TALKING BACK TO ANXIETY
Welcome back, everybody. Today we’re talking about talking back to anxiety, and we’re really talking about the power of positive self-talk.
Now I know when it comes to this idea of talking back to anxiety, it can get somewhat controversial. In fact, even talking about this idea of positive self-talk can be controversial, and I will be the first to say there is nothing worse than when you’re struggling with something that’s really painful. People say, “Oh, just be positive.” That is not what we’re talking about here today. In fact, I have a personal twist on how I like to consider a positive self-talk. You probably have heard me talk about it before, but I felt like it was time for me to revisit these concepts that I find so incredibly powerful when it comes to talking back to anxiety, or being positive, staying positive, engaging in some form of positive self-talk.
WHAT DOES TALKING BACK TO ANXIETY LOOK LIKE?
Let’s talk about it. When we consider what we mean, when we say “talking back to anxiety,” what do I really mean by that? First of all, I want to get to one of the controversies. What I’m not saying is that when you have anxiety, you tell it to go away or stop, because we know that when we do that, when we try and suppress anxiety or we try to suppress our intrusive thoughts, it usually means we have more of them. Let’s just get that scientific fact out in the eye. We know that is true. But when we are talking about talking back to anxiety, when I’m talking about it, what I mean is, when you experience anxiety, whether that be in the form of sensations or in thoughts or feelings or images, how do you respond? How do you converse with your anxiety?
I always make a metaphor with my clients, and I’ve done it here on the podcast before, that I always think of anxiety as this little short Lorax-looking guy that sits on my shoulder. For you, it might look different. But he sits on my shoulder and he’s in a beach chair and he is really lazy and he is wearing sunglasses, and he just wants to mess with me as much as he can, but in the most effective, lazy way. And how does he do that? He does it by knowing exactly what bothers me and throwing that at me first. He’s not going to throw some random thing at me. He’s going to go straight for the thing that he knows I value, because that’s where my anxiety is going to show up the most. And then when he shows up, it’s up to me then to be skilled in how I respond. One of the ways we respond is how we talk back to it.
The first thing I’m going to ask you is, when your anxiety tells you of the thing that you value, talks to you about the thing that scares you, that hits you right in the gut, how do you respond? Do you yell at him and say, “Get off my lawn, you horrible thing.” None of this is bad, I just want you to get to know. How do you respond? You say, “No, no, no, please go away. I don’t want you. I’ll do whatever you say. I’ll do whatever compulsion you tell me to do. I’ll avoid whatever you tell me to avoid if you just quiet down.”
Some of this, instead of doing that, instead of yelling at anxiety, we yell at ourselves. We say, “What is wrong with you? Why are you always anxious? You’re a loser. You’re bad. What’s wrong with you? Something is seriously broken about you. Why have you got to have anxiety all the time?” You engage in a ton of self-criticism and self-punishment. The ones I just gave you are some negative self-talk examples like, “What’s wrong with you? You’re a loser. You’re such an idiot for having this anxiety. You’re stupid.” I want to remind you that you’re not. This is not about your intelligence; it’s not about who you are, what you are. Your anxiety has nothing to do with any of that. Some of us are just genetically prone to having more anxiety. But we use this negative self-talk. We use this criticism, this self-judgment to try and beat out the anxiety, as if we could beat it out of ourselves. But the facts are, this negative self-talk doesn’t motivate us to change because we were never in control at the start. We can’t control our anxiety and whether it shows up, so that doesn’t work. What we do know that does work is positive self-talk. It is one of the most successful ways of motivating ourselves.
When anxiety does show up, I want you to explore how you might respond differently to whatever discomfort or whatever form of suffering you’re experiencing. It doesn’t even have to be anxiety. It might be pain, it might be stress, it might be sadness, any emotion. We can actually use these skills with any of these emotions.
WHAT POSITIVE SELF-TALK IS NOT
Let’s talk about what I mean by this. What does positive self-talk look like in my definition, not what you may have seen online. Number one, in my definition, positive self-talk—let’s talk about what it actually isn’t—it’s not just positive affirmations. While that’s great, and if that works for you, by all means, keep it. But for me, it never ever lands. I could say the world is safe and good things will happen, and I’m a good person. I could say that all day long and it would not land. It would do nothing for my anxiety. Literally, it just doesn’t. I’ve tried it and it really doesn’t work for me.
Positive self-talk is also not just telling yourself to be happy or relaxed. That is a huge issue. Because if you’re having anxiety and you’re just telling yourself how you “should feel,” you’re only going to feel judged. You’re only going to feel less in control. You’re only going to feel more hopeless about the situation.
HOW TO BECOME YOUR OWN KIND COACH
We’ve talked about what it’s not, and I’m sure there’s other examples that I’ll probably think of here in a minute, but that’s what it’s not. But what it is, is talking to yourself in a voice that I call the kind coach. For those of you who have read The Self-Compassion Workbook for OCD, I talk about this a lot in that workbook, but I also teach this in the course Overcoming Anxiety and Panic, which is learning how to speak to anxiety in a way that motivates us, that leads us more towards our values and our beliefs, that disarms the anxiety. Instead of fighting it, it tends to the fact that you are experiencing something really, really, really uncomfortable. These are key components of overcoming anxiety and panic. In the course, we also go through cognitive changes, behavioral changes, a lot of tools, a lot of mindfulness, a lot of self-compassion. If you’re really wanting to do a deep dive, you can go and check out that course. Go to CBTSchool.com. The course specifically is called Overcoming Anxiety and Panic. But for today, let’s just talk about being a kind coach.
A kind coach. If you were actually thinking about a coach that you’ve had in the past, or an ideal coach, if you were training for something, a marathon, let’s say, or a competition or something, a kind coach wouldn’t berate you for struggling, because we know, as we’ve already talked about, that beating yourself up and criticizing, it might propel you into some change, but it also creates more anxiety. We are here to try not to make more anxiety just for the sake of making more of it. We know that self-criticism isn’t beneficial. We know that telling someone of their faults and their weaknesses, that only makes us feel worse. It usually sends us into a shame response. When we go into a shame response, the normal human response is to slump over, to get really tired, to feel very unmotivated, to be stuck in this slow-moving body where everything feels heavy. That doesn’t help us. That makes it worse.
The kind coach knows your challenges, but it also knows your strengths, and it uses your strengths to motivate and propel you towards the thing that you want. Let’s say you’re having anxiety. The kind coach would talk back to anxiety by saying, “I see you’re here. It’s cool. It’s okay that you’re here. I was planning on recording this podcast today at 11 o’clock, and I know you want to tell me about all the terrible things that might happen today, but I agreed that I was going to do this, and it’s really important to me that I do. You could come along, and I’m going to let you be there while I record this podcast.”
Now, you might hear that none of this is me saying, “I’m going to record this podcast and I’m going to be happy and I’m not going to have any problems with it, and I’m going to finish it. I’m going to feel ecstatic and free and overjoyed.” That’s not what I’m talking about. That’s one example of positive self-talk, but that’s not what I am talking about today, and that’s not what I’m encouraging you to do. I’m encouraging you to learn to be the kind coach for yourself. Meaning you are the one who shows up for you when anxiety shows up. Often when we’re anxious, we step out of that role and we actually go to someone else to try and make us feel better. We go to someone else to reassure us. We go to someone else to soothe us. While there’s nothing wrong with that, we miss an opportunity to be there for ourselves, to be the one who soothes us, to be the one who says, “Hey, I see that you’re going through something hard. I see that this is uncomfortable for you.”
TALKING BACK TO ANXIETY: POSITIVE SELF-TALK EXAMPLES
Now, to get a little deeper here, if we were really going to talk about positive self-talk examples, we would also include the kind coach reminding us that we can do hard things. When I think of positive self-talk, I don’t think of, “You’re the best, you’re great. Everyone loves you. You’re perfect.” I think of positive self-talk as being it believes in us, it believes in our ability to really settle into hard, uncomfortable things.
In the world of social media, and a lot of you guys know I’m on Instagram a lot, I constantly see people saying, “The five quick tips for anxiety,” or “Heal your panic attack fast.” They’re selling you on quick fixes and making it easy. I don’t believe that that’s helpful. I think positive self-talk for anxiety shouldn’t be about saying it’s easy and quick to get over. It should be about saying, “You can do this. You can tolerate this. You can ride this wave of discomfort out. I believe you can because you’ve done it before,” or “I believe you can because humans are incredibly resilient. Even if you haven’t done it before, it’s a skill we will learn together.” That’s how a kind coach talks.
Let’s say you’ve always avoided something and it creates so much anxiety for you. Basically, your brain is saying, “I’ll never be able to do that one thing.” My kind coach, if I really listened, would say, “I know you haven’t been able to do it in the past, but I have seen you in so many other areas overcome different things that you’ve never done, but then you were able to do it with practice and repetition and kindness and support. I do believe this is another opportunity for you to do that.” That’s what my kind coach would say, and this is something you can start to practice for yourself.
If this is really hard for you, another way of doing it is saying, “What would a loved one say to me in this example?” And then you just practice saying it to yourself. But this is a grand gesture of self-compassion. It’s a grand gesture of encouragement, motivation, positivity that isn’t toxic, because we know that positivity can sometimes be so toxic and dismiss what we’re going through. This is not that.
Now, when we talk about talking back to anxiety, we may also have to practice this idea of talking back to depression too. What I’m going to encourage you to do here is use exactly the same tools.
TALKING BACK TO DEPRESSION
Let’s talk about it. If you have depression, your brain is telling you these lies like, “You’re terrible. Nothing good is going to happen. There’s no point. You’re useless.” Talking back with positivity like you are the best, again, is not going to land. Saying, “You’re wonderful, you’re really great. Great things are going to happen,” some people find that really beneficial. If that’s you, by all means, keep using it. It’s incredibly powerful. But for a lot of us folks, that won’t land. I find it really much more beneficial to talk back to anxiety and depression with this kind coach voice, someone who coaches us through the depression while it’s there, because it’s going to be there. It is here. There’s no point in telling ourselves just to be happy because it is here. I find it to be so incredibly helpful.
TALKING BACK TO OCD
Now, in addition, there is also some controversy around talking back to OCD. A lot of people say, “Doesn’t that become compulsive? Doesn’t that get in the way of the actual foundation of ERP?” Well, what I will say is, once again, it depends on how you’re doing it. If you’re talking back to OCD, which we know is a disorder of uncertainty and doubt, if you’re talking back by going bad things won’t happen, “No, you’re fine. Nothing bad is going to happen,” well then yes, you will be engaging in compulsive self-reassurance or reassurance in general.
But what I’m talking about here when it comes to talking back to anxiety, specifically related to OCD, is the kind coach will say, “I believe you can handle hard things. Just a few more minutes, let’s ride this wave of discomfort out. Can you tolerate another 10 minutes of uncertainty?” Instead of saying it as a question, it might say, “Let’s do it. Let’s try for another two minutes not engaging in that compulsion.” You’re talking to anxiety, you’re talking to depression, you’re talking to OCD, but you’re not doing it in a way that dismisses how hard it is. You’re not doing it in a way that overlooks the actual reality. Meaning you’re not saying, “Just be happy,” or “Just ignore it,” or “Just think about something else.” You’re not doing it in a way that creates compulsive behaviors that keep you stuck.
The kind coach encourages you to keep trying. It validates that you’ve had a hard time and that this is hard. It reminds you of your strengths, whatever that is. Maybe it tells you you’re resilient or you’ve done it before. It might gently remind you to use your humor if humor is something that you’re really good at doing. It might remind you of any strength you have. It won’t use your challenges against you. It’s radically, absolutely, unconditionally there for you, even on the low days. It encourages you to just go a little further, try a little bit more, but not in our “get down and give me 20 pushups” way like our mean coach would. It’s saying it in a way that feels doable and motivating and kind.
That’s what I want you to practice. This, guys, is a skill that you have to practice. Meaning you won’t do it for a couple of hours and then feel on top of the world. Again, this is not about ridding you of your reality of true discomfort. It’s something we practice every day during the easy times and the hard times. This is how we talk back to anxiety. This is the power of positive self-talk when used correctly.
That’s it. That’s what I want you to practice. What I would do with me, because I’m a little bit of a track it kind of girl, is I would encourage you to track it. To track when you were engaging in the kind coach, what did the kind coach say? I would also track when other people act as the kind coach, maybe a loved one, a family member or a boss, a colleague, a friend—really track what it is that they said to you that helped you propel yourself towards behaviors that are positive in your life and use those to help you really strengthen your own kind coach voice. You may also want to track when you get caught up in self-criticism. Because that too, sometimes when you’re tracking it, it helps us be more aware of it. When we’re more aware, we can catch it sooner and intervene sooner.
That’s what I would encourage you to do. If you don’t like tracking, that’s fine. I don’t want to push you in a direction that doesn’t work for you. As you always know, I just want you to take what’s helpful here and leave what’s not. But this is a skill I really hope that you do engage in and start to practice.
If you’re interested in any of the courses I’ve mentioned today, please go to CBTSchool.com. You can also go to my private practice website, which is KimberleyQuinlan-LMFT.com. I am a therapist with nine therapists who work for me, helping people with OCD and anxiety. We are in Calabasas. I would love to connect further with you there.
Have a wonderful day, everybody, and remind yourself that it is a beautiful day to do hard things.
Welcome back, everybody. Today we’re talking about sleep anxiety relief. We’re talking about how to get a good night’s rest.
Oh, the beauty of a good night’s sleep. I can’t even tell you and I can’t even explain for me personally how much sleep impacts my mental health and my mental health impacts my sleep. Hence why we’re doing this episode today.
For those of you who are new, my name is Kimberley Quinlan. I’m a marriage and family therapist in the State of California. I have a private practice. I am the developer of an online program called CBTSchool.com. I’m an author and I am the host of this podcast.
A few weeks ago, a psychiatrist reached out and said, “I have been listening to you for years, not realizing that I work literally down the street from you.” It made me realize that I never introduced myself on the podcast. I just talk and talk and talk and I actually don’t tell people where I am and what I do and what I offer. So that was a really big lesson.
