s a value.

When I say ‘empowerment,’ like empowerment to discuss that with your therapist. And then that shift into willingness versus motivation or comfort or like, “Oh, I want to wait till the right moment,” or “Things are tough now. I don’t want to add an extra tough thing.” I know you’re not here to tell anybody, “Well, this is the way you should think.” But if there’s any room to cultivate even a nugget of willingness to say, “I can do something difficult, and I am willing to do difficult things on the path toward the life that I want,” those would be two things that come to mind right away.

Kimberley: Yeah, I agree. It takes me to the second piece for a client. I think a huge piece of it is transparency with your therapist or clinician. There have been several times where we’ve discussed an exposure—again, this was more in my earlier days—agreed that that would be helpful for them, gone to do it, and then midway through it, them saying, “I felt like I had to please you, but I’m so not ready for this,” or “I was too embarrassed because this is such a simple daily task and I should be able to do it.” I think it’s okay to really speak to your therapist and share like, “I don’t know how I feel about this. Can we first just talk about if I’m ready?” We don’t want to do that to the degree of it becoming compulsive, but I want to really encourage people who are undergoing treatment of any kind to be as completely honest as you can.

Amy: Right. I think that, again, it’s an interesting dynamic because people are coming to specialists because we do have the knowledge and awareness of protocols and so forth. But again, I think mental health is-- well, I wish all medical health folks were a little bit more open to these kinds of conversations too. But that being said, I think having that honesty and knowing that-- if you go in and you say, “Oh, I’m a little bit nervous,” and you’re getting pushback of, “Well, I’m the doc, this is what you do. Here’s step one, here’s step two,” frankly, there are going to be therapists who are like that regardless of modality. 

It was interesting because I was talking to somebody about this and about—I think if we frame it as a question—"Is ERP inherently harmful” is a really different question than “Can ERP be harmful?” I think any modality implemented without that clinical touch can be potentially harmful. 

I know your motto is, “You can do hard things.” That kind of shift as well is so powerful at the beginning of ERP. You’ve been transparent. You’ve said, “Look, here are my fears about this.” 

And then often, what I will do as a clinician if people don’t get to that place of like, I” can do things through the discomfort, there’s no going around it,” is ask them about things. If they’re adults, it could even be like, “When you were a little kid, did you have any fears, and how did you get over those? What was that like?” Not always, of course, but 9 nine times out of 10, it is some kind of like, “Well, I did the thing.” Or sometimes it’s more complicated, “Well, I did the thing and then I got support from others, and then I learned more.”

But I think people have this innate capacity to learn by changing behavior and to do things that are outside of their comfort zone, and that doesn’t have to mean way outside of their comfort zone. Often, that notion of these hard experiences or these difficult thoughts that you need to-- people will come in and feel like, “Well, I need not to be thinking about them.” That’s not really an option. Being a human with a full life, there are going to be things that are provocative. But I think I’ve heard you talk about this notion of shifting from wanting protection from negative thoughts or discomfort to almost willingness and acceptance. I love that as well.

Kimberley: I agree. I want to also maybe back up a little bit and speak to that just a little bit. I do hear the majority of people saying this, coming from those who are seeking treatment from unspecialized people. Even this morning, people are emailing me saying, “I’m following this OCD coach online, and they’re saying, ‘Follow my six-month program and you will be OCD-free.’” That sounds good. I’ll do whatever you say if that’s what I can give you. There is a power dynamic. 

But then you’re in the program and being told that you have literally two months to go and you better double down or you will fail my program. I think that urgency to get better can cause you to sometimes agree to things or seek out treatment from people who aren’t super trained and who aren’t taking an approach of, “Let’s practice being uncomfortable, let’s practice having every single emotion kindly and compassionately so that there is no emotion you can’t ever have in your lifetime through the darkest ages.” They’re more coming from a, “I’m on a timeline here and I have to get this done, so I’m going to do these things that are absolutely terrifying.” I think a lot of people are speaking to this.

Amy: I think that’s right. A lot of times, people have been-- I think we, as a field, like mental health professionals, there’s this delicate balance of wanting to instill hope and really talk about like this works and to not overpromise or not simplify the circuitous way that we get there together as a therapist and client, because there are a lot of sound bites out there. I know you and I have talked about this. It’s like these “better in 12 weeks” or “better in with these five tips” or what have you.

I think even looking at research, and I have a strong research background, I was training to be a researcher when I was in grad school. I think it’s important as well to remember that even with research, we are looking at-- if we say like, “Hey, this is a 12-week protocol that’s been effective.” Okay, what does effective mean? Does effective mean that you get to pick up your baby again? Or does it mean, oh no, it probably means an X amount reduction in the Y box? Does effective mean it was that amount of reduction for everyone? Well, no, it’s averages and things like that. 

I can wear both hats and say, this is an incredibly empirically validated treatment that works for many people. It’s not going to work the same way for every person, so why would we as clinicians go in and be like, “Here’s a timeline?” You can’t do that.

Kimberley: Yeah. Let’s speak to the therapist now. What can therapists be doing to make this a more effective, compassionate, and respectful practice? Do you have anything that you want to speak to first?

Amy: Yes. I think that if we start at the beginning of therapy itself and the steps that you go through, the very first step is assessment because exposure is something that we know is very effective for anxiety, to a lesser degree, disgust, and not quite right feelings as well, and some sensory issues, to a lesser extent. But exposure is effective for certain things. We want to make sure that those are the things that are occurring. So, making sure because somebody can have OCD, or can have anxiety, or something like that and also have other things going on.

I think sometimes when exposure is treated-- exposure and response prevention. I know we talk a lot about exposure, but even response prevention, that side of things, it’s just this one size fits all. Okay, something you don’t like doing, we’re going to expose you to it, and something that alleviates your distress, we’re going to eliminate those. If you’re doing that outside of the context of where it’s clinically indicated for OCD, i.e., areas that provoke obsessions and compulsive behaviors, then you’re really missing the target. 

I know there’s been a lot of discussion about neurodiversity and for autistic people who may have routines and things like that or may have stereotypies or stimming behaviors, things that are pleasant for them or self-regulatory to really get a good assessment in there. Again, you’re not having people do exposures or engage in response prevention in places where it’s not clinically indicated.

I think even if somebody has a trauma history, for something like PTSD, exposure is often, as I mentioned, a part of treatment protocols. The way in which we are doing those kinds of exposures and really centering the sense of agency in the client who’s had that sense of agency taken away by prior experiences is really important. I think assessment is the first thing that comes to mind, followed--

Kimberley: I would add-- sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off, but I would add even assessment for depression. A lot of what we teach in ERP school for therapists and what I teach my staff is, if a client has depression, I might do more exposures around uncertainty and not around their worst-case scenario happening because sometimes that can make the depression come in so strong that they can’t get out of bed the next day. We can tailor exposure even to make depression, and so forth. 

I think it is so important that we do get that assessment and really understand the big picture before we proceed. Even understanding other anxiety disorders, health anxiety, the history of trauma with health, and so forth, or even the things you were taught as a child, can be really important to understand before we proceed with exposure.

Amy: I love that you added that in—the things that we were taught as a child—because I love this story. I mean, I love it and hate it, and you’ll understand why in a moment. But when I was on my internship—this was back in 2008, 2009—there was a fellow intern. He and I were co-presenting on a case, and we had the other interns. They were asking questions, and this was a makeshift IOP case. We were both doing a little bit of individual therapy, and people in the audience were asking questions, and somebody asked about childhood. This was an adult. The other intern said, “We don’t care about that stuff.” I said, “Time out, I care about it,” and we all laughed. 

I get where he was coming from in the sense that he was like, “Hey, here are the symptoms, here’s the protocol for the symptoms, and it is important.” Like you said, I mean, even from a CBT, this is very consistent with CBT and how we form core beliefs and schemas and our ideas about the world and fairness and justice, and all of that is a part of it. We don’t want to lose the C part, the cognitive part as well in ERP. But I love that you said that about depression as well, because even something co-occurring can just nudge. It just nudges the way that we do exposure and so forth.

Kimberley: Yeah. I think culturally too. Think about the different traditions that come with different cultures or religions. Sometimes some of their rituals can seem compulsive. If I didn’t know that that’s why they’re doing these, I could easily, as an untrained or ineffective therapist, be like, “Just expose yourself.” We’ve got to break this ritual, without actually understanding, like, is this actually a value-based ritual that you’re doing because of a religion or a culture or tradition that is in line with your values? I think that’s very, very important. After assessment, what would you say the next steps are?

Amy: I think that-- and this is the part where I’m really going to own that. I get really excited, and I just want to jump into treatment. This is me, I’m calling myself out. But I think psychoeducation, that not only very clearly lays out the evidence and the why, like here’s the process, here’s why we’re asking you to do these things that are really difficult, here are the underlying patterns, and here’s what we’re looking out for, and so forth. 

I think not only that, but also laying out very clearly what the expectations are. “This is how this is going to look,” and maybe at that point as well, clinicians saying—this is very collaborative—"I am here to provide this information, and then together we are going to formulate a treatment plan and formulate these exposures.” I have heard so many people who do a lot of ERPs say how proud they are by the end of therapy when clients come in and they say, “I was thinking I need to do this as my exposure.” They’re really taking that ownership. 

I think not only again talking about the science and all the charts and things like that, but really talking about this as a collaborative, consensual process, that it’s like, “I’m handing this off to you, and this is going to be something you have for the rest of your life.”

Kimberley: Yeah. I’ll tell a similar story. I had a patient who-- I’ll even be honest, I don’t think this was in my internship. This was in my career as an OCD therapist. But my client was just doing the exposures that he and I had agreed to. He would come back and be very frustrated with this process until he came to me and said, “I need you to actually stop and explain to me why I’m doing this.” I thought I had done a thorough job of that. I truly, really, honestly did. But he needed me to slow down and explain. We got out the PET scans of the brain, and I had a model of the brain. I showed him what part of the brain was being triggered and where the different parts of why-- from that moment, he was like, “I got you. I know what we’re doing. I’m on board now. I got this.” 

I think that I was so grateful that he was like, “Hold up, you need to actually slow down and help me to understand because this still doesn’t make sense to me.” This was a very important conversation. In my case, I think it’s checking in and saying, “Do you understand why we’re doing this? Do you understand the science of this?” I think it’s so important. What else might a therapist do?

Amy: I love that. I was just going to say, I love that you create that culture because that’s what I was talking about earlier. Sometimes we don’t quite get it right. And then it’s like, “What can I do better?” It’s such a powerful question. 

Knowing the why of ERP and then also the why, like, why is it worth it for you? Why is this? ACT has these wonderful metaphors about it. We’ve heard the monsters on the bus analogy. You’re driving the bus, and all your symptoms are the passengers yelling out or different fears you might have. But so often we don’t talk about, where are you driving the bus toward? Where are you going? 

I get misty when I think about this. I get almost a little teary because I think that people with OCD have such incredible imaginations, and yet, having OCD can make it so hard to dream and dream about what you truly want. Especially if it’s quite entrenched, it can just feel like, “Well, that’s a life that other people have. I don’t get to have that.” On the one hand, there’s this expansive imagination about illnesses, danger, harming others, or what have you. These things that are just dystonic—you don’t want to be thinking about them. 

I love to see people exercise that other part of their imagination and really encourage them to dream because if you have that roadmap, or rather that end destination of what you want your life to be, those very concrete moments that you want-- for some people, it’s like, “I want to have a family,” or “I want to travel,” or “I want to have the freedom to be around whomever I want to be around, regardless of the thoughts that come up,” whatever it is. Sometimes it can feel scary to even dream and envision that, either through values work or if it’s somebody who had a later onset thinking about where were you heading before. How did this derail you? What were you heading toward? I think that’s really important as well. If we don’t do that-- I mean, frankly, I wouldn’t want to do anything if I didn’t know my why.

Kimberley: No, agreed. I think that another thing—I often talk about this with my therapists in supervision—is one thing that I personally do-- and this is just me personally. Every therapist has their own way of doing it, but I often will ask my patients, “What kind of Kimberley do you need today?” I have the question as an opening where they can be like, “No, we’re good. Let’s just get to work.” We knew what we were going to do and so forth. My patients now know to say, “I need you to actually push me a little today.” They’re coming to me saying, “I want you to push you.” Or they’ll say, “I’m feeling very vulnerable today. I’m on my period,” or “It’s been a hard week,” or “I haven’t slept.” I don’t consider that me accommodating them. I consider that me being attuned to them. It might be that I might go, “Okay, but there’s been several weeks in a row that you’ve said that. Can we have a conversation?” It’s not that I’m going to absolutely let them off with avoidant compulsions, but I love offering them the opportunity to ask, what kind of Kimberley do you need? Sometimes they’ll say, “I need you to push me today, but I also need you to really encourage me because I have run out of motivation and I don’t have a lot.” 

I think that as clinicians, the more we can offer an opening of, what is it that you’re ready for? What do you want to expose yourself today? Is there something coming up that you really need to be working on? I think those conversations create this collaborative experience instead of like, “I’m the master of treatment, and you’re my follower” kind of model.

Amy: Right. I love that, and I love the idea that we can be motivational, encouraging, and celebratory in the face of exposure. Like exposures, I do feel like there has been a shift, and perhaps with the shift away from the strict habituation paradigm in the field, where it’s not like you have to just do the thing and be scared, be scared, be scared, be scared, be scared, and then it goes down. You can explore, “Hey, are you feeling stronger now? Are you feeling like I’m nervous, but I’m also curious?” 

Again, some of this is just personal style, but I use a lot of humor. There are often a lot of inside jokes with clients and things like that. I don’t see that as incompatible with really good exposure work because you’re learning that you can be scared and laughing. You’re learning that you can feel discomfort and empowerment. These kinds of things are huge. But again, I think when I was newer to ERP, there was a little bit of like, “Nope, we’re not cracking a joke, because that would be avoiding negative emotion.”

Kimberley: Yes. I remember that. Or being like, “I hope I don’t trigger them. I’m not going to [unintelligible].” The joke is what created an attunement and a collaboration between the two of us, which I think can be so beautiful. Another question I ask during exposure is, would you like to keep going? Would you like to make it a little harder? How could we? Even if we don’t, how might we? No pressure, but how might we make it so that they’re practicing this idea of being curious about making decisions on their own? Because the truth is, I’m only seeing you for 50 minutes a week. You have to then go and do this on your own. We want the clients, us as therapists, to model to them a curiosity of like, “Oh, it’s here.” Am I going to tell myself this is terrible and I can’t handle it? Or am I going to be curious about what else I could introduce? Would I like to send them a text to a loved one while I do this exposure? How would I like to show up? What values do I want to show up with? Those questions can take the terror out of it.

Amy: Yes. I think that all of this is hitting on something. I’ve noticed that oftentimes this notion of ERP is traumatizing. Again, not to discount anybody’s personal experiences with it if that has been negative, but it’s often based on this caricature of ERP that all those things that we’re saying don’t need to have that element of consent. It needs to have that collaborative nature, really good assessment, really good psycho-ed. I think that’s something I just realized because I don’t like feeling defensive about things. If I feel defensive, I’m like, “Uh-oh, this is a me thing.” I think in this case, it’s because I’m seeing a lot of misinformation about ERP, or perhaps just poorly applied ERP.

Kimberley: Yeah, for sure. I want to be respectful of time. We could make this into a whole training easily, but let’s end here on the healing because we’ve talked about everything today—ideas, concepts, mindsets, conceptualizations. But I also want to really make sure we are slowing down and creating a safe place where some people may actually, like you said, have had not great experiences. What might we do, and what might patients do in terms of healing moving forward?

Amy: It’s a good question. There’s a couple of things. I think if it’s something that we were talking about with the transparency and the talking, number one, finding support and finding support from, ideally, somebody who’s going to understand ERP enough that they can speak to. That doesn’t have to be the type of therapy that you’re getting with them, but understands it well enough to have a conversation like this. Just knowing it should never feel disrespectful, it should never feel non-consensual, and if that was your experience, then—I mean, I hate to say this, but I do think it’s true—I know I would want to know if somebody felt that way. If somebody was working with me and they felt that way, I know that can be quite a burden for people to reach out to someone with whom they’ve had a negative experience. 

But I think if you’re able to do that, that can be really helpful and really restorative, even if you’re not looking for a response, even if it’s just something that you’re letting them know. If you still have a relationship with that therapist, or let’s say it’s a clinic where you saw a therapist and you ended up moving to a different therapist, consider sharing it with them directly. I think we live in a very contentious culture of, “Well, I’ve made my mind up. That’s bad, and I’m moving on.” 

But truly, I think validation also starts with self-validation. My hope is that even though we’re both clearly ERP therapists who believe very strongly in its positive application for many people, we want to validate that if you’ve felt any harm, that’s valid. I think that also starts with self-validation as a first means of healing and then seeking support.

Kimberley: Yeah. What I think too, if you’re not wanting to do that, which I totally understand, sharing with your new clinician. One of the questions we have about our intake is what therapy was helpful and why, and what therapy wasn’t helpful and why. As you go with a new therapist, share with them, “This was my experience. This is what I found to be very effective. This is what I am very good at, but these are the things that I struggled with, and here’s why.” And then giving them the education of your process so they can help you with that, I think, is really important. 

I think you hit the nail on the head—also being very, very gentle. The administering of therapy is not a perfect science; it’s a relationship. It’s not always going to go well. I wish it could. I truly wish there was a way we could, but that doesn’t mean that you’re bad, that therapy won’t work for you in the future, or that all therapists are similar to what your experience was. I think it’s important to know that there are many therapists who want to create a safe place for you.

Amy: That’s so well said.

Kimberley: Anything else you want to add before we finish up?

Amy: No, no, I think this has been great. Again, anybody out there, I don’t know. I feel like, as therapists, sometimes we’re the holders of hope. If this could give you any hope, and again, ERP may not be the route that you choose, but just anyone who’s felt like therapy hasn’t been what you wanted, you deserve to find what’s going to feel like the best, most helpful fit.

Kimberley: Amy, I have wanted to do this episode for months now, and there is no one with whom I would feel as comfortable doing it as much as you. Thank you for creating a place for me to have this very hard conversation and a conversation I think we need to have. I’m again so grateful for you, your expertise, your kind heart, and your wisdom.

Amy: Thank you. 

Dec 1, 2023

Kimberley: Welcome back, Ethan Smith. I love you. Tell me how you are. First, tell me who you are. For those who haven’t heard of your brilliance, tell us who you are.

Ethan: I love you. My name is Ethan Smith, and I’m a national advocate for the International OCD Foundation and just an all-around warrior for OCD, letting people know that there’s help and there’s hope. That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to doing.

Kimberley: You have done a very good job. I’m very, very impressed.

Ethan: I appreciate that. It’s a work in progress.

EP with Ethan Smith

Kimberley: Well, that’s the whole point of today, right? It is a work in progress. For those of you who don’t know, we have several episodes with Ethan. This is a part two, almost part three, episode, just catching up on where you’re at.

The last time we spoke, you were sharing about the journey of self-compassion that you’re on and your recovery in many areas. Do you want to briefly catch us up on where you’re at and what it’s been like since we met last?

Ethan: Yeah, for sure. We’ll do a quick recap, like the first three minutes of a TV show where they’re like, “So, you’re here, and what happened before?” 

Kimberley: Previously on.

Ethan: Yeah, previously, on real Ethans of Coweta County, which sounds super country and rural. The last time we spoke, I was actually really vulnerable. I don’t mean that as touting myself, but I said for the first time publicly about a diagnosis of bipolar. At that time, when we spoke, I had really hit a low—a new low that came from a very hypomanic episode, and it was not related to OCD. I found myself in a really icky spot.

Part of the reason for coming or reaching that bottom was when I got better from OCD into recovery and maintenance, navigating life for the first time, really for the first time as an adult man in Los Angeles, which isn’t an easy city, navigating the industry, which isn’t the nicest place, and having been born with OCD and really that comprising the majority of my life. The next 10 years were really about me growing and learning how to live. But I don’t know that I knew that at the time. I really thought it was about, okay, now we’re going to succeed, and I’m going to make money, live all my dreams, meet my partner, and stuff’s going to happen because OCD is not in the way. That isn’t to say that that can’t happen, and that wasn’t necessary. I had some amazing life experiences. It wasn’t like I had a horrible nine years. There were some wonderful things.

But one of the things that I learned coming to this diagnosis and this conclusion was how hard I was being on myself by not “achieving” all the goals and the dreams that I set out to do for myself. It was the first time in a long time, really in my entire life, that I saw myself as a failure and that I didn’t have a mental illness to blame for that failure. I looked at the past nine years, and I went, “Okay, I worked so hard to get here, and I didn’t do it. I worked so hard to get here in a personal relationship, and I didn’t get there. I worked so hard to get here financially, and I didn’t even come close."

In the past, I could always say, “Oh, OCD anxiety.” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t finish it. I dropped out. That was always in the way. It was the first time I went, “Oh wow, okay, this is on Ethan. This is on me. I must not be creative enough, smart enough, good enough, strong enough, or brave enough.” That line of thinking really sent me down a really dark rabbit hole into a really tough state of depression and hypomania and just engaging in unhealthy activities and things like that until I just came crashing down.

When we connected, I think I had just moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta and was resetting in a way. At that time, it very much felt like I was taking a step back. I had left Los Angeles. It just wasn’t a healthy place for me at that time. My living situation was difficult because of my upstairs neighbor, and it was just very complicated. So, I ended up moving back to Georgia for work, and I ended up moving back in with my parents. I don’t remember if we talked about that or not, but it was a good opportunity to reset.

At that time, it very much looked and felt like I was going backwards. I just lived for 10 years on my own in Los Angeles, pursuing my dreams and goals. I was living at home when I was sick. What does this mean? I’m not ready to move. I’m not ready to leave. I haven’t given up on my dream. What am I doing?

I think if we skip the next three years from 2019 on, in retrospect, it wasn’t taking a step back; it was taking a step forward. It was just choosing a different path that I didn’t realize because that decision led to some of the healthiest, most profound experiences in my life that I’m currently living. I can look back at that moment and see, “Oh, I failed. I’ve given up.” This is backwards. In reality, it was such a beautiful stepping stone, and I was willing to step back to move forward, to remove myself from a situation, and then reinsert myself in something.

Where I am now is I’m engaged, to be married. I guess that’s what engaged means. I guess I’m not engaged with a lawyer. I’m engaged, and that’s really exciting.

Kimberley: Your phone isn’t engaged.

Ethan: Yeah, for sure, to an amazing human being. I have a thriving business. I’m legitimately doing so many things that I never thought I would do in life ever, whether it had to do with bipolar or more prominently in my life, OCD, where I spent age 20 to 31, accepting that I was home-ish bound and that was going to be my life forever and that I’m “disabled” or “handicapped,” and that’s just my normal. I had that conversation with my parents. That was just something that I was going to have to live with and accept.

I’m doing lots of things that I never expected to do. But what I’ve noticed with OCD is, as the stakes seem raised because you’re engaging yourself in so many things that are value-driven and that you care about, the stakes seem higher. You have more to lose. When you’re at the bottom, it’s like, okay, so what? I’m already like all these things. Nothing can go wrong now because I’m about to get married to my soulmate, and my business is doing really well. I have amazing friends, and I love my OCD community.

The thoughts and the feelings are much more intense again because I feel like I have a lot more to lose. Whereas I was dismissing thoughts before, now they carry a little bit more weight and importance to me because I’m afraid of losing the things that I care about more. There’s other people in my life. It’s not just about me. With that mindset came not a disregard but almost forgetting how to be self-compassionate with myself.

One of the things that came out of that bipolar diagnosis in my moving forward was the implementation of active work around self-compassion. I did workbooks, I worked very closely with my therapist, and we proactively did tons and tons of work in self-compassion. You can interrupt me at any time, because I’ll keep babbling. So, please feel free to interrupt.

I realized that I was not practicing self-compassion in my life at all. I don’t know that I ever had. Learning self-compassion was like learning Japanese backwards. It was the most confusing thing in the world. The analogy that I always said: my therapist, who I’ve been with for 13 years, would say to me, “You just need to accept where you are and embrace where you are right now. It’s okay to be there. Give yourself grace.” She would say all these things. 

I always subscribe to the likes of, “You have to work harder. You can’t lift yourself off the hook. Drive, drive, drive, drive.” That was what I knew. I tried to fight her on her logic. I said, “If there’s a basketball team and they’re in the finals and it's halftime and they’re down by 10, does the coach go to the basketball team and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s just appreciate where we are right now; let’s just be in this moment and recognize that we’re down by 10 and be okay with that.’” I’m like, “No, of course not. He doesn’t go in there and say that. He goes, ‘You better get it together and all this stuff.’” I remember my therapist goes, “Yeah, but they’re getting out of bed.” I’m like, “Oh, okay, that’s the difference.” They’re actually living their life. I’m completely paralyzed because I’m just beating myself down. 

But what I’ve learned in the last three or four years is that self-compassion is a continuous work in progress for me and has to be like a conscious, intentional practice. I found myself in the last year really not giving myself a lot of self-compassion. There’s a myriad of reasons why, but I really wanted to come on and talk about it with you and just share some of my own experiences, pitfalls, and things that I’ve been dealing with. 

I will say the last two years have probably been the hardest couple of years and the most beautiful simultaneously, but hard in terms of OCD, thoughts and triggers, anxiety, and just my overall baseline comfort level being raised because, again, there’s so many beautiful things happening. That terrifies me. I mean, we know OCD is triggered by good stress or bad stress. So, this is definitely one of those circumstances where the stakes seem higher. They seem raised, so I need more certainty. I need it. I have to have more certainty. I don't, really. I’m okay with uncertainty, but part of that component is the amount of self-compassion that I give myself. I haven’t been the best at it the last couple of years, especially in the last six months. I haven’t been so good.

Kimberley: I think this is very validating for people, myself included, in that when you are functioning, it doesn’t seem like it’s needed. But when we’re not functioning, it also doesn’t feel like it’s needed. So, I want to catch myself on that. What are some roadblocks that you faced in the implementation of this journey of self-compassion or the practice of self-compassion? What gets in the way for you?

Ethan: I will give you a specific example. It’s part of my two-year journey. In the last year and a half, I started working with a nutritionist. Physical health has become more important to me. It may not look like that, but getting there, a work in progress. But the reality of it is, and this is just true, I’m marrying a woman who’s 12 years younger than me. I want to be a dad. I can’t wait to have children. The reality of my life—which I’m very accepting of my current reality, which was something I wasn’t, and we were probably talking about that before—was like, I wanted to be younger. I hated that everything was happening now. I wasn’t embracing where I was and who I was in that reality. I’m very at peace with where I am, but the reality of my reality is that I will be an older father.

So, a value-driven thing for me to do is get healthier physically because I want to be able to run around and play catch in 10 years with my kid. I would be 55 or 60 and be able to be in their lives for as long as I possibly could. I started working with a nutritionist, and for me, weight has always been an issue. Always. It has been a lifelong struggle for me. I’ve always yo-yoed. It’s always been about emotional eating. It’s always been a coping mechanism for me.

I started working with a nutritionist. She’s become a really good friend, an influence in my life, and an accountability partner. I’m not on a diet or lifestyle change. There’s no food off the table. I track and I journal. But in doing this, I told her from the beginning, "In the first three months, I will be the best client you’ve ever had,” because that’s what I do—I start perfectly. Then something happens, and I get derailed. I was like, my goal is to come back on when I get derailed. That is the goal for me. And that’s exactly what happened. I was the star student for three months. I didn’t miss a beat. I lost 15 pounds. The goal wasn’t weight loss, mind you; it was just eating healthier and making more intentional choices. Then I had some OCD pipe up, my emotions were dysregulated, and I really struggled with the nutrition piece. I did get back on track. 

Over the last year, I gained about seven pounds doing this nutrition. Over the last six months, I was so angry at myself for looking at my year’s journey. This is just an example of multiple things with self-compassion, but this is the most concrete and tangible I can think of at the moment. But looking at my year and looking at it with that black-and-white OCD brain and saying, “I failed. I’m a piece of crap. I’m not where I want to be on my journey. I’ve had all of the support I could possibly have. I have all the impetus. I want to be thinner for my wedding. I want to look my best at my wedding. What is wrong with me? In these vulnerable emotional states or these moments of struggle, why did I give in?”

In the last couple of months, I literally refused to give myself any compassion or grace around food, screw-ups, mess-ups, and any of that. I refused. My partner Katie would tell me, “Ethan, you have to love--” I’m like, “No, I do not deserve it.” I’m squandering this opportunity. I just wholeheartedly refused to give myself compassion. Because it’s always been an issue, I’m like, “What’s it going to take?” Well, compassion can’t be the answer. I need tough love for myself. 

I think I did this in a lot of areas of my life because, for me, I don’t know, there’s a stigma around self-compassion. Sometimes, even though I understand what it is on paper-- and I’ve read your workbook and studied a lot of Kristin Neff, who’s an amazing self-compassion expert. On paper, I can know what it is, which is simply embracing where you are in the moment without judgment and still wanting better for yourself and giving yourself that grace and compassion, regardless of where it is. 

I felt like I couldn’t do that anymore because I wasn’t supposed to. I wasn’t allowed. I suddenly reframed self-compassion as a weakness and as an excuse rather than-- it was very much how I thought about it before I even learned anything about self-compassion, and I found myself just not a very loving person myself. My internal self-talk was really horrible and probably the worst. If somebody was talking to me like this, you always try to make it external and be like, “Oh, if somebody talked to you like this, would they be your friend? Would you listen to them?” I was calling myself names. I gave myself a room. It was almost in every facet of my life, and it was really, really eating at me. It took a significant-- yeah, go ahead.

Kimberley: When I’m with clients and we’re talking about behaviors, we always talk about the complex outcomes of them, like the consequences that you were being hard on yourself, that it still wasn’t working, and so forth. But then we always spend some time looking at, let’s say, somebody is drinking excessively or doing any behavior that’s not helpful to them. We also look at why it was helping them, because we don’t do things unless we think they’re helping. What was the reason you engaged in the criticism piece? How did that serve you in those moments?

Ethan: It didn't, in retrospect. In the moment, I think behaving in that way feels much like grabbing a spear and putting on armor. I don’t know if it’s stigma or male stigma. I mean, I’ve always had no problem being sensitive, being open to sensitivity, and being who I am as an individual. But with all of this good in my life, my emotions are more intense. My thoughts are more intense. My OCD is more intense. I felt like I needed to put on-- I basically defaulted to my original state of thinking before I even learned about self-compassion, which is head down, bull horns out, and I’m just going to charge through all of this because it’s the only way. It’s just like losing insight. When you’re struggling with OCD, it’s like you lose insight, you lose objectivity. It’s like there’s only one way through this. 

I think it’s important to note, in addition to the self-compassion piece, this year especially, there’s been some physical things and some somatic symptoms that I’ve gotten really stuck on. I’m really grateful that-- and I love to talk about it with advocacy. It’s like, advocates, all of us, just because we’re speaking doesn’t mean that we have an OCD-free life or a struggle-free life. That’s just not it. I always live by the mantra: more good days than bad. That is my jam. I’m pleased to report that in the last 13 years, I’ve still had more good days than bad, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have a tough month. 

I think that in the last couple of years, I’ve definitely been challenged in a new way because there’s been some things that have come up that are valid. I have a lot of health anxiety, and they’ve been actual physical things that have manifested, that are legitimate things. Of course, my catastrophic brain grabs onto them. You Google once, and it’s over. I have three and a half minutes to live for a brown toenail, and--

Kimberley: You died already.

Ethan: I’m already dead. I think it all comes back around to this idea of self-stigma, that even if you know all this stuff like, I’m not allowed to struggle, I’m not allowed to suffer, I have to be a rock, I have to be all things to all people—it’s all these very black and white rules that are impossible for a human being to live by because that’s just not reality. I mean, I think that’s why the tough exterior came back because it was like, “All right, life is more challenging.”

The beautiful thing about recovery is, for the most part, it didn’t affect my functioning, which was amazing. I could still look at every day and go, “I was 70% present,” or “I was 60% present and 40% in my head, but still being mindful and still doing work and still showing up and still traveling.” From somebody that was completely shut down, different people respond in different ways to OCD. From somebody who came from completely shutting down and being bedridden, this was a huge win. But for me, it wasn’t a huge win in my head. It was a massive failing on my part. What was I doing wrong? How was it? 

Just as much as I would talk every week on my live streams and talk about, it’s a disease, not a decision, it’s a disorder. I can say that all day long, but there are times when it tricks me, and I stigmatize myself around it. 

It’s been very much that in the last year, for sure. It’s been extremely challenging facing this new baseline for myself. Because, let’s face it, I’m engaging in things that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve never been in a three-year relationship with a woman. I’ve never been engaged. I’ve never bought a house. Outside of acting, I’ve never owned a business or been a businessperson. I mean, these are all really big commitments in life, and I’m doing them for the first time. 

If I have insight now and it’s like, I can have this conversation and say, “Yeah, I have every reason to be self-compassionate with myself.” These are all brand new things with no instruction manual. But it’s very easy to lose sight of that insight and objectivity and to sit there and say-- we do a lot of comparing, so it’s very easy to go, “Well, these are normal human things. Everybody gets married. Everybody works. This should be easy.” You talk about, like, never compare struggles, ever. If somebody walks to the mailbox and you can’t, never compare struggles. But that’s me going, “Well, this is normal life stuff. It’s hard. Well, what’s wrong with me?”

Kimberley: Right. I think, for me, when I’m thinking about when you’re talking, I go in and out of beating myself up for my parenting, because, gosh, I can’t seem to perfect this parenting gig. I just can’t. I have to figure it out. What’s so interesting is when I start beating myself up and if I catch myself, I often ask myself, what would I have to feel if I had to accept that I’m not great at this? I actually suck at this. It’s usually that I don’t want to feel that. I will beat myself up to avoid having to feel the feelings that I’m not doing it right. That has been a gateway for me, like a little way to access the self-compassion piece. It’s usually because I don’t want to feel something. And that, for me, has been really helpful. 

I think that when you’re talking about this perceived failure—because that’s what it is. It’s a perceived failure, like we’re all a failure compared to the person who’s a little bit further ahead of us—what is it that you don’t want to feel?

Ethan: It’s a tough question. You’ve caught me speechless, which is rare for me. I’m glad you’re doing video because otherwise, this would be a very boring section of the podcast. For me, the failing piece isn’t as much of an issue. It was before. I don’t feel like I’ve failed. In fact, I feel like I’m living more into where I’m supposed to be in my values. I think for me, the discomfort falls around being vulnerable and not in control. I think those are two areas that I really struggle with.

I always say, sometimes I feel like I’m naked in a sandstorm. That’s how I feel. That’s the last thing you want to be. Well, you don’t want to be in a sandstorm—not naked, but naked in a sandstorm—you don’t want to see me naked at all. That’s the bottom line. No nudity from Ethan. But regardless, you’re probably alone in the sandstorm. You feel the stinging and all of that. No, I’m just saying that’s what I picture it feels like. 

Kimberley: Yeah, it’s an ouch. That feels like an ouch.

Ethan: It feels like a big ouch. I think that vulnerability, for me, is scary. I’m not good at showing vulnerability. Meaning, I have no problem within our community. I’ll talk about it all day long. I’ll talk about what happened yesterday or the day before. I’ll be vulnerable. But for people who don’t know me, I struggle with it. 

Kimberley: Me too.

Ethan: Yeah. We all have our public faces. But vulnerability scares me in terms of being a human being, being fallible, and not being able to live up to expectations. What if I have to say I can’t today? Or I’m just not there right now and not in control of things that scare me.

Those feelings, I think, have really thrown me a bit more than usual, again. I keep saying this because things feel more at stake, and they’re not, but I feel like I have so much more to live for. That’s not saying that I didn’t feel like I didn’t have a reason to live before. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m simply saying, dreams come true, and how lucky am I? But when dreams come true with OCD, it latches onto the things we care about most and then says, “That’s going to be taken away from you. Here are all the things you have to do to protect that thing.” I think it’d been a long time since I’d really faced that. 

To answer your question in short, I think, for me, vulnerability and uncertainty around what I can’t control, impacting the things that I care about most, are scary.

Kimberley: I resonate so much with what you’re saying. I always explain to my eating disorder clients, “When you have an eating disorder and you hit your goal weight, you would think we would celebrate and be like, ‘Okay, I hit it. I’m good now.’” But now there’s the anxiety that you’re going to go backwards. Even though you’ve hit this ridiculous goal, this unhealthy goal, the anxiety is as high as it ever was because the fear of losing what you’ve got is terrifying. I think that’s so true for so many people.

And I do agree with you. I think that we do engage in a lot of self-criticism because it feels safer than the vulnerability, the loss of control, or whatever that we have to feel. What has been helpful for you in moving back towards compassion? I know you said it’s like an up-and-down journey, and we’re all figuring this out as we go. What’s been helpful for you?

Ethan: A couple of things. I think it’s worth talking about, or at least bringing up this idea of core fear. I’ve done some recent core fear work, just trying to determine, at the root of everything, what is my core fear? For me, it comes down to suffering. I’m afraid of suffering. I’m not afraid of dying; I’m afraid of suffering. I’m afraid of my entire life having to be focused on health and disease because that’s what living with OCD when I was really sick was about. It’s all I focused on. So, I’m so terrified of my life suddenly being refocused on that. 

Even if I did come down with something awful, it doesn’t mean that my life has to solely focus on that thing. But in my mind, my core fear is, what if I have to move away from these values that I’m looking at right now and face something different? That scares the crap out of me. 

The first thing around that core fear is the willingness to let that be there and give myself compassion and grace, and what does that look like, which is a lot of things. This fear—this new fear and anxiety—hasn't stopped me from moving forward in any way, but it sure has made it a little bit more uncomfortable and taken a little bit of the joy out of it. That’s where I felt like I needed to put on a second warrior helmet and fight instead of not resisting, opening myself up, and being willing to be naked in a sandstorm. 

One of the things that I’ve learned most about is, as a business owner yourself, and if you’re a workaholic, setting boundaries in self-care is really hard. I didn’t really connect until this year the connection, the correlation between self-care and self-compassion. If I don’t have self-compassion, I won’t allow myself to give myself self-care. I won’t. I won’t do it because I don’t deserve it.

There’s a very big difference between time off, not working, sleeping, but then actually taking care of yourself. It’s three different things. There’s working, there’s not working, and then there’s self-care. I didn’t know that either. It was like, “Well, I didn’t work tonight.” Well, that’s not necessarily self-care. You just weren’t in a meeting, or you weren’t working on something. Self-care is proactive. It’s purposeful. It’s intentional. 

Giving myself permission to say no to things, even at the risk of my own reputation, because I feel like saying no is a big bad word, because that shows that I can’t handle everything at once, Kim. I can’t do it all. And that is a no-no for me. Like, no, no, no, everybody needs to believe that you can do everything everywhere all at once, which was a movie. That’s the biggest piece of it. 

Recently, I was able to employ some self-care where it was needed at the risk of the optic seeming. I felt like, "Here I am, world. I’m weak, and I can’t handle it anymore." That’s what I feel like is on the other end. 

I was sick, and I had been traveling every week since the end of March. I don’t sleep very well. I just don’t. When I’m going from bed to bed, I really don’t sleep well. I had been in seven or eight cities in seven or eight weeks. I had been home for 24 hours. This was only three weeks ago, and I was about to head out on my last trip, and the meeting that I was going for, the primary reason, got canceled, not by me. I was still going to meet with people that I love and enjoy. I woke up the day before I was traveling, and I was sick. I was like, “Oh man, do I still go?” The big reason was off the table, but there were still many important reasons to go, but I was exhausted. I was tired. I was sick. My body was saying, “Enough.” I had enough insight to say, I’m not avoiding this. This isn’t anxiety. This is like straight up. 

When I texted the team—this is around work and things that I value—I was like, “I’m not coming.” I said, “I’m not coming.” They responded, “We totally understand. Take care of yourself.” And what I read was, “You weak ass bastard. You should suck it up and come here, because that’s what I would have done. Why are you being so lame and lazy?” That is what I read. This is just an instance of what I generally feel if I can’t live up to an expectation. I always put these non-human pressures on myself. 

But making this choice, within two days, I was able to reset intentionally. This doesn’t mean I’m going to go to bed and avoid life. I rested for a day because I needed to sleep to get better. But the next few days were filled with value-driven decisions and choices and walks and exercising and getting back on nutrition and drinking lots of water and spending quality time with people that I care about, and my body and brain just saying, “You need a moment.” Within a couple of days, everything changed. My OCD quickly dropped back down to baseline. My anxiety quickly dropped back down. I had insight and objectivity. 

When I went back to work later that week—I work from home—I was way more effective and efficient. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that. It was very, very hard to give myself self-compassion around making that simple decision that everybody was okay with.

Kimberley: I always say my favorite saying is, “I’m sorry, but I’m at capacity right now.” That has changed my life because it’s true. It’s not even a lie. I’m constantly at capacity, and I find that people do really get it. But for me to say that once upon a time, I feel this. When I was sick, the same thing. I’m going to think I’m a total nutcase if I keep saying no to these people. But that is my go-to sentence, “I’m at capacity right now,” and it’s been so helpful. 

Ethan: In max bandwidth. 

Kimberley: Yes. What I think is interesting too is I think for those who have been through recovery and have learned not to do avoidant behaviors and have learned not to do compulsions, saying “I need a break” feels like you’ve broken the rules of ERP. They’re different things.

Ethan: You hit them down. I was literally going to say that. It also felt when I made that decision that it felt old history to me, like old Ethan, pre-getting better. I make the joke. It was true. I killed my grandfather like 20 times while he was still alive. Grandpa died. I can’t come to the thing. I can’t travel. I can’t do the thing. This was early 2000s, but I had a fake obituary that I put into Photoshop. I would just change the date so I can email it to them later and be like, it really happened. I would do this. It’s like, here was a reason. It was 100% valid. Nobody questioned it. It was not based on OCD. It was a value-driven decision, and it felt so icky. My body felt like I might as well have sent a fake obituary to these people about the fake death of my grandfather. It felt like that. So, I wholeheartedly agree with you.

Kimberley: I think it’s so important that we acknowledge that post-recovery or during recovery is that saying acts of compassion sometimes will feel like and sound like they’re compulsions when they’re actually not. 

Ethan: That’s such a great point. I totally agree with you.

Kimberley: They’re actually like, I am actually at capacity. Or the expectation was so large, which for you, it sounds like it is for me too—the expectation was so large, I can’t meet that either. That sucks. It’s not fun. 

Ethan: No, it’s not. It’s not because, I mean, there’s just these scales that we weigh ourselves on and what we think we can account for. I mean, the pressure that we put on ourselves. And that’s why, like the constant practice of self-compassion, the constant practice of being mindful and mindfulness, this constant idea of-- I mean, I always forget the exact thing, but you always say, I strive to be a B- or C+. I can never remember if it’s a B- or C+, but--

Kimberley: B-.

Ethan: B-. Okay, cool. 

Kimberley: C+ if you really need it.

Ethan: Yeah. To this day, I heard that 10 years ago, and I still struggle with that saying because I’m like, I don’t even know that I can verbally say it. Like, I want to be a B... okay, that’s good enough. Because it sounds terrifying. It’s like, “No, I want to be an A+ at everything I do.” 

I know we’re closing in on time. One of the things I just wanted to say is thank you not only for being an amazing human being, an amazing advocate, an amazing clinician, and an okay mom, as we talked about.

Kimberley: Facts. #facts.

Ethan: But part of the reason I love advocating is I really didn’t come on here to share a specific point or get something across that I felt was important. I think it’s important as an advocate figure for somebody who doesn’t like transparency or vulnerability to be as transparent and vulnerable as possible and let people see a window into somebody that they may look at and go, “That person doesn’t struggle ever. I want to be like that. I see him every week on whatever, and he’s got it taken care of. Even when it’s hard, it isn’t that hard.” 

For me, being able to come on and give a window into Ethan in the last six months is so crucial and important. I want to thank you for letting me be here and share a little bit about my own life and where I met the goods and the bads. I wouldn’t trade any of it, but I appreciate you.

Kimberley: No, thank you. I so appreciate that because it is an up-and-down journey and we’re all figuring it out, myself included. You could have interviewed me and I could have done similar things. Like here are the ways that I suck and really struggle with self-compassion. Here are the times where I’ve completely forgotten about it as a skill until my therapist is like, “Uh, you wrote this book about this thing that you might want to practice a little more of.” I think that it’s validating to hear that learning it once is not all you need; it is a constant practice.

Ethan: Yeah, it definitely is. Self-compassion is, to me, one of the most important skills and tools that we have at our disposal. It doesn’t matter if you have a mental health issue or not. It’s just an amazing way of life. I think I’ll always be a student of it. It still feels like Japanese backwards sometimes. But I’m a lot better at putting my hand-- well, my heart’s on that side, but putting my hand in my heart, and letting myself feel and be there for myself.

I never mind. I’m a huge, staunch advocate of silver linings. I’ve said this a million times, and I’ll always say, having been on the sidelines of life and not being able to participate, when life gets hard and stressful, deep down, I still have gratitude toward it because that means I’m actually living and participating. Even when things feel crappy or whatever, I know there’ll be a lesson from it. I know good things will come of it.

I try to think of those things as they're happening. It’s meaningful to me because it gives me insight and lets me know that there’ll be a lesson down the road. I don’t know if it’ll pay itself back tomorrow or in 10 years, but someday I’ll be able to look at that and be like, “Well, I got to reintroduce myself to self-compassion. I got to go on Kim Quinlan’s podcast, Your Anxiety Toolkit, and be able to talk to folks about my experience.” While I didn’t quite enjoy it, it was a life experience, and it was totally worth it for these reasons. Now I get to turn my pain into my purpose. I think that’s really cool.

Kimberley: Yeah, I do too. I loved how you said before that moving home felt like it was going backwards, but it was actually going completely forward. I think that is the reality of life. You just don’t know until later what it’s all about. I’m so grateful for you being on the show. Thank you so much for coming on again.

Ethan: Well, thanks for having me, and we’ll do one in another 200 episodes.

Kimberley: Yes, let’s do it.

Ethan: Okay.

Nov 24, 2023

Today, we are going to talk about what to do when feeling hopeless. Today’s episode was actually inspired by one of our amazing Your Anxiety Toolkit podcast listeners. They wrote in and asked a question about hopelessness, and I thought it was so important and so relevant in today’s day, with the news being scary and everybody struggling and still readjusting to COVID, mental health, and mental illnesses at an all-time high. I really felt that this was important for us to talk about. So, let’s do this together. We’re going to take it step by step, and we’re going to do it with a whole lot of self-compassion. So let’s talk about what to do when feeling hopeless.

 Alright folks, here is the question that was posed to me. It goes like this:

“I have been really struggling with hopelessness lately. It feels like my life has no real meaning, and I feel pretty aimless. The things in my life that I want to improve need so much work to improve, such as career, relationship, family stuff. And I have large parts that are out of my control, which feels pretty discouraging despite lots of effort to improve them. I’m working to accept these feelings and trying to stay out of rumination, but it does feel hopeless a lot of the time. What are you telling folks who are in a similar position?”

Now, number one, I so resonate with this question. As a clinician, a human, a mom, and someone with a chronic illness, I hear you in this question, and I don’t think you’re alone. In fact, I am a member of a pretty large online group of therapists, and I wanted to do my homework for today. So I left the question, saying, when you have clients who are experiencing hopelessness and they’re feeling stuck, what do you say? A lot of them were coming with these such humble responses of saying, “To be honest, I tell them the truth, which is I don’t know the answer. I too struggle with this.” Or they’ll say, “I often let them know that they’re not alone in this and that this is such something that collectively we’re all going through.” And I loved that they were so real and dropped into reality on the truth of this, the pain of this, and the confusion of this topic. 

Now, in addition to that, there were also some amazing pieces of advice, and some of them I really agreed with. I’m going to include them here when we go through specifically some tools that you can use to help you when you’re struggling with this feeling of hopelessness or feeling like what’s the point and feeling like there’s no meaning to life. 

Let’s talk about it. Number one—let me just be real with you—is I too have struggled with this. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that I actually sought out therapy for this specific issue. I looked around my life, and I have these two beautiful children, I have two businesses and a career that I love, and I still felt hopeless. I still felt like this sense of what’s the point? What’s the meaning of all this? I’m working my butt off, trying to manage all the things. What is the real point? It felt a little like an existential crisis, to be honest. 

I love that this person reached out to ask this question. I do encourage you all, if you’re struggling with this and navigating this, do go and seek therapy. I’m going to be giving you some tools on how to manage this today, but in no way do I think that my solutions are going to be exactly what you need to hear. There may be some of them that are super helpful for you, but I strongly encourage you to go and navigate them on your own. 

Through exploring this, I found that there were some unmet needs that I was not paying attention to. I found that I was grieving living in a country that’s not my home country. So many parts of it were also related to my chronic illness. And so it was very personal work, and I encourage you too to do that personal work. 

But, given that we’re here today, I also want to give you some strategies, skills, and direction if you too are wondering what to do when feeling hopeless. Let’s do this together.

What Do To When Feeling Hopeless


The first thing here is I love that the person who wrote this said, “I’m working at accepting the feelings.” I think that that is probably the biggest key here, which is not accepting that they’ll be there forever but instead accepting that they’re here right now and reminding yourself that they’re temporary. 


Hopelessness, like any other emotion, is a temporary emotion. It will rise and fall, rise and fall, and rise and fall. It doesn’t mean that you’ll always feel this way. What we can do is, while we’re accepting it, I often ask my patients, “As you accept it, let’s also be very curious about any resistance you have in your body as you practice accepting.” 

I’ve had clients who’ve sat on the couch of my office and said, “No, no, I’m accepting it.” But every part of their body is clenched up. Every part of their face is resistant. They’re obviously accepting that it is here, but also trying to push against it, also trying not to feel it. Yes, accepting feelings is important, but are you creating a safe place for that emotion to rise and fall within you? 

Here, we can check in with our bodies. Where is this discomfort in my body? Where am I holding tension around it? Is there a way I can soften around this experience of hopelessness first? And that can be so important as we’re navigating hopelessness and finding meaning in our lives. 


The next thing I’m going to encourage you to do is first honor just how hard things are for you. Often, that might be just a moment of saying, “This is really hard for me. Absolutely. This is very hard for me.” 


The next piece here is we want to offer as much compassion as we can. We want to nurture the fact that you’re going through an incredibly hard thing or things. You’re trying so hard. You’re exhausted. You’re feeling lost. You might even be feeling like, “I don’t even know which direction I’m going. I’m just going and getting through the day.” We want to create as much compassion as we can for that. 

Now, if you are new to the work of self-compassion, there are so many resources online. We have a meditation vault with tons of different meditations for self-compassion at CBT School. They’re there for you if you’re really wanting to embark on this practice. We’ve also got tons of other episodes of Your Anxiety Toolkit on self-compassion as well. 


The next thing I want you to think about here is keep an eye on how you’re doing things throughout the day. I’ll tell you a story. Actually, as I did this work for myself when I went into therapy, I looked at my schedule every morning, and all I could see was just a whole bunch of things I had to do. It was just like a list of things that I had to do. It felt like trash things I had to do, even though many of them were joyful things that I love doing and that I’ve signed up to do. But what I noticed was I was looking at the day as if it was just a mountain of chores instead of staying very present and mindful, doing one thing at a time, and practicing non-judgment, curiosity, and kindness as I do those things. 


What I’m going to encourage you to do is break things down into small, doable steps. When you look at your life and you think, oh my goodness, in the case of this question of relationships, career, work—when you look at all of that, it can become so overwhelming. Maybe sit down, get a notepad, and just pick one thing you want to work on right now, one thing that you can do from a place of wisdom and being effective and kind, and just focus on seeing if you can achieve and accomplish that one thing. Chances are, you might already be doing that, but there’s a piece that you’ve missed, and I can guarantee you’ve missed it—you’ve forgotten to celebrate the fact that you got a small step done. 