Let’s talk about sleep anxiety relief. I’m going to tell you a bit of a story first. For years, my daughter has been telling us that she can’t sleep, that she has terrible sleep. She lays awake, staring at the roof. She said she always feels tired during the day and that she “can’t get to sleep” when she tries. We have taken her to the pediatrician and we’ve talked to her about it and checked in, “Are you worrying about anything in particular?” She says, “No, I just worry about getting enough sleep.” Again, she’s saying, “When will I go back to sleep? Will I go back to sleep? Will I wake up at night?” She says she struggles to get comfortable as she settles into bed.
We took the plunge and took her to a sleep specialist and we were expecting either a sleep disorder diagnosis or a sleep anxiety diagnosis. He did this thorough assessment and asked her all these questions and he was incredible. At the end, he said, “I’m going to tell you, it sounds like you’re getting good sleep. You sound like you sleep very normally for a kid your age and we address some issues that may be happening.” But he said, “A lot of this is about managing anxiety about sleep,” because he tracked like, “You’re getting enough. We will track it during the night. Everything looked good. This is actually about you managing your mind around sleep.” Now I understand that may not be your experience, but this blew me off my feet. I was expecting serious bad news. I have this conversation with my patients so often and it made me feel like, let’s talk about sleep anxiety relief.
SLEEP ANXIETY SYMPTOMS
Now, before we talk about sleep anxiety relief, let’s talk about sleep anxiety symptoms because some people who don’t experience this or aren’t sure if they’re experiencing this, I wanted to make sure you feel like you’re in the right place. For those who have sleep anxiety, they experience a lot of anxiety around going to bed or when going to bed. They may report racing thoughts in bed, inability to concentrate when they’re preparing to go to sleep or they’re laying in bed. They might experience a lot of irritability, whether that’s emotional or physical sensations in the body. A lot of jitteriness. There may be also an experience of nervousness or restlessness. They may have feelings of being overwhelmed. Some people report this impending danger or doom as they approach the bed or as they approach bedtime. They may experience a lot of anticipatory anxiety about it.
There are also some physical sensations or effects of anxiety before bed and that might include some tummy troubles. Kids in particular will report before bed, “My tummy hurts,” and often their tummy hurts is a sign of anxiety. This is true for adults too. They may have an increase in heart rate, which may make them feel like something bad is about to happen. They may have rapid breathing. They may experience sweating. They may experience tense muscles. They may experience trembling, even nausea. These are symptoms that could be your regular day-to-day anxiety, or it could be that you’re specifically managing anxiety related to sleep.
IS THERE A CURE FOR SLEEP ANXIETY?
When talking about sleep anxiety relief, often people talk about this idea of a sleep anxiety cure. Now, I’m not going to give you any specific “cure” today because I don’t know your exact case and you would need to be assessed by a doctor. I encourage you to go and see your doctor if you’re struggling with sleep because it is so important. If you need, go and get a referral for a sleep specialist or do some research. There are some amazing books on sleep as well.
Now, do I consider that we can overcome sleep anxiety? Yes, 100%. I do believe you can get to a place where you have healthy sleep. Again, I’m always very cautious about talking about the word “cure,” but if we were to really address sleep anxiety relief in terms of what you need to practice, I’m going to first always do a ton of psychoeducation with my patients and with you today about sleep hygiene.
WHAT IS SLEEP HYGIENE?
Think of sleep hygiene as like, how clean your bedtime routine is. Clean, meaning has it got a lot of stuff that dirty up your sleep routine, or does it free up and clean up your sleep hygiene, sleep routine? I’m not talking here in terms of contamination. I don’t want to get that confused. It’s about making your bedtime routine something that is with ease, and even if there’s anxiety, it’s a routine that you follow and you are pretty consistent with it so that you can start to get better sleep.
Now, how do we do that? First of all, I strongly recommend you first decide when you want to be asleep by or when you want to be in bed preparing to wind down. Pick an actual time. A lot of people miss this step. They just go, “Oh, I’m going to light candles and I’m going to read and hopefully, I’ll fall asleep when I want to.” That’s fine and that’s good. We will talk about that here in a second. But I’m going to strongly encourage you, pick a time you want to be in bed. And then from there, we work backwards. From one hour minimum, from the time you want to be in bed starting to wind down, you must turn off your tech. I know you want to turn off your podcast right now because you don’t want to turn off your tech that early, but I’m going to stress to you that your phone and your device are causing havoc on your bedtime routine unless you are using it for meditation, soothing music, something that actually deeply calms you. But I’m going to say a minimum of one hour, preferably two, you turn off your tech before that time that you picked. Let’s say you picked 10 PM. That’s the time I pick. All phones, technology should be off by 9:00 PM, even 8:30 or 8:00 is better.
What you do during that hour is that’s when you start to do the wind-down routine or program. Now this doesn’t have to be compulsive, it doesn’t have to be exact to the minute, but what we’re talking about here is now starting to implement things that bring you to a place of comfort. I understand if you’re having a lot of anxiety, you might still feel it in every single part of the sleep routine. That’s okay, but you’re engaging in behaviors that don’t make your anxiety worse. You might be reading. However, if reading is something that makes you hyper-aroused in an anxiety way, maybe it’s not reading. Maybe it’s meditation, maybe it’s listening to an audiobook, not something that’s going to, again, rev you up and get you going. Something boring, something simple, something a little more monotone. It could be listening to sounds. There are so many free YouTube videos with just sounds of the waterfall or rain or birds or waves. If you have a specific sound that you like, I’m sure you can find it. These are all great options.
You may also want to engage in a wind-down routine. This is my personal routine, you don’t have to follow it, but without too much being pedantic, I have a routine. I go downstairs. I brush my teeth. I floss my teeth. I wash my face. I then go plug in my devices. I go to bed. I get my Kindle out. I actually am fine with the Kindle as long as you’re not reading something too overwhelming because the lighting is different on a Kindle compared to an iPad that shoots light right into your eyes. I might take a glass of water. I make my bed actually before I go to bed. Meaning it’s pretty messy usually, so it’s something I like to feel like the covers are all neat on me. I then allow a wind-down. That’s just me. My husband doesn’t do any of that. He just brushes his teeth, goes to bed, and starts reading. Not that different, but for me, I have more steps. You can do whatever you think is helpful, but sleep hygiene has to be a piece and you have to work backwards by removing the technology.
Some people say, “What about if I use my phone for my alarm?” That’s fine, I do too. However, if it’s in your room or it’s next to you, that’s fine as long as you can practice some restraint of not picking it up and going on social media because you can lose hours by just picking up your phone and opening up the Instagram app. You can lose hours.
One thing I’m going to encourage you to do here is consider we have a course called Time Management for Optimum Mental Health and we talk all about scheduling. I’ll give you a little bit of information that I share during the Time Management course. I personally calendar a lot of my life and I have found that that has been very beneficial for my sleep. The reason being is because I have to wake up at 6:15 to get my kids to school. I used to get to bed whenever I could and then I realized I was massively sleep deprived. When I looked at the calendar and I thought, okay, if I have to be up at 6:15 and if I need a certain amount of sleep (I do better on eight hours), I have to be in bed asleep by 10:15. What am I doing? Going to bed at 10:30, I’m already setting myself up for failure.
When you’re scheduling, you actually look at your wake-up time and you even plan backwards for that on when you need to be in bed. And then you plan backwards from that on when you need to work on your sleep wind-down program. Again, you don’t have to be pedantic, you don’t have to be too hyper-controlled on this. But doing it a couple of times is life-changing in realizing, at the way I’m going, I’m never going to get enough sleep.
SLEEP ANXIETY REMEDIES
Now, in terms of talking about sleep anxiety help or sleep anxiety relief, there are some additional sleep anxiety remedies you may say that may help you. Let me add here, there’s not a ton of research. I try to only bring research-based stuff to you. But a lot of people say things like oils or candles or deep breathing. I mean, we have research on deep breathing. It can be very beneficial. But you can bring in anything that soothes you, certain sense people love. I have a sister and family members who love those satin pillows. That really helps them. Just get a feeling for textures and sensations that also help you to wind down in the evening.
SLEEP ANXIETY TREATMENT
Now, if you’re doing these things and you’re still really struggling with sleep anxiety and getting to sleep and insomnia, I would encourage you to look into some kind of sleep anxiety treatment. We do have science-based treatments to manage sleep anxiety or even chronic insomnia. One of those things is mindfulness training. In mindfulness training, what we are doing here is we’re training you to be able to get a hold of your attention. Because as you know, anxiety, if you really let anxiety lead the way, it’s going to ping-pong you to all the worst-case scenarios. It’s like what I said about my daughter. Will I fall asleep? Will I wake up? How long will it take? What if I don’t?
A lot of people also report anxiety around, “I don’t like the feeling of falling asleep. I feel like I’m losing control or feel going to sleep is scary. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” If you’re someone who’s very hypervigilant, being asleep can actually be very triggering for you.
Mindfulness trains us to stay present and not engage in all of that drama that our brain creates around all the possible worst-case scenarios. It also allows us to practice non-judgment about the anxiety and about the sensations that we’re experiencing, so we can just be present with them and practice. When I say practice, I mean over and over and over again because this is not easy. Practice being willing to be uncomfortable but keep our mind attending to the present instead of the worst-case scenarios.
Another piece of this when we’re talking about sleep anxiety treatment is general stress management. Now, if you have an anxiety disorder during the day that also starts to leak into the evenings, particularly if you’re someone who has more anxiety in the evenings, you will need to use a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy to manage that anxiety. Or if you have a lot of stress in your life, maybe your work or your school or your relationships are very stressful in this season, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) can be helpful in first looking at your cognition—that’s the cognitive part of CBT—and then also looking at your behaviors.
Now, the cool thing is a lot of the behavior stuff, you and I have already talked about in that sleep hygiene piece. We know that the behavior of being on your phone is not helpful. In addition with sleep hygiene, getting a lot of exercise less than two hours before bed isn’t really great for sleep either because your body’s metabolism is all sped up from that. Those are some behavior changes. Not watching scary movies or very activating movies or books—reading those books is very important behavior changes, or having difficult conversations.
For me, I have had to learn that if I work after about 7:00 PM, I can’t fall asleep. I need about three to four hours to wind down from work before I can fall asleep. Now that’s not always possible and I understand there’s a lot of privilege that goes with these ideas sometimes, but you just can do the best that you can, and if you can change things, go ahead and try. But those are some behavioral changes you can additionally do.
Now, if you are somebody who struggles with severe insomnia, in addition to sleep anxiety, because sometimes sleep anxiety goes alongside actual insomnia where biologically you don’t sleep much or you can’t sleep much, there is a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that is being scientifically proven to help called CBT-I. That is a specific form of CBT that is directed towards managing sleep anxiety and insomnia. It is really cool, it’s very effective. It’s very hard to get treatment, but if you do some Google searches, you might be able to find a CBT-I specialist in your area.
GIVE ME SOME MORE SLEEP ANXIETY TIPS..
In general now, because I’m trying to move us through this and not give you a full-on lecture, let’s just talk about some general sleep anxiety tips. As you’re approaching bed, the first skill I want you to practice is not tending to the noise that your brain creates about how bad this is going to go. For me, my mindfulness mantra is “not happening now.” I’ve done a whole episode on that in the past, not happening now. Meaning I’m not tending to something that has not yet happened. Until it happens, it does me no benefit by trying to focus on it right now. My brain is going to keep saying, “But what if you don’t? What if it’s bad? What if you’re really tired tomorrow? How is it going to go? What if you wake up? What if you have a panic attack at night and so forth?” I’m just going to say over and over, “You know what, it’s not happening now. I’m tending to what is happening.”
Another sleep anxiety tip I really want you to practice is compassion. Be really gentle with yourself, particularly as you start to practice these behavioral changes, and clean up your sleep hygiene. It takes time. The other thing with compassion is also be kind to yourself when you’re tired because a lot of us are exhausted. You have an anxiety disorder. Maybe it’s making it even harder for you to fall asleep. Then you’re tired, so now you’ve got two problems. Be as gentle and kind as you can. Again, when it comes to self-compassion, check in with yourself. Am I doing and engaging in behaviors that are kind towards me and my long-term goal? I’ll tell you what I used to do. When I had young toddlers, by two o’clock I’d be exhausted because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, so I’d have a coffee or a tea. But the tea and the coffee then prolonged how much I could get to bed, and it was made later and later. Again, reducing coffee, tea, some energy drinks is another important piece of sleep hygiene and behavioral changes that will benefit you if you struggle with sleep anxiety or insomnia.
We have mindfulness, we have compassion. These are really important sleep anxiety tools or tips. Another piece here is, as I’ve said before, engage in things that soothe you. If you’re doing exposures, if you’re doing ERP, try not to do them before bed unless you’ve been instructed by your therapist. Sometimes that’s not helpful. Now, that being said, if you have really severe anxiety around sleep, you may need to do exposures around bedtime as the exposure. That is an actual part of CBT-I. Sometimes they even have you set alarms to wake up at 2:14 in the morning and 4:45 in the morning so that you have to practice these skills over and over. That is okay and that is, again, where this can be very paradoxical, but that will be up to you to decide what’s best for you.
WHAT ABOUT SLEEP ANXIETY MEDICATION?
Another thing to remember is that there is sleep anxiety medicine. You can talk with your doctor about medicines that can help with sleep, help staying asleep, help you regulate what time. Some people take medication a few half an hour before they go to bed so that it helps ease them into sleep. Please do speak with a psychiatrist or a medical doctor about that because I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to be giving you medical advice about that.
Now, before I wrap up, there’s a couple of specific groups of people I also don’t want to miss here. First, I want to address sleep anxiety in association with depression. Sometimes a symptom of depression is insomnia. If that is the case, you could use some of these skills and I encourage you to, but we don’t want to miss the fact that if depression is what’s causing your insomnia or your sleep anxiety, please seek out a CBT therapist because it’s very important that you address that depression. One of the side effects of having depression can be sleepless nights, so I don’t want to miss that.