Often, when things feel so huge, we finish something, and then we just move on to the next thing that we have to do. And that’s when things do feel like there’s no meaning, there’s no point to this life. We’re just in the motions, going with the cycles. We forget to celebrate, validate, and recognize the accomplishments that we’ve made. We forget to go, “Yeah, that’s a big deal. Good for you, you did that,” and take that time to celebrate it. Because again, as I said to you, I was looking at my life going, “Everything looks mostly pretty good. I’ve got this pretty severe chronic illness, but otherwise, things are going well.” But I realized I was just doing thing after thing after thing and after thing and not stopping to go, “Wow, good job. You’re taking care of your kids. Great job, you did something for yourself today,” or “Wow, you accomplished that one thing, and that was really hard.” We’ve got to celebrate our wins. 


The next piece of that is, often, people who get stuck in the day-to-day feeling like it’s Groundhog’s Day and there’s no real point, that’s because they’re comparing their experience to somebody else’s. They’re comparing their day-to-day with someone on social media who has made it look beautiful, they’ve got beautiful filters on, and everything looks really great. We’re making a lot of comparisons between how they’re doing and how we’re doing. I want to encourage you, please do not compare your wins and struggles to other people’s wins and struggles. That is a recipe for feeling hopeless, it’s a recipe for feeling depressed, and it’s a recipe for feeling like you’re never going to be enough. It’s so important. 


The next thing I want you to do is catch yourself in the distorted thinking. Now, here is something you must take away from today—depression commonly has three themes. The first one is hopelessness—feeling like there is no hope. The second one is helplessness, feeling like no one can help you, that there’s no point, there’s no one can help you with your problem. And the last one is worthlessness, which is “I have no value.” 

These three themes show up in our thinking and in our cognitions. I’ve done episodes in the past where I’d say depression is a liar. It tells lies all day. If you aren’t able to detect and correct those lies, you’re going to start believing them. Thoughts that are just depressive thoughts will start to become beliefs. Once they become beliefs, you start acting them out in many ways in your life.

 What we want to do when we’re treating depression in therapy is actually slow down and be very mindful of your thoughts about the world, your thoughts about yourself, and your thoughts about your future. Look at where the distorted thoughts are and correct them. 

We have a course on called Overcoming Depression, and the whole middle section of that course is teaching you how to identify cognitive distortions or errors in thinking and how to correct them. And that is a crucial part of managing depression. Because depression tells us lies all day. It tells us, “There’s no hope. You’re not doing good enough. You’re not good. There’s no hope for you. No one can help you. You’re just a piece of trash. You’re a loser. It should be easy. Why is it so hard for you?” It might even say, “Look at you, you’ve got A, B, and C, and other people have it so much worse than you. So, what’s your problem?” It just tells you all of these judgmental, horrible, mean things that are not true. 

What we can do and what we do in the course, Overcoming Depression, is we identify those thoughts. We understand and acknowledge the presence of them. We maybe take a little look into what they’re trying to get to, what they’re trying to say. And then we work at coming up with alternative thoughts that feel helpful, compassionate, effective, and true.

One of the tools we use in overcoming depression is we pretend that we’re in a court of law, and we have this scene where we say, “Okay, if you were to bring your depressive thoughts to a court of law, would the jury agree or disagree? Would the judge throw your case out?” Often, what happens is we have thoughts. Like, minimizing the positive is one kind of distorted thought we go through. There are many different types of distorted thoughts, but let’s say minimizing the positive. Let’s say you did something positive and you say, “No. I know I completed that, but it should have been easier,” or “I should have done it faster,” or “It shouldn’t have been that difficult.” That’s minimizing the positive.

We would go, “Okay, if we were to take that to court, if we were to take that claim to court, what would the jury and what would the judge say?” The judge would not agree with that. They would say, “No, you completed the thing, and it’s okay that it’s hard. I’m tossing this out of the court. You’re wasting my time.” And so we want to be able to identify that and look at another example being a labeling distorted thought, like, “You’re a loser. You should be doing better.”

In a court of law, the jury would look at the evidence and go, “No, it looks like you’re handling a lot right now. It looks like you’re handling many things. It makes sense that you feel that way, but it looks like you have many pieces of evidence to show that you’re not a loser. Let’s throw the case out. Case dismissed.” We want to make sure you’re doing that because the chances are, as you’re going through these hard things, as you’re navigating the day, you’re forgetting to check the facts. We’ve got to check the facts in depression. It’s so important.


The next thing we have to do is remind yourself that you can do hard things. When the world feels like it’s a mountain of just chores and things in check boxes and to-do’s, we often just get overwhelmed with it, and it’s like, “I can’t do this.” I will say to you, when I actually was struggling the most with my chronic illness and I did get therapy for this, the thought we identified the most was this repetitive, consistent, nagging thought, “I can’t do this.” I probably thought “I can’t do this” about 150 times a day, minimum. Even as I was doing things, I was having the thought, “I can’t do these things.” As I was taking an MRI or helping my kids or working on my business—even as I was doing them, I was telling myself, “You can’t do this,” as I was doing them, which again shows how our thinking can really distort and make things so much worse if we don’t catch them. 

We have to remind ourselves we can do hard things. We’re already doing hard things. That baby steps at a time can make small progress. There’s no race. There’s no finish line. We’re not here to beat other people or compare ourselves to other people’s timelines. This is our timeline, and we’re going to let it take as long as it needs. We’re going to be gentle. We’re just going to do one hard thing at a time. 


Another thing I want you to remember here when you’re struggling with hopelessness is to find support. When we feel hopeless, we feel alone. When we feel hopeless, we feel isolated. We feel like we’re the only one going through this. But there are so many people who are experiencing this. Sometimes it’s just saying, “This is a hard season for me.” You’d be shocked at how many other people come out and go, “Yeah, me too.” 

So find support in others who are in the thick of it, who are also trying to work on hopelessness, what’s the real meaning, and so forth. 


And then the last piece here that I think is the foundation of this work is, make sure you’re implementing pleasurable activities in your day. When somebody has depression and hopelessness, what we often do in therapy, and we do this in Overcoming Depression, the course as well, is we look at your day, and often people with depression do not schedule pleasure. They do not input pleasurable, value-driven exercises into their day because depression often will say, “What’s the point? Don’t even bother. You used to like doing painting, but what’s the point? You’re not going to enjoy it, so don’t do it,” or “You’re not good. You’re never going to be good at it, so don’t do it.” 

As we take pleasure out of our lives, it adds to this feeling of what is the meaning because the truth is, the meaning of life, who knows what it truly is? It’s different for every person. But a big piece of you finding what’s meaningful to you is acting according to your values and doing the things that feel lovely, nourishing, and yummy to you. My guess is, you’re not doing a lot of that. You’re not doing a lot of yummy, nourishing, pleasurable, fun activities. 

I get it, depression isn’t going to let you have all the fun. It’s not going to let you have a 10 out of 10 fun. But even if we get a 2 out of 10 pleasure or 4 out of 10 pleasure, let’s take it. Let’s do it even just to get the 4 out of 10 pleasure, 10 being the highest level of pleasure. Try not to rid yourself of activities that used to bring you joy.

 It’s also a big piece here when we find meaning. This is a really big topic in the field of therapy and psychotherapy. There is a beautiful book, which I would encourage you to read, called Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s by Viktor Frankl. It was one of the first books that were recommended in my master’s degree as I was training to become a therapist. It will bring a beautiful sense of understanding of making meaning in your life, and hopefully would be a beautiful supplement to the work that we’re doing here, and a compliment to you, finding what’s meaningful to you. Sometimes it means we have to reshuffle our lives a little bit. 

 When I did this work personally, I had to really go, “Okay, you’re working too much. I know it’s scary to slow down, but you’re lost. You’ve lost yourself. You’re going to have to slow down.” Or it might be, “Wow, your schedule is too full with just appointments and soccer practice and swim lessons and all the things. We’re going to have to slow down and have a little more fun. Play a little more. Sit a little more. Read a little more. Be with your family. Actually, be with them instead of just going through the motions.” We can’t get caught up in the day-to-day and not implement that pleasurable thing.

 And then the last part of that is, I’m going to offer to you one sort of final idea for what to do when feeling hopeless, and it is, please try to stop fixing yourself all the time. In my experience as a clinician, the people who often do get hopeless and helpless and feel depressed are the ones who constantly tell themselves they need to be more, need to be better, that something has to change, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. I want to offer to you that there is nothing wrong with you, even if you’re struggling with a mental illness right now. Try to catch your constant need to fix yourself. Try to just live. Identify what your values are and see if you can get your behaviors and life to line up with those. 

This striving that we have today in our pop culture of constantly having to be better, constantly having to have self-help books and being better, that is exhausting, and that is not the meaning of life. The meaning of life for me now that I’ve done the work isn’t the grand things and achievements. The meaning of life is actually quite silly and simple. In comparison, it’s sitting in the sunlight and letting the sun hit my face. It’s just hearing a laugh of my child. Nothing huge, doesn’t need to require massive wins. It might be just holding space for my emotions, honoring my needs, identifying my unmet needs, and doing what I can to meet those. 

I’m not here to tell you in any way that I know what the meaning of your life is. I’m just telling you what the meaning of mine is. But I encourage you to enter this practice, to leave today, doing this as kindly, as gently, and as respectfully and compassionately as you can.

 You’re going through a hard season. These are hard times. These are confusing times. I hope that with little baby steps, you changing your perspective and giving yourself the opportunity to just do one thing at a time and slow it all down will be helpful for you. 

Have a wonderful day. If you’re wanting any of the resources that we have listed today, you can check the show notes, or you can also go to and learn more about our online resources there. 

Have a wonderful day, everybody.

Nov 17, 2023

Kimberley: Welcome, everybody. This is a very exciting episode. I know I’m going to learn so much. Today, we have Caitlin Pinciotti and Shala Nicely, and we’re talking about when OCD and PTSD collide and intertwine and how that plays out. This is actually a topic I think we need to talk about more.

When OCD and PTSD Collide (with Shala Nicely & Caitlin Pinciotti)

Welcome, Caitlin, and welcome, Shala.

Caitlin: Thank you.

Shala: Thanks.

Kimberley: Okay. Let’s first do a little introduction. Caitlin, would you like to go first introducing yourself?

Caitlin: Sure thing. I’m Caitlin Pinciotti. I’m a licensed clinical psychologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. I also serve as a co-chair for the IOCDF Trauma and PTSD and OCD SIG. If people are interested in that special interest group as well, that’s something that’s available and up and running now.

Most of my research specifically focuses on OCD, trauma, and PTSD, and particularly the overlap of these things. That’s been sort of my focus for the last several years. I’m excited to be here and talk more about this topic.

Kimberley: Thank you. You’re doing amazing work. I’ve loved being a part of just watching all of this great research that you’re doing. Shala, would you like to introduce yourself?

Shala: Yes. I’m Shala Nicely. I am a licensed professional counselor, and I specialize in the treatment of OCD and related disorders. I am the author of Is Fred in the Refrigerator?: Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life, which is my story, and then co-author with Jon Hershfield of Everyday Mindfulness for OCD: Tips, Tricks, and Skills for Living Joyfully. I also produce the Shoulders Back! newsletter. It has tips and resources for taming OCD.

Kimberley: Shoulders Back! was actually the inspiration for this episode. Shala, you recently wrote an article about post-traumatic OCD or how PTSD and OCD collide. Can you tell us about your story, particularly going back to, I think you mentioned, May 2020, and what brought you to write that article?

Shala: Sure, and thank you very much for having Caitlin and me on today because I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this and to get more information out in the world about this intertwined combination of PTSD and OCD. In May of 2020, I moved to a new house, the house that I’m in now. Of course, we had just started the pandemic, and so everybody was working at home, including me. The house that I moved into was in a brand new neighborhood.

While the houses on this side of me were completed, the houses behind me and on that side were not completed. I didn’t think anything of that when I moved in. But what I moved into was a situation where I was in a construction zone all the time. I was working at home, so there was no escape from it.

One day I was walking behind my house, where most of the houses were in the process of being built and there were no sidewalks. As I was walking down the street, I saw, down at the end of the street, a big forklift come down the street where I was walking with my two little dogs backwards at a really high rate of speed, and the forklift driver seemed to be looking that way, and he was going that way. It happened so fast because he was going so quickly that all of a sudden I realized he was going to hit us, my dogs and me, and there was no place for us to go because we were on the road because there was nowhere else for us to be. I screamed bloody murder, and he heard me. I mean, that’s how loud I screamed, and he stopped. That was not all that pleasant. I was upset. He was not happy. But we moved on. But my brain didn’t move on. 

After that incident, what I noticed was I was becoming really hypervigilant in my own house and finding the construction equipment. If I go outside, I tense up just knowing that construction equipment is there. Over time, my sleep started becoming disturbed. I started to have flashbacks and what I call flash-forwards, where I would think about all these horrible things that could happen to me that hadn’t happened to me yet but could. I’d get lost in these violent fantasies of what might happen and what I need to do to prevent that. 

I realized that I seemed to be developing symptoms of PTSD. This is where being a therapist was actually quite helpful because I pulled the DSM open one night and I started going through symptoms of PTSD. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I think I have PTSD.” 

I think what happened, because having a forklift driver almost hit you, doesn’t seem like that could possibly cause PTSD. But if you look at my history, I think that created a link in my brain to an accident I was in when I was four where I did almost die, which is when my mom and I were standing on the side of a road, about to cross. We were going to go between two parked cars. My mom and I stepped between two parked cars, and there was a man driving down the road who was legally blind, and he mistook the line of parked cars where we were standing as moving traffic. He plowed into the end of all the parked cars, which of course made them accordion in, and my mom and I were in the middle of that. I was very seriously injured and probably almost died. My mom was, too. Several months in the hospital, all of that. 

Of course, at that point—that was 1975—there was no PTSD, because I think— Caitlin, you can correct me—it didn’t become a diagnosis until 1980. I have had symptoms—small, low-level symptoms of PTSD probably on and off most of my life, but so low-level, not diagnosable, and not really causing any sort of problems. But I think what happened in my head was that when that forklift almost hit me, it made my brain think, “Oh my gosh, we’re in that situation again,” because the forklift was huge. It was the same scale to me as an adult as that car that I was crushed between was when I was four. I think my brain just got confused. Because I was stuck with this construction equipment all day long and I didn’t get any break from it, it just made my brain think more and more and more, “Boy, we are really in danger.” Our lives are basically threatened all the time. 

That began my journey of figuring out what was going on with me and then also trying to understand why my OCD seemed to be getting worse and jumping in to help because I seemed to get all these compulsions that were designed to keep me safe from this construction equipment. It created a process where I was trying to figure out, "What is this? I’ve got both PTSD now, I’ve got OCD flaring up, how do I deal with this? What do I do?"

The reason why I wanted to write the article for Shoulders Back! and why I asked Caitlin to write it with me was because there just isn’t a lot of information out there about this combination where people have PTSD or some sort of trauma, and then the OCD jumps in to help. Now you’ve got a combination of disorders where you’ve got trauma or PTSD and OCD, and they’re merging together to try to protect you. That’s what they think they’re doing. They’re trying to help you stay safe, but really, what they’re doing is they’re making your life smaller and smaller and smaller. 

I wanted to write this article for Shoulders Back! to let people know about my experience so that other people going through this aren’t alone. I wanted to ask Caitlin to write it with me because I wanted an expert in this to talk about what it is, how we treat it, what hope do we have for people who are experiencing this going forward.


Kimberley: Thank you for sharing that. I do encourage people; I’ll link in the show notes if they want to go and read the article as well. Caitlin, from a clinical perspective, what was going on for Shala? Can you break down the differences between OCD and PTSD and what’s happening to her?

Caitlin: Sure. First, I want to start by thanking Shala again for sharing that story. I know you and I talked about this one-on-one, but I think really sharing personal stories like that obviously involves a lot of courage and vulnerability. It’s just so helpful for people to hear examples and to really resonate with, “Wow, maybe I’m not so different or so alone. I thought I was the only one who had experiences like this.” I just want to publicly thank you again for writing that blog and being willing to share these really horrible experiences that you had. 

In terms of how we would look at this clinically, it’s not uncommon for people to, like Shala described, experience trauma and have these low-level symptoms for a while that don’t really emerge or don’t really reach the threshold of being diagnosable. This can happen, for example, with veterans who return home from war, and it might not be until decades later that they have some sort of significant life event or change. Maybe they’ve retired, or they’re experiencing more stress, or maybe, like Shala, they're experiencing another trauma, and it just brings everything up. This kind of delayed onset of PTSD is, for sure, not abnormal. 

In this case, it sounds like, just like Shala described, that her OCD really latched onto the trauma, that she had these experiences that reinforced each other. Right now, I’ve had two experiences where being around moving vehicles has been really dangerous for me.

Just like you said, I think you did such a beautiful job of saying that the OCD and PTSD colluded in a way to keep you “safe.” That’s the function of it. But of course, we know that those things go to the extreme and can make our lives very small and very distressing. 

What Shala described about using these compulsions to try to prevent future trauma is something that we see a lot in people who have comorbid OCD and PTSD. We’re doing some research now on the different ways that OCD and trauma can intersect. And that’s something that keeps coming up as people say, “I engaged in these compulsions as a way to try to prevent the trauma from happening to me again or happening to someone else. Or maybe my compulsions gave me a sense of control, predictability, or certainty about something related to the trauma.” This kind of presentation of OCD sort of functioning as protection against trauma or coping with past trauma as well is really common.


Kimberley: Would you share a little bit about the statistics between OCD and PTSD and the overlap?

Caitlin: Absolutely. I’m excited to share this too, because so much of this work is so recent, and I’m hopeful that it’s really going to transform the way that we see the relationships between OCD and PTSD. We know that around 60% of people who have comorbid OCD and PTSD tend to have an experience where PTSD comes first or at the same time, and the OCD comes later. This is sort of that post-traumatic OCD presentation that we’re talking about and that Shala talked about in her article. 

For folks who have this presentation where the PTSD comes first and then the OCD comes along afterwards, unfortunately, we see that those folks tend to have more severe obsessions, more severe compulsions. They’re more likely to struggle with suicidality or to have comorbid agoraphobia or panic disorders. Generally speaking, we see a more severe presentation when the OCD comes after the PTSD and trauma, which is likely indicative of what we’re discussing, which is that when the OCD develops as a way to cope with trauma, it takes on a mind of its own and can be really severe because it’s serving multiple functions in that way.

What we’ve been finding in our recent research—and if folks want to participate, the study will still be active for the next month; we’re going to end it at the end of the year, the OCD and Trauma Overlap Study—what we’re finding is that of the folks who’ve participated in the study, 85% of them feel like there’s some sort of overlap between their OCD and trauma. Of course, there are lots of different ways that OCD and trauma can overlap. 

I published a paper previously where we found that about 45% of people with severe OCD in a residential program felt that a traumatic or stressful event was the direct cause of their OCD on setting. But beyond that, we know that OCD and trauma can intersect in terms of the content of obsessions, the function of compulsions, as we’ve been talking about here, core fears. Some folks describe this, and Shala described this to this, like cyclical relationship where when one thing gets triggered, the other thing gets triggered too. 

This is really where a lot of the research is focusing on now, is how do these things intersect, how often do they intersect, and what does that really look like for people?

Kimberley: Thanks. I found in my practice, for people who have had a traumatic event, as exactly what happened to Shala, and I actually would love for both of you maybe to give some other examples of how this looks for people and how it may be experienced, is let’s say the person that was involved in the traumatic event or that place that the traumatic event was recent that recently was revisited just like Shala. Some of them go to doing safety behaviors around that person, place, or event, or they might just notice an uptick in their compulsions that may have completely nothing to do with that. Shala, can you explain a little bit about how you differentiated between what are PTSD symptoms versus OCD, or do you consider them very, very similar? Can you give some insight into that?


Shala: Sure. I’ll give some examples of the symptoms of OCD that developed after this PTSD developed, but it’s all post-traumatic OCDs. I consider it to be different from PTSD, but it is merged with PTSD because it’s only there because the PTSD is there. 

For instance, I developed a lot of checking behaviors around the doors to my house—staring, touching, not able to just look once before I go to bed, had to be positively sure the doors were locked, which, as somebody who does this for a living, who helps people stop doing these compulsions, created a decent amount of shame for me too, as I’m doing these compulsions and saying, “Why am I not taking my own advice here? Why am I getting stuck doing this?” 

But my OCD thought that the construction equipment was outside; we’re inside. We need to make sure it stays outside. The only way we do that is to make sure the door stays locked, which is ridiculous. It’s not as if a forklift is going to drive through my front door. As typical with OCD, the compulsions don’t make a lot of sense, but there’s a loose link there.

Another compulsion that I realized after a time was probably linked with PTSD is my people-pleasing, which I’ve always struggled with. In fact, Kimberley, you and I have done another podcast about people-pleasing, something I’ve worked really hard on over the years, but it really accelerated after this. I eventually figured out that that was a compulsion to keep people liking me so that they wouldn’t attack me. That can be an OCD compulsion all by itself, but it was functioning to help the PTSD. 

Those would be two examples of compulsions that could be OCD compulsions on their own, but they would not have been there had the PTSD not been there.

Kimberley: Caitlin, do you want to add anything about that from symptoms or how it might look and be experienced?

Caitlin: Sure, yeah. I think it’s spot on that there’s this element of separation that we can piece apart. This feels a little bit more like OCD; this feels a little bit more like PTSD, but ultimately they’re the same thing, or it’s the same behavior. 

In my work, I usually try to, where I can, piece things apart clinically so that we can figure out what we should do with this particular response that you’re having. When it comes to differentiating compulsions, OCD compulsions and PTSD safety behaviors, we can look towards both the presentation of the behavior as well as the function of it. 

In terms of presentation, I mean, we all know what compulsions can look like. They can be very rigid. There can be a set of rules that they have to be completed with. They’re often characterized by a lot of doubting, like in Shala’s case, the checking that, “Well, okay, I checked, but I’m not actually sure, so let me check one more time.” Whereas in PTSD, although it’s possible for that to happen, those safety behaviors, usually, it’s a little bit easier to disengage from. Once I feel like I’ve established a sense of safety, then I feel like I can disengage from that. There doesn’t tend to be kind of that like rigidity and a set of rules or magical thinking that comes along with an OCD compulsion. 

In terms of the function, and this is where it gets a little bit murky with post-traumatic OCD, broadly speaking, the function of PTSD safety behaviors is to try to prevent trauma from occurring again in the future. Whereas OCD compulsions, generally speaking, are a way to obtain certainty about something or prevent some sort of feared catastrophe related to someone’s obsession. But of course, when the OCD is functioning along with the PTSD to cope with trauma, to prevent future trauma, that gets a little bit murkier. 

In my work, like I said, I try to piece apart, are there elements of this that we can try to resist from more of an ERP OCD standpoint? If there’s a set of rules or a specific way that you’re checking the door, maybe we can work on reducing some of that while still having that PTSD perspective of being a little bit more lenient about weaning off safety behaviors over time.


Kimberley: It’s a perfect segue into us talking about the treatment here. Caitlin, could you maybe share the treatment options for these conditions, specifically post-traumatic OCD, but maybe in general, all three?

Caitlin: Absolutely. The APA, a few years back, reviewed all the available literature on PTSD treatments, and they created this hierarchy of the treatments that have the most evidence base and went down from there. From their review of all the research that’s been done, there were four treatments that emerged as being the most effective for PTSD. That would be broadly cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive therapy. But then there are two treatments that have been specifically created to target PTSD, and that would be prolonged exposure or PE, and cognitive processing therapy or CBT. These all fall under the umbrella of CBT treatments, but they’re just a little bit more specific in their approach.

And then, of course, we know of ACT and EMDR and these other treatments that folks use as well. Those fall in the second tier, where there’s a lot of evidence that those work for folks as well, but that top tier has the most evidence. 

These treatments can be used in combination with OCD treatments like ERP. There are different ways that folks can combine them. They can do full protocols of both. They could borrow aspects of some treatments, or they could choose to focus really on if there’s a very clear primary diagnosis to treat that one first before moving on to the secondary diagnosis.


Kimberley: Amazing. Shala, if you’re comfortable, can you give some examples of what treatment looked like for you and what that was like for you both having OCD and PTOCD? 

Shala: Yes, and I think to set the ground for why the combined treatment working on the PTSD and the OCD together can be so important, a couple of features of how all this was presenting for me was the shift in the focus of the uncertainty. With OCD, it’s all about an intolerance of uncertainty and not knowing whether these what-ifs that OCD is getting stuck on are true or going to happen. But what I noticed when I developed PTSD and then the OCD came in to help was that the focus of the uncertainty shifted to it’s not what if it’s going to happen. The only what-if is when it was going to happen because something bad happening became a given. 

The uncertainty shifted to only when and where that bad thing was going to happen, which meant that I had lower insight. I’ve always had pretty good insight into my OCD, even before I got treatment. Many people with OCD too, we know what we’re doing doesn’t make any sense; we just can’t stop doing it.

With this combined presentation, there was a part of me that was saying, “Yeah, I really do need to be staring at the door. This is really important to make sure I keep that construction equipment out.” That lowered insight is a feature of this combined presentation that I think makes the type of treatment that we do more important, because we want to address both of the drivers, both the PTSD and the OCD.

The treatment that I did was in a staged process. First, I had to find a treatment provider, and Caitlin has a wonderful list of evidence-based treatment providers who can provide treatment for both on her website, which is great. I found somebody actually who ended up being on Caitlin’s list and worked with that person, and she wanted to start out doing prolonged exposure, which I pushed back on a little bit. Sometimes when you’re a therapist and you’re being the client, it’s hard not to get in the other person’s chair. But I pushed back on that because I said, “Well, I don’t think I need to do prolonged exposure on the original accident,” because that’s what she was suggesting we do, the accident when I was four. I said, “Because I wrote a book, Is Fred in the Refrigerator? and the very first chapter is the accident,” and I talked all about the accident. She explained, “That’s a little bit different than the way we would do it in prolonged exposure.”