Another thing is, a lot of folks with OCD experience obsessions about sleep. Again, as I was mentioning before, it may mean that you do have to do some exposure around sleep and that would be advised to you because the best treatment for OCD is exposure and response prevention. We actually wrote an entire article about this on the website. If you want to go to KimberleyQuinlan-LMFT.com and then type in OCD and insomnia, it will be there. We did a whole article on that just a couple of weeks ago.
That’s it, guys. That’s what I want you to be really looking at. Please remember, and this is the most important part, the biggest message that our sleep specialist gave my daughter was stop putting so much pressure on yourself to fall asleep because the pressure creates anxiety and the anxiety stops you from sleeping. The best sleep anxiety tip I can give you at the outset of this podcast episode is try to take the pressure off. The truth is, even if you’re not sleeping as long as you’re resting, that is enough. You can’t force yourself to fall asleep. It usually creates more frustration, more anxiety. It just creates a lot of irritability.
Try to take the pressure off. Give yourself many weeks to get this down. It may take tweaks, it may take some reworking. You may require some help from people and assistance from a medical doctor if you need to. You can also reach out to a sleep anxiety specialist or an insomnia specialist who specialize in sleep deprivation anxiety or sleep deprivation in general. If you need sleep anxiety treatment, there are specific treatments out there for sleep anxiety in adults, children, and teens.
If you’re wanting to come and work with us again, you can go to our website and we have some amazing therapists who can also help. My hope is, soon I will be bringing out some sleep anxiety-guided meditations for you as well. That’s coming down the pipeline here very soon.
Please take the pressure off. Please be gentle. Just tweak little things. Again, as we always say, it’s a beautiful day to do hard, repetitive things where we practice and we practice.
I hope that’s been helpful. I hope you do go on to have a good night’s rest here very soon. I will see you next week.
Welcome back, everybody. Today we are talking about Acceptance Scripts with Dr Jon Grayson.
So happy to be here with you as we tie together our series on imaginals and scripts. Today, we have the amazing Dr. Jon Grayson and he is going to talk about acceptance scripts and the real importance of making sure we use acceptance when we’re talking about scripts and imaginals. I’m so excited to share this episode with you. I think it really does, again, tie together the two other guests that we’ve had on the show in this series.
For those of you who are listening to this and haven’t listened to the other two episodes of the series, go back two weeks. We’ve got the first one with Krista Reed and she’s talking about scripts and the way she uses them. Then we have Shala Nicely and she talks about her own specific way of using scripts. Again, the reason that I didn’t just have one person and leave it at that is I do think for each person, we have to find specific ways in which we do these skills and tools so we can make it specific to your obsessions and your intrusive thoughts. One explanation or one version or variety of this is probably not enough. I want to really deep dive in this series so that you feel, number one, you have a good understanding of what an imaginal and a script is. Number two, you know how to use them, you know the little nuanced pieces of information that you need to help make sure OCD and your OCD-related disorder doesn’t make it a compulsion because it can. I really wanted to get some groundwork so that you feel confident using imaginal and scripts in your own treatment and your own recovery.
Again, for those of you who are a little lost and feel like you need a better understanding of OCD, of how OCD works, how it keeps you stuck, the cycle of OCD and you want to make your own individual OCD and ERP plan, you can go to CBTSchool.com. We have a full seven-hour course that will walk you through exactly how I do it with my patients, and you can do that at your own pace. It’s an on-demand course. It is not therapy, but it will help you if you don’t have access to therapy or if you’re really just wanting to understand and do a deep dive and understand what ERP is and how you can use it. That is there for you. But if you are someone who is just wanting to get to the good stuff, let’s go over to the episode with Dr. Jon Grayson. Thank you, Dr. Jon Grayson, for coming on the show again. Always a pleasure to have such amazing people who really know their stuff. I’ll enjoy this episode with you. Let’s go.
Kimberley: Welcome, Dr. Jon Grayson. I’m so happy to have you back.
Jon: It is always fun to be with you.
Kimberley: Okay. It’s funny that you are number three, because I probably need you to be number one. Almost all of the scripting I ever learned was from your book. I think that even Shala Nicely came on and spoke about how a lot of what she does is through your book as well. Let’s just talk about the way in which you walk people through an imaginal or a script. Now do you call it imaginal or script? Do you think they’re synonymous? Do you have a different way of explaining it?
Jon: I think jargon-wise, they’re synonymous. I think by definition-- I feel weird saying that by definition because we made it up. I came up with the name “script” because originally, imaginal exposure suggested I’m just dealing with all the horrors and person’s just going to think about it. I changed the name to “script” because I was including both. What are you being exposed to? What might happen and why would you take this risk? Because I feel like the script is not only to get used to the material, but we remind the person, why am I doing this? What am I getting out of taking this horrible risk? Why would I want to live with that?
Integral to the Acceptance Script is the whole idea of learning acceptance. Because too often, I think the biggest problem I see in most therapists is they just jump into doing exposure without making sure the person has done level 1 acceptance, which is “I want to live with uncertainty,” because to say “I want to live with uncertainty” is to say, “I am willing to cope if the worst things happen.” It’s not just this general idea, it’s like going to the extreme. “I’m willing to live, even if this happens. I’m willing to drive a car knowing that I might get paralyzed and disfigured in a car crash.” I think that’s acceptance because if you’re telling me you’re never going to crash in a car and you know that’s true, I guess that’s a nice comforting thought that you might be in for a shock. We’re willing to take that risk. I think across the board, it’s always willing to live with the worst possible.
Scripts try to encapsulate that. They’re trying to help bring the person not only to confront their fear but remind them of all the ways they want to cope with it. It is not a reassurance thing because let’s face it, the worst thing happening, saying “I’ll cope with the worst” is not really reassuring in a sense because it’s something you really don’t want to happen. But I guess the goal is, first of all, if it happens, you will do something that’s coping or not.
I think non-acceptance-- God bless you. I’m glad we’re live so people can see you were sneezing. I just didn’t go into a religious ecstasy. I think we see non-acceptance insidiously all over the place without realizing it. In the beginning of the pandemic, so many people were going like, “Well, this can’t last all summer. I can’t deal with that.” That is a statement of avoidance and non-acceptance. I was listening to that and in the back of my mind, it’s like, “Let’s see. Everything they’ve told us makes it seem like this is going on for two years because they’re not finding a vaccine.” Seriously, you can’t take it. You’re not going to do it. What are you going to do? In retrospect, everybody would have to admit, “Well, yeah, it was not fun, it was awful, but I lived through it.”
Acceptance would’ve been, “Well, how am I going to try to make the best of this?” Making the best of it isn’t wonderful, which I guess brings us to the first point about acceptance because I think in the Western world, we make everything glossy and pretty and beautiful. Acceptance is just this wonderful land of zen happiness. It’s like I’m accepting everything is so good and, in reality, the best way to describe acceptance is that it sucks in the short run. In the short run, acceptance means “I’m going to be willing to embrace what seems to me the second-best life. This is what I want, I can have it, I will embrace this.”
The prime reason to do acceptance is you don’t have a choice. The other world doesn’t exist. In the beginning of the pandemic, Kathy and I were doing our pandemic walk, my wife Kathy. We were doing our pandemic walk. I remember because you’re terrified of everybody and you’re walking looking around. Kathy says to me, “God, this would be such a great day if all this wasn’t happening.” I said to her, “You’re wrong, Kathy,” which for all the listeners should immediately cue them into the idea that being married to a psychologist is not necessarily fun. I said to her, “It is a beautiful day. We’re with each other. Here we are. We’re holding hands, taking a walk. It’s really pretty. We’re going to be spending the whole day together.” The truth is, it is a great day AND it’s horrible that all of this is happening. I think acceptance is always AND. We always talk about letting stuff be there as if it’s very passively like, “Oh, I can just let it be there and not bother me.” No, it’s really horrible.
Let me tell this really horrible story, which I can’t remember if I’ve told on here, but it’s a more graphic description of what acceptance looks like, if I may. A young girl was brought to me, 17, was really in terrible shape. I mean, she had been hospitalized, she had suicide attempts. So anxious, she couldn’t tolerate being in a counsel’s office for more than one hour when she first came in. Her meds were a mess. Over the next three months, we got her meds in line and she really worked incredibly hard considering where she was. And then in December, they asked, could she be in my support group? I said, “Well, it’s not really for kids.” They talked me into things, “We think she’s mature.” First of all, whenever she spoke up in the group, whatever she said would be brilliantly insightful that would just knock everybody out. She did not look old, but nobody could believe she was only 17.
As the year went on, we were tapering off sessions. The last time I saw her in June, her parents, her and her brother were driving out to the desert outside of LA looking for a vacation getaway place. On their way there, a drunk driver in her third DUI rammed the car and killed my patient Ruby and her 14-year-old brother. I don’t have to tell you how devastated the parents were. I could talk a lot of stories that are amazing about them because I saw them starting about three weeks after their loss. At which point they said, “We want to be more than the parents of dead kids, but we can’t imagine anything else.” I said, “Well, I can tell you what treatment will be like, but it just seems like words.” They agreed it’ll be just words, but it’s just nice to hear there’s something. They coped amazingly well. But the only good thing about coping, in this case, is it’s better than not coping. Maybe that’s true a lot of the time.
After a year and a half, they did buy the place where they were going to that they were looking for that day. They bought it because it made them feel closer to the kids. They didn’t push that away at all. After a year and a half, they were at the place. It was one night where there was a meteor shower. They go, “Oh, we’re going to go out and watch the meteor shower.” They go out at midnight, lay down on their backs and both immediately burst into tears because this 17-year-old, 14-year-old were actually the kind of kids they would’ve happily gone out there with their parents and enjoyed the whole time. I said to the dad, “Was it a pretty meteor shower?” He said, “Yeah.”
“Are you sorry you saw it?”
I said the truth, “It was a beautiful meteor shower AND it’s horrible that your kids were murdered.”
It’s a dark sense of humor and said, “Well, I thought we’d have at least a few moments. I said, “Yeah, that wasn’t happening.” That’s acceptance. They were living in the present. They could enjoy things and there was a hole in their heart. The alternative to that is comparing life to every second of life to how much better it would be. Whenever I compare life to a fantasy, I ruin the present. I have nothing.
I think the reason for acceptance is to make the best of whatever we can have. I think one of the wonderful things sometimes is that a lot of what we avoid is not something so devastating. It’s maybe more in our head what we’re trying to avoid. But a low probability event is not a no probability event. If that’s what I’m scared of, low odds are comforting because I want no odds. Am I answering your question?
Kimberley: You are. I think it’s a really great opportunity for us to segue. You’ve talked about the first step being to familiarize yourself with uncertainty before doing scripts and acceptance. You’ve beautifully explained this idea. For the listeners, you can also go back. Dr. Grayson has been on the show before. You can listen to it. We’ve talked a lot about that, which is so beautiful and I think very much compliments what you’re saying. Let’s talk about the script that you’re speaking of. Once you’ve done that work of acceptance, how would you--
Jon: I may have to call you Ms. Quinlan since you referred to me as Dr. Grayson.
Kimberley: No, call me Kimberley.
HOW CAN WE ACCEPT UNCERTAINTY USING SCRIPTS/IMAGINALS?
Jon: When considering how to accept uncertainty, that first step, are you willing to learn to live with uncertainty? That step is variable of talking in therapy for the first session. I’ve had some people take three months before they agree like, it’s not like I really have a choice, and that’s really what we’re getting. What are you losing to that? I can’t remember if I just said this before, but one of the biggest things that I end up teaching therapists who have been around the field for years is do not start exposure until the person has actually agreed that they’re willing to learn to do this because obviously, they can just accept uncertainty. Then we’re done with session 1. It takes one session to three months. The loose measure is to accept uncertainty to say if the worst happens, I will try to live with it and I will try to cope with it. If somebody says to me, “If that happens, I’ll kill myself.” No, no. That’s an avoidance. In this scenario, you are condemned to life. You’re going to have to figure out how to cope no matter how awful.
In scripting, the idea of a script is not only to provide the imaginal exposure, which is like this terrible thing might happen. Because a lot of times, people go, if you say X might happen, “I don’t want to think about it.” As I said to you in the beginning of the show, I can get any parent into an immediate statement of denial by saying, “What if your kids die,” the response of almost every parent is, “I don’t want to deal with that. I don’t want to think it through.” But if you’re being tortured by the thought, that normal level of denial, which I don’t think is the ideal way to handle it, but you already can’t do it because you keep going into, “What about no, what about no, what about, no?”
How to write an Acceptance Script
The very first step of how to write an acceptance script is essentially asking the question, “why would I take this risk?” Because within that statement is part of your answer of why I’m going to pursue acceptance. It is not the same as acceptance, but it’s why I’m being motivated to go after this.
Kimberley: What would that look like? How would you word that?
Jon: As to why would I take this risk?
Jon: I’m trying to think of how horrible to go.
Kimberley: Let’s pick an example because I think examples are helpful. Let’s say someone has relationship OCD and they’re afraid they’re making the wrong choice in their partner.
Jon: You picked one, I think, that’s not necessarily the most horribly devastating consequences on one hand compared to like, am I an old child molester?
Kimberley: You go there.
Jon: I have a really wonderful acceptance thing I do with that, so we will go there. But with the ROCD, I want to know, am I making this terrible mistake with my spouse? What we’re asking them to accept is never knowing.
Kimberley: You’d just say that in the script?
Jon: No, because we’ll talk to them and we’ll talk about why like, why am I willing to never know for sure? Because some of it is like they’re looking into a relationship with the thermometer and taking the measure every minute. What’s the temperature now? What’s the temperature now? There’s this fantasy that I should have no questions. I mean, depending on how deep they’re in, I should find no one else attractive, but every moment should be great and I should have no complaints. Well, that is a fantasy marriage.
Kathy and I took a trip to France and it was an incredible trip. Of course, when you say going to Paris, everybody’s eyes glaze over. We ate at a patisserie every morning, but let’s face it, it’s just a damn croissant. One place had the best café au lait. We were there for two days, but it was great. We saw the Catacombs where we had to wait in line for three hours in the hot sun. Went to a really fine restaurant, but we’re not super foodies, so we’re not necessarily going to like it. The experience can’t just depend on, “This was great food,” or “This is terrible, we just spent a lot of money for what.” We go in knowing that. It was a great vacation. A great vacation. It’s not like every second is great. Three hours in a hot sun, five-hour bus ride to go see the site, but it was still a great vacation. I think a relationship is like that, so I can’t look at that now.
I think for the person with ROCD, we’re going to say they are not perfect. Like any relationship, we want a hundred things and we’re only getting 70 of them. It should be more than 20, but we’re only getting 70. Are you making a mistake? Now, most people with ROCD can say they don’t want to leave right now or sometimes they want to leave because of the anxiety. It’s like, then you have to stay. I don’t want you talking about all your fears and confessing because if you are wrong, you’re just making this person feel bad for no reason.
My thought is, you can leave this relationship when you know for two weeks solid you want to leave with no question. No question. You know it is, sure, as you know you’re sitting there because they generally accept that. We have to point out what are the realities of a relationship. Everyone on their wedding day thinks they’re going to be married forever, but that’s wrong 50% of the time. Whomever we marry, my spouse being an exception, 40 years later, they don’t look as good as you did the day you married them. Technically, you were accepting second best in looks 40 years later.
Kimberley: Did you know the rate of divorce is higher in therapists?
Jon: Wow. So, Kathy and I are really against the odds. This is a little scary to you probably. We started dating in 1970 and this year, it’ll be our 50th anniversary.
Kimberley: Wow. Congratulations.
Jon: Having met at the age of two and started dating then, we don’t really have much significant history before that. You will get angry and there are going to be things they don’t want to do. Yes, you’re going to have to learn to live not knowing that. That’s going to be part of the script, that you don’t get to know. What if you’re making a mistake? Even if you fell wildly happily in love now and you had no question, really nice feeling. If the relationship seems good, no reason to question it. Now of course, if you have ROCD, you’re checking all these reasons. It’s like you’re not ready to leave yet. Yes, when you’re answering your questions, it’s maybe. Even if I feel wonderfully in love with you, it might be that next year or after 20 years ago, I discover you’ve been having a seven-year illicit affair. I discover, “Oh hey, guess what? You’re leaving me.” There are all kinds of things that could go wrong. Or I’ll ask the person in this relationship, if this relationship was good and you felt constant passion affair and next year your spouse suddenly gets a dread disease that’s going to make them really messed up and crippled and sick for the next years, I guess you’re leaving them. Of course, everybody goes like, “No.” But the bottom line is, that’s good, but that’s not going to be what you signed up for.
How do we make the best of it? I did this one thing with one couple that worked like magic. I’m saying that worked like magic because I’d do it with everyone across the board, but usually, it doesn’t work like this. This was the low probability. Oh my god, this was the killer intervention as opposed to, this is a start for most people. It was such a cute couple, but I’d given him the thing. “This weekend, when you’re spending time with her, I want you to notice whenever you’re having fun, and although part of you wants to compare it to what it should be, I want you to consciously just notice whatever it is, like if it’s 5%.” Because a lot of times, you’re comparing your current feeling to what it should be. There could be good things happening and you don’t even notice because it’s like, “I was just thinking about this, I was just thinking about this.” He had that assignment to notice it, whatever. He came back and he was like, “We had a great weekend. I still don’t know if I love her or not, but if it could be like this forever, I’m good.” Now, that was a rarity, but that was the beginning of acceptance for most people, just noticing, oh, I’m not miserable every second. I agree a two-minute 20% joy isn’t like, oh wow, that makes it all worth it. But it’s stuff that you don’t notice all along. We’re trying to notice the good and the other stuff.
Acceptance is not a decision; trying to learn it is. But when I talk about that couple who lost two kids, when I say it was more than a year for them to get to acceptance and what acceptance means for them is they didn’t compare every moment to what it would be like if their kids were still alive. In fact, I didn’t know this at the time when I told them that everything goes well after a year. You’ll still have a hole in your heart, but you’ll stop comparing every moment to if they were still alive. They just listened. But the dad wrote a book about mourning and he also did a one-man show called Grief, which I wish I could show everyone. But in one of those places, he said that when I told them that, in his mind, he was saying, “F you! I am never going to stop wishing my kids were alive.” And then he wrote that two years later, he’s come to realize it doesn’t do him or his kids any good to wish they were alive.” He’s in acceptance. He still misses them greatly. He can still cry at them, but he’s no longer making that comparison. I’m mentioning it because that takes time. No one expects a couple, three weeks after their kids are murdered, to be in acceptance. The same with anything I have to accept.
The person with OCD, they have this goal, but getting to that great state where “I’m living with this and it’s okay, I embrace this life” is hard. Luckily, most of the time what they have to accept isn’t devastating in the sense that nobody dies of AIDS. Am I with the wrong person forever? Well, maybe it’s the second-best life, but that’s the life I’m asking you to live for now, because all of us have no choice.
Kimberley: Right. Let’s break it down.
Jon: I’m sorry.
Kimberley: No, you’re great.
Jon: Okay. You’re good at being back on target.
Kimberley: I’m a real visual person too. I don’t know if you know that about me, like if I need to see it visually--
Jon: By the way, that’s fantastic because to say something and show it visually just makes it easier for everyone else around you that you’re talking to. I appreciate what you’re going to do.
Kimberley: Okay. Walk me through the visual here. The first step is what?
Jon: Why would you take this risk?
Kimberley: Okay, what’s the second?
THE SECOND STEP OF ACCEPTANCE SCRIPTS
Jon: The second step of acceptance scripts is, if I do X, here’s a list of the things I’m actually scared might happen. I say actually scared because I want to go, what’s their fear? I can always go beyond even more horrible things, but I need to know what is their actual worst fear.
Kimberley: Right. Let’s say for two if it was relationship OCD, it would be, “I find out I’m in a terrible relationship and I’m stuck with them.” Or if they were having harm obsessions, it would be, “I harm and kill my wife or my grandparent or so forth.” You would write that down.
Jon: Yeah. “Here’s what might happen.”
Kimberley: Okay. What’s step number three?
Jon: If this happens, how would I try to cope with this in a positive way?
Kimberley: That’s key, isn’t it? How would I cope in a positive way?
Jon: Right. And that will often be second best.
Kimberley: Which is acceptance.
Jon: Well, it’s the road to acceptance. Remember, acceptance is not just this logical thing; it’s this emotional thing. I have clients and they appreciate it. It’s like, if we were just doing a therapy test, like say all the right stuff, they could ace therapy right away. They know how to say everything, they can do it. But feeling it takes time and behavior. I not only have to know it; I have to do the work of getting there. I have to go through all this pain. Now, I say, I think going through ERP is as painful as doing rituals. One is just an end of rituals versus endless rituals. I hate to keep going back to this couple, but what I said initially, the only good thing about coping is it was better than not coping. I had told them how well they were coping somewhere in the middle. Again, the dad said, “Wow, I hate to see the other poor bastards,” which was cute. I said, “Yes, but you’ve been in support groups, you’ve seen them.” He suddenly realized, “Whoa, we are coping even though this really sucks.”
Kimberley: In this script—and maybe I’m wrong here, please tell me—I always think of the research around athletes and when they have an injury, there’s research to show that while they’re in the hospital bed with their new hip replacement and whatnot, the sports psychologists are coaching them through visual, imaginal, imagery of them doing the layup again and dunking the ball or turning the corner of the sprinting track or whatever. They’re doing that imagery work to help them play out how they would cope, how they would handle the pain, how they would return. Is that what this process is in step 3?
Jon: No. Well, that guy or a woman who’s imagining that, does their injury permit that possibility?
Kimberley: Tell me more.
Jon: Are they so injured that they will never be able to do a layup?
Kimberley: No. In this example--
Jon: Or maybe somebody could say the odds are against them, so here’s what you can try to do, and here’s what to expect of how horrible it is to try.” But they might have to say, “You might not get there.” In a marriage, I don’t care how good the marriage is, I cannot say it will definitely work out. I can’t say you will definitely work out your problems. If I’m married for 20 great years, and then we have these three years at hell and I find out that you’ve been cheating on me the last two years, did I make a mistake? Or should I have left you four years ago, how would I know four years ago and should I have not tried, and all these questions that don’t have an answer. All I know is where I am now.
THE THIRD STEP OF ACCEPTANCE SCRIPTS
I like to say success is not making the right decision. It’s coping with the consequences of whatever decision you have made. I feel regret is cheating because regret is, again, I’m going into denial as soon as I have a regret. I should have done X. X would’ve been different. I don’t know if it would’ve been better. This failed. X being better is one possibility, but there are a whole lot of other ones where maybe it wouldn’t have been as good. All I can ever do is, what is next? That person in the relationship with ROCD, what do I need to do next? What have I learned? Somebody with ROCD did get divorced and gets into a relationship where they have the ROCD, but it’s such a better relationship. It’s not like you should have gotten out sooner because you know what, maybe if you didn’t go into that other relationship, maybe you wouldn’t have been ready for this one. Maybe you needed to go through your ROCD and go through all the crap to have this good one. Dumping that person sooner and getting into another relationship might have been better, or maybe you would’ve picked worse. We don’t get to know. All we know is what is from this moment on.
Part of the exposure is, okay, X might happen. What are the possibilities of coping? Again, I think I said, in my scenarios, the person can’t do suicide. They’re condemned to life and say, why I kill myself? That’s just a way of not thinking in the present. I want you to be stuck thinking about how you would try to cope with this. A lot of times, people have been so distant from it that it just seems like a screaming wall. It is like getting a phone call that somebody you love died. The whole world stops, and that’s where people stop thinking. But in the real world, something happens after you get that information.
Part of the exposure is to go through what happened next, what are some possibilities? I always say to somebody, “I don’t know if I can cope with the worst things that could happen to me, but I know that there are brave people who have. I don’t know if I can be like them, but they’re a model that I hope I will do that.” What if you don’t cope? Well, then I’ll be in deep trouble. My current plan is, the best I can do is I hope I will cope. I don’t want to be paralyzed and disfigured in a car crash. I hope I would cope. I don’t have to know that I’d cope because I’m going to wait till I get there to try to find out. But I might try to imagine it.
We’re going to imagine what would you actually do. In this relationship, how will I live never knowing? I’m taking the ROCD, how will I live? What if this is wrong? It might be wrong. What’s decent right now? What do you like? Because again, no person is perfect. How do I get into the state of that? Do I ever send people to marital counseling? If I see actual problems, I will, but I am not sending them to marital counseling to get rid of the ROCD. I’m sending them to get rid of actual problems. With or without those problems, they still have ROCD. I’m just eliminating, okay, here’s some definite reasons to get out. But once they’re resolved, then you’re still stuck with the ROCD.
THE FORTH STEP OF ACCEPTANCE SCRIPTS
Kimberley: Is there a fourth step of acceptance scripts?
Jon: Kind of. It’s embedded in it, which is part of why I would take this risk, is what’s resulting from not taking this risk? What are the graphic horrible things that keep happening to you because you keep avoiding, including the torture you feel, the hours loss, humiliation from doing things? How are you actually hurting the people you think you love? Because a lot of times in ROCD, they can say they care about the person. I’ll always ask somebody, do you love your kids or love your spouse?” They’ll say, “Yeah.” “Will you do anything for them?” They’ll say yes. I’ll say, “I’m sorry, you’re a liar.” How do you hurt your family and loved ones with your ROCD? Not being present, yelling at them because they didn’t do something, and all the other ways that one might, asking for reassurance endlessly being in pain in the neck. I will point out, you have a choice in your relationship. I’m going beyond ROCD. But you get to pick between, are you going to serve your fear or your love? You keep choosing fear over love.
Part of acceptance does have to do with what my values are. Who is the person I want to be? Here’s another reason I need to do acceptance, because here’s life without acceptance. Most people who we see, we can say, the idea of trying to not accept and do avoid, I think you’ve done an amazing experiment of checking out that method. I think the results are clear, it sucks, so it’s time to try this other method. It’s like, why am I doing acceptance? Because I think, again, in our society we just make acceptance sounds so wonderful. But that’s just an idea. Why would acceptance actually be worth it? I have to think about why would it actually be worth it. I have to be motivated to do it. And then I’m stuck with this in-between thing that a lot of the time I’m doing a separate, recognizing I am not there yet, which by the way, there’s this great book that this wonderful person wrote on self-compassion, because I need self-compassion during treatment because I’m not where I want to be. It’s like I’m doing this really hard work and it’s not there yet. The best I get to say is, I’m working hard, I see some improvement, but yes, I’m not there yet and mourning.
Learning to live the second-best life takes time. I keep saying second-best life. I don’t actually mean it in some sense, but that is the feeling that when I’m working towards acceptance, that it is. I think in some cases, it’s not really a second-best life. I think a lot of times, if I overcome a fear, it’s like, this is great. Other times it is. I’ve had some people with a moral OCD about something they’ve done in the past and they’re going through all these contortions to try to convince themself that it’s not really bad even though they actually think it’s bad, but maybe here’s why it’s not bad. Part of the acceptance is, oh yeah, that was a bad shitty thing. You feel guilty about that. What is forgiving yourself mean? Shockingly, almost nobody knows what forgiving yourself means. How are you going to get to that point? But I have to accept, yeah, that was bad. That hurt people or whatever it is by whatever standards. Again, depending on who we’re talking about, it’s like, “Oh, I guess we have to have you accept being as bad as everyone else.” In some other cases, no, that was really bad.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I REFUSE TO ACCEPT?
Kimberley: It’s great. The last part of the question is, what happens when I refuse to accept? What is the result of not taking this risk or even not accepting this, which is you have additional pain, right? The pain just keeps going and going and going.