What’s telling, I think, is that when I worked on the audiobook version of Fred—I was doing the narration, I was in a studio, and I had an engineer and a director; they were on one side of the glass, I’m on the other side of the glass—I had a really hard time getting through that first chapter of the book because I kept breaking down. They’d have to stop everything, and I had to get myself together, and we had to start again, and that happened over and over and over again. 

Even though I had relived, so to speak, this story on paper, I guess that was the problem. I was still reliving it. That’s probably the right word. Prolonged exposure is what I needed to do because I needed to be able to be in the presence of that story and have it be a story in the past and not something that I was experiencing right then. 

I started with prolonged exposure. After I did that, I moved on to cognitive processing therapy because I had a lot of distorted beliefs around life and the trauma that we call “stuck points” in cognitive processing therapy that I needed to work through. There were a good 20 or so stuck-point beliefs. “If I don’t treat people perfectly nicely, they’re going to attack me somehow.” Things that could be related directly to the compulsions, but also just things like, “The world is dangerous. If I’m not vigilant all the time, something bad is going to happen to me.” I had to work on reframing all of those because I was living my life based on those beliefs, which was keeping the trauma going. 

I recreated a new set of beliefs and then brought exposure in to work on doing exposures that helped me act as if those new beliefs were the right way to live. If my stuck point is I need to be hypervigilant because of the way something bad is going to happen to me, and I’m walking around like this, which was not an exaggeration of really how I was living my life when this was all happening—if I’m living like that, if I’m acting in a hypervigilant way, I am reinforcing these beliefs. I need to go do exposures where I can walk by a dump truck without all the hypervigilance to let all that tension go, walk by it, realize what I’ve learned, and walk by it again. 

It was a combination of all these and making sure that I was doing these exposures, both to stop the compulsions I was doing, like the door checking, but also to start living in a different way so that I wasn’t in my approach to life, reinforcing the fact that my PTSD thought the world was dangerous. 

I also incorporated some DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) because what I found with this combination was I was experiencing a lot more intense emotions than I’d really ever experienced in having OCD by itself. With OCD, it was mostly just out-of-this-world anxiety, but with the combination of PTSD and OCD, there were a lot more emotional swings of all sorts of different kinds that I needed to learn and had to deal with.

Part of that too was just learning how to be in the presence of these PTSD symptoms, which are very physiological. Not like OCD symptoms aren’t, but they tend to be somewhat more extreme, almost panicky-like feelings. When you’re in the flashbacks or flash forwards, you can feel dissociated, and you’re numbing out and all of that.

I'm learning to be in the presence of those symptoms without reacting negatively to them, because if I’m having some sort of feelings of hypervigilance that are coming because I’m near a piece of construction equipment and I haven’t practiced my ERP (Expsoure & Response Prevention) for a while, if I react negatively and say, “Oh my gosh, I shouldn’t be having these symptoms. I’ve done my therapy. I shouldn’t be having these feelings right now,” it’s just going to make it worse.

Really, a lot of this work on the emotional side was learning how to just be with the feelings. If I have symptoms, because they happen every now and then—if I have symptoms, then I’m accepting them. I’m not making them worse by a negative reaction to the reaction my PTSD is having. 

That was a lot of the tail end of the work, was learning how to be okay with the fact that sometimes you’re going to have some PTSD symptoms, and that’s okay. But overreacting to them is going to make it worse.

 Kimberley: Thank you so much for sharing that. I just want to maybe clarify for those who are listening. You talked about CPT, you talked about DBT, and you also talked about prolonged exposure. In the prolonged exposure, you were exposing yourself to the dump truck? Is that correct?

Shala: In the prolonged exposure, I was doing two different things. One is the story of the accident that I was in. Going back to that accident that I thought I had fully habituated to through writing my book and doing all that, I had to learn how to be in the presence of that story without reliving it while seeing it as something that happened to me, but it’s not happening to me right now. That was the imaginal part of the prolonged exposure. 

This is where the overlap between the disorders and the treatment can get confusing of what is part of what. You can do the in vivo exposure part of prolonged exposure. Those can also look a lot like just ERP for OCD, where we’re going and we’re standing beside a dump truck and dropping the hypervigilant safety behaviors because we need to be able to do that to prove to our brain we can tolerate being in this environment. It isn’t a dangerous environment to stand by a jump truck. It’s not what happened when I was four. Those are the two parts that we’re looking at there—the imaginal exposure, which is the story, and then we’ve got the in vivo exposures, which are going back and being in the presence of triggers, and also from an OCD perspective without compulsive safety behaviors.

Kimberley: Amazing. What I would clarify, but please any of you jump in just for the listeners, if this is all new to you, what we’re not saying is, let’s say if there was someone who was abusive to you as a child, that you would then expose yourself to them for the sake of getting better from your PTSD. I think the decisions you made on what to expose yourself were done with a therapist, Shala? They helped you make those decisions based on what was helpful and effective for you? Do either of you want to speak to what we do and what we don’t expose ourselves to in prolonged exposure?

Caitlin: Yeah. I’m glad that you’re clarifying that too, because this is a big part of PE that is actually a little bit different from ERP. When somebody has experienced trauma, when they have PTSD, their internal alarm system just goes haywire. Just like in Shala’s example, anything that serves as a reminder or a trigger of the trauma, the brain just automatically interprets as this thing is dangerous; I have to get away from it. 

In PE, a lot of what we’re doing is helping people to recalibrate that internal alarm system so that they can better learn or relearn safe versus actual threat. When you’re developing a hierarchy with someone in PE, you might have very explicit conversations about how safe is this exposure really, because we never want to put someone in a situation where they would be unsafe, such as, like you described, interacting with an abuser. 

In ERP, we’d probably be less likely to go through the exposures and say, “This one’s actually safe; I want you to do it,” because so much of the treatment is about tolerating uncertainty about feared outcomes. But in PE, we might have these explicit conversations. “Do other people you know do this activity or go to this place in town?” There are probably construction sites that wouldn’t be safe for Shala to go to. They’d be objectively dangerous, and we’d never have her go and do things that would put her in harm’s way.

Kimberley: Thank you. I just wanted to clarify on that, particularly for folks who are hearing this for the first time. I’m so grateful that we’re having this conversation again. I think it’s going to be so eye-opening for people. Caitlin, can you share any final words for the listeners? What resources would you encourage them to listen to? Is there anything that you feel we missed in our conversation today for the listeners?

Caitlin: I think, generally, I like to always leave on a note of hope. Again, I’m so grateful that Shala is here and gets to describe her experience with such vulnerability because it gives hope that you can hear about someone who was at their worst, and maybe things felt hopeless in that moment. But she was able to access the help that she needed and use the tools that she had from her own training too, which helped, and really move through this. 

There isn’t sort of a final point where it’s like, “Okay, cool, I’m done. The trauma is never going to bother me again.” But it doesn’t have to have that grip on your life any longer, and you don’t need to rely on OCD to keep you safe from trauma. 

There are treatments out there that work. Like it was mentioned, I have a directory of OCD and PTSD treatment providers available on my website, which is that folks can access if they’re looking for a therapist. If you’re a therapist listening and you believe that you belong in this directory, there’s a way to reach out to me through the website. 

I’d also say too that if folks are willing and interested, participating in the research that’s happening right now really helps us to understand OCD and PTSD better so that we can better support people. If you’re interested in participating in the OCD and trauma study that I mentioned, you can email me at

I also have another study that’s more recent that will help to answer the question of how many people with OCD have experienced trauma and what are those more commonly endorsed ways that people feel that OCD and trauma intersect for them. That one’s ultra-brief. It’s a 10-minute really quick survey, and I’m happy to share that anonymous link with you as well/

Kimberley: Thank you. Thank you so much. Shala, can you share any final words about your experience or what you want the listeners to hear?

Shala: One thing I’d like to share is a mistake that I made as part of my recovery that I would love for other people not to make. I’d like to talk a little bit about that, because I think it could be helpful. The mistake that I made in trying to be a good client, a good therapy client, is I was micro-monitoring my recovery. “How many PTSD symptoms am I having? Well, I’m still having symptoms.” I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic, or I had a bad dream, or I had a flash forward. “Why am I having this? I must not be doing things right.”

And then I took it a step further and said, “It would be great if I could track the physiological markers of my PTSD so I can make sure I’m keeping them under control.” I got a piece of tracking technology that enabled me to track heart rate and heart rate variability and sleep and all this stuff. At first, it was okay, but then the technology that I was using changed their algorithm, and all of a sudden my stats weren’t good anymore, and I started freaking out. “Oh my gosh, my sleep is bad. My atrophy is going down. This is bad. What am I doing?” I was trying with the best of intentions to quantify, make sure I’m doing things right, focus on recovery. But what I was doing was focusing on the remaining symptoms that were there, and I was making them worse. 

What I have learned is that eventually, things got so bad—in fact, with my sleep—that I got so frustrated with the tracking technology. I said, “I’m not wearing it anymore.” That’s one of the things that helped me realize what I was doing. When I stopped tracking my sleep, when I let go of all of this and said, “You know what? I’m going to have symptoms,” things got better. 

I would encourage people not to overthink their recovery, not to be in their heads and wake up in the morning and ask, “How much PTSD am I having? How much OCD am I having? If I could just get rid of these last little symptoms, life would be great,” because that’s just going to keep everything going. 

I’ll say this year, two has been a challenging one for me. I’ve been involved in three car accidents this year; none of them my fault. One of my neighbors, whom I don’t know, called the police on me, thinking I was breaking into my own house, which meant that a whole army of police officers ended up at my house at nine o’clock at night. That’s four pretty hard trauma triggers for me in 2023. 

Those kinds of things are going to happen to all of us every now and then. I had a lot of symptoms. I had a lot of PTSD symptoms and a lot of OCD symptoms in the wake of those events, and that’s okay. It’s not that I want them to be there, but that’s just my brain reacting. That’s my brain trying to come to terms with what happened and how safe we are and trying to get back to a level playing field. 

I think it’s really important for anybody else out there who’s suffering from one or the other, or both of these disorders to recognize we’re going to have symptoms sometimes. Just like with OCD, you’re going to have symptoms sometimes. It’s okay. It’s the pushing away. It’s the rejecting of the symptoms. It’s the shaming yourself for having the symptoms that causes the symptoms to get worse. 

Really, there is an element of self-compassion for OCD here. I like having bracelets to remind me. This is the self-compassion bracelet that I’ve had for years that I wear. By the way, this is not the tracking technology. I’m not using tracking technology anymore. But remembering self-compassion and telling yourself, “I’m having symptoms right now, and this is really hard. I’m anxious; I feel a little bit hypervigilant, but this is part of recovery from PTOCD. Most people with PTOCD experience this at some point. So I’m going to give myself a break, give myself permission to feel what I’m feeling, recognize how much progress I’ve made, and, when I feel ready, do some of my therapy homework to help me move past this, but in a nonhypervigilant, nonmicro monitoring way.”

As I have dropped down into acceptance of these symptoms, my symptoms have gotten a lot better. I think that’s a really important takeaway. Yes, we want to work hard in our therapy, yes, we want to do the homework, but we also want to work on accepting because, in the acceptance, we learn that having these symptoms sometimes is just a part of life, and it’s okay. 

I would echo what Caitlin said in that you can have a ton of hope if you have these disorders, in that we have good treatment. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer than working on either one or the other, but that makes sense because you’re working on two. But we have good treatment, and you can get back to living a joyful life. 

Always have hope and don’t give up, because sometimes it can be a long road, especially when you have a combined presentation. But you can tame both of these disorders and reclaim your life.

Kimberle: You guys are so good. I’m so grateful we got to do this. I feel like it’s such an important conversation, and both of you bring such wonderful expertise and lived experience. I’m so grateful. Thank you both for coming on and talking about this with me today. I’m so grateful.

Shala: Thank you for having us.

Caitlin: Yes, thank you. This was wonderful.

Kimberley: Thank you so much, guys.


The two studies CAITLIN referenced are:

Nov 10, 2023

When things get hard, it’s really quite difficult to find a reason to keep going. Today, we have an incredible guest, Shaun Flores, talking about what keeps us going. This was a complete impromptu conversation. We had come on to record a podcast on a completely different topic. However, quickly after getting chatting, it became so apparent that this was the conversation we both desperately wanted to have. And so, we jumped in and talked about what it’s like in the moments when things are really difficult, when we’re feeling like giving up, we are hopeless, we’re not sure what the next step is. We wanted to talk about what does keep us going. 

This is, again, a conversation that was very raw. We both talked about our own struggles with finding meaning, moving forward, and struggling with what keeps us going. I hope you find it as beautiful a conversation as I did. My heart was full for days after recording this, and I’m so honored that Sean came on and was so vulnerable and talked so beautifully about the process of finding a point and finding a reason to keep going. I hope you enjoy it just as much as I did.

What Keeps Up Going (With Shaun Flores)

Shaun: Thank you so much for being able to have this conversation.

Kimberley: Can you tell us just a little background on you and what your personal, just general mental health journey has looked like?

Shaun: Yeah. My own journey of mental health has been a tumultuous one, to say the very least. For around five to six years ago, I would say I was living with really bad health anxiety to the point where I obsessed. I constantly had an STI or an STD. I’d go to the clinic backward and forward, get tested to make sure I didn’t have anything. But the results never proved to be in any way, shape, or form sufficient enough for me to be like, “Okay, cool. I don’t have anything.” I kept going back and forward. 

How I knew that became the worst possible thing. I paid 300 pounds for the same-day test results. Just to give people’s perspective, 300 pounds is a lot. That’s when I was like, “There’s something wrong. I just don’t know what it is.” But in some ways, I thought I was being a diligent citizen in society, doing what I needed to do to make sure I take care of myself and to practice what was safe sex.

But then that fear migrated onto this sudden overnight change where I woke up and I thought, “What if I was gay?”  overnight. I just quite literally woke up. I had a dream of a white guy in boxes, and I woke up with the most irrational thought that I had suddenly become gay. I felt my identity had come collapsing. I felt everything in my world had shaken overnight. 

I threw up in the toilet that morning, and at that time I was in the modeling industry. Looking back now, I was going through disordered eating, and I’m very careful with using the word “eating disorder.” That’s why I call it “disordered eating.” I was never formally diagnosed, but I used to starve myself. I took diuretics to maintain a certain cheekbone structure. Because in the industry that I was in, I was comparing myself to a lot of the young men that were there, believing that I needed to look a certain kind of way. 

When I look back at my photos now, I was very gaunt-looking. I was being positively affirmed by all the people around me. I hated how round my face was. If I woke up in the morning and my face was round, I would drink about four liters of water with cleavers tincture. I took dandelion extracts. Those are some of the things that I took to drain my lymphatic system. I went on this quest for a model face.

And then eventually, I left the industry because it just wasn’t healthy for me in any way, shape, or form. I was still living with this fear that I was gay. If I went to the sauna and steam room in the gym, I would just obsess 24/7 that if I could notice the guy’s got a good-looking body, or if he’s good-looking, this meant I’m gay. It was just constant, 24/7. From the minute I slept to the minute I woke up, it was always there. 

Then that fear moved on to sexual assault. I had a really big panic attack where I was terrified. I asked one of my friends, “Are you sure I haven’t done anything? Are you sure I haven’t done anything?” I kept asking her over and over. I screamed at her to leave because I was so scared. I must’ve been hearing voices, and I was terrified that I could potentially hurt her. I tried to go to sleep that night, and there were suicide images in my head, blood, and I was like, “There’s something up.” I just didn’t know what was going on. I had no scooby, nothing. 

That night, I went to the hospital, and the mental health team said that they probably would suggest I get therapy. I said, “It’s cool. I’ll go and find my own therapist.” I started therapy, and the therapy made me a hundred times worse. I was doing talk therapy. We were trying to get to the root of all my thoughts. We were trying to figure out my childhood. Don’t get me wrong, there’s relevance to that. By that time, it was not what I needed. 

And then last year, this is when everything was happening in regards to the breakdown that I had as well. I got to such a bad point with my mental health that I no longer wanted to be alive. I wanted time to swallow me up. I couldn’t understand the thoughts I was having. I was out in front of my friends, and I had really bad suicidal thoughts. I believed I was suicidal right off the bat. I got into an Uber, called all my friends, and just told them I’m depressed and I no longer want to be alive. I’m the kind of guy in the friendship group everyone looks up to, almost in some ways, as a leader, so people didn’t really know what to do. That’s me saying as a self-elected leader. That’s me being reflective about my friendship group.

But I woke up one day, and it was a Saturday, the 4th of June, and I just said, “I can’t do this anymore.” I said, “I can’t do this.” I was prepared to probably take my life, potentially. I reached out to hundreds of people via Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, email, wherever it was, begging for help because I looked on the internet and was trying to figure out what was it that was going on with me. I was like, “Why am I having certain thoughts, but I don’t want to act on them?” And OCD popped up, so I believed I had OCD

When I found this lady called Emma Garrick (The Anxiety Whisperer) on Saturday, the 4th of June, I just pleaded with her for a phone call. She picked up the phone, and I just burst out in tears. I said, “What’s wrong with me?” I said, “I don’t want to hurt anyone. Why am I having the thoughts I’m having?” And she said, “Shaun, you have OCD.” From there on, my life changed dramatically. We began therapy on Monday. I would cry for about two hours in a session. I couldn’t cope. I lost my job. There were so many different things that happened that year. 

In that same year, obviously, I had OCD. I tore my knee ligaments in my right knee. Then I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. Then my auntie died. Then my cousin was unfortunately murdered. Then my half-brother died. Then my auntie—it’s one of my aunties that helped to raise me when my dad died on Christmas day when I was six—her cancer spread from the pancreas to the liver. 

Then fast-forward it to this year, about a couple of months ago, that same auntie, the cancer became terminal and spread from the liver to the spleen. I watched her die, and that was tough. Then I had my surgery on August the 14th. But I’m still paying my way through debt. It was an incredibly tough journey. I’m still doing the rehab for my knee, still doing the rehab for OCD. 

That’s my journey. I’m still thinking about it to this day. Me and my therapist talk about this, and he has lived experience of OCD. I still don’t even know what’s kept me alive at this point, but that’s the best way to describe my story. That’s a shortened, more condensed version for people listening.

Kimberley: Can I ask, what does keep you going?

Shaun: What keeps me going? If I’m being very honest, I don’t know sometimes. There are days when I’ve really struggled with darkness, sadness, and a sense of hopelessness sometimes. I ride it out. I try not to give in to those suicidal thoughts that pop up. And then I remember I’ve got a community that I’ve been able to create, a community that I’m able to help and inspire other people. I think I keep going on my worst days because the people around me need someone to keep inspiring them. What I mean by that is some of the messages I’ve got on the internet, some of them have made me cry. Some of them have made me absolutely break down from some people who have opened up to me and shared their entire story. They look up to me, and I’m just like, “Wow, I can’t give up now. This isn’t the end.” I’ve had really dark moments, and I think a lot of people look at my story and perhaps look at my social media, and they think I’m healed and I’ve fully recovered. But my therapist has seen me at my worst, and they see me at my absolute best. 

I think I stay here. What keeps me pushing is to help other people, to give other people a chance, and to let them know that you can live a life with OCD, anxiety. Depression I’m not sure if I fully align with. Maybe to some degree, but to let them know they can live a life in spite of that. I don’t know. Again, I keep saying this to my therapist. There’s something in me that just refuses to quit. I don’t know what it is. I can’t put it into words sometimes. I don’t know. Maybe it’s to leave the world in a better place than I found it. I really do not know. 

Kimberley: I think I’m so intrigued. I’m so curious here. I think that this is such a conversation for everyone to have. I will tell you that it’s interesting, Shaun, because I’m so grateful for you, number one, that we’re having this conversation, and it’s so raw. Somebody a few months ago asked me, what’s the actual point of all this? It was her asking me to do a podcast on the point, what’s the point of all this? I wrote it down and started scripting out some ideas, and I just couldn’t do the episode because I don’t know the answer either. I don’t know what the point is. But I love this idea that we’re talking about of what keeps us going when things are so hard. Because I said you’re obviously resilient, and you’re like, “No, that’s not it.” But you are. I mean, so clearly you are. It’s one of your qualities. But I love this idea of what keeps you going. 

In the day, in the moment to moment, what goes through your mind that keeps you moving towards? You’re obviously getting treatment; you’re obviously trying to reduce compulsions, stop rumination, or whatever that might be. What does that sound like in your brain that keeps you going?

Shaun: Before I answer that, I think I’ve realized what my answer would be for what keeps me going. I think it’s hope because it makes me feel a bit emotional. When I was at my absolute worst, I had lost hope, lost everything. I lost my job. I end up in mountains of debt that I’m still paying off. It’s to give hope to other people that your life can get better. I would say it has to be hope. 

In those day-to-day moments, one of my really close friends, Dave, has again seen me at my worst and my best. Those day-to-day moments are incredibly tough. I’ve had to learn to do things even when I don’t want to do them. I’ve had to learn to eat when I don’t always want to eat, to stick to the discipline, to stick to the process, to get out of bed, and to keep pushing that something has to change. These hard times cannot last forever. But those day-to-day moments can be incredibly tough when my themes change, when I mourn my old life with OCD in the sense that I never thought consciously about a lot of my decisions. Whereas now, I think a lot more about what I do, the impact I have on the world, and the repercussions of certain decisions that I make. 

I would say a lot of my day-to-day, those moment-to-moments, is a bit more trepidation. I think that would be the best way to describe my day-to-day moments. I was just going to say, I was even saying to my friend that I can’t wait to do something as simple as saving money again. I’m trying to clear off everything to restart and just the simple things of being able to actually just save again, to be able to get into a stable job to prove to myself that I can get my life back.  

Kimberley: To me, the reason that I’m so, again, grateful that we’re here talking about this is it really pulls on all of the themes that we get trained in in psychology in terms of taking one step at a time. They talk about this idea of grit, like you keep getting up even though you get knocked down. I don’t think we talk about that enough. Also, the fact that most people who have OCD or a mental health issue are also handling financial stresses and, like you said, medical conditions, grief, and all of these things. You’re living proof of these concepts and you’re here telling us about them. How does that land for you? Or do you want to maybe speak to that a little more?

Shaun: I was reading a book on grits. I was listening to it, and they were talking about how some people are just grittier than other people. Some people may not be as intelligent or may not be as “naturally gifted,” but some people are grittier than other people. A lot of people who live with chronic conditions such as OCD or whatever else, you have to be gritty. That’s probably a quality you really have to have every single day without realizing it. To speak to that, even on the days when I have really struggled, as I said, I don’t know what always gets me up. There’s something inside. 

I look around at the other people around me who've shown grit as well—other people around me who have worked through it. The therapist I have, he’s a really good therapist. I listen to his story, Johnny Say, and he talks about something called gentle relentlessness, the idea that you just keep being relentless very gently. You know that one step-a-day kind of mentality that, “Okay, cool, I’m having these thoughts today. I’m going to show myself some compassion, but I’m going to keep moving.” For me, when I speak to him, I tell him he inspires me massively because he’s perfected and honed his skills so much of OCD that he’s able to do the job that he does. He’s able to help other people, and that inspires me.

When I look at the other people around me, I’m inspired by other people’s grit and perseverance as well. That really speaks to what I need to be able to have. I think it’s modeled a lot for me. Even in my own personal life with my mom, there’s a lot of things that we’ve gone through—my father, who died on Christmas Day when I was six—and she had to be gritty in her own way to raise a single boy in the UK when she was in a country she didn’t want to be in because of my granddad. 

I think grit has been modeled for me. I think it really has been role-modeled for me in so many different ways. When people say, “Just get up and keep going,” I think it’s such a false notion that people really don’t understand the complexity of human emotions and don’t understand that, as humans, we go up and we go down. A very long time ago, I used to be that kind of human where I was like, “Just get out, man. Suck it up. Just keep going, bro. You can do this. You’ve got this.” I think going through my own stuff has made me realize sometimes we don’t always feel like we’ve got it. We have to follow the plan, not the mood sometimes. But I honestly have to say, I think grit has been role-modeled a lot for me.

Kimberley: Yeah. It’s funny, as you were talking, I was thinking too. I think so often—you talked about this idea of hope—we need to know that somebody else has achieved what we want to achieve. If we have that modeled to us, even if it’s not the exact thing, that’s another thing that keeps us going. You’ve got a mentor, you’ve got a therapist. Or for those of you who don’t have a mentor or therapist, it might be listening to somebody on a podcast and being like, “Well, if they can do it, there has to be hope for me.” I think sometimes if we haven’t got those people in our lives, we maybe want to look for people to inspire and model grit and keep going for us, would you say? 

Shaun: Absolutely. Funnily enough, when I was going through depression as a compulsion, my friend sent me your podcast about depression as a compulsion. The idea is that you feel this depressive feeling, you start investigating it, trying to figure out if you’re depressed, and then it becomes a compulsion. And then, after that compulsion happens, you stay in this spiral with depression or whatever it might be. That’s something else I realized—that having your podcast and listening to talking about being kind, self-criticism, and self-compassion was role modeled a lot for me because, again, growing up, I didn’t have self-compassion. It’s not something we practice in the household or the culture I’m from. But having it role-modeled for me was so big. It is huge. I cannot even put into words how important it is to have people around you who still live with something you live with, and they keep going, because it almost reminds you that it’s not time to give up. 

Sadly, I’ve lost friends to suicide. I found out that someone had died in 2021 at what I thought he had died. We met at a modeling agency when I was modeling. We met at the Black Lives Matter march as well, regardless of whatever your political opinions are for anyone listening. I found that he had died. I remember I messaged some of the friends we had in common. I was like, “What happened?” And nobody knew. A couple of weeks ago, I just typed in his name. Out of nowhere, I just typed, and I was like, “What happened to him?” I found that he had taken his life when he was in university halls. I was just like, "You really don’t know what people are going through." Some people have messaged me and said what I talk about has kept them going. I’m just sitting there like, “Wow, other people have kept me going.” I think that becomes a role-modeled community almost in some ways. 