Jon: Right. That’s right. End of pain. Endless pain.
Kimberley: Yeah. If they’ve used these somewhat prompts and people can go to your book and work through a lot of them, I know on your website there are a lot of worksheets as well. Once they’re writing these prompts, is there anything else you feel is important for them to know about this process or to be aware of or be prepared for in this process?
Jon: I am pausing. The next revision of the book might be your inspiration. Well, because I know that it is way, way, way, way easier said than done. The core treatment for all OCD is the same. However, I have a completely different set of things I say depending on the presentation, because they each have their own set of things that the individual has to be focused on working to accept and live with. Although I think in my book I attempt. When I talk about each presentation, I do try to go over those and I’ve seen that for many people as helpful. But I also see for many people who’ve read the book, and even though they’ve read it, it ends up different for them to actually have to discuss it out loud. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t been able to think about it without realizing they avoid thinking about it. Sometimes because I think not all the connections are obvious, which I know is a really vague statement. I think I can go on, but I have to wait for you to ask a question.
Kimberley: Okay. We’re running out of time, so I want to make sure I’m respecting your time.
Jon: Don’t respect my time, by the way. I set aside way extra time. This is on you if we end.
Kimberley: Once you do those questions, you would then walk them through the four steps that you went through with scripting as well.
Jon: Yes, and some other horrible things because the horrible show, that should have been illegal. Actually, it’s not on anymore. I think you can still find that on YouTube. Toddlers & Tiaras and the crazy mothers who make their little girls try to be in beauty pageants. You know what, if you look at the pictures of the kids, it’s like, oh my God, they’re sexualizing this eight-year-old. But when you say that word, that means you can see what they have done. You recognize the sexual aspect. You know what, if I go and take this picture apart, this horrifies people when I say it. It’s like, if you look at their legs, it’s like, yeah, they have good legs. Now, nobody wants to say that, and it’s like, “Oh.” That’s our first response. But if I have POCD, I see that, “Oh my god, what’s wrong with me?” It’s an acceptance that we can see something and recognize a piece of it.
I think the most difficult POCD is the people who “I don’t want to be attracted to a 15-year-old.” I can say, if I show you this picture and tell you they’re 18, oh, that’s okay. If I show you the same picture and tell you they’re 15, no, that’s okay. It’s like somehow magically, I find that the picture, the attractive is the picture is right or wrong if I tell you the age, which of course makes no sense. The picture is attractive or not independent of that. It’s accepting, yes, I might find a whole lot of things. Again, what we think makes us accept or not do we act on it.
Kimberley: It’s interesting because as you know, we just got a new puppy. It’s taking over all of the Quinlan family and our lives. I had a moment where our puppy loves his belly to be scratched and right there is his genitals. I can see the projection of my mind of like, “What if you just touched that? Or what if you pulled that back?” The imagery, I could see myself doing it. Thankfully I have all these skills where I’m able to go, “Oh, there’s a thought.” I did feel that hot, sticky anxiety flow going through.
Jon: If you don’t change diapers regularly, I’m sorry, it’s a weird experience and I don’t care who you are, you’re going to think about that. If you’re changing a little person and there you are, you’re pumping their genitals because you got to clean it up and wipe it, you know what you’re doing and the healthy thing is like, “Okay, weird thoughts. This is normal.” If I have OCD, it’s like, “Why would I even think that?” Well, it’s normal.
Kimberley: It’s funny because I was noticing myself going through some of these imaginal scripting steps myself. Instead of going, “No, no, no, no, no, you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t, you couldn’t. That’s terrible.” It was like, “All right.” This is the last question I want because you’ve given some great examples. As I was having this thought, I noticed the choice—I used the word “choice” on purpose—to get really edgy with it and try not to have it. My body language is all tight and I was gritting my teeth, or I was like, “Kimberley, just let it flow. Let the thoughts come.” As you’re doing this with your patients, is there any piece of you where you are bringing their attention to whether their shoulders are all tight and their jaw is all tight and their hands are all tight, or does that not matter?
Jon: Nothing not matters, maybe, but that’s not always true. I thought you’d enjoy that. I think it depends on how much that’s part of their conscious fear response. I mean, I think if they’re doing their dog and it’s like, “Oh my God, am I excited by this,” the answer I would be working on is, “I’m not really sure. Maybe I am in some deep way. I’m not going to play with the genitals now and that’s the best I get to know.”
Kimberley: Yeah. Agreed. I love this. Thank you. Again, I want you to say, where are the resources that people can go to get your concrete workbooks and your worksheets?
Jon: I love how you make me have so many more books and worksheets. All the paperwork that appears in my book appears for free for anybody on the site FreedomFromOCD.com. In the Kindle and audio version, they couldn’t have those, so I was obsessed to have the Kindle version so I made that available. My book has most of my repertoire except about 20 minutes. Those are the main places. I hate to do this, but most of the time, when it comes to OCD books, I will say to people, there are a bunch of books that I would recommend, I think, that are roughly equal. But I think the one that most agrees with me happens to be mine, so I mention a few of the other good books. There is only one other book seriously that I tell people to get because I think it’s different, and that is your book, which is amazing because generally, I hate books that label themselves “self-compassion” because it’s just a version of be nice to yourself in a lot of words. I feel your book gives these not easy-to-do steps that make it work. Although as I said to you last time, it is just you used too many exclamation points.
Kimberley: I will forever decline your opinion on my exclamation points and my emojis. If you ever text with me, you’ll know that I over emoji and I over exclamation points.
Jon: I’m okay with that in text.
Kimberley: Thank you for that wonderful compliment. I do agree, yes, I have been blamed for the exclamation mark issue before, but I stand up and I stand with it.
Jon: I like to warn people because I want them to know, oh no, don’t worry. This isn’t as you would put it all flowers and unicorns. It’s a great book with too many exclamation points.
Kimberley: No, it’s funny because my mom helped me edit it while I was in a 14-day quarantine in a Sydney hotel for COVID. She would go through and she would add exclamation marks. She was adding e emojis and hearts and smiley faces and I was like, “Oh, we are going crazy here.”
Jon: Now I know where you got it from.
Kimberley: We’re all love. Thank you for that. It’s a very huge compliment. Thank you so much for being here and talking about this. Again, I love having you on talking just a little deeper into the topic and a bit more abstract, which I think is helpful too. Is there anything else you want to conclude on here?
Jon: I would love to have some really cool, all-summarizing conclusion. The truth is, I can just talk endlessly. I’m just going to thank you for having me on and I am always willing to come talk with you.
Kimberley: I would say, the point that I love that you made today, which I will add for you, is the word AND. The word AND is so important in this conversation.
Jon: That’s a great summary because I think so many of our ideas, it’s not like they’re new, they get refined with time. In a way, something we’ve been saying all along and suddenly there’s this very slightly different way of saying it, but it summarizes it in a way that makes it more understandable, and AND I think does that for a lot of understanding mindfulness and acceptance.
Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you so much.Jon: You take care.
Today we are talking all about ERP Scripting with Shala Nicely. Welcome back, everybody. We are on Week 2 of the Imaginals and Script Series. This week, we have the amazing Shala Nicely on the show. She’s been on before. She’s one of my closest friends and I’m so honored to have her on.
For those of you who are listening to this and haven’t listened to any of the previous episodes, I do encourage you to go back to last week’s episode because that is where we introduce the incredible Krista Reed and she talks about how to use scripts and imaginals. I give a more detailed intro to what we’re here talking about if this is new for you.
This will be a little bit of a steep learning curve if you’re new to exposure and response prevention. Let me just quickly explain. I myself, I’m an ERP-trained therapist, I am an OCD Specialist, and a part of the treatment of OCD and OCD-related disorders involve exposing yourself to your fear and then practicing response prevention, which is reducing any of the safety behaviors or compulsions you do in effort to reduce or remove whatever discomfort or uncertainty that you feel. Now, often when we go to expose ourselves to certain things, we can’t because they’re not something we can face on a daily basis or they’re often very creative things in our mind. This is where imaginals and scripts can come in and can be incredibly helpful.
If you want a more detailed understanding of the steps that we take regarding ERP, you can go to CBTSchool.com, which is where we have all our online courses. There is a course called ERP School that will really do a lot of the back work in you really understanding today’s session. You don’t have to have taken the course to get the benefits of today’s session because a lot of you I know already have had ERP or are in ERP as we speak, or your clinicians learning about ERP and I love that you’re here. Honestly, it brings me so much joy. But that is there for you if you’re completely lost on what’s going on today, and that will help fill you in on the gold standard treatment for OCD and the evidence-based treatment for OCD and OCD-related disorders.
That being said, let’s get on with the good stuff. We have the amazing Shala Nicely. I am so honored again to have you on. You are going to love how applicable and useful her skills and tools are. Let’s just get straight over to Shala.
Kimberley: Welcome, Shala. I am so happy to have you back. I know we have a pretty direct agenda today to talk about imaginals versus scripting in your way in which you do it. I’d love to hear a little bit about, first, do you call it imaginals or do you call it scripting? Can you give me an example or a definition of what you consider them to be?
Shala: Sure. Well, thank you very much for having me on. Love to be here as always. I’ll go back to how I learned about exposure when I first became a therapist. I learned about exposure being two different things. It was either in vivo exposure, so in life. Meaning, you go out and do the thing that your OCD is afraid of that you want to do, or it was imaginals where you imagine doing the thing that you want to do that your OCD is afraid to do. Research shows us that the in vivo is more effective, but sometimes imaginals is necessary because you can’t go do the thing for whatever reason. But I don’t think about it like that anymore. That’s how I learned it, but it’s not how I practice it.
To help describe what I do, I’ll take you back to when I had untreated OCD or when I was just learning how to do ERP for myself because I think that would help it make sense what I do. When I was doing ERP, I would obviously go out and do all the things that I wanted to do and my OCD didn’t want me to do. What I found was that I could do those things, but my OCD was still in my head, getting me to have a conversation about what we were doing in my mind. I might go pick up a discarded Coke can on the side of the road because it’s “contaminated,” and I would then go either put it in the trash, which would be another exposure because that would be not recycling. There are layers of exposures here. But my OCD could be in my head going, “Well, I don’t think that one is contaminated. It doesn’t look all that contaminated because it’s pretty clean and this looks like a clean area so I’m sure it’s not contaminated. What do you think, Shala?”
“Oh, I agree with you.”
“Well, we threw it away, but I bet you, these people, they’re going to get wherever we threw it. They’re actually going to sort it out and it’s going to get recycled anyway.” There was this carnival in my head of information about what was going on.
I determined what I was doing because I was doing the exposure, but I wasn’t really getting all that much better. I was getting somewhat better but not all that much better. What I realized I was doing is that I’m having these conversations in my head, which are compulsive. In my recovery journey, what I was doing was I was going to a lot of trainings, I was reading a ton of books, and I talk about this in Is Fred in the Refrigerator?, my memoir, because this was a pretty pivotal moment for me when I read Dr. Jonathan Grayson’s book, Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I know you’re having him on this series as well. I read his book and he talks so much in there about writing scripts to deal with the OCD—writing scripts about what might happen, the worst-case scenario, living with uncertainty, and all that kind of stuff. That really resonated with me and I thought, “Aha, this is what I need to be doing. I need to be doing ERP scripting instead of having that conversation in my head with the OCD. Because when I’m doing exposure and I’m having a conversation with OCD in my head, I’m doing exposure and partial response prevention. I am preventing the physical response, but I’m not at all preventing the mental response, and this was slowing down my recovery.”
The way I like to think of imaginals—you think about imagine like imagination—is that the way I do imaginal exposures, which I just call ERP scripting, is that I’m dealing with OCD’s imagination. People with OCD are exceptionally creative. If you’re listening to this and you think, “Well, not me,” for proof, all you have to do is look at what your OCD comes up with and look how creative it is. You guys share the same brain, therefore, you are creative too. All that creativity. When you have untreated OCD, it goes into coming up with these monstrous scenarios of how you’re harming others or harming yourself. You’re not ever going to be able to handle this anxiety or uncertainty or icky feeling or whatever, and it builds these scary stories that get us stuck.
What I’m trying to do with imaginal exposure or scripting is I’m trying to deal with OCD’s imagination because in the example I gave, I was picking up the Coke can and my OCD was using its imagination to try to reassure me all the ways this Coke can was going to be okay or all the ways this Coke can was going to eventually get recycled. I needed to deal with that. Really, the way I do ERP Scripting for myself and for my clients is I’m helping people deal with OCD’s imagination in a non-compulsive way. For me, it is not a choice of in vivo or imaginal; it is in vivo with imaginal, almost always, because most people that I see anyway are doing what I did. They are doing physical compulsions or avoidance and they’re up in their head having a conversation with their OCD about it. I’m almost always doing in vivo and imaginals together because I’m having people approach the thing that they want to do that OCD doesn’t want them to do, and I’m having them do scripts. The Coke can may or may not be contaminated. The fact that it’s sitting here and it looks pretty clean may or may not mean that it’s got invisible germs on it. I don’t know. The Coke can may or may not get recycled, it may or may not end up in recycling, but somehow contaminate the whole recycling thing that has to throw all that other recycling away because it touched it. I’m trying to use my imagination to make it even worse for the OCD so that we’re really facing these fears.
That’s how I conceptualize imaginal exposure. It’s not an AND/OR it’s an AND for me. Some people don’t need it and if they don’t need it, fine. But I find it’s very helpful to make sure that people are doing full response prevention in that they’re permitting both the physical and the mental compulsive response.
Kimberley: Does everyone need ERP scripting? When you say some people don’t need it, what would the presentation of those people be?