Kimberley: For sure. It’s funny you mention that. I too have lost some very close people to me from suicide. I think the role model thing goes both directions in that it can also be hard sometimes when people you really love and respect have lost their lives to suicide. I think that we do return to hope, though. I think for every part of me that’s pained by the grief that I feel, hope fuels me back into, how can I help? Maybe I could save one person’s life. Actually, sometimes helping just gets me through a hard day as well. I can totally resonate. I think you’re right. There is a web of inspiration. You inspire somebody else. They inspire you. They’ve been inspired by somebody. It’s like a ladder.

Shaun: Absolutely. I once heard someone say, the best way to lose yourself is in the service of others. One of the things that really got me through depression when I was at the thickest of my OCD was when I said, "How am I going to go and serve other people? How am I going to go and help other people?" When I asked my first therapist, I said, “Why are you so kind to me? Why do you believe in me?” she told me something that really sat with me. She said, “I believe you’re going to go on to help so many other people.” When I released my first story on August the 14th, and I had so many people reach out to me that I knew, people I didn’t know speaking about OCD, I was like, “This is where it begins. That in the suffering, there is hope. In the suffering, I can live. In the suffering, I can find purpose. In the suffering, I can use that to propel me out of pain.” 

But you are right. This conversation has really made me think a lot about how I keep going, like how I’ve been able to just keep pushing because my friends are, again, around me. My therapist knows that there are days when I don’t want to do my therapy. I’ve gone to my physiotherapist, and I’ve said, “You have no idea what I’ve gone through.” I said, “I’m not feeling to do anything. I just want to give up right now.” I said, “I’m tired of this.” I said, “Why is life so hard on me?” Death is one thing. Physical injury is another thing. OCD is another thing. Chasing money is another thing. Everything is a constant uphill battle. It really has made me think a lot about life. It’s made me think a lot about my friends who have opened up to me about their struggles. 

Very similar to you, Kimberley, I want to go on to, at some point, become a therapist and change people’s lives. When people reach out to me, I would love to be able to say to someone, if someone said, “I can’t afford a therapist,” I’d be like, “Let me try and help you and see what I can do on my part.” That kind of kindness or that kind of empathy, that kind of lived experience, that understanding—it's something I really want to give back to other people. It’s hope. Hope is everything.  

Kimberley: Yeah. It’s ever-changing, too. Some days you need one thing, and the next day you need others. For me, sometimes it’s hope. Sometimes it’s, like you said, day-to-day grit. Sometimes it’s stubbornness, like I’m just straight-up stubborn. You know what I mean? 

Shaun: It’s funny you say that. 

Kimberley: We can draw on any quality to get us through these hard things that keep us going. My husband always says too, and now that we’re exploring it and I’m thinking about it, because you and I did not prepare for this, we are really just riffing here—my husband always says when I’ve had a really hard time, which in the moment sounds so silly and so insignificant, but it has also helped, amongst these other things, “Put on the calendar something you’re really looking forward to and remind yourself of that thing you’re going towards every day. It doesn’t even have to be huge, but something that brings you joy, even if it’s got nothing to do with the hard thing you’re going through.” I’ve also found that to be somewhat beneficial, even if it’s a dinner with friends or a concert or an afternoon off to yourself, off work. That has also been really beneficial to me.

Shaun: Yeah. Taking aim at things in the future can give you things to really look forward to. In the thickest of my OCD, I had nothing to look forward to sometimes. I remember I turned down modeling jobs because of my anxiety. The only thing I could look forward to was my therapist, and that was my silver lining in many, many ways. I remember I would say to her, “I’ve been waiting for this session the whole week. I’ve needed this.”

Another thing you touched on that I think made me laugh is stubbornness. There is a refusal. There’s a refusal to lay down. For example, I make jokes about this. I go to the gym sometimes, and I’ll say to the guys, “I’ve had a knee injury. Why are my legs bigger than yours?” That small little bit of fun and a little bit of gest, a bit of banter, as we would say. I’ll go to them, and I’ll be like, “I need to show these guys that my legs are still bigger than theirs and I’ve got an injury. I’m not supposed to be training legs.” Just small things like that have really given me things to look forward to. Something as silly as male ego has been-- I say this to everyone—male, female, anyone. I’m like, “How dare I get sexy? How dare I be mentally unwell but still sexy?” There is an audacity to it. There’s a temerity, a gumption, a goal. There is a stubbornness to go out there into the world and to really show people that, again, you can live with it.

When I delivered my TEDx talk in 2022 at Sheffield Hallam University about masculinity, I remember a lady came up to me afterwards. This is when I was doing something called German Volume Training. It was heavy, very intense training. I put on a lot of muscle in that short space of time. She came up to me and said, “You do not look like a guy who suffered with his mental health at all.” She said, “You look like the complete opposite.” Because people have this idea that people who live with illness are—there’s this archetype in people’s heads—timid, maybe a bit unkempt. They don’t look after themselves. 

It really said a lot to me that there really is no one image of how people look. Even where I live, unfortunately, there’s a lady who screams at people. She shaves her hair. She just sits down there. A very long time ago, I would look at people and judge them. One thing I’ve really learned from living with illness has been we never know what’s happened in people’s lives that has pushed them to the place of where they are. 

There was also another older gentleman, and he smelt very strongly of urine and alcohol. I was on the train with him, and the train was packed. You could just see he was minding his own business. He had a bag on him, and clearly he had alcohol in it. There were two girls that were looking at him with such disgust, contempt, and disdain. It really got to me. It really irked me about the way people looked at him because, in my head, I’m like, “You don’t know what that guy’s gone through. You just have no idea what led him to become clearly an alcoholic. He probably is potentially homeless as well.” I got off that train, and I just felt my views on things had really changed, really changed in life. Dealing with people just-- I don’t know. I’ve gone off on a tangent, but it’s just really sat with me in the sense of looking forward to things—how I look forward to how my views are evolving and how my views on life are changing.

Kimberley: Yeah. I’m sort of taking from what you’re saying. You bring up another way in which you keep going, which is humor, and I’ve heard a lot of people say that. A lot of people say humor gets me through the hardest times. You say you make jokes, and that, I think, is another way we can keep going.

Shaun: Yeah, you are correct. When I go to the gym and I banter all the guys, I’m laughing at them, and typical male ego—that has really helped me on many, many occasions. Even people around me who we have sit down and we have a laugh. There’s times when I quite honestly say to people, my life is a Hollywood movie at this point. I need a book. I need a series of unfortunate events, a trilogy, whatever it might be at this point, because it’s almost as if it can’t be real. Humor has been a propelling agent in me helping to get better, but it’s also been an agent in everything that I do. 

My first therapist, Emma, said to me, “OCD leaves you with a really messed-up sense of humor because you’ve got to learn how to laugh at the thoughts. You’ve got to learn how to not take everything seriously.” I have had some of the most ludicrous thoughts I could imagine. I told my friend, and she started cracking up at me. She started laughing. She’s like, “Do you know how ludicrous this is?” And I said to her, “I know.” 

Or, for example, again, at my absolute worst, I couldn’t even watch MMA, UFC, or boxing because guys were half naked. I couldn’t be around guys who were half naked because of how my sexual orientation OCD used to really play with my head. There were so many ridiculous situations. I would walk outside and I’d have a thought, “Kill the dog,” and I’d be like, “Oh, well, this is bloody fantastic now, isn’t it?” I’ve had images of all sorts in my head. I told my friend, and he started laughing. I was like, “Bro, why are you laughing?” But it made me laugh because it took the seriousness out of what was going on. It really did. 

Humor—it's been huge. It’s funny how that can even maneuver into the concept of cancel culture because there was a comedian who has OCD, and he said, “When was being clean really a bad thing?” I know, obviously, we know the way people see OCD, but he drew light on the fact that he has quite severe OCD himself. He’s using humor clearly to help him get better. But humor has been another thing. Humor, stubbornness, grit, resilience—all these things in my life experience have really helped me to still be here. I still say that as a guy who hasn’t been paid this month from work. I’m on sick leave. I’m still trying to find ways to make money. I’m still trying to train to become a therapist. I’m applying for courses. I’ve applied for a hundred jobs within the National Health Service over here in the UK. That’s just to put it into perspective. Again, as my therapist would say, a gentle relentlessness to keep pushing humor to find some of the joy and some of the sadness that happens.

Kimberley: I cannot tell you how grateful I am that you have allowed us to go here today. I think this is the conversation that we needed to have today, both of us. My heart is so full. Can people hear more about where they can get in touch with you, hear more about you? You’ve talked so beautifully about the real hard times and what’s gotten you through. Where might people get ahold of you?

Shaun: I say to people, you can reach out to me on Instagram, TikTok, wherever you want. I say to people, just reach out, and please feel free to message me. I don’t know whether this has happened to you, Kimberley. Some people reach out to me when they’re really struggling with their OCD, and then some people I never hear from again. Some people don’t turn up to phone calls. I think for a lot of people, there’s a big fear that if they reach out to me, I’m going to hear something that I’ve never heard. I can honestly say to people, I’ve had every thought you could imagine. I’ve had the most ludicrous thoughts. I’ve had pretty much every single theme at this point. I really want, and I really encourage people to please reach out and have a conversation with me. You can find me anywhere on social media.

Kimberley: I have so enjoyed this conversation. Are there any final statements you want to make to finish this off?

Shaun: If you give up now, you’ll never see what life would look like on the other side. That’s the one thing I think I have to really say.

Kimberley: It’s amazing. Thank you.

Nov 3, 2023

If you want to know how to be uncomfortable without making it worse, you’re in the right place. Today, we’re talking all about being uncomfortable and learning how to be uncomfortable in the most skillful, compassionate, respectful, and effective way. This applies to any type of discomfort, whether it be your thoughts, your feelings, any physical sensations, or the pain that you’re feeling. Anything that you’re experiencing as discomfort, we’re here to talk about it today. Let’s do it. 

Welcome back, everybody. For those of you who are new, welcome. My name is Kimberley Quinlan. I’m a marriage and family therapist in the state of California. I’m an anxiety specialist, and I love to talk about being uncomfortable. It’s true, I don’t like being uncomfortable, but I love to talk about being uncomfortable, and I love talking about skillful ways to manage that. 

How to be uncomfortable


Now, before we get started, let’s first talk about what we mean by being uncomfortable. There are different forms of discomfort. One may be feelings or emotions that you’re having—shame, guilt, anxiety, sadness, anger. Whatever it is that you experience as a feeling can be interpreted and experienced as uncomfortable. 

Another one is sensations. Physical sensations of anxiety, physical sensations of shame, and physical sensations of physical pain. I myself have a chronic illness. Physical sensations can be a great deal of discomfort for us as human beings. We’re also talking about that as well. 

We’re also talking about intrusive thoughts, because thoughts can be uncomfortable too. We can have some pretty horrific, scary, mean, and demanding thoughts, and these thoughts can create a lot of discomfort within us. 

What we want to do here is we want to first acknowledge that discomfort is a normal, natural part of life. It truly is. I know on social media, and I know in life, on TV, and in movies, it’s painted that there are a certain amount of things you can do, and if you were to attain those, well, then you would have a lot less discomfort. But as someone who is a therapist who has treated the widest range of people, I’ve learned that even when they reach fame, a lot of money, or a degree of success, we can see that they have some improved wellness. They do have some decrease in discomfort, but over time, they’re still going to have uncomfortable thoughts. Sometimes having those things creates more uncomfortable thoughts. They’re still going to have physical pain, and they’re still going to have emotions that cause them pain, particularly when they’re not skillful. 

What I’ve really learned as a human being as well is we can have a list of all the things that we think we need in these circumstances to be happy. But if our thoughts and our feelings and our reactions to them aren’t skillful, compassionate, wise, and respectful, we often create more suffering, and we’re right back where we started. 

Now, I don’t want it to be all doom and gloom, because the truth is, I’m bringing you some solutions here today—things that you can apply right away and put into practice, hopefully, as soon as you’ve listened to this podcast. Let’s get to it. 


First, I’m wondering whether we can first discuss what it means to make it worse because a lot of you go, “What? Make it worse? Are you telling me I’m to blame?” And that’s not what I’m doing here. But I do think that we can do some kind of inquiry, nonjudgmental inquiry into how we respond to our suffering. 

LIFE IS 50/50

Think of it this way: I am a huge proponent of some Buddhist philosophy here, which is that suffering is a part of life. Discomfort is a part of life. I believe that life is 50/50. There is 50% wonderful, but you’re still going to have 50% hard. Sometimes that percentage will be different, but I think it creates a lot of acceptance when we can come to the fact that there’s going to be good seasons, but there’s also going to be some really hard seasons in our lives. It doesn’t have to be that it’s 50/50 all the time. Sometimes you might be in a really wonderful season. Maybe you’re in a really tough season right now. I’m guessing that’s the case because you’re listening to this episode. I recently went through a really tough season, which inspired me to make this episode for you. But in life, there is suffering. But what we know about that is how we respond to that suffering can actually determine whether we create more and more suffering. 


One way that we make it worse is, when we are experiencing discomfort, we resist it. We try to get rid of it. We clench up around it. We try to push it away. What often happens there is, what you resist persists. That’s a common saying we use in psychotherapy. Another thing to consider here is, the more you try to push it down, the more it’s going to bubble up anyway, but in ways that make you feel completely out of control, completely lost in this experience, and maybe overwhelmed with this experience. Another thing is, the more you resist it, the more you’re feeding your brain a story that it’s important and scary, which often means that it’s going to send out more anxiety hormones when you have that situation come up again. That’s one way we make it worse. 


Another way we make it worse is, we judge it. When we have discomfort, we judge it by going, “This is wrong. This is bad. You’re a bad person for having this discomfort. What’s wrong with you for having this discomfort? It shouldn’t be here.” 


I’ve done a whole episode about this, and this is something that is my toxic trait, which is I go into this emotional tantrum in my head where I’m like, “This is bad. This is wrong. It shouldn’t be happening. It shouldn’t be this way. It should be this other way. It’s not fair. I can’t believe it’s this way.” I totally can catch myself going down a rabbit hole of judging the situation, the circumstance, and myself and my discomfort, which only creates more discomfort for myself. 


Another way we make things worse is rumination, which is similar to what I was just talking about. But rumination is, we try and solve things, we loop on them. Again, it could be a looping on, “Why is this happening? It shouldn’t be happening,” like I just explained. Or maybe it’s trying to figure it out. Often, we ruminate on things that actually don’t have a solution in the long run anyway. 

Maybe you have chronic pain. Let’s say you do, and you’re ruminating, “What could it be? Why is it there?” I mean, the truth is, we don’t usually have a medical degree. Our rumination, it might feel productive, but we don’t actually have the details to know the answer. 

Let’s say something went wrong at work and you made a big mistake, and we ruminate about what we did, how bad it was, and how humiliating it was. But in that situation, we’re trying to solve something that’s already happened that we have no control over anymore. 

For people who have anxiety, maybe they’re trying to ruminate, trying to solve whether bad things will happen in the future, but we all know we can’t solve what’s going to happen in the future. That’s a dead end. That’s a dead-end road, and it again creates more suffering on our part.


The next piece here is, we punish ourselves. We punish ourselves for having discomfort. We might withhold pleasure. We might treat ourselves poorly. We might not show up in ways that really honor our mental health and our self-care because we’ve made a mistake, we are going through a hard time, or we’re having this uncomfortable experience. These things, while in the moment they feel warranted and they feel productive and effective, they’re actually not. All they’re doing is adding to the suffering you’re already experiencing. 

For those of you who say, “Yeah, no, but I deserve to suffer more,” that’s actually not true either. We have to really catch that because punishing someone with this sort of very corporal punishment kind of method—or we need to beat you up—actually, we’ve got so much research to show it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t prevent uncomfortable things from happening. It doesn’t make it so that you don’t make a mistake. You’re a human being. We’re all struggling. We’re all doing the best we can, and we’re not going to do it perfectly. 


What can you do differently? Let’s now talk about how we can be uncomfortable in an effective, productive,  compassionate, and respectful way. For me, one of the first things that helps me is to really double down on my mindfulness practice. Sometimes the best thing you can do with mindfulness is to become aware that you’re engaging in these behaviors, to catch them, and to label them when you are. It might be as simple as labeling it as “I’m in resistance.” You might just say ‘resistance’ or ‘rumination.’ You’re bringing to your mind and you’re bringing to your attention that you’re engaging in something that you’ve identified as not helpful. That in and of itself can be so helpful.

Now, for those of you who are new to me, I have two episodes that I’ve done on this type of situation in the past. Number one was Episode 188, where I talked about how to tolerate uncomfortable sensations specifically. The other one is Episode 113, which is where we talk about specifically how to manage intrusive thoughts. You can go on there after you’ve listened to this, but stay with me here because I’m going to give you a little step-by-step process. 


Number one, with mindfulness, we’re going to identify and become aware that we’re in resistance, that we’re ruminating, that we’re beating ourselves up, and we’re also going to practice non-judgment as best as we can. Think of this like a muscle in your brain. You’re going to practice strengthening that muscle. But once we are aware of it and once we’ve acknowledged that we’re judging, we’re then going to be aware of or bring our attention to where we are in resistance to allowing it to be there because that’s ultimately a part of our work. 

Discomfort rises and falls so much faster when you do nothing about it. What I want to offer you is, the solution, in some way, can be quite simple, which is to do nothing about the discomfort except love it. Be careful and gentle with yourself. Do nothing at all about trying to make it go away. Do nothing at all about punishing yourself. 


The non-judgment piece is where we allow it to be there without making a meaning about it. Here’s an example. You’ve had an intrusive thought that was really, really scary, and you wish you didn’t have it. You actually are concerned about it. It alarmed you. What you can do is, in that moment, acknowledge that thoughts are thoughts. They’re not facts. They don’t mean anything. They’re just sentences that our brains come up with. What we often do is, when we have it, we think, “What does that mean about me? Why am I having this thought? Why am I having this sensation? Why am I having this anxiety? Why am I having this anger? Why am I having this shame? Why am I anxious in this social situation? Why is this hard?”


What we want to come back to is not making meaning of it, not over-identifying with it and just acknowledging that this is a normal part of human life. This is a normal part of being a human. We all have intrusive thoughts. We all have strong emotions, some more than others. But if you’re someone who has strong emotions more than you maybe think others are, there’s a couple of things I want you to remember. Number one, we actually don’t know how other people are doing, so you can’t actually say that they’re not having these emotions. Maybe they are. 

Often, people will say to me, “You always seem so calm.” I’m like, “Oh, you have no idea.” Like, yeah, I am calm in many situations, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have anxiety about certain things or big, big, big emotions about certain things. You just don’t see it. You don’t see it on the camera; you don’t see it in the podcast. You don’t see it in my daily life. It’s at home in my mind when I’m experiencing it as I’m regulating. But we want to work at not over-identifying with “What does it mean about me” and that “I’m bad for having these experiences.”

One thing you must take away, and I say it quite often, is there is no thought, feeling, sensation, urge, or image that makes you bad. The meditation vault, which we just launched, is an online vault, a collection of meditations for people with sticky thoughts, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and so forth. They’re very, very specific in almost every single one. I work at getting them to not overidentify with the experience they’re having. 

Oh, you’re having an intrusive thought. Let’s not make meaning of what that means about you. 

Oh, you’re having shame. Your shame is telling you that you’re bad. Let’s not agree with it. Let’s acknowledge that it is a thought and a feeling, but it’s not a fact about you. 

You’ve made a mistake; you failed. Okay, we can acknowledge that, but that doesn’t make you a failure. We want to catch over-identifying with what our discomfort is experiencing and how we’re experiencing that discomfort. The over-identification, the labeling, and the making meaning often is what contribute to us feeling double the discomfort. 


The next thing you want to do is make space for the discomfort. My clients roll their eyes because they know I’m going to say it. I’m going to say, “Why can’t we make some space for this emotion,” or “Would you be willing to make some space for this emotion as it rises and falls?” If we make space for it to be here while we go about our day, while you interact with your child or your loved one, or your client, or your employer or your employee—if we can just make space for it to be there, nonjudgmentally, it tends to be less loud. 


The whole point of the work that I do here with my patients and with you is to nurture a sense of you having any emotion, any feeling, or any discomfort in a safe way, in a way where you make space for it. I often will say, we want to work towards you being able to have any thought, feeling, sensation, urge, or image so that you know that there’s nothing you can’t handle. If you’re really willing to feel it all, if you’re really willing and have practiced giving yourself permission to feel all the discomfort, there’s very little that can be painful for you. There’s very little that can stump you. There’s very little that can hold you back. 

Often, when people ask me, “How do you do what you do? You spend all day with clients who are suffering, and you’re in the suffering with them. And then you get online and do these videos, or you do social media. How do you do all that?” The only reason, there’s nothing special about me, truly. The only thing about me is I’m willing to feel a lot of discomfort. I really am. The more I practice having it, the more I feel empowered that I can handle anything. 

Confidence to do things isn’t something you just learn and have; you get it by feeling feelings. Having them willingly and making space for them—truly, this is the work. If there’s really anything I’ve learned, it’s that—we have to be better at making space and feeling our feelings and having the discomfort and saying, “Great, this is a wonderful opportunity for me to practice being uncomfortable.” If something gets thrown out of whack this week for you, I urge you to say, “Okay, good. This is another great opportunity for me to practice being uncomfortable. Where do I notice my resistance to being uncomfortable? Where do I notice the judgment? Where do I notice that I overidentify with it? Where do I notice that I’m punishing myself for it?” Okay, good. Now that we know, we’re aware, and we’re non-judgmental, let’s use this as an opportunity to be able to feel any experience that comes up. Things get a whole lot less scary if you’ve already practiced feeling your feelings. 


I actually did a whole podcast on that as well. It’s Episode 65, where I talk about how your feelings are meant for feelings. That’s another resource if you want to jump into that kind of topic as well. But then once you’ve done all that—we’ve done this zooming in and now we zoom out—then you move on with your day. You don’t just sit there and feel your feelings and sit on the couch and stare at the floor going, “I’m feeling my feelings. I’m feeling my feelings. Here they are.” That’s fine if that’s what you feel right about. But ideally, you would take the feelings with you and go mow the lawn or do the things you love or do the things that you need to get done today, your chores or whatever that might be. 

But take this practice with you, because if you can get good at feeling discomfort, then you can marry that skill. It’s a skill. It’s not something that you were born with; it’s something that you can learn to do. But once you get good at that, then you can marry it with, “Now I’m going to go live my life while I use that skill.” And then you 10x your life, truly, 10x your ability. You’re still going to be uncomfortable. You’re still going to have hard days. You’re still going to have some discomfort, but your experience of it will not be one of, “Oh no, geez, I hope it goes away. I hope it’s not strong today. I hope it doesn’t stay all day because it really messes me up.” It won’t be like that. You’ll be like, “It doesn’t matter. I know it’s here, and I’m going to be here with it, and I’m going to make space for it. I’m going to be kind. I’m going to be non-judgmental about it. But it can come. I’ve done it as much.”

One thing I did learn, and I’ll use this as an example, is I used to have the most excruciating sleep anxiety. I used to worry about not sleeping. Because if I didn’t sleep, I’d have massive anxiety. The next day, I’d be teary. I just couldn’t function well. As I got pregnant and went to have my first child, I was so worried about how my mental health would go. 

Don’t get me wrong; not having sleep did impact my mental health for sure. But getting less sleep and having to get up and take care of a baby, and then having to get up and go to work once I’m done with maternity leave, and learning that I can actually get through a day, using my skills, seeing my patients, and managing my emotions, a lot of my sleep anxiety went away because all I could think of was that I’ve done worse. I’ve literally gone a night where I slept for 25 minutes and I still was able to cope. Even if I can’t fall asleep tonight, I know I can handle it. That empowerment is gold. That change in perspective. That attitude shift about discomfort is a game changer. 

Now, of course, you know what I’m going to say. This has to be done with an immense degree of compassion. This has to be done in small, baby steps. I’m not here to tell you to throw yourself into 10 out of 10 discomfort, but if you have to, I still trust and believe wholeheartedly that you can still handle it. I always say to my patients, no one has ever died from discomfort itself. It won’t kill you. It’s just going to be really hard. We can practice holding ourselves kindly as best as we can as we ride that wave. That’s the work. 


To recap, what makes it worse? Discomfort and uncomfortability get worse when we do anything to try and make it go away. We won’t resist it with this urgency to get it go away. But the solution is acceptance, willingness, non-judgment, compassion, making space for it, and then engaging with your life. Again, I’ll say it again. The solution is accepting the discomfort. Willingness is the willingness to be uncomfortable. The non-judgment of being uncomfortable. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s neutral. It is still uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean you are bad or it’s bad. We’re going to be self-compassionate as we feel this uncomfortable feeling. And then we’re going to keep making space and moving back into our lives, doing maybe baby steps at a time. Even if you do this for 10 seconds, I applaud you. Let’s celebrate you. If you do it for 30 seconds and you’re able to do that multiple times a day, you are on the right track. If you can be uncomfortable for three minutes at a time, you’re basically winning at life. I want to encourage you, this is huge. 

Sometimes, when things are really hard at the Quinlan household and I want to scream, yell, or totally do something that I know I will regret, stopping and saying, “Okay, this is discomfort. Can you stay with it? Can you make space for this for three minutes or 30 seconds,” has given me an opportunity to not say things I don’t mean, to not react in ways that will end up causing me more suffering that keep me in line with my values. This ability to be uncomfortable has saved me from making some big mistakes in my life. Not all of them. I’ve still made mistakes, of course, but relationally, huge mistakes I could have made had I not slowed down and made a little space for the fact that I’m angry. “Okay, I’m going to make space for this anger,” or that I’m hurt, or that I’m really anxious.

There’s been times where I’ve wanted to run away from my anxiety, but my ability to, for 30 seconds at a time or 10 minutes at a time, make space for the anxiety, not judge it, allow it, and bring it on has meant that I've been able to face some really scary things, and that’s what I want for you.