Shala: That for whatever reason, they are good at not having the conversation with OCD in their heads. This is the minority of people anyway that I work with. Most people are pretty good at having compulsive conversations with OCD because the longer you have untreated OCD, the more you end up taking your physical compulsions and pulling them inward and making the mental compulsion so that you can survive. If you can’t really do all that physical checking at your office because people are going to see you, you do mental checking. That’s certainly what I did. People become good at doing this stuff in their head and it becomes second nature. It can be going on. I talk about this a lot in Fred, I could do compulsions while I was doing anything else because I could do them in my head. Most people are doing that and most people have been doing that for long enough by the time they see somebody like me that if I just say, “Well, stop doing that,” I mean I’m never going to see them again. They’re not going to come back because they can’t stop doing that. That’s the whole reason they called me.
I’m giving them something else to do instead. It’s a competing response to the mental compulsions because they don’t know how to stop that. They’re not aware of what they’re doing, they don’t know how to stop the process, so I’m giving them something to do instead of that until they build the mental muscles to be able to recognize OCD trying to get them to have a conversation and just not answer that question in their head. But it takes a long time to develop that skill. It took me a long time anyway.
Some people, for whatever reason though, are good at that. If they don’t need to do the scripting, great. I think that’s wonderful. They don’t have to do it. The strongest response you can ever have to OCD is to ignore it completely, both physically and mentally. If you can truly ignore it in your head, you don’t even need to do the scripting. It’s a stronger response to just do what you want to do that upsets OCD and just go on with your day.
Kimberley: Amazing. So How do you do ERP Scripting? If you’re not one of those people and OCD loves to come up with creative ideas of all the things, what would be your approach? You talked about imaginals versus scripting. Can you play out and show us how you do it?
Shala: I mean, I guess imaginals in the traditional way that it is defined versus scripting. The way I would do it is we would design the client and I would design whatever their first exposure is going to be. Let’s say that it would be touching doorknobs. They’re going to be in their location and I’m going to be in my location. They’re going to be wherever we’ve decided they’re going to touch the doorknobs. Maybe it’s to the outside of their house, for instance. I’m there on video with them and we have them touch the doorknob.
And then I asked them, “Well, what is OCD saying about that?”
“Well, OCD says that I need to go wash my hands.”
I will say, “Well, are you going to go do that?”
I’m like, “Well, let’s tell OCD that.”
“Okay, OCD, I’m not going to wash my hands.”
“Now what’s OCD saying?”
“Well, OCD is saying that I’m contaminated.”
“Well, let’s say I may or may not be contaminated.”
So far, we’ve got, “I’m not washing my hands and I may or may not be contaminated.” Okay, now I’ll ask them their anxiety level. When they say, “Gosh, I’m at a four,” I’ll say, “Is that good?” They’ll often say, “No, I wish it were zero.” I’ll be like, “I’m sorry, what? What did you say? You want your anxiety to be zero? I must have misheard that. Is four good?” Finally, they understand, “Oh, well, four is not good because we could be higher.”
“What would be better than four?”
“Anything above a four.”
I’m working with them on that. We might start to throw some things in the script. I want to be anxious because this is how I beat my OCD, so bring it on.
I’ll ask again, “What’s your OCD saying?”
“Well, it’s saying that I’m going to get some terrible disease.”
“Well, you may not get a terrible disease.”
I’m questioning back and forth the client as we’re working on this, until we’ve got enough of a dialogue about what’s going on in their head that we can then create a script. A script might look something like, “Well, I may or may not be contaminated. I may or may not get a dread disease, but I’m not washing my hands and I’m going to do this because I want my life back. It makes me anxious and I may or may not get a dread disease.” And then we’ll focus in on what’s bothering OCD most. Maybe it’s, at the beginning, the dread disease. “Well, I may or may not get a drug disease. I may or may not get a dread disease. I may or may not get a dread disease. I may or may not get a dread disease.” We might sing it, we say it over and over and over and over and over again, and look for what the reaction from the OCD is. If the OCD is still upset, then we still go after that. If it starts moving, “Well, what’s OCD saying now?”
“Well, OCD is saying now that if I get a dread disease, then I won’t be able to do this thing that I have coming up that I really want to do.”
“Well, okay, I may or may not get a dread disease and I may or may not miss this important event as a result.” We add that in.
We do that and do that and do that and do that for whatever the period is that we’ve decided is going to be our exposure period. And then we stop and then we talk about it. What did we learn? What was that like and what did you learn? Really focusing on how we did more than we thought we could do. We withstood more anxiety than we thought we could withstand. What did we learn about what the OCD is doing? I’m not so concerned about what the anxiety is doing. I mean, I want it to go up. That’s my concern. I’m not all that concerned about whether it comes down or not. I do want it to go up. We talk about what we learned about the anxiety that gosh, you can push it up enough and you can handle a lot more than you thought you did. That would be our exposure.
And then we would plan homework and then they would do that daily, hopefully. I have forms on my website that people can then send me their daily experience doing these exposures and I send them feedback on it, and that’s what we’re working on. We’re working on doing the thing that OCD doesn’t want you to do that you want to do, and then working on getting better and better at addressing all of the mental gymnastics in your head.
Now, if somebody touches the doorknob and they’re like, “Okay, I can do this,” and then their anxiety comes up and comes back down and they can do it without saying anything, great, go touch doorknobs. You don’t need to do scripting. Often, I don’t know if somebody needs to do that until we start working on it. If they don’t need to do the scripting, great. We don’t do the scripting. Makes things easier. But often people do need to. That’s generally how I do it. Obviously, lots of variations on that based on what the client is experiencing.
Kimberley: This is all thing, you’re not writing it down. Again, when you go back to our original training, for me, it was a worksheet and you print it out, you’d fill out the prompts. Are you doing any of this written or is this a counter to the mental compulsions in your head?
Shala: None of this is written. The only time I would write it out is after that first session. When you’re really anxious, your prefrontal cortex isn’t working all that well, so you may have trouble remembering what we did, remembering the specific things that we said, or pulling it up for yourself. When you’re doing your exposure, you’re so anxious. I might type out some of what we said, the main things, send it to the clients, and have that. But really to me, scripting is an interactive exercise and I want my clients to be listening to what the OCD is saying for the sole purpose of knowing what we’re going to say. Because when we start doing exposure, what we’re often trying to do is keep pace with the OCD because it’s got a little imagination engine running and it’s going to go crazy with all the things that it’s going to come up with. We’re trying to stay on that level and make sure we’re meeting all its imagination with our own imagination.
As we get better and better at this, then I’m teaching people how to one-up the OCD and how to get better than the OCD as it goes along. But it’s a dynamic process. I don’t have people read scripts because the script that we wrote was for what was going on whenever we wrote the script. Different things might be going on this time. What we’re trying to do is listen to the OCD in a different way. I don’t want people listening to it in a compulsive way. I want people listening to it in a, “I’ve got to understand my foe here and what my foe is upset about so I can use it against it.” That’s what we’re doing. There might be key things, little pieces we write down, but I’m not having people write and read it over and over. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what I do. Everybody has a different way to approach this. This is just my way.
Kimberley: Right. I was thinking as you were talking, in ERP School, I talk about the game of one-up and I actually do that game with clients before I do any scripting or imaginals or exposures too. They tell me what their fear is, I try and make it worse. And then I ask them to make it even worse, then I make it even worse, because I’m trying to model to them like, we’re going here. We’re going to go all the way and even beyond. If we can get ahead of OCD and get even more creative, that’s better.
Let’s play it back and forward. You talked about touching a doorknob and all of the catastrophic things that can happen there. What about if someone were to say their thoughts are about harming somebody and they have this feeling of like, I’ve been trained, society has trained me not to have thoughts about harming people or sexual thoughts and so forth? There’s this societal OCD stigmatizing like we don’t think those things. We should be practicing not thinking those things. What would you give as advice to somebody in that situation?
Shala: I would talk a lot about the science about our thoughts, that the more that you try to push a thought away, the more it’s going to be there. Because every time you push a thought away, your brain puts a post-it note on it that says, “Ooh, she pushed this thought away. This must be dangerous. Therefore, I need to bring it up again to make sure we solve it.” Because humans’ competitive advantage—we don’t have fur, we don’t have fangs, we don’t have claws, we don’t run very fast—our competitive advantage is problem-solving. The way we stay alive is for cave people looking out onto savannah and we can see that there are berries here, there, and yawn. But that one berry patch over there, gosh, you saw something waving in the grass by it and you’re like, “I’m going to notice that and I’m going to remember that because that was different, but I also don’t want to go over there.” Your brain is going to remember that like, “Hmm, there was something about that berry patch over there. Grass waving could be a tiger. We need to remember that. Remember that thing, we’re not going to go over there.” We’re interacting with thoughts in that way because that’s what kept us alive.
When we get an intrusive thought nowadays and we go, “Ooh, that was a bad thought. I don’t know. I should stay away from that,” our brain is like, “Oh, post a note on that one. That one is like the scary tiger thought. We’re going to bring that up again just to make sure.” Every time we try to push a thought away, we’re going to make it come back. We talk a lot about that. We talk a lot about society’s norms are whatever they are, but a lot of society’s norms are great in principle, not that awesome in practice. We don’t have any control over what we think about. The TV is filled with sex and gore, and violence. Of course, you’re thinking those things. You can’t get away from those images. I think society has very paradoxically conflicting rules about this stuff. Don’t think about it but also watch our TV show about it.
I would talk about that to try to help people recognize that these standards and rules that we put on ourselves as humans are often unrealistic and shame-inducing and to help people recognize that everybody has these thoughts. We have 40, 60, 80,000 thoughts a day. I got that number at some conference somewhere years ago. We don’t have control over those. I would really help them understand the process of what’s going on in their brain to destigmatize it by helping them understand really thoughts are chemical, neuronal, whatever impulses in our brain. We don’t have a lot of control over that and we need to deal with them in a way that our brain understands and recognizes. We need to have those thoughts be present and have a different reaction to those thoughts so your brain eventually takes the post-it note off of them and just lets them cycle through like all the other thoughts because it recognizes it’s not dangerous.
HOW FAR CAN YOU GO IN ER SCRIPTING?
Kimberley: Right. I agree. But how far can you go in ERP Scripting? Let’s push a little harder then. This just happened recently actually. I was doing a session with a client and he was having some sexual pedophilia OCD obsessions playing up, “I’ll do this to this person,” as you were doing like I may or may not statements and so forth. And then we played with the idea of doing one up. I actually went to use some very graphic words and his face dropped. It wasn’t a drop of shock in terms of like, “Oh my gosh, Kimberley used that naughty word.” It was more of like, “Oh, you are in my brain, you know what I’m thinking.” And then I had to slow down and ask him, “Are there any thoughts you actually aren’t admitting to having?” Because I could see he was going at 80% of where OCD took him, but he was really holding back with the really graphic, very sexual words—words that societally we may actually encourage our children and our men and women not to say. Do you encourage them to be using the graphic language that their OCD is coming up with?
Shala: Absolutely. I’m personally a big swearer. That’s another thing I talk about in--
Kimberley: Potty mouth.
Shala: I’ll ask clients, “What’s your favorite swear word? Let’s throw swear words in here.” I want to use the language that their OCD is using. If I can tell that’s the language their OCD is using, well, let’s use that language. Let’s not be afraid of it.
The other thing I do before I start ERP with anyone is I go through what I consider the three risks of ERP so they understand that what happens during our experience together is normal. I explain that it’s likely we’re going to make their anxiety worse in the weeks following exposure because we’re taking away the compulsions bit by bit, and the compulsions are artificially holding back the anxiety. I explained that their OCD is not going to roll over because they’re doing ERP therapy now. Nobody’s OCD is going to go, “Oh gosh, Shala is in ERP. I think I’ll just leave her alone now.” No, the OCD is going to ratchet it up. You’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, you’re not doing your compulsions, so let’s make things scarier. Let’s make things more compelling. Let me be louder. Your OCD can get quite a bit worse once you start doing ERP because it’s trying to get you back in line. When somebody is in an exposure session and their OCD is actually going places, they never even expected them to go, and I’ll say that’s what we’re talking about, “That’s just the OCD getting worse, that’s what we wanted. This is what we knew was going to happen.” We’re going to use that against the OCD to help normalize it.
Then I also explain to people that people with OCD don’t like negative emotions more than your average bear, and we tend to press all the negative emotions down under the anxiety. When you start letting the anxiety out and not doing compulsions, then you can also get a lot more emotions than you’re used to experiencing so that people recognize if they cry during the exposures, if it’s a lot scarier than they thought, if they have regret or guilt or other feelings, that’s just a normal part of it. I explain all that. When things inevitably go places where the client isn’t anticipating they’re going to go like in a first exposure, then they feel this is just part of the process. I think it makes it so that it’s easier to go those graphic places because you’re like, “Yeah, we expected OCD to go the graphic place because it’s mad at you.”
Kimberley: It normalizes it, doesn’t it?
Shala: Yeah. Then we go to the graphic place too. I tell clients that specifically because this is a game and I really want them to understand this is what your opponent is likely to do so that they feel empowered so we can go there too and trying some to take the shame out of it. When you said the graphic word and your client had a look on their face and it was because how did you even know that was in my head, because you were validating that it’s okay to have this thought because you knew it was going to be there. I think that’s a really important part of exposure too.
HOW LONG DO YOU USE ERP SCRIPTING FOR?
Kimberley: So, how long do you do ERP Scripting for? Let’s say they’re doing this in your session or they’re at home doing their assigned homework. Let’s say they do it for a certain amount of time and then they have to get back to work or they’re going to do something. But those voices, the OCD comes back with a vengeance. What would you have them do after that period of time? Would they continue with this action or is there a transition action or activity you would have them do?
Shala: That’s a great question. It depends a lot on really the stage of therapy that somebody is in and what is available to them based on what they’re going to be doing. Oftentimes, what I will ask people to do is to try to do the exposure for long enough that you’ve done enough response prevention that you can then leave the exposure environment and not be up in your head compulsively ruminating. Because if you were doing exposure for 20 minutes, you’ve done a great job, but then you leave that exposure and you are at a high enough anxiety level where it feels compelling. Now you have to fix the problem in your head even though you just did this great exposure. Then we’re just going to undo the work you just did. I try to help people plan as much as they can to not get themselves in a situation where they’re going to end up compulsively ruminating or doing other compulsions after they finish. But obviously, we can’t be perfect. Life happens.