That’s how you’re uncomfortable. Is it easy? No way is not easy. Is it doable? Absolutely. I want to remind you, this is a practice in which you can grow. Before you know it, there will be these moments of empowerment that will shock you, and you can’t believe that you’ve made these changes out of nowhere. I fully and wholeheartedly believe that. I’ve heard it from so many patients and so many students. A lot of you have also shared how helpful it’s been. That is why I say it’s a beautiful day to do hard things, because when we do hard things in a very skilled way, they actually make us feel really empowered, and we have a sense of “I can handle things now.”

All right. It’s a beautiful day to do hard things. Again, please go to CBT School if you’re interested in any of our online courses. They talk about all these kinds of things. We have courses for OCD, anxiety, depression, BFRBs, meditation, mindfulness, time management—the whole deal. My hope is that this type of message can be taken in any area of your life, and hopefully, it makes it so much better. 

Have a great day. 

Oct 27, 2023

In today’s episode of Your Anxiety Toolkit podcast, you will learn how to meditate to reduce anxiety. You’ll also learn which meditation is best for anxiety and how to find a meditation practice that suits your lifestyle and your recovery needs.

With the pressure of today’s society and the news being so scary, people are rapidly turning to meditation as a powerful tool to calm their minds and ease their anxiety. My name is Kimberley Quinlan. I am a licensed therapist and anxiety specialist, and my hope today is to teach you how you can use meditation to help manage and reduce your anxiety.

How To Meditate To Reduce Anxiety

What Is Meditation? 

Now, what is meditation? Meditation is a training in awareness, and the goal is to help you get a healthy awareness and understanding of what is going on in your mind. So often, our minds are like a puppy. They are just going all over the place, jumping, skipping, yelling, screaming, and going in all different directions. If we aren’t skilled, and if we aren’t intentional with that, we can be off with that, off down the track in negative thinking, scary thinking, and depressive thinking. 

The Benefits Of Meditation For Anxiety Relief

There are many benefits of meditation for anxiety relief. Meditation helps train your brain. Now, there are so many benefits to meditation for anxiety relief, and I want to share with you some of those benefits.

The first one is, it rewires your brain. It reduces the activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for the fear response. Meditation can also lower stress hormones such as cortisol. It can increase the production of those feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. This is really important, particularly if you struggle with depression. 

It can also shift the brain chemistry and lead to improved mood, reduced anxiety, and an overall sense of well-being. We could also argue that this would be helpful for anybody, even if they don’t have anxiety. 

We also know that meditation cultivates mindfulness, which we talk a lot about here on Your Anxiety Toolkit, which is the practice of being fully present and nonjudgmental in the moment.

Meditation increases self-compassion and acceptance, which I think we all agree can help us with our mental health, and it helps reduce negative thinking patterns and also reduces self-criticism. 

Common Problems People Have With Meditation

Now, there are a couple of problems here, though, with meditation. Often, when people come to me, they'll say, “I don’t know about this whole meditation thing. It sounds a bit like a cult or a bit like a scam or a fad, a psychology fad.” Often, that’s because people have a misled idea about what meditation is and how it works. 

One of the main problems that I hear is that people expect that meditation will, poof, make their anxiety go right away. As they’re practicing meditation—and it is a meditation practice—as they’re starting to practice this meditation, they’re getting frustrated because they’re thinking, “This isn’t working. It’s not making my anxiety go away.” 

We want to first challenge the idea that meditation is not a quick fix. It’s not something that’s going to, poof, make your anxiety go away, but there are so many benefits that I will talk to you about here in just a second. 

Another problem that people have with meditation is they get frustrated with the practice. They have these expectations that they should be able to do it. Well, simply because it’s often sitting or very stationary, they assume, “I must be really good at this. It’s such a basic task.” But the truth is, it’s not. We have to remove those expectations that we will be excellent at it, that it should be easy, or that discomfort won’t arise. 

Another problem people have is that they do experience anxiety while they’re meditating, and they’ll say, “I’m here to get away from my anxiety, but when I’m meditating, everything is still, and I actually feel more anxious.” We’ll talk about that here in just a second. 

People also don’t like meditation because they have been told that the solution to anxiety is to make it go away. And so, what would this mindfulness meditation practice really do if we’re actually just sitting there thinking? What a waste of time, actually putting more focus on the actual problem of anxiety. Again, not true, but these are the common problems people have. 

The last one is, people say, “I don’t have time for meditation.” I always laugh because I do know that the Dalai Lama said, “For those who don’t have time to meditate, they’re the ones who need to meditate twice as long.” That always made me laugh because there’s been many times where I’ve said, “Oh, I don’t have time today,” and I laughed thinking, okay, even more important that these are the days that I focus on meditation. 

Which Meditation Is Best For Anxiety?

Let’s talk about which meditation is best for anxiety, because I know you’re here to talk about how meditation can help with your anxiety. Now, there are many types of meditation. No one really agrees what the best one is, and no one really even agrees on the specific types because there are so many and so many modifications. But here are some options—we will also talk about later how to apply these to your anxiety disorder—that you may want to consider. 


The first one is mindfulness, or what we call Vipassana meditation. Now, this is a meditation that really helps you become skillful in how you respond to your intrusive thoughts, your feelings, and your sensations.


Another type of meditation is body scan meditation. This is very body- and somatic-centered in that we’re focusing on different parts of the body, often with some kind of relaxation technique to slowly move down the body and move us into a place of relaxation. 

Now, there are pros and cons to this meditation. Some people find it very relaxing, especially when we’re looking at getting sleep. Others find that, again, their expectations are very high, and then they get quite frustrated when they’re unable to get relaxed, because the truth is, when we’re anxious, when that amygdala is firing in our brain, it is really hard to relax. Sometimes meditation in and of itself is not going to fix that. But a body scan meditation is a really effective one, particularly if you’re trying to slow down the nervous system. Maybe look at trying to get some sleep, a nap, or some rest. 


Another type of meditation is visualization meditation. This is where you actually visualize something happening to you. Maybe you’re walking along a path or along a beach. You’re in a relaxed setting. Let’s say you’re an athlete. It might be visualizing you doing the activity, the exercise, or the skill that you’re practicing—a layup for basketball, running a marathon, or so forth. The visualization can help with empowerment. It can help promote creativity. It can help create a sense of mastery over something that you haven’t yet mastered. 


Another type of meditation is walking meditation. This is a great one, particularly if you’re someone who is very sedentary during your work. I am one of those people. I sit a lot during my day. Walking meditation is similar to mindfulness meditation in that you’re very aware of the present moment, what it feels like for your feet to touch the ground, for the balls of your feet to touch the ground compared to the heel of your feet, what it feels like for the wind to blow on your face, or what it feels like for the weight balance, going from left foot to right foot, and so forth.


Another type of meditation practice is self-inquiry meditation. This often involves inquiry or curiosity to who I am in this moment. It might be, who am I as I hear these sounds? Who am I when I have these thoughts? There are some pros and cons to this for those with anxiety. Sometimes, when we have anxiety, we already spend a lot of time doing a lot of self-inquiry or self-rumination about who we are. What’s our identity? Are we good? Are we bad? This type of meditation can be beneficial for some, but for many people with anxiety, they may find it not helpful at all unless they’re with someone who can very much direct them and keep them on track with the active inquiry instead of going into rumination.


Another type of meditation is mantra meditation. This is where you repeat a mantra, a phrase, or a sound over and over again. It’s about the training of the mind and the training of discipline for one specific sound, tone, or word. It can be very helpful, again, if there’s a particular intention you’re trying to go towards. But again, for those folks with anxiety, this can be very frustrating because, again, there’s sort of this attachment and expectation and clinging to a certain outcome. For those of us who have anxiety, that can actually create a lot of distress in our bodies. Not to say that any of these are bad or good; it’s just dependent on your specific set of situations.


One that I always love and talk about all the time is loving-kindness meditation. This is an act of compassion where you send yourself others and all sentient beings loving kindness and care. It is a way of generating, practicing, and nurturing self-compassion. It is a beautiful way to be in connection with people out in the world that maybe we don’t have a connection with, particularly if we’re lonely or feeling isolated and alone. Loving-kindness meditation can be so beneficial to people with anxiety or depression, OCD, health anxiety, and so forth if they’re feeling so alone and they’re really very hard on themselves. Loving kindness is absolutely a beautiful meditation for people with anxiety. 


Another type of meditation is zazen meditation, which is a specific zen meditation where the goal is to be focused on a direct experience of this present moment. The main goal is non-attachment. The goal is to allow everything to be just as it is. It’s a very disciplined practice, but can be very beneficial to people who have anxiety. 


The last two: number one, breath meditation where you focus on the breath and you have that as your focal point. This is very beneficial for people with anxiety. The only thing I would say is, for those who have somatic obsessions of a specific type of OCD, if your somatic obsession is already focused on the breath, we actually then wouldn’t practice this because it would actually add to their hyper-awareness. But overall, breath meditation is a very beneficial practice for people with anxiety. 


And the last one is a sound meditation. This is where your focal point is on sound. Very beneficial for those with somatic obsession and very beneficial for people who really like the vibration of sound and really love music, and music is something that grounds them, lifts them up, motivates them, and so forth. 

There are different types of meditations and some pros and cons, but there are some specific things I want you to know and remember as you start a meditation practice and while meditating, because so many people have come to me to say, “I don’t like meditating. It doesn’t help me. Therefore, I’m not going to do it.” I feel that that is such a shame because meditation can be such a powerful mental health practice. It can be such powerful training for the brain. 

I often say to my clients, when you start to notice some tightness in your knee or some shoulder pain, you don’t just ignore it. You think, okay, I have an opportunity to strengthen that muscle around the knee or stretch out that shoulder. We usually move in and do some work, exercises, and practices to create an environment where that pain can go away. I think of meditation as being exactly that. It’s like physical therapy for the brain, and it can help. Like I talked about, there are so many benefits to meditation, but it does require that we do it specifically in a way that doesn’t make more anxiety.

Now I have a really exciting thing I want to mention to you before I get into all the things I want you to remember as you move into your meditation practice. Because so many people have come to me and said that they’ve listened to meditations online, they’ve gone to meditation trainings, and they actually found it to be not helpful for their anxiety, for their intrusive thoughts, or for their depression. 

I have created an online meditation vault specifically for those who have anxiety and repetitive intrusive thoughts. My goal with this meditation vault is to make it very informative for the person who struggles with high expectations and rapid, repetitive intrusive thoughts, and I try to bring that concept into the meditations so they’re specific for people with anxiety. 

There are over 28 meditations. There are specific meditations for people with OCD, health anxiety, social anxiety, panic, generalized anxiety, and depression. There are meditations on sleep, meditations on compassion, meditations on mindfulness, and meditations on strong emotions like guilt and shame. I did my best to pack them all into one specific place so that you have a wide range of guided meditations specifically for whatever it is that you need. There’s even a meditation for people who don’t want to meditate. I felt that that was really, really important. 

You can click the link in the show notes below if you’re interested. You can also go to to get information about the vault. It is very low-cost. I want it to be low-cost so everyone can access it, and I’m so excited for you guys to check that out.

How To Meditate To Reduce Anxiety

If you are wondering how to meditate to reduce anxiety, there are things you need to remember as you practice meditation. 

Do not expect anxiety to magically disappear. Number one, if that were to happen, it probably wouldn’t be for very long anyway. 

I want you to imagine this practice as the slow and steady growth of a muscle. If you were going to train at the gym, you wouldn’t go straight in and pick up a hundred pounds right away. You would start low; 10, 15, maybe 10 to 12 and a half, then to 15, and you would slowly work your way up. You wouldn’t have these expectations that your body would be able to pick up a hundred pounds at a time without pain afterwards. You would go in knowing that the cost of this is going to be that I may get pain if I overdo it, and I want you to think about that with your meditation practice as well. Not that you’ll have pain, but that it’s healthy to take baby steps and do it slowly and steadily.

Another thing I want you to think about is, again, to think of this as an opportunity to change the way your brain responds to anxiety. Think of this as an opportunity to change how you respond to discomfort, how you act in your daily life, and how you can change your habits to benefit your mental health.

How Long Does It Take For Meditation To Reduce Anxiety And Stress?

Often, people will ask: how long does it take for meditation to reduce anxiety and stress? The answer here is very simple, which is, let’s not put pressure on that to be the outcome. I know you came here to learn that exact answer, but the thing to remember here is, the more we resist anxiety, the more we want it to go away, the more we try and avoid it, the more we’re feeding to our brain that it’s dangerous and scary, and it will make our brain send out more stress hormones.

We want to use meditation as an opportunity to train our brains that we are no longer going to run away from anxiety and stress. Instead, we’re going to open up a space for anxiety and stress and have it be a safe place. Have our bodies and our minds be a safe place for anxiety to rise and fall. It’s important that we understand that this, again, is an opportunity for you to change your specific emotional reaction to having anxiety and stress.

Now that being said, I will still answer the question, which is, I think within time, you will probably see a very significant improvement. Most research shows that a short meditation practice of four to six weeks will significantly reduce people’s stress and significantly improve people’s relationship with their anxiety.

I often say to my patients, give it 30 days. Go in with a solid commitment to practicing as often as you can for 30 days. Track your anxiety; maybe even put it on a scale from 1 to 10. If you’re able to do it in this way, where you’re not trying to get rid of anxiety but instead trying to make it a place where you can have anxiety and not respond with judgment, criticism, and resistance, you’ll probably find that you’ll have significantly reduced levels of anxiety and stress after 30 days. 

Now, again, I want to emphasize that there is significant research to show that meditation for stress is very beneficial. In fact, we’ve found that practicing meditation again downregulates your stress response. It reduces your nervous system’s activity and reactivity to stressful events in your life and can greatly benefit your overall well-being. Definitely, if you’re someone who’s struggling with a very stressful time, and I think we all are given that the news is so, so painful right now, I think it’s a beautiful opportunity for us to start a meditation practice. 

Another thing I want you to remember here is that by practicing meditation, you widen your window of tolerance. Now, what does this mean? I’ve talked about it on the podcast before. If your window of tolerance is very narrow, it means, as soon as you have any kind of strong emotion, strong experience, sensation, or pain in your body because you haven’t practiced being able to tolerate that, you are very much more likely to rely on unhelpful safety behaviors to cope with that distress. 

In discomfort, as I mentioned, we actually widen our window of tolerance. The wider we can have this window of tolerance, the more likely we are to be regulated when we have a lot of emotions. We can be steady and really intentional in how we respond. We are more likely to act according to our values than according to our fears. So we want to practice widening that window of tolerance. There is so much benefit to doing that. 

Another thing to remember, and I’ve mentioned this already, but I think it’s really important as we finish up, is to not put pressure on yourself to get this right. I will often say to clients, and I say it all the time in the meditation vault over and over again, expect anxiety to show up over and over again. Expect your mind to go off track and go off and think about the grocery list. Your job is to bring it back to the present moment. 

Don’t be upset with your brain for going off track. That’s its job. Its job is to be highly functioning and thinking about all the things. But the training and the benefit is that discipline to bring you back to the focal point that you’re on right now, depending on the type of meditation that you’re doing. 

I hope that you can practice letting meditation be messy, because it is. Even very, very skilled monks who practice meditation for hours a day still report that there are days when meditation is messy. There are days when your brain will be all over the place like that puppy dog, but with practice, you will start to see an improvement in your ability to be disciplined and intentional with where you put your attention, which again, as I mentioned, reduces the chances of you engaging in safety behaviors that aren’t helpful, reduces the chances of you engaging in compulsions, and reduces your chances of going back down into those negative thought processes. There are so many benefits.

The last thing I want you to remember is, as you begin this practice, be curious. Be open. Instead of being judgmental and rigid about what you think will happen, be curious about what might come from inquiring and moving into this practice. 

Meditation has changed my life. It has calmed me in the darkest hour. It has been there for me when I needed support, and I hadn’t had anybody else to lean on. Meditation, as I mentioned, is a practice where you teach yourself to be a safe place for you to experience any emotion at all, and you know that it’s there; you can take it with you wherever you’re at. It costs nothing to practice meditation in the moment, and I hope that it’s something that will bring you as much joy and as much wellness as it has for me. 

Have a wonderful day, everybody. As always, it is a beautiful day to do hard things. Again, if you’re interested in the mindfulness meditation vault, you can click the link in the show notes.

Have a wonderful day.

Oct 20, 2023

If you are scared to take medication, you are in the right place. Today, we are going to take a deep dive into a very common fear that impacts many people and their recovery, and that is the fear of taking medication. If you’re someone who needs help with this, I think this is going to be really helpful for you. 

Hello, my name is Kimberley Quinlan. I am an anxiety specialist, and I help people with anxiety. My hope is to make it an easy and a kind recovery for you. 

afraid to take your medication


Now, today we’re talking about the fear of taking medication, and a lot of what I do with my patients in my private practice, which is in California, is really helping them work through that fear. In addition, on my online platform called CBT School, I often get a lot of questions about this, such as whether or not people can take meds, should they take meds, and so forth. But before we get into all that, what I want to share with you first are a few housekeeping points that will keep us on point and in the right direction today. 

If you’re someone who is scared to take meds, we first have to acknowledge that this episode is not going to cover whether you should take meds or not. I am not a medical doctor. I am not a medical professional. I am a mental health professional, and I do not prescribe medication. I am not licensed to do that. But I am here to help you manage the fear around it. If you are someone who wants to take medication but is afraid of it because of the side effects, or maybe because of the shame, the guilt, and the stigma around it, my hope today is that we can work on managing that fear and getting you the information and skills you need so that you can speak with your medical professionals and make a decision based on what is best for you. 

It is important to remember that every person is different, and it’s important that you make these decisions with your medical doctor so that we’re making a decision based on your medical history, where you’re at in your mental health recovery, your genetics—all of the things that you need to discuss with your medical doctor. But today, let’s get going. We’re talking about managing medication anxiety. 

Where did this episode come from? I actually made a post about this on Instagram not long ago, and the response was overwhelming, with people saying, number one, “I’m too afraid to do it. Help me,” and number two, a lot of people said, “I had a lot of anxiety around taking medication. I got the help I needed and I managed it, and now I’m so relieved that I did.” I wanted to spend some time today talking about the reasons people are scared to take an antidepressant or other psychiatric medications or even medications in general. 


There are multiple reasons patients do not take their medications, due to fear. In this episode, we are coming the core reasons fears stops people from taking their antidepressants or other medicines. 


The number one reason that people reported being scared to take medication is the fear that medication will cause side effects. This is a very common fear around taking medication, and it is true. We will talk about the side effects here later in this episode, but that is a valid concern. But often, people are afraid of the side effects, even though they are not afraid of it being a catastrophic side effect. They’re often afraid of just change, or they’re afraid of what is uncertain and unknown, and that is a big thing for them. 


Another reason that people are afraid to take any kind of medication is an OCD fear of taking medication. The reason I say it like that is, it’s beyond just a generalized fear of the side effects. It’s often around a belief of what this medication will do to you. 

One example I’ve had in my private practice has been the subtype of OCD called emotional contamination. They’re afraid that by taking the medication, it will dramatically change their personality or that they’ll turn into a different person. There’s a lot of compulsions around that, rumination around that, and avoidance around that. They’re also doing this kind of avoidant compulsions in other areas of their lives as well. 


Another OCD fear of taking medication is under the umbrella of health anxiety. A lot of people are afraid that the side effects will be catastrophic, that it will give them some catastrophic medical condition if they were to take this psychiatric drug or any medication in general. 


Now, in addition to that, there is actually a specific medication phobia called pharmacophobia, which is a phobia of drugs and alcohol. This is a specific phobia where people are afraid of any and all drugs. Often, in this case, they’re afraid to take headache medication or allergy medication. They’re even afraid to look at pills for reasons that could be plentiful. It could be a learned behavior around medication, particularly if they’ve heard stories of people who have misused drugs and bad things that have happened. That is another reason why people are often scared to take meds. 


Another common fear, as we’ve already discussed, is fear of medication’s sexual side effects. Now, for those of you who have a specific fear around the side effects, you have a valid concern. There are some medications that do cause sexual side effects, and we did an entire episode on Your Anxiety Toolkit talking specifically about the sexual side effects of anxiety medications. We had a psychiatrist come on and speak about this. It’s episode 332, and I will link to it in the show notes if your interest is specifically more in-depth information about that. But I will also give some tips and tools to use around that later on here in this episode. 


Another fear around taking medication includes the fear of being ashamed or the fear that you’re weak or that you’re stigmatized for taking medication. This is a really, really big one. A lot of people feel that they are weak, faulty, or wrong for needing medication. Now, this is where I slow down and get very transparent. I am very comfortable sharing that I take medication for anxiety. I have, through different stages of my life, needed to take medication for this, and I’m an anxiety specialist, guys. I want to tell you that, not because I want to make this about me, but because I want to share with you that you can have all the tools and skills, and they really do work. 

Research does show that if you were to compare medication and CBT, especially for anxiety disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is actually the number one way to get recovery from these anxiety disorders. But even better than that, the research shows that combining medication and cognitive behavioral therapy is the gold standard. And so, if you’re really struggling, by combining these, this is where you can get massive help with your mental health struggle. 

Again, I want to really share with you that even though I have the skills and the tools, I take medication. There’s no shame in that. A lot of times, we often will compare that you wouldn’t feel ashamed for taking diabetic medication. You wouldn’t feel ashamed if you needed medication for another medical condition. There is no shame, no guilt, and no stigma that I want you to take away from this episode from taking medication. 

Now, I want to also validate, yes, there is still a stigma. There will be some people out there who may even respond to this episode by saying, “You shouldn’t take meds, and you should try this other treatment,” and so forth. That’s still going to be there. But I want to offer you a degree of compassion and a degree of education that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you want to take medication or need to take medication. 


Last, the fear about taking drugs is the concern that the medication will be addictive or that the person will become reliant on the medication. We’ll talk about that here in just a little bit, but the one thing I want to mention here is, if you are in contact with your doctor—you’re being constantly followed by your doctor and checked in by your doctor—you can bring up these concerns with them, and they can help determine that. Again, each of the questions you have, you should go to your doctor and bring it up because if you do have a history or if, in generations above you, you have a history of addiction, then absolutely bring that up to your doctor and they can help make decisions around different medications that can help prevent that for you.


Now let’s go into managing medication anxiety. This is where the good stuff comes in. Number one is, I want you to prioritize finding a skilled and trustworthy psychiatrist or medical professional. It doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist. In fact, there are other people who can help prescribe your medication, whether it be your pediatrician, your medical doctor, or your intern. It could be a nurse. There are psychiatric nurses who can prescribe medication. You want to find somebody who’s going to slow down, take their time with you, not just push you through really fast, and answer your specific questions. 

Now, when it comes to managing anxiety, OCD, or health anxiety, we usually discourage asking compulsive questions, repetitive questions, or going overboard with the questions. But I do think that it’s important that you give yourself permission and honor your need to ask the questions that you have about the medications you want to go on. That will help you understand the medication, understand the side effects, and understand the pros and cons so you can make an informed decision.

As we’ve said before, we want to understand questions about side effects, sexual side effects, addiction, how long you should be on medications, and what specific side effects you should be looking out for. We want to understand this. We want to know what the norm is for these medications on what it would look like, how fast you can see results, and what this process is going to look like. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. 

Now, if you have OCD fear of taking medication or pharmacophobia, a thing you might want to consider is finding an ERP therapist. I’ve had a lot of clients come to me who have consulted with their doctor, and they’ve agreed that medication would be helpful for their recovery and that they required some mental health advice in moving in that direction. What we did is either start by just looking at pictures of medication or we might fill the prescription of the med that they need to take and just have it with them, hold the medication, put it in their hand, smell the medication, and take one with the care and following of a medical professional. Start that process by slowly exposing them and practicing being around that medication to start with. 

If you are someone who’s struggling in that area, absolutely consider seeking out an ERP therapist (exposure and response prevention) who can help manage all of that as we go and help with the response prevention piece. Because remember, exposure is not the main work; it’s also catching any compulsions that you’re doing around the medication. Maybe you’re doing a lot of compulsive checking with the medication and so forth. 

Another thing I want you to think about is being able to challenge your faulty thoughts and beliefs about the medication. As we talked about before, with those reasons that people are afraid, there is often a lot of faulty, catastrophic thinking around medication. Ones that are common that I see with my patients are, “I won’t be able to handle the side effects.” Let’s say a common side effect for a medication might be some nausea. Then we will say, “Okay, let’s talk about your ability to handle nausea. Have you handled nausea in the past?” Let’s say it’s headaches. “Okay, what could you do if those headaches were to appear? How might you speak with your doctor about those? How might you be able to plan for that?” Maybe it’s like, “What if I have a panic attack if I take the medication?” “Okay, let’s talk about some skills and talk about challenging your ability to manage the anxiety that you feel.” 

A lot of people say, “I already have a lot of anxiety. I don’t want to do things that create more anxiety.” Again, we’ll say, “Are you willing to tolerate that anxiety? What are you telling yourself about your own mastery of riding waves of discomfort and so forth?” If you have, let’s say, emetophobia, the fear of nausea and vomiting, “What do we believe about vomit? Do you believe that you can’t handle that?” And again, you may need to defer to an ERP therapist to help you if you have emetophobia, the fear of vomiting and nausea, to help you manage that so that you can take the medications if that’s something you’re wanting to do. We do want to challenge faulty thoughts, and we want to challenge faulty beliefs about medication. 

Again, here is where I get really, really passionate about saying: There is absolutely no shame in taking medication. Taking medication does not mean you’re weak, does not mean you’re lazy. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It doesn’t mean that you’re never going to get better, and it doesn’t mean you need to be on it forever. Again, we’re here to encourage you to consult with your medical doctor and be flexible with your recovery. 

Now, being flexible is so important here. So often, patients of mine will say, “But what if I don’t like the medication? What if I get on it and I really don’t like it, or it makes me feel terrible and I can’t function?” Well, okay, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. We’re going to be flexible with this. We don’t have to stay on it forever. Once you get on it, if then there is an issue, we will address that issue. Then we’re not going to spend time before taking the medication trying to troubleshoot all the possible catastrophes and scenarios. We’re only going to take one day at a time, and with each day, we’re going to make measured, skillful, and wise decisions based on the actual events of that day, not on the possible scenarios that may happen, that may be catastrophic that haven’t happened yet. 