I think some of the ways you can deal with that, if you know it’s going to happen, sometimes they’ll ask people to make recordings on their phone and they just put in their earpieces or their earbuds or whatever and they can just listen to a script while they’re doing whatever they’re doing. Nobody has to know what they’re doing because so many people walk around with EarPods in their ears all the time anyway. That’s one way to deal with it.
Another way to deal with it is to try to do the murmuring out in your head as best as you can. That’s really hard because they’re likely to just get mixed up with compulsive thoughts. You can try to focus your attention as much as you possibly can on what you’re doing. That’s going to be the strongest response. It’s hard for people though when they get started to do that. But if you can do that, I think that’s fine, and I think just being compassionate with yourself. “Okay, so I am now sitting here doing some rituals in my head. I’m doing the best I can.” If you’re not in a situation where you can fully implement response prevention in your head because you’re in a meeting and you got to do other stuff and you’ve got this compulsive stuff running in the background, just do the best you can. And then when you’re at a place where you can do some scripting, some more exposure to get yourself back on top of the OCD, then do that. But be really compassionate.
I try to stress this to all my clients. We are not trying to do ERP perfectly because if you try to do it perfectly, you’re doing ERP in an OCD way, which isn’t going to work. Just be kind to yourself and recognize this is hard and nobody is going to do it perfectly. If you end up in a situation where you end up doing some compulsions afterwards, well, that’s good information for us. We’ll try to do it differently or better next time, but don’t beat yourself up.
Kimberley: It’s funny you brought that up because I was just about to ask you that question. Often clients will do their scripting or their imaginal and then they have an obsession, “What if I keep doing compulsions and it’s not good to do compulsions?” Would you do scripting for that?
Shala: Oh yeah. I may or may not do more compulsions than I used to be doing. I may or may not get really worse doing this. I may or may not have double the OCD that I had when I started seeing trauma. This may or may not become so bad that they have to create a hospital just to help me all by myself. We try to just create stuff to deal with that. But also, I’m injecting one up in the OCD, I’m injecting some humor, how outlandish can we make these things? I try to have “fun” with it. Now I say “fun” in quotes because I know it’s not necessarily fun when you’re trying to do this, but we’re trying to make this content that OCD is turning into a scary story. We’re trying to make it into a weapon to use against the OCD and to make this into a game as much as we can.
Kimberley: I love it. I’m so grateful for you coming on. Is there anything that you want the listeners to know as a final piece for this work that you’re doing?
Shala: Sure. I think that there are so many different ways to do exposure therapy. This is the way that I do it. It’s not the only way, it’s not necessarily the right way; it’s just the way I do it and it’s changed over the years. If we were to record this podcast in five years or 10 years, I probably will be doing something slightly different. If your therapist is doing something differently or you’re doing something differently, it’s totally fine. I think that finding ERP in a way that works for you, like finding how it works for you and what works best for you is the most important thing. It’s not going to be the same for everybody. Everybody has a slightly different approach and that’s okay.
One thing that people with OCD can get stuck on, and I know this because I have OCD too, is we can be black and white and say there’s one right way. Well, she does it this way and he does it that way and this is wrong and this is right. No, if you’re doing ERP, there are all sorts of ways to do it, so don’t let your OCD get into the, “Well, I don’t think you’re doing this right because you’re not doing this, that, or the other.” Just work with your therapist to find out what works best for you. If what I’ve described works well for you, great. And if it doesn’t, you don’t have to do it. These are just ideas. Being really kind and being really open to figuring out what works best for you and being very kind to yourself I think is most important.
Kimberley: Amazing. Tell us where people can get more information about you. Tell us about your book. I know you’ve been on the podcast before, but tell us where they can get hold of you.
Shala: Sure. They can get a hold of me on my website, ShalaNicely.com. I have a newsletter I send out once a month that they can sign up for called Shoulders Back! Tips & Resources for Taming OCD. In it, I feature blogs that I write or podcast episodes, other things that I’m doing. It’s all free where I’m talking about tips and resources for taming OCD. I have two books: Everyday Mindfulness for OCD that I co-wrote with Jon Hershfield and Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life, which is my memoir. It is written somewhat like a suspense novel because as all of you know who have OCD, living with untreated OCD is a bit like living in a suspense novel. My OCD is actually a character in the book. It is the villain, so to speak. The whole book is about me trying to understand exactly what is this villain I’m working against. Then once I figure out what it is, well, how am I going to beat it? And then how am I going to live with it long term? Because it’s not like you’re going to kill the villain in this book. The OCD is going to be there. How do I learn to live in a world of uncertainty and be happy anyway, which is something that I stole from Jon Grayson years ago. I stole a lot from him. That’s what the book is about.
Kimberley: It’s a beautiful book and it’s so inspiring. It’s a handbook as much as it is a memoir, so I’m so grateful that you wrote it. It’s such a great resource for people with OCD and for family members I think who don’t really get what it’s like to be in the head of someone with OCD. A lot of my client’s family members said how it was actually the first time it clicked for them of like, “Oh, I get it now. That’s what they’re going through.” I just wanted to share that. Thank you so much for being on the show. I’m so grateful to have you on again.
Shala: Thank you so much for having me. It was fun.
Welcome back, everybody. Thank you for joining me again this week. I’m actually really excited to dive into another topic that I really felt was important that we address. For those of you who are new, this actually might be a very steep learning curve because we are specifically talking about a treatment skill or a tool that we commonly use in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and even more specifically, Exposure and Response Prevention. And that is the use of imaginals or what we otherwise call scripts. Some people also use flooding.
We are going to talk about this because there are a couple of reasons. Number one, for those of you who don’t know, I have an online course called ERP School. In ERP School, it’s for people with OCD, and we talk about how to really get an ERP plan for yourself. It’s not therapy; it’s a course that I created for those who don’t have access to therapy or are not yet ready to dive into therapy, where they can really learn how to understand the cycle of OCD, how to get themselves out of it, and gives you a bunch of skills that you can go and try. Very commonly, we have questions about how to use imaginals and scripts, when to use them, how often to use them, when to stop using them, when they become compulsive and so forth.
In addition to that, as many of you may not know, I have nine highly skilled licensed therapists who work for me in the state of California and Arizona, where we treat face-to-face clients. We’re actually in Los Angeles. We treat patients with anxiety disorders. I also notice that during my supervision when I’m with my staff, they have questions about how to use imaginals and scripts with the specific clients. Instead of just teaching them and teaching my students, I thought this was another wonderful opportunity to help teach you as well how to use imaginals and why some people misuse imaginals or how they misuse it. I think even in the OCD community, there has been a little bit of a bad rap on using scripts and imaginals, and I have found using scripts and imaginals to be one of the most helpful tools for clients and give them really great success with their anxiety and uncertainty and their intrusive thoughts.
Here we are today, it is again a start of another very short series. This is just a three-week series, talking about different ways we can approach imaginals and scripts and how you can use it to help manage your intrusive thoughts, and how you can use it to reduce your compulsions.
It is going to be three weeks, as I said. Today, we are starting off with the amazing Krista Reed. She’s been on the show before and she was actually the one who inspired this after we did the last episode together. She said, “I would love to talk more about imaginals and scripts.” I was like, “Actually, I would too, and I actually would love to get some different perspectives.”
Today, we’re talking with Krista Reed. Next week, we have the amazing Shala Nicely. You guys already know about Shala Nicely. I’m so happy to have her very individual approach, which I use all the time as well. And then finally, we have Dr. Jon Grayson coming in, talking about acceptance with imaginals and scripts. He does a lot of work with imaginals and scripts using acceptance, and I wanted to make sure we rounded it out with his perspective.
One thing I want you to think about as we move into this series or three-part episode of the podcast is these are approaches that you should try and experiment with and take what you need. I have found that some scripts work really well with some clients and others don’t work so well with other clients. I have found that some scripts do really well with one specific obsession, and that doesn’t do a lot of impact on another obsession that they may have. I want you just to be curious and open and be ready to learn and take what works for you because I think all of these approaches are incredibly powerful.
Again, in ERP School, we have specific training on how to do three different types of scripts. One is an uncertainty script, one is a worst-case scenario script, and the last is an acceptance script. If you’re really wanting to learn a very structured way of doing these, head on over to CBTSchool.com and you can sign up for ERP School there. But I hope this gets you familiar with it and helps really answer any questions that you may have.
Alright, let’s get over to the show. Here is Krista Reed.
Kimberley: Welcome back, Krista Reed. I am so happy to have you back on the show.
Krista: Thank you. I am elated to be able to chat with you again. This is going to be great.
Kimberley: Yeah. The cool thing is you are the inspiration for this series.
Krista: Which is so flattering. Thank you.
Kimberley: After our last episode, Krista and I were having a whole conversation and you were saying how much you love this topic. I was like, “Light bulb, this is what we need to do,” because I think the beautiful piece of this is there are different ways in which you can do imaginals, and I wanted to have some people come on and just share how they’re doing it. You can compare and contrast and see what works for you. That being said, number one, do you call it an imaginal, do you call it a script, do you think they’re the same thing, or do you consider them different?
Krista: I do consider them differently because when I think about script, I mean, just the word script is it’s writing, it’s handwriting in my opinion. I mean, scripture is spoken. That’s something a little bit different, but scripting is writing. When I think of an imaginal, that is your imagination. I know that I already shared with you how much I love imaginals because in reality, humans communicate through stories. When we can, using our own imagination, create a story to combat something as challenging as OCD, what a powerful concept. That’s exactly why I just simply love imaginals.
Kimberley: I can feel it and I do too. There’s such an important piece of ERP or OCD recovery or anxiety recovery where it fills in some gaps, right?
Krista: Yes, because imaginals, the whole point, as we know, it’s to imagine the feared object or situation. It could evoke distress, anxiety, disgust. Yet, by us telling those stories, we’re poking the bear of OCD. We’re getting to some of that nitty gritty. Of course, as we know that, not every obsession we can have a real-life or an in vivo exposure. We just simply can’t because of the laws of science, or let’s be real, it might be illegal. But imaginals are also nice for some people that the real-life exposure maybe is too intense and they need a little bit of a warmup or a buy-in to be able to do the in vivo exposure. Imaginal, man, I freaking love them. They’re great.
Kimberley: They’re the bomb.
Krista: They really are.
Kimberley: You inspired this. You had said, “I love to walk your listeners through how to do them effectively. I think I remember you saying, but correct me if I’m wrong, that you had seen some people do them very incorrectly. That you were very passionate because of the fact that some people weren’t being trained well in this. Is that true or did I get that wrong?
Krista: No, you absolutely got it right. Correct and incorrect, I think maybe that is opinion. I’ll say that in my way, I don’t do it that way. That’s a preference. But this is an inception. We’re not putting stories into our clients’ minds. The OCD is putting these stories into our clients’ minds. If you already have a written-out idea of a script, of like fill in the blanks, you are working on some kind of inception, in my opinion. You are saying that this is how your story is supposed to be. That’s so silly. I’m not going to tell you how your story is supposed to be. I don’t know how your imagination works. When we think of just imagination, there’s so many different levels of imagination.
Let’s say for instance, if I have somebody who comes into my office who is by trade a creative writer, that imaginal is probably going to be very descriptive, have a lot of heavy adjectives. Just the way it’s going to be put together is going to be probably like an art in itself because this is what that person does. If you have somebody who comes in and creativity is not something that is part of a personality trait, and then I have a written fill-in-the-blank thing for them, it’s not going to be authentic for their experience. They’re going to potentially want to do what I, the therapist, might want them to do. It’s not for me to decide how creative or how deep that person is to go. They need to recognize within themselves, is this the most challenging? Is this the best way that you could actually describe that situation? If that answer is yes, it’s my job as a therapist to just say okay.
Kimberley: How would one know if it’s the most descriptive they could be? Is it by just listening to what OCD has to say and letting OCD write the story, but not in a compulsive way? Share with me your thoughts.
Krista: I think that that’s almost like a double-edged sword because that of itself can almost go meta. How do I know that my story is intense enough? Well, on the surface we can say, “Is it a hard thing to say.” They might say yes, and then we can work through. But if I’m really assessing like, “Is it hard enough, is it hard enough,” and almost begging for them to provide some type of self-reassurance, they might get stuck in that cycle of, is this good enough? Is this good enough? Can it be even more challenging?
Another thing I love about imaginals is the limit doesn’t exist, because the limit is just however far your imagination can take you. Let’s say that I have a session with a client today and they’re creating an imaginal. I’m just going to give a totally random obsession. Maybe their obsession is, “I am afraid that I’m going to murder my husband in his sleep,” harm OCD type stuff, pretty common stuff that we do with imaginals. They do the imaginal and they’re able in session to work through it. It sounds like it was good. In the session, what they provided was satisfactory to treatment. And then they come back and say, “I got bored with the story,” which a lot of people think that that’s a bad thing. That’s actually a good thing because that’s letting you know that you’re not in OCD’s control of that feared response and you’re actually doing the work. However, they might still have the obsession. I was like, “Okay, so you were able to work through this habituate or get bored of that. Now, let’s create another imaginal with this obsession.” Because it’s all imagination, the stories, you can create as many as you possibly can or as you possibly want to.
I’m actually going to give you a quote. He’s a current professor right now at Harvard. He is a professor of Cognitive and Educational Studies. If you look this guy up, his name is Dr. Howard Gardner—his work is brilliant. He has this fantastic quote that I think is just a bomb when it comes to imaginal stuff. His quote is: “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” Think about that. What a powerful statement that is. Isn’t that just fantastic? Because we can hear that as the stories OCD tells us as being hard. Okay, cool story, bro, that is your weapon OCD, but guess what? I’m smarter than you and I brought a way bigger gun and this gun isn’t imaginal and I’m going to go ahead and one up you. If I come back that next week in my therapist’s office and I’m able to get bored with that, I can make a bigger gun.