So often, people who have a fear of medication are responding to things that haven’t even happened yet. I know when I got POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome), I was not functioning, my anxiety was through the roof, I was depressed, and the doctors strongly advised me to take medication. A big part of me was absolutely like, “What if this makes it worse?” and all these things. I had to just say, “Kimberley, be present. Stay with what’s happening today, and we will address that as it goes. We’ll cross that bridge when that happens. If that does happen, we will speak with a medical professional. We will take one step at a time and we will do what we need to do.” We want to catch that anticipatory anxiety about medications and the anticipatory anxiety about the side effects. It’s very, very important that we catch and manage that as we go. 

Another thing to remember here is, you have to be willing to have side effects. As you go on medication, you have to be willing to feel some feelings that may be uncomfortable. As I mentioned, common side effects: headaches, nausea, tiredness, maybe a little jittery, and so forth. Again, I want to keep prefacing: please speak to your medical professional about the side effects because each medication is different. But be willing to have side effects. Again, being flexible, knowing that if this medication doesn’t work for me, we can try something else. I know for me personally, I had to try five medications before I found one that fit me. Five. It took a long time. I had to taper up and then I had to taper down, and I had to try another one, which brings me to the next skill I want you to practice, which is patience. 

I just kept honoring my own needs and said, “I’m going to be patient with this process.” A lot of my patients have found one medication that was prescribed by their medical professional and found that it was great. It’s worked for them straight away. But we want to be patient, and we want to be willing to have a lot of different sensations. I’m not saying you will, but we want to be willing. I actually have a whole other episode on Your Anxiety Toolkit called How to Have Uncomfortable Sensations. If you’re struggling with that, that may be a good resource for you to use as you go through this process as well. 

Now, if you have, or if you’re afraid of sexual side effects, again, I talked about listening to that episode, but I will also say one thing that they did say in that episode: It is okay to seek out a sex therapist or try other skills, such as a skill called sensate focus, or speak to your medical professional about that. 

Now, there are a lot of meds that do not have sexual side effects. If that’s something that is a concern for you, please mention that when you’re seeing your psychiatrist or your medical professionals so that they can pick a medication that will reduce the likelihood of that. Again, we don’t want to catastrophize about potential problems that haven’t happened, but it is okay to bring that up if that’s important to you. 

Now, of all the things and skills I’m going to give you today, the one thing I really want to emphasize is, please give yourself lots of space and lots of permission to rest during this process as you begin medication. I remember when I first went on medications, my mom actually said to me, “Hun, why don’t you just use this time? Thin out your schedule and give yourself lots of time to rest. If you do have side effects, then you won’t be overwhelmed with trying to work and push through.” 

Any way you can during this process, take as much help as you can, whether that be neighbors helping you pick up the kids, grocery delivery, whether it be you don’t clean the house this week and you just let things sort of slide a little. You let your colleagues, your teacher, or your coworkers know that you’ve started a medication and that you might be feeling well. 

Take as much space and take as much care as you can as you start this process. It is scary. It is anxiety-provoking. I’m not here to tell you that it won’t be, but what I am here to say is we can do hard things. How can we support you as you make this value-based decision? How can you find help, support, and care as you lead forward with your values? You’re not letting fear stop you anymore. You’re doing the hard thing. You’re taking the step for your long-term recovery, even though it’s the hard one. How can we be very kind, compassionate, and effective moving forward as you move through this process? 

The next tool I want you to think about is being mindful around the side effects. What I mean by that is, when we do have side effects, we can be non-judgmental, we can stay present, and we can stay in non-resistance to that side effect if you have any. What we know here is, research does show that mindfulness practice does reduce people’s experience of suffering. What we mean by that is, if you’re suffering, your experience of it could be, “This is very, very bad,” or your experience could be, “This is tolerable and doable, and I can handle it.” 

How can you take the judgment out of the side effects? When you’re having them, are you catastrophizing, saying, “This is terrible, this is bad, I can’t handle this,” or are you saying, “This is neutral and tolerable, and I can manage this”? If you’re having a side effect, are you resisting it, pushing it, and fighting it, or are you giving yourself permission to be uncomfortable, and are you willing to allow those sensations to rise and fall? 

As I’ve already discussed, one of the points I had here in my notes is to remind you to always put your values first. If you believe that medication is the right choice for you, lead with that value. Do not let fear interfere with your decision here. That was a lot of rhyming words, but we’re going to go with it. 

The next thing I want you to think about is to talk with your doctor about whether it would be helpful for you to log any changes. I find that it’s very beneficial to log your symptoms. The day you start taking your meds and how many days you take that meds, you probably will need to taper up maybe, depending on what your doctor has told you to do. Take note of when you change any medications. Are there any changes in your anxiety? Is there any change in your mood? What side effects are you experiencing? And that will be there to help when you talk with your doctor next about how it’s going and whether it’s actually the medication. 

I know a lot from my patients, they’ll say, “The medication is definitely causing this problem for me. I’m tired all the time.” But actually, if they’ve logged, we can see, “Actually, around that same time, you started getting less sleep for reasons like around school, or maybe you had a lot of travel, or it was the holidays. Could that be what’s actually causing your symptoms?” Take that log to your medical professional and let them help you decipher whether it is in fact the medication or if this is actually a lifestyle change that has happened in your life.

Again, let’s challenge the stigma here. My main hope here with this whole episode is to take the stigma out of it. There is absolutely no reason for you to feel ashamed for taking medication. There is no reason to believe that you are weak for needing medication. I personally am proud of myself for saying and honoring that I matter. My wellness matters. I will do nothing but put my wellness, my mental health, and my medical health as number one, and I will do that proudly. If that means taking medication, so be it. If other people want to judge me, that’s fine. I don’t really mind if they judge me. Yes, it hurts my feelings sometimes, but they can have their opinion. I’m still going to do what’s best for me. 

I hope that that empowers you to, again, learn from your medical professional what’s best for you. Decide for yourself whether this is a value-based decision. Decide whether you’re going to let fear stop you, and take baby steps. I cannot emphasize how important it is to take baby steps and to stay present. Only deal with problems as they arise. Do not make decisions based on potential problems that may show up in the future. Because if that’s the case, you’ll never move forward with your values. You’ll always move forward with fear. We recently did a whole episode about how to act according to your values, not fear. This is another very important step for your recovery. 

The last thing I’m going to say is, it’s a beautiful day to do hard things, and you can do hard things too. If you have a fear of taking medication, if you’re scared to take medication and it’s impacting your recovery, I hope that this has helped you to manage medication anxiety, to give you a little bit of empowerment, a lot of hope, and hopefully help you to manage your anxiety as you move forward. 

Have a wonderful day, everybody. It has been a pleasure being with you again. I know your time is incredibly valuable, and I’m so honored that you chose to spend your time with me today. I’ll see you next week.

Oct 13, 2023

If you are wondering if you have (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) GAD vs. OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and how to tell the difference, this episode is going to be exactly what you need. 

GAD vs OCD and how to tell the difference

My name is Kimberley Quinlan. I’m a cognitive behavioral therapist. I specialize in all anxiety disorders, and I help people overcome their anxiety in the kindest way possible. Now, I have treated generalized anxiety disorder and OCD for over 15 years, and I want to share with you that it is true—there is a massive overlap between OCD and GAD. They do look very similar. So I’m going to break it down and address the GAD and OCD overlap. Let’s go.

GAD versus OCD. You might know this, but in the world of anxiety disorders, this is actually a very controversial topic right now. I’ve been to conferences and master classes where clinicians will very much disagree on how we differentiate between the two. In fact, some people believe that they are so similar that they should be labeled as the same thing. We don’t all agree, and the reason for that, as I said, is that they do look similar. They do follow a very similar cycle. 

My hope is that in order to understand what GAD is and what OCD is, we need to actually go through the diagnostic criteria. And that’s what we’re going to do for you today so that you too can understand the difference between GAD and OCD and determine for yourself what you think will help move you in the right direction. Let’s talk about it. 


As I mentioned, in order to get a GAD diagnosis, you do have to have a specific set of symptoms, and we’re going to go through them. 

Number one, if you have GAD, the first symptom you need to have is anxiety and worry, and that’s usually focused on everyday events like work, school, relationships, money, and so on. Now, the frequency of GAD needs to occur more days than not for at least six months. The person needs to find it difficult to control this worry and anxiety, and it focuses on areas that are not consistent with other mental health struggles. 

What we mean by that is, let’s say the focus was on being judged by other people. Well, that’s better understood as social anxiety. Or if the focus of your worry was on your health, then we would actually be better diagnosing you or understanding your symptoms as health anxiety. If it was focused on a specific thing, like planes, needles, or vomit, we would better understand that as a specific phobia. In order to have the diagnosis of GAD, it needs to not be under the umbrella of a different diagnosis. Other things that we would rule out when we’re thinking about GAD are things like panic disorder, body image, or even a previous trauma. 

Now, the fifth symptom is it needs to cause distress and impairment. That’s very, very important here because, again, we’re talking about a disorder. What that means is a lack of order, no order. So what we want to see here is that it’s highly impacting their daily lives, highly impacting their ability to function. 

And then the sixth criteria is it has to be ruled out that these symptoms could be from a medical condition or substance abuse. An example of that might be even me with POTS. I have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. A lot of the symptoms of POTS can actually look a little bit like generalized anxiety. 

The seventh criteria are the specific symptoms, and this is important to recognize because this might be true of a lot of different situations, symptoms, diagnoses, medical and mental. You need to have symptoms such as restlessness or being on edge. You need to be either easily fatigued, have difficulty concentrating, or have what we call a blank mind. You might have irritability, you might have muscle tension, and you could also have sleep disturbances. 

That is the breakdown for GAD. As I said, it’s very easy to mix it up with other mental health disorders, such as OCD, because they can look very, very similar. 


Let’s talk about OCD now. What is OCD? Now, in order to understand what OCD is, we need to again address the specific criteria to get a diagnosis of OCD. The symptoms of OCD include the presence of obsessions and compulsions or one. Sometimes, again, you might have obsessions without the compulsions, but usually, at the onset of the disorder, you will have both. You’ll also have intrusive, unwanted, repetitive thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, or images, and these cause a very high degree of distress and anxiety, as we mentioned with GAD. The individual with OCD will often attempt to avoid or suppress these thoughts, feelings, sensations, or urges, and they will try to neutralize them using what we call compulsions. 

Now there are five different types of compulsionS. A lot of you who have followed Your Anxiety Toolkit will know about these compulsions. We’ve talked about them. We actually go over them extensively in our online course for OCD called ERP School. If you’re interested to learn more about that, you can go to We have a whole array of courses there to help you work through this and get help if you don’t have access to treatment of your own. 

We do have five different types of compulsions. The first one is avoidance. The second one is mental compulsions. The third one is reassurance-seeking, whether it be from Google or a loved one. The fourth one is physical compulsions, like checking or jumping over cracks or washing your hands, just to give a few examples. The last one is self-punishment. So there are five types of compulsions. 

Now, these compulsions are not connected in a realistic way and the way that they’re designed to neutralize or prevent. They’re usually clearly excessive behaviors done repetitively and done usually from a place of not wanting to do them, but more that the person with OCD feels like they have to do them to reduce or remove their obsessions. 

Now, obsessions or compulsions are time-consuming. The frequency here is that they need to take up more than one hour per day or cause a significant degree of distress and impairment in their social, occupational, or other areas of functioning in their lives.

The next criteria is that the obsessive-compulsive symptoms are not attributable to physiological symptoms, substance abuse, or a medical condition. Similar to GAD, again, we want to always check for medical and substance abuse issues before we go ahead and get a diagnosis of either GAD or OCD. 

And then, last of all, the disturbance is not better explained by another mental health condition. Again, if the worry or the obsession is around needles, like we talked about before, or being judged by somebody else or health conditions—if that were the case, we would give them a different diagnosis. Now, this is also true for trauma. Again, I want to make sure we understand that. Often, this same cycle will play out in different anxiety disorders—PTSD, BFRBs, phobias, health anxiety, BDD (body dysmorphic disorder). Once we have ruled those out, we can then move forward and acknowledge that this might be OCD or it might be GAD. 


Now that we’ve gone through all that, we can actually slow down a little and really take a look and talk about OCD versus GAD and how to tell the difference. Let’s break it down. 

Both GAD and OCD have intrusive thoughts or what we call obsessions. A repetitive thought. Now, both have the presence of rumination compulsions and reassurance-seeking compulsions. That is true for both conditions. 


OCD tends to be more on irrational topics and subjects, whereas GAD tends to be more focused on daily stresses and rational actual events in the person’s life, but not always. Again, sometimes the person with GAD may engage in a lot of catastrophic thinking or irrational thinking that can actually make this disproportionate to their daily life stresses. 


Questions that you might want to ask yourself when you’re considering how to tell the difference between GAD and OCD are questions like, are your worries related to a daily stressor, or are your fears intrusive and repetitive? 

People with OCD tend to identify that their thoughts are very intrusive, that they can’t stop them, they’re relentless, they’re repeating themselves over and over, whereas people with GAD tend to find that these are more preoccupations with problems in their lives, and they’re trying to solve them. 


Another question to ask is, are my fears realistic or are they irrational and distorted? That question too can help us differentiate whether your symptoms are more related to OCD or GAD.


Another question to ask is, does anyone in your family have GAD or OCD? We know that these conditions are very, very genetic. If you’ve got someone with OCD in your family, it might actually help us to determine, is this something that’s going on for you? Are you better understood as having symptoms of OCD than you are GAD? 


Another question or thing you might want to do is, you can take a GAD test or an OCD test. We have specific diagnostic tests that can help determine these. I strongly encourage, if you’re still having a hard time differentiating after you’ve listened to this episode, please do go and speak to a mental health professional who can help you determine and do those tests so that you can really be clear on what you’ve got and help you get the correct treatment.


Let’s answer some questions about this topic that commonly come up, which hopefully will help you get even more clarity on this topic. One of the most common questions we get asked in this area is, can you have OCD and GAD? Often, some of you are looking at these criteria going like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” And the truth here is, yes, commonly, people do have OCD and GAD. There is a very strong GAD-OCD overlap here. So it could be that you have both. 


The good news here, if that is the case, is that the treatment for GAD and the treatment for OCD are very, very similar. In fact, again, like I said, it’s very controversial. Some clinicians say it doesn’t even matter. We don’t have to differentiate between OCD and GAD because the treatment is going to be so, so similar. 

We’re going to use a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure and response prevention. We call cognitive behavioral therapy CBT, and we call exposure and response prevention ERP for short. Those treatments are focused on reducing those safety behaviors or compulsions, such as rumination, avoidance, reassurance-seeking, physical compulsions, and self-punishment, and also encourage you to identify your fears and learn to face them as much as you can. Learn to navigate those fears by experiencing them, tolerating them, being kind to yourself as you ride the wave of distress, and practice mastering your ability to be uncomfortable. That’s a huge piece of this. Also, master your ability to be uncertain, because in both conditions, they often require you to spend a lot of time trying to seek certainty, to get clarity, to solve the fear, and to prevent the fear. And we actually instead work at reducing that by increasing our willingness to be uncertain. 

We also have an online course called Overcoming Anxiety and Panic, and we go through the same steps with that. They’re two separate courses because we want to make sure the person feels very understood and feels like they have a really good plan. Again, if you’re interested in that, you can go to We have two courses for specific diagnoses, and that will help you make a plan for yourself. They are there specifically for people who do not have access to or do not have the means to access mental health services. These are self-led, on-demand courses. You can take them as many times as you want to put a plan together for you. 


Let’s get back to the questions. What about other anxiety disorders vs OCD? Well, what we’ve talked about already—hopefully, we’ll clear that up—is the real way to determine what your specific problem or struggle is, what is the focus of your intrusive, repetitive thoughts? Again, if it’s on your body and your body image, we would look at an anxiety disorder, an eating disorder, or maybe even BDD. If the focus is on your health, we’re going to look towards health anxiety or hypochondria. If your fear is around being judged, we’re going to look towards social anxiety. If your fear is in response to an actual trauma you’ve been through, we’re going to look at PTSD and other trauma symptoms that you might be having. It’s important to identify the core fear, and that can actually help determine what specific struggle and diagnosis you have. 


Another important question that people ask is, can GAD lead to OCD? We don’t actually have a lot of research on this, so it’s important that we recognize that yes, they can overlap, that yes, you can have GAD, and then you can proceed into having OCD. But I wouldn’t actually say that GAD leads to it or causes it. Usually, again, we don’t really have a lot of clarity on what causes OCD, but we do know that there is a genetic component and an environmental component that are contributing to having OCD.

Lastly, what’s the difference between having OCD and general anxiety or just anxiety in and of itself? Often, again, we’re going to look at that core fear.

Now the thing to remember here is, everybody has anxiety. Everybody experiences anxiety. It is a normal part of being a human. But if that anxiety is starting to impact the functioning and quality of your life, if it’s starting to take up a lot of time, if it’s starting to stop you from being able to do the things you want to do, that’s usually when anxiety becomes what we call an anxiety disorder. When that happens, I’m going to urge you to seek help. There are treatments, there are solutions, and there are practices that can help you overcome this anxiety and get you back to living the life you want to live. You don’t have to live a life where we just accept anxiety at this rapid rate without getting help, skills, and tools to help you move forward.

The whole reason I created Your Anxiety Toolkit is because there are tools that can help you navigate anxiety in the most effective, wise, and kind way. So my hope here is that today, as we’ve learned to differentiate the difference between GAD and OCD and even other anxiety disorders, you can then go to get resources to help you overcome those specific struggles and challenges. 

Again, if you’re interested, please go to We are also here on Your Anxiety Toolkit, where we have over 350 free episodes to help you navigate these conditions. It is an honor and pleasure to help you with these struggles in your life, and I’m so grateful to be able to do that. I hope that’s been helpful. Have a wonderful, wonderful day, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Oct 6, 2023

If you want to live a life according to your values, not fear, you’re in the right place. I am going to give you a detailed look at how you can do this for yourself, but I will also show you how not to do this.

Lots of people are talking about this idea of living life according to their values, not fear. I want to really inspire you, highlight the way that you can do this, and also show you how it cannot be done so well. I’ll actually give you some personal experiences. Hopefully, my goal here is to inspire you to live a life where your values lead the way and fear no longer makes your decisions. Your fear is no longer in the driver’s seat; you are. If that’s good for you, let’s go. 

Hello, my name is Kimberley Quinlan. I’m a marriage and family therapist. I, myself, have struggled for many years with anxiety. In little ways, anxiety just took away the things I wanted, took me away from doing the things I wanted, showing up the way I wanted, and learning how to live a life according to my values, not fear, has literally changed my life. 

How to live your life according to your values, not fear

Now, my hope here is that I can explain this to you. There have been times where my clients have said, “I’m hearing about this idea of values, but it literally doesn’t make any sense to me. Like, how would I navigate that?” So my hope here is to make it nice and clear, give you some clarity and some directions so that you too can live your life according to your values and not fear. 

Now, the thing to remember here is that this idea of values has probably been spoken about in many different modalities, but the one that’s really popular right now that people are talking about is a type of therapy modality called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. What they do is they talk about values as this idea of principles that govern how you want to act. Again, it’s not being perfect. It’s principles that are going to guide you. 

Now, unlike just setting goals, values are never fully accomplished. They’re something that involves continuous behaviors. They’re small baby decisions and little pivots that you are going to make throughout your entire life, and they guide your choices and your decisions according to the person that you want to be, the kind of person you want to see yourself as, or that you identify with. 

Now, often when we’re talking about values, the biggest question I get asked is, “How do I determine these values?” Let’s just stop for a minute and just talk about how we’re going to apply this. 

As you probably already know, fear is a very, very good motivator, and it’s a driver of behaviors. Let’s say you’re just walking along or you’re at home enjoying your day, and then you have a thought or a feeling of danger, like what if something really bad happens? For you, it will be a specific thought or feeling, but for the sake of just making this really broad, basically, your brain has interpreted, “There might be something wrong. There could be danger. Bad things could happen. I feel uncertain about the future.” 

When that happens, our natural human instinct is to fight that fear, run away from that fear, freeze in that fear, or go into people-pleasing mode. We call it the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn response. This is a normal human reaction. We all do it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong or bad. 

If there was actual danger, if there was somebody who was intruding on you or making you uncomfortable and that you were in danger, this 5Fs, the FFFFF approach, is a very appropriate response to being in danger. But when our brain tricks us or sets off the alarm, the danger alarm too fast or inappropriately, we often perceive there to be danger, and we go into a response where we respond to that fear as if it is a real danger, and before we know it, we’ve completely gone in the wrong direction from the way we wanted our day to be. 

Again, I might be dropping off my children at school, and I might have the thought, “What if something happens to them today?” I have to make a decision in that moment whether I’m going to respond to that fear, that thought, that feeling as if it’s fact, or if it is just a thought, a feeling, or an experience or sensation. 

The first step here is being able to stop and identify when fear is showing up and identify then, “How do I want to respond?” And that’s where your values come in. 

What I’m going to encourage you to do once you’ve finished listening to this is go onto Google or whatever search engine you use and Google ‘Values List PDF.’ There are hundreds of them, and they’re going to give you a list of all of the different values that you then may want to think about as things that can guide you in the direction that lines up with the way you want to show up in your life. 

Again, think of it like a crossroads. You’re going up to this crossroad; there’s a stop sign. The stop sign says, “There could be danger here.” You have to make a decision. Am I going to take a right or a left, which doesn’t matter, towards fear and trying to resolve that fear, or am I going to make a left where I act according to my values? On these lists that you’ve Googled, you will see an extensive list of ways in which you can respond right now.

Some examples of values would be patience, kindness, strength, integrity, and honesty. That’s just a few. Like I said, there’s hundreds of these. And then you can start to decide for yourself which value you want to lead with your step forward. What do they say? Put your best foot forward. That’s what we’re talking about here—the value that you pick is going to be the one that helps you in the long term, is the most skilled response, and is the one that lines up with who you want to be and how you want to be.

Again, think of it through the lens of the one-year-old or the three-month-old you. What would you want that person to do? And that’s how we can then start to choose values over fear. So, so important now. 

A lot of people get overwhelmed with the list. Let me help you get clear on how to determine the values that you’re going to choose.

Number one, pick values that have always led you in the right direction. Do a little inventory on when was the time that I really showed up for myself, or I showed up in a way I wanted to in an uncomfortable situation. What was one of the values that led me in the right direction? Often, with patients, I’ll ask them, “What was a time where you really had to muster through a really difficult time?” And they’ll think about, “Oh, there was this one time where there was this one sort of emergency, or I was running a marathon.” I’ll say, “Okay, great. You were able to achieve that. What were the values that got you through that uncomfortable time?” And there it falls very quickly without even looking at the list. It could be some values that matter to you or that have been effective for you. 

Another option is, pick values that give you a sense of purpose that helps you look in the long term, not just with short-term relief, but long-term accomplishment, long-term mastery, and long-term relief. In addition to that, pick a value that feels like it serves you in the ‘you-est you’ you can be. I know that’s a funny way. I say that with my patients all the time, like, “What’s the ‘you-est you’ that you can be? What value would lead you towards the ‘you-est you’ that you can be?” Because we’re all different and we all show up in different ways. We have different strengths and different challenges. So we want this to be very specific to you. 

But there is an important thing to remember here. There are no “right values.” You are going to look at this list. And as I did when I first started doing this work, I was like, “Oh my gosh, which ones should I pick?” Often, and this is one of the problems that I found, when I looked at them, I ended up with this long list of all the things I wanted to be. I was like, “Check, check. Yes, I want to be that. Yes, I want to be that. Yes, that’s a value of mine. Yes, that’s a value.” It was kind of like a want-to-be list. I had basically highlighted the majority of the values on the list. They were all important to me. 

But what we’re talking about here is, yes, they might be all important to you, but the goal is just pick two or three to start with. What we want to do here is pick two or three that will help you with this specific struggle or problem that you’re working through. If it’s fear and it’s anxiety, well, let’s work on that. But if you’re going through a medical condition, a family issue, a relationship issue, or an academic issue, you can then make a decision on, “What are the two or three values that will help me get through that particular problem?”

Another issue that often people ask me about is that theyre getting overwhelmed with this idea of “I want all these things in my life.” What we end up doing is using this idea of values as a way to fix their humanness, that these values work can become a breeding ground for perfectionism. This was the case for me. I was like, “Yes, a good person would check off that one,” and “I wish I was more generous. Yes, I’ll check that off.” It really just ended up making me feel guilty about who I was. I was really picking values based on what I thought a “good person” would pick. 

We want to move away from that because, yes, you’re going to look at this list of values as I did and be like, “I want to be all those things. I want to show up in those ways all the time, every day.” But the truth is, you’re a human being. You’re a messy human being, as am I, and we don’t want to overload ourselves with values and these ideas in a way that just is a way of being perfectionistic, hyper-responsible, and overly moral.

We want these values to guide us towards being the person we want to be, but we don’t want to pick them with this idea that we have to fix our humanness. We’re still going to be human. We’re still going to make mistakes. We’re still going to hurt people and say things that we wish we didn’t, and we can still go and repair that and show up as best as we can and be the best that we can. But please don’t use values as a way of raising the level so high and the expectation so high that you are destined to fail and destined to feel bad about yourself. We want to be as compassionate and realistic as we can as we do this valued work. 

The solution is to be gentle and kind as you peruse these values. Maybe you need to put your pen down and your highlighter down and just take a second to acknowledge that you might not be in a season where you can choose the “good Samaritan” values. You mightn’t be in a season where you can choose some of the values on the list.

I know when I was really sick from a chronic illness, and I looked at this values list, generosity was a big value that showed up where I was like highlighting, “Yes, I want to be more generous.” But I wasn’t in a season where I had the capacity to give back. I was in a season where I needed help from other people. And so I had to stop in that moment and look at the list and say, “Given the season I’m in, which of these values will help me recover?” I had to work through a little bit of self-judgment and a little disappointment and sadness that I wasn’t in a season where being generous was the priority, at the top of the list. 

You can still be a respectful, compassionate person while you work on whatever struggle you’re working on. Absolutely. It doesn’t mean we’re giving you permission to not be a good person. But we have to be able to prioritize and bring things up to the top, but without discounting or thinking black and white that because they’re not at the top, that makes us a bad person. Just because I couldn’t put generosity at the tippy top of my list and priorities for values didn’t make me a bad person. It just meant that because I was in this season, I had to reprioritize values to get me through this season so I could move on to being in the next season, which might have generosity at the top. 

Here is a pro tip with this, and I talked about this before. Find one area that you want to improve, and pick one to two values that might help you course-correct. Just do a small pivot. We don’t want to overcorrect. We want to do just a very slight course correction to start. 

Today, we’re talking about choosing values over fear. In this case, it might be a small value. Something that’s there for you that will help you face that fear. That being said, let me also say, if your fear is really loud and really aggressive and it’s hitting you from every angle, you might need to pick a value that’s actually very, very, very important to you, the most important to you, and have just that one thing.

Often, and here’s an example—but please, I don’t want you guys to feel you have to use this or feel like you’re a bad person if you don’t use this—a lot of my patients put family at the top of their values when they’re talking about managing their anxiety. If they have an anxiety disorder that’s taken so much from their life, they might say, “My kid is my highest value. And so when fear shows up, I’m going to imagine a picture of my kid, and I’m going to move towards that fear because that allows me to be with that kid,” or that partner or that parent. 

Other people might say, “My career matters to me so much that when fear shows up, because I want that career so much, I’m willing to be uncomfortable. I’m willing to ride some big, big waves of discomfort. I’m not going to choose fear anymore when I get to that crossroads; I’m going to choose that one really important fear.” Underneath, there might be a smaller one like compassion, hopefully. But again, you get to choose. You get to choose what’s right for you. This is your journey. Please do not let anybody tell you what your values should and should not be. 

Now, one of the reasons that I was so committed to doing this episode today was that I recently have come upon a realization about values that I didn’t know were there, which is that sometimes your values can compete.

Now, I talk to my patients about this all the time. That wasn’t the part that shocked me. Let’s talk about what that might look like. Often, people get confused. “Well, if I have these values, what if they compete with each other?” Let me give you a personal example. 

For me personally—but please don’t use this as your values unless they line up with your values—I highly value, number one, work ethic and discipline. It is a huge part of how I was raised. I love the fact that I have a very strong work ethic, and I’m very, very disciplined. It is something I hold as a very high priority, has gotten me through some very difficult times, and has allowed me to have the life that I am trying to create.

My second value is compassion, and I’m still working on that. It doesn’t mean I’m perfect at it, but it’s still a high value. The third is family—my family. My husband and my children are probably the most important things to me above all. The fourth is my mental health.

Now they’re in order, but depending on the day, they will switch, as I’ve talked to you about before. But then patients will often ask me if I share that: “But that doesn’t make sense. If work ethic is a value, but family is a value, how do I make both of those happen? Does that mean I have to choose to be a stay-at-home mom and be with my family? But if I go to work, obviously, I’m not valuing my family. They’re competing with each other.” Some people will say, “I really value rest, but I really value exercise or being strong. How do I make room for both of those? They’re competing.” 

The thing to remember here with values is, it’s not always, as I said, in the same order. Throughout our day, because we have to be flexible, we can make room for multiple values at a time, and we can find balance within these values. I can show up to work or right here today and give everything I have, and then still show up for my kids later on. It doesn’t mean I have to give my whole attention to that one value all day, every day, consistently at a hundred percent. Because I value compassion, some days that will mean I take a break, or I value mental health means I don’t have a strong work ethic or be with my kids. I take a drive, I go to the beach, or I take a walk and have some time to myself. 

It’s important to recognize that while it might feel like these values are competing, it’s not. It’s about us finding a balance of using them to guide us, but not, again, making them perfect. 

Any time, when we’re using these values, when we’re going overboard with them, we want to catch our rigidity in making them the only thing that we do, the only way we think, and the only way we act. We want this to be a flexible, moving target. As we said, values are never finished. They’re never completed. They’re something that we are constantly checking in with ourselves. What do I need? The most beautiful, compassionate question—what do I need? And using values to guide us, not fear—values. Allowing those values to decide what’s important to us, decide how we want to show up, and decide what the future me would want me to do. 

Now, this is where I have gotten stuck, and here is where I’ve found a-- how would I say it? A problem. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s just me. But I want to bring it up in case this is true for you too.

Now, I’ve already shared with you my core values. There’s work ethic and discipline, compassion, my family, and my mental health. These are all incredibly important to me, depending on the season, the day, the hour, and the minute. But I realized recently that work ethic, while it’s one of my biggest values, is actually partially fueled by fear. I’m holding it as a value, but it’s actually a partial fear response. Let me explain. 

Often, and this is something I want you to look out for, fear will dress up as values and pretend to be values when really it’s just fear. Think of it as a Halloween costume. Fear is like, “Oh, I know how to trump this system. I’m going to dress up as a value and show up in Kimberley’s life (or in your life), and I’m going to pretend I’m a value, but I’m actually really fear. I hope she doesn’t catch that I’m actually in a costume and I’m actually really fear. And so I’m going to see if this works.”

I do genuinely value work ethic and discipline. Like I said to you before, it has really given me so many beautiful things in my life and has allowed me to show up and serve you guys, and it’s been wonderful. But when I was with a client, we were talking about this exact problem, and I asked them a question, which was, if that value—when we’re talking about values—if that showed up, what would the non-anxious, trusting version of you do in this moment? And they realized that it was not the values they’d been working on. And then I thought, “Oh my goodness. I’m going to actually check in with myself on this, because if I asked myself, what would the non-anxious, trusting version of myself do in this moment, a lot of the time it wouldn’t be work ethic and discipline.” I realized that a small part of my work ethic and discipline is coming from a place of fear that if I don’t stay disciplined, that if I don’t hold my work ethic, everything will fall apart and bad things will happen. 

This stopped me in my tracks because—again, I want to reinforce this—my values were being tricked by fear. Fear was actually leading a part of that important value, or maybe I could say it was coming in and taking advantage of that value, and it might do that for you as well. 

And so what I want you to think about when you’re looking at values—and again, please don’t put pressure on yourself that you have to get this perfect. It’s a work in progress. I’ve been doing this work for a decade, and only now I’m realizing this—is slow down and just check in on “What would the non-anxious, trusting version of myself do in this moment?” I think that is where we can actually really get to the crux of “What are your values?”

Again, they will be ever-changing. Again, we will be forgiving and kind to the fact that we’re still messy human beings. We don’t have to get it perfect. But it did open me up to realizing a value that I didn’t know was so important to me. 

When I asked myself this question, I actually realized that the answer is playfulness and stillness—these two values that I’ve never really relied on. As I look back at my PDF of values, I’ve never highlighted them. When I asked myself this question of what would the trusting version and the non-anxious part of me do, playfulness and stillness was the value that rose up to the surface. It was a beautiful moment. I actually cried.

Now, from that, and I’m actually going to tell you a little bit of my news, I thought to myself, how could I implement playfulness and stillness into my life where I still value work ethic, compassion, family, and mental health? Into my mind came the image of a Volkswagen bus. Do you remember the old hippie buses? We call them Kombis in Australia. That was what showed up for me. Like, if I could show up in my business from a place of playfulness and stillness, I wouldn’t be working from this office. I would be working from a 45-year-old Volkswagen bus. And so I did. I did exactly that. I went and bought a Volkswagen van. It’s a 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia. I love, love vintage cars. I am actually a car person. I don’t know if you know that about me, but I love vintage cars, and I never allowed myself to really think about doing this. I’ve loved them forever. I’ve looked at them forever. I’ve wanted one forever, but I’ve always thought, “That’s not high on my priority list right now.” Until I realized that if I’m going to move towards trusting myself and honoring this bigger piece of me, playfulness and stillness have to come up on that list as well.

So if you live in Los Angeles and you see a gold Volkswagen Westfalia—it has, like I said, 195,000 miles on it—if you see one of those driving around Los Angeles and you see me, please beep your horn. That will be me driving around and parking my van at a beautiful place and working from there from now on, and that is my hope. That is my hope for myself, and I hope that you can use values to discover who you are so that you can be the ‘you-est you’ you can be.

I love the idea of implementing values into recovery. That is why I think act is so important as a complementary treatment to anxiety. I think that with some care, compassion, and some thoughtfulness, you too can identify the values that are important to you and learn to live and act from those values, not fear.

I hope that has been helpful for you today. I have had so much fun chatting with you about values. I am sending you so much love. Do not forget, it is a beautiful day to do hard things. I will see you next week. Have a wonderful day.

Sep 29, 2023

Perfectionism anxiety almost destroyed my life. If you are someone who suffers from perfectionism, you know exactly what it’s like to be stuck in the perfectionistic trap. It’s hell, quite frankly. We’re here today to talk about how to overcome perfectionism and how to create a life where you can still succeed. You can still do the things you want just without being constantly anxious and depressed and never feeling like you’re enough. 

Hello, my name is Kimberley Quinlan. I’m a marriage and family therapist. I’m an anxiety specialist, and I personally have walked the walk of perfectionism and have had to overcome it as it was starting to severely impact my life. I am so excited to be here with you today to talk all about perfectionism and perfectionism anxiety. 

Now I am 15 years recovered from an eating disorder. I was personally completely overwhelmed with perfectionism anxiety, and I was in a perfectionism trap. So, let’s talk about it.

First, let me give you a little bit of a personal update or a background. When I went off to college, I was really naive. I was wise and smart, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had lived at home with my family on a rural farm, on a ranch, if you live in America, for my entire life. And then I went off to what was considered the big city for college, and I felt like I had to be perfect. 

I had this belief as soon as I left my family that if I could be perfect, I would be safe. I would be emotionally safe. I would be physically safe, and as long as I could keep everything perfect, nothing bad would happen. 

I also believe that if I could be perfect, people would not abandon me, disprove of me, or judge me. And so, I went out of my way to make sure everything was as perfect as I could make it, even though I understood that I wasn’t perfect. I was on a mission to try and get to the top of that hill and stay at the top of that hill. It was a protective measure, a safety behavior I engaged in to manage the anxiety and overwhelm I felt going off to college. 

I also believe that if I could stay perfect, it would protect me from really uncomfortable emotions like shame and guilt, and it would help me feel like I’m in control. I would try to give myself a false sense of control in a world where I felt very out of control.


Now, a big part of this was me understanding what we call the ‘perfectionism trap.’ The perfectionism trap is, yes, when you start perfecting yourself and perfecting your life, you start to get praised from people around you. You start to get rewarded for your perfectionistic behaviors. My grades started to improve because I was being perfectionistic. My bosses gave me extra shifts because I was so good at my job. 

But the problem with that is, as I was getting better and trying to perfect everything in my life and please all of the people, I started to feel overwhelmed with all that I had taken on. In addition to that, once I had gotten to this ‘perfect place,’ which again, I totally understood that I wasn’t perfect, but as I started to climb that mountain and get to the peak and start to have the relief of anxiety that I made it, I’m at the top, I’m doing really well, then I started to have the influx of anxiety. “What if I can’t maintain this? What happens if I make a mistake and fall off this perfectionism mountain that I have climbed?” And then I was constantly anxious and constantly feeling hopeless about the fact that I can’t maintain staying at this high level for as long as I was. 

This is the perfectionistic trap. The more you try to become perfect, the more pressure, stress, and anxiety you feel. The more hopeless you feel about being able to maintain that, the more depressed you feel that you’re stuck in this cycle, and all of a sudden, nothing is worth it. Often, people completely fall down. They can’t go on in this way. They burn out, they get sick, which happened to me, or they become so paralyzed with anxiety that they have to avoid things and start telling little white lies just to get through the day because they’ve built up this idea of being perfect on the people around them.

If you’re experiencing this, you’re not alone. Please do not feel bad about this. This is a common experience, particularly if you’re someone who’s set up for anxiety. 


Let’s go through some additional perfectionism anxiety symptoms or signs. The first one is, people with perfectionism have a severe fear of failure. They’re overwhelmed by the idea that they might mess up, they might make a mistake, and when they do make a mistake, they see it as a failure. Not a blip on the road, not a challenge that they will learn from, but it’s that they are a failure, that their mistake and their failure mean that that person is. In fact, their identity is a failure, and that can be incredibly emotionally painful.

Another perfectionism anxiety symptom is shame and vulnerability. There is so much shame around making mistakes or being seen as vulnerable, weak, not perfect, or not keeping up with the Joneses. And that can be so emotionally painful that that’s what propels them into continuing perfectionistic behaviors, pushing themselves harder than they can maintain, putting them or raising their hands in situations that they really honestly shouldn’t be saying yes to. They don’t even have the capacity for what they’ve already signed up for. You may know the quote that says, “If you want something done, find the busiest person.” That’s commonly the perfectionist because they’re the ones who can get jobs done and they’re willing to put their own mental and physical wellness aside to get the job done.

Another sign of perfectionism often shows up at work. When you have perfectionism anxiety, work can become very frustrating or depressing, and this is often, again, because of the expectations you’ve put on yourself. You associate work with being an incredibly stressful environment because, as you walk into work, you’re bringing in these expectations. You’re bringing this goal of being perfect and not making mistakes. And that can create an incredible amount of anxiety and distress. 

It also creates, as I said, a lot of depression, hopelessness, or helplessness because often people with perfectionism are suffering in silence. They don’t feel like they can share with other people how much they’re suffering or how they’re succeeding. They make it look maybe even so easy, but underneath they’re really struggling, and they don’t want people to find out. They feel like that would be letting other people in on the lie that you’re actually not the person that you’re perceived to be.

Another really important sign is this ongoing fear or belief that I’ll never be good enough. This deep-down belief that you don’t have the worth of just being who you are, that you have to show up being more and more and more in order to be respected, to be loved, to be accepted by people. And that can be incredibly stressful.


A big overlap is between perfectionism and procrastination. Again, as I said, when you raise the bar so high, often the only thing that people can do is to avoid the thing because they’re overwhelmed at the prospect of making a mistake. They’re overwhelmed by the expectations they’ve put for themselves. They go into a freeze mode where they can’t even move forward. It’s too overwhelming. Their nervous system is shutting down. They’re having an increased heart rate, tightness in their chest, nausea, stomach issues, muscle aches, headaches, and migraines. And so, because of that, they just procrastinate and keep pushing, pushing, pushing the deadline away.

Often, when I see someone, they have been told they’re not perfectionistic because they’ve procrastinated and avoided so long. A professional or a doctor has said no, that you can’t be perfectionistic because you’re not getting anything done. But often, those who are avoiding are more perfectionistic than the people who they know are succeeding. It’s the heavy layer of expectation that causes them to stall and avoid moving forward in any way. 

Now, when you suffer from perfectionist anxiety, relationships can also become really strained. Really common imperfectionism is people pleasing, or the fear that you have let people down. You spend a lot of time worrying about what they think of you. In addition to that, it’s not just worrying about what they think of you. Often, people with perfectionism become highly judgmental of their loved ones, their friends, their children, or their partner. They may also become easily annoyed when other people can’t maintain that perfectionism.

Often in relationships, if there’s a person with perfectionism and their partner is struggling, the person with perfectionism gets quite frustrated because, in their mind, they’re like, “Just be perfect. Get it fixed. Fix it. I’m doing all the perfectionistic behaviors; why can’t you?” And that can cause an incredible amount of strain on the relationship.

They also might experience a degree of anger, frustration, and irritability. And that’s not because they’re horrible people; it’s because they’ve raised the bar and the expectations so high to be perfect that even if their loved ones are struggling by association, they feel like that’s jeopardizing their perfectionism. And this is a really common thing that comes into couples counseling. Once they get there, the relationship has been so strained without identifying that perfectionism could be a massive driver behind their relationship issues. 


Now there is something to note here. There is no such thing as a perfectionism anxiety disorder. A lot of people are searching for those terms to see if this is, in fact, a disorder. But there are common disorders such as eating disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, and OCD that do co-occur with perfectionism. 


Now, there are specific types of OCD, one of them being perfectionism OCD. That is a specific subtype of OCD where the underlying force towards the compulsion is perfectionism, and it’s often coming from a place of anxiety and uncertainty. Usually, people with perfectionism OCD, they’re not doing their compulsions or safety behaviors from a place of wanting to; they usually feel like they can’t stop doing them. They feel like they’re stuck in a loop of doing these behaviors even though they don’t want to. This is very common alongside other subtypes, like just right OCD, symmetry OCD, and moral and religious OCD as well. 


Now, often people do ask. Let’s weigh it out. Perfectionism versus perfectionism OCD, how do we know the difference? Well, a thing to remember here is that often perfectionism is what we call ‘ego-syntonic,’ meaning it’s in line with their values. They want to be perfect. It’s a driving force to be perfect. It actually reduces their discomfort by moving in that direction. 

For those with perfectionism OCD, it’s actually ego-dystonic, which means they don’t want this obsession. It’s intrusive. It’s repetitive. They really don’t believe in the point of perfectionism, but they feel compelled to engage in this behavior, and they feel like they can’t stop engaging in this behavior. 

Now I want to really slow down here because that’s not always true for everybody. I’ve often seen where clients will have a combination of the two, or maybe on a spectrum, they might be closer to the perfectionism OCD end, but they do still have some ego syntonic perfectionism that’s showing up. So, I want to make sure that if you are having these perfectionism symptoms, go to a mental health professional so you can work out specifically what’s true for you.

So that’s an important point to make here. Please don’t misdiagnose yourself here. This perfectionism can also show up in PTSD. It can show up in depression. It can show up in other disorders as well. I want us to use this as information, but please do not use this as a way to diagnose yourself.


Now if you do have perfectionism OCD, there is a specific OCD treatment that is helpful for that. For those of you with perfectionism, I’m actually going to go through that right here in a second. But first, let’s just address that OCD treatment usually will involve a type of cognitive behavioral therapy called ERP (exposure and response prevention). 

Now, in this case, we actually expose you to being imperfect on purpose. We have you practice reducing your safety behaviors and compulsions around perfectionism so that you can practice riding the wave of discomfort, uncertainty, or anxiety, and learn that by riding that wave, you can actually tolerate that discomfort and move on without engaging in behaviors that make your life more stressful. It often involves saying no. It often involves slowing down. It often involves, again, being imperfect on purpose. 


But now let’s move over to how you can stop being a perfectionist and how you can overcome perfectionism if that is in fact what you’re dealing with. 

I again want to share with you, I get how painful this is. I worked through this for close to a decade, and I still see it come up. I still see it show up in my life where I have to catch it. It shows up in a way that’s sneaky and it feels, in my experience, as it’s a powerful feeling when you’re engaging in perfectionism, but I also notice that when I’m starting to feel really burnt out and really overwhelmed and my anxiety and depression are going up, it’s usually because I’ve allowed that sneaky perfectionism to get into my life more than I would’ve wanted to.


So when we’re talking about overcoming perfectionism, here are a few things that were really helpful for me. 

  1. Identify how perfectionism keeps you trapped
    Number one is, identify the ways that perfectionism is keeping me trapped. For me, when I had an eating disorder and a lot of perfectionism, I actually had to do a deep study on how it was impacting my life because, as my therapist was trying to get me to change these behaviors, I was showing up with a lot of restriction and a lot of resistance. I did not want to stop. I said to her, “I’m not ready to get rid of these behaviors. They keep me safe. They keep me feeling like I’m in control. I don’t want to feel out of control. I don’t want to feel imperfect. I don’t want to feel shame. I don’t want to feel vulnerable. I don’t want to take these behaviors away.” But as I looked at how they were impacting my life, I then started to realize how they’re actually keeping me trapped and holding me back. 
  2. Explore how society encourages perfectionism
    The second piece was, I had to then do a deep exploration and look at how society had encouraged me to maintain my perfectionism. I had people all around me cheering me on. “Good job. Keep going.” “You’re so thin. Look at you thrive.” “You’re so successful. I can’t believe how you do it.” “I’m so impressed. You inspire me.” I was constantly fed reinforcement. That kept me trapped in perfectionism and made me want to stay in perfectionism, but kept me anxious, kept me feeling like I was a complete fraud, kept me feeling like I was an imposter who, if anyone would ever find out that I’m actually this imperfect, terrible, hopeless human being with no worth, I couldn’t bear the idea of that, And so, I really had to look at how society had fed me into this system as a woman, but also as a human being and as a young person, how this had kept me stuck, and how it was going to keep keeping me stuck if I didn’t start to change some things. 
  3. Determine how YOU want to live your life
    Now, the next thing I had to do is really look and determine how I wanted to live my life, and that was really influenced by my personal values. What was important to me? Is my uncle’s opinion of me or my coworker’s opinion of me more important than my own opinion of me? I used to first say yes, but with practice and really looking at it, I started to realize I’m going to die with everyone thinking I was perfect and I’m going to die miserable. I wouldn’t have done the things I wanted to do. I was living a life based on what other people thought of me and living a life basically hiding from all of my feelings, which brings me to the next big, big, big point of my recovery. 
  4. Learn to feel your feelings
    If I could say one thing was the most important in my recovery, it would be this: I had to learn how to feel my feelings, and I had to be willing to ride out some really uncomfortable feelings that I had about myself. I had to write out shame and still do. I had to write out feelings of being worthless, and still do. They still show up, and when they do, I instinctually go to run away from them, and then I have to slow myself down and say, “Kimberley, just stay. Be here with it. Running from this emotion, patching it up, or making it look pretty is only going to keep you trapped and create a life where you’re more and more and more anxious.” 
  5. Develop a self-compassion practice
    I also had to develop a very strong self-compassion practice, but that actually came last for me. I’m really doing my best with my patients and with you here today to have that be a beginning part of your recovery. But for me, I refused it. I hated the idea, and I didn’t want to do it. I felt it was weak, and I actually thought it would override my perfectionism and make me into some kind of weak loser who can’t control their life, and all these words, like, I’ll be a failure, I won’t be successful, it’ll make me lazy. I had a whole belief about what self-compassion would do to me. But with time, I did start to see the benefit of it. And again, it’s something I still have to work on. 
  6. Understand that this is a life-long process of recovery
    I had to also recognize that this was a lifelong practice. I do remember, and I will share a story with you, that early in my perfectionism treatment, I actually stopped treatment. I told them, “I’m fine. I’m doing great. I don’t need you anymore,” and off I went. A part of that was me, because I think I was really afraid to do the next level of work, but I think another part of me truly thought that that was all it took. But then, as I struggled with different stresses in my life, or as it continued to show up in my relationships and at my work, I realized this is a lifelong practice. This is something I’m going to need to practice for some time. 


Now, before I finish up with you, I want to share with you some beliefs that I had to adopt to help me overcome perfectionism, and I had to remember these every step of the way. Now, I was really lucky I had a therapist who would reinforce this with me every single week, but maybe you don’t. And so, I wanted to just be here to share them with you, just in case they’re helpful with you managing your own perfectionism. So, here they are. 


The first belief I had to adopt is, it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s human to make mistakes. I also had to reframe what a mistake meant. As I said before, a mistake didn’t make me a failure anymore. Instead, a mistake was data to help me learn and challenge this problem I was having. And now I’ve done my best. I’ve even done episodes on Your Anxiety Toolkit, talking about how I went out and purposely made mistakes a hundred times in less than a year because I still realized I had to challenge this idea that getting a no, getting rejected, or making a mistake is a problem.


Another thing I had to adopt is, it’s okay if people do not understand me or like me, and this one still breaks my heart. I’m not going to lie, it’s still really, really hard for me. But it is important to recognize that most of the time, you can be imperfect, and people will still make space for you. It is okay to not be perfect.

In fact, I have learned the more perfect I tried to be, the more disconnected I was with people. The more perfect I tried to be, the more I sabotaged relationships. I made other people feel judged and uncomfortable. I made it feel unsafe for them to be imperfect, therefore impacting our ability to be vulnerable and in deep connection with each other.


So by being imperfect, I actually learned that the real relationships started to show up, that I could be vulnerable, and then they would be vulnerable. And I would feel seen, and they would feel seen. And then I would feel worthy and they would feel worthy. And it healed itself in that respect through the relationships, through showing up imperfectly in relationships and letting them see that I’m actually struggling. I’m actually really having a hard time. 

I remember talking to my therapist and saying, “Nobody would know.” Nobody would know that I’m having such a hard time. But when I actually started sharing, other people started sharing, and I realized that I didn’t have to be perfect because nobody was getting through this life without going through their own struggles and challenges.


Another really important thing I had to adopt is that my worth is not related to my output. And this is one I still have to remind myself that I do not deserve self-care and kindness just because I kicked butt at work today. That I’m allowed to have compassion, self-care, and pleasure, whether I was successful, made money, or achieved the things on my to-do list. That I’m always deserving of self-care and pleasure. That that is something innate inside of me and that I can use at any time if my body needs it.


And then the last thing I had to adopt was truly listen to your body. Stop pushing through discomfort in a way where you know that you’re pushing your body too hard or too fast. I would say yes to everything, even if my body was exhausted. I had to learn to listen to my body and listen to when my body was gently nudging me, saying, “Stop. I’m tired. I need to rest.” That is still something I’m working on and something that I’ll always have to be working on as I age and as my limitations change as well.

So that’s the things I want you to adopt to help you overcome depression. Now, you may have some other things that you need to adopt as well, and that’s okay. I want you to make this as personalized as possible. But I do hope that this, number one, validated you and your perfectionism anxiety. I hope that it informed you of ways that it shows up for people. And third, I hope it gives you some inspiration that you too can overcome perfectionism anxiety and depression, and hopefully go on to live a very fulfilling life. 

Have a wonderful day, everybody, and always remember it is a beautiful day to do hard things.

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.

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