Kimberley: I love that. It’s true, isn’t it? I often will say, “That’s a good story. Let me show you what I’ve got.” It is so powerful. Oh my gosh. Let’s actually do it. Can you walk us through how you would do an imaginal?
Krista: This is actually something that I created on my own taken from just multiple trainings and ERP learning about imaginals, because one of the things that I was realizing that a lot of clients were really struggling with is almost over-preparing just to do the imaginal. Sometimes they would write out the imaginal and then we would work through that. But what I was finding is sometimes clients were almost too fixated on words, reading it right, being perfect, that they were almost missing out on the fact that these are supposed to be movies in our mind.
Kimberley: Yeah. They intellectualize it.
Krista: Exactly. I created a super simple format. I mean, we really don’t have a lot of setup here. It’s basically along the lines of the Five Ws. What is your obsession and what is your compulsion? Who is going to be in your story? Who is involved? Where is your story taking place? When is your story taking place? And when is already one of those that’s already set because I tell people we can’t do anything in the past; the past has already existed. You really need to be as present as possible. But the thing is that you can also think. For instance, if my obsession is I’m going to murder my husband in his sleep tonight, part of that might be tonight, but part of that might also be, what is going to be my consequence? What is that bad thing that’s going to happen? Because maybe the bad thing isn’t necessarily right now. Maybe that bad thing is going to be I’m not going to have a relationship with my children and what if they have grandchildren? Or what if I’m going to go to hell? That might not necessarily exist in the here and now, but you’re able to incorporate that in the story. When is an interesting thing, but again, never in the past, needs to start in the present, and then move forward.
And then also, I ask how. How is where I want people to be as descriptive as possible. For instance, if I say, and this is going to sound gritty, you’re fearful that you’re going to murder your husband tonight. Be specific. How are you going to murder your husband? Because that’s one of the things that OCD might want us to do. Maybe it is just hard enough to say, “I’m going to murder my husband.” But again, we’re packing an arsenal here. Do you want to just say that? Because I can almost guarantee you OCD is already telling you multiple different ways that it might happen. Which one of those seems like it might be the hardest? Well, the hardest one for me is smothering my husband with a pillow. Okay, that’s going to be it. That’s literally my setup. That’s literally my setup, is I say that.
Actually, I have one more thing that I have to include. I have all that as a setup and then I say, “Okay, at the very end, you are going to say this line, and it’s, ‘All of this happened because I did not do the compulsion.’” If I were going along with the story of I murdered my husband, I suffocated him with a pillow, and in my mind, the worst thing to happen is I don’t have a relationship with my kids and grandchildren, and the compulsion might be to pray—I’ll just throw that out—the last line might be, “And now, I don’t have a relationship with my children or grandchildren all because I decided to not pray when the thought of murdering my husband came up in my mind.” That is the entire setup.
And then I have my clients get their phones out and push record. They don’t have to do a video, just an audio is perfectly fine. I know some therapists that’ll do it just once, but I actually do it over and over again. Sometimes it could be a five-minute recording, it could be a 20-minute recording, it could be a 40-minute recording. The reason for that being is if we stop just after one, we might be creating accommodation for that client, because I want my clients to be in that experience. That first time they tell that story after that very brief setup, they’re still piecing together the story. Honestly, it’s really not until about the third or fourth time that they’ve repeated that exact same story that they’re really in it. I am just there and every time they finish—I’ll know they finish because they say, “And this happened all because da da da da da”—I say, “Okay, what’s your number?” That means what’s your SUDS? And they tell me they’re SUDS. I might make a little bit, very, very minimal recommendations. For instance, if they say, “I murdered my husband,” I say, “Okay, so this time I want you to tell me how you murdered your husband.” Again, they say the exact same story, closing their eyes all over again, this time adding in the little bit that I asked for. We do that over and over and over again until we reach 50% habituation. Then they stop recording. That is what they use throughout the week as their homework, and you can add it in so many different ways.
Again, keeping along with this obsession of “I’m afraid I’m going to kill my husband tonight,” I want you to listen to that with, as you probably have heard this as well, just one AirPod in, earbud, whatever, keep your other ear outside to the world. This is its way to talk back to OCD. Just something along the lines of that. I want you to the “while you’re getting ready for bed.” Because if the fear exists at night and your compulsions exist at night, I want you to listen to that story before you go to bed. It’s already on your mind. You’re already in it, you’re already poking the bear of OCD. It’s like, “Okay, OCD, you’re going to tell me I’m going to kill my husband tonight? Well, I’m going to hear a story about me killing my husband tonight.” Guess what? The bad thing’s going to happen over and over and over again.
It’s such a powerful, powerful, powerful thing. Because it’s recorded, you can literally listen to it in your car. You can listen to it on a plane. You can listen to it in a waiting room. I mean, there’s no limit.
Kimberley: It’s funny because, for those of you who are on social media, there was this really big trend not long ago where they’re like what they think I’m listening to versus what I’m actually listening to, and they have this audio of like, “And then she stabbed her with the knife.” It’s exactly that. Everyone thinks you’re just listening to Britney Spears, but you’re listening to your exposure and it’s so effective. It’s so, so effective. I love this. Okay, let’s do it again because I want this to be as powerful as possible. You did a harm exposure. In other episodes, we’ve done a relationship one, we’ve done a pedophile one. Let’s pick another one. Do you have any ideas?
Krista: What about scrupulosity?
Kimberley: I was just going to say, what about scrupulosity?
Krista: That one is such a common one for imaginals. We hear it very frequently, “I’m going to go to hell,” or even thinking about different other religions like, “Maybe I’m not going to be reincarnated into something that has meaning,” or “It’s going to be a bad thing. Maybe I’m insulting my ancestors,” or just whatever that might be. Let’s say the obsession is—I already mentioned praying—maybe if I don’t read the Bible correctly, I’m going to go to hell. I don’t know. Something along the lines of that. If that’s their obsession, chances are, there’s probably somebody that maybe they have a time where they’re reading the Bible or maybe that we have to add in an in vivo where they’re going to be reading or something like that. A setup could potentially be, what is your obsession? “I’m afraid that any time I read my Bible, I’m not reading it correctly and I’m going to go to hell.” What is your compulsion? “Well, my compulsion is I read it over and over and over again and I reassure myself that I understand it, I’m reading it correctly.” Who’s going to be in your story? This one you might hear just, “Oh, it’s just me.” Really, OCD doesn’t necessarily care too much if anybody else is in this story. Where are you? “I’m in my living room. It’s nighttime. That’s when I read my Bible.” When is this taking place? “Oh, we can do it tonight.” Let’s say it’s tonight.
Interestingly enough, when you have stuff that’s going to go to hell, that means, well, how are you getting to hell to begin with? Because that’s not just something that can happen. Sometimes in these imaginals, the person has to die in order to get there, or they have to create some type of fantastical way of them getting to hell.
I actually had a situation, this was several years ago, where the person was like, “Well, death doesn’t scare me, but going to hell scares me,” because, in some cultures and some religions, it’s believed that there are demons living amongst us and so forth. “It’s really scary to think about, what if a demon approaches me and takes me immediately to hell and I don’t get to say goodbye to my family, my family doesn’t know.” Just even like that thought. We were able to incorporate something very similar to that.
Just to make up an imaginal on the spot, it could be, I’m reading my Bible. I’m in my living room, I’m reading my Bible, and the thought pops up in my brain of, did you read that last verse correctly? I decide to just move on and not worry about reading my Bible correctly. Well then, all of a sudden, I get a knock at the door and there’s these strange men that I’ve never seen in my life, and they tell me that they’re all demons, and that because I didn’t review the Bible correctly, I’m going to go to hell. I would go on and on and probably describe a little bit more about my family not missing me, I don’t get to see my kids grow up, I don’t get to experience life, the travel, and the stuff that’s really important to me, incorporate some of those values. I don’t get to live my value-based life. And then at the very end, I was summoned and taken to hell by demons, all because I had the thought of reading my bible correctly and I decided not to.”
Kimberley: I love it, and I love what I will point out. I think you use the same model as me. We use a lot of “I” statements like “I did this and I did that, and then this happened and then I died,” and so forth. The other thing that we do is always have it in present tense. Instead of going, “And then this happens, and then that happens,” you’re saying as if it’s happening.
Krista: Yeah. Because you want it to feel real to the person. In all honesty, and I wonder what your experience has been, I find some of the most difficult people to do imaginals with our children. Even though you would think, “Oh, they’re so imaginative anyways,” one of the biggest things I really have to remind kids is, I want you to be literally imagining yourself in that moment. Again, I see this with kids more than adults, but I think it just depends on context and perspective. We’ll say, “Well, I know that I’m in my living room,” or “I know that I’m in your office, so this isn’t actually happening to me in this moment.” You almost have to really work them up and figure out, what’s the barrier here? What are you resisting?
Kimberley: That’s a good question. I would say 10 to 20% of clients of mine will report, “I don’t feel anything.” I’ll do a Q and A at the end of this series with common questions, but I’m curious to know what your response is to a client who reads like, “I kill my baby,” or “I hurt my mom,” or “I go to hell,” or “I cheat on my husband,” or whatever it is, but it doesn’t land. What are your thoughts on what to do then?
Krista: A couple of things pop up. One, it makes me wonder what mental compulsions they’re doing. And then it also makes me wonder, are we going in the right direction with the story? Because again, like I mentioned before, if a client comes back and they’ve habituated to one thing, but they’re still having the obsession, well, guess what? We’re just telling stories. Because the OCD narrative is typically not just laser-focused—I mean, it can be laser-focused, but usually, it has branches—you can pick and choose. I’m going to go ahead and guarantee, that person who is terrified of killing their husband ensure they’re not going to see their grandchildren and children. I’m going to go ahead and waiver that there’s probably other things that they’re afraid of missing.
Kimberley: Yes. That’s what I find too, is maybe we haven’t gotten to the actual consequence that bothers them. I know when I’ve written these for myself, we tend to fall into normal traps of subtypes, like the fear that you’ll harm somebody or so forth. But often clients will reveal like, “I’m actually not so afraid that I’ll harm somebody. I’m really afraid of what my colleagues and family would think of me if I did.” So, we have to include that. Or “I’m afraid of having to make the call to my mom if I did the one thing.” I think that that’s a really important piece to it, is to really double down on the consequence. Do you agree?
Krista: Oh, I agree a hundred percent. You got to figure out what is that core fear. What are you really, really trying to avoid? With harming somebody, is it the consequences that might happen afterwards? Is it the feeling of potentially snapping or losing control? Or is it just knowing that you just flat out, took the life of somebody and that that was something that you were capable of? I mean, there’s so many different themes, looking at what does that feared self like, what does that look like, and maybe we didn’t hit it last time.
Krista: I know this is going to sound silly and I tell my clients this every once in a while, is I’m not a mind reader. What I’m asking you, is that the most challenging you can go and you’re telling me yes, I’m going to trust you. I tell them, if you are not pushing yourself in therapy to where you can grow, I’m still going to go to bed home and sleep tonight just fine. But I want you to also go home and go to bed and sleep just fine. But if you are not pushing yourself, because we know sleep gets affected super bad, not just sleep, but other areas, you’re probably going to struggle and you might even come back next week with a little bit more guilt or even some shame. I don’t want anybody to have that. I want people to win. I want people to do well in this. I know this stuff is scary, but I’m going to quote somebody. You might know her. Her name is Kimberley Quinlan. She says, “It’s a beautiful day to do hard things.” I like to quote her in my practice every once in a while.
Kimberley: I love her. Yes, I agree with this. The way you explained it is so beautiful and it’s logical the way you’re explaining it too. It makes sense. I have one more question for you. Recently, I was doing some imaginals with a client and they were very embarrassed about the content of their thoughts. Ashamed and guilty, and horrified by their thoughts. I could see that they were having a hard time, so I gave them a little inch and I went first. I was like, “Alright, I’m going to make an assumption about what yours is just to break the ice.” They were like, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what it is.” There was a relief on their face in that I had covered the bases. We did all of the imaginal and we recorded it and it was all set. And then at the end I said, “Is there anything that we didn’t include?” They reported, “Yeah, my OCD actually uses much more graphic words than what you use.” I think what was so interesting to me in that moment was, okay, I did them the favor by starting the conversation, but I think they felt that that’s as far as we could go. How far do you go?
Krista: As far as we need.
Kimberley: Tell me what that means.
Krista: Like I mentioned before, the limit does not exist and I mean, the limit does not exist. This is going to sound so silly. I want you to be like a young Stephen King before he wrote his first novel and push it. Push it and then go there. Guess what? If that novel just doesn’t quite hit it, write another one, and then another one, and let’s see how far you can go. Because OCD is essentially a disorder of the imagination, and you get to take back your imagination by creating the stories that OCD is telling us and twisting it. I mean, what an amazing and powerful thing to be able to do. I’m sure you’re the same in that you know that there’s a lot of specialists that don’t believe in imaginals, don’t like imaginals, especially when it comes to issues with pedophilia OCD. I think we also need to not remind our clients because that would be reassurance, but to tell these specialists, we’re not putting anything into our client’s heads that aren’t there to begin with. Just like you said, if your client is thinking like real sick, nasty core, whatever, guess what? We’re going to be going there. Are you cutting off the heads of babies in your head? Well, we’re going to be talking about stories where you’re cutting off the heads of babies. If that’s what’s going on, we’re going to go there.
Kimberley: What’s really interesting, and this was the example, is we were talking about genitals and sexual organs and so forth. We’re using the politically correct term for them in the imaginal. Great. Such a great exposure. Vagina and penis, great. Until again, they were like, “But my OCD uses much more graphic words for them.” I’m like, “Well, we need to include those words.” Would you agree your imaginals don’t need to be PC?
Krista: I hope my clients watch this, and matter of fact, I’m going to send this to them, just to be like, no, no. Krista’s imaginals with her clients. Well, not my imaginals. Imaginals that are with my clients. Woah, sometimes I’m saying bye to my client. I’m like, “I think I need a shower.”
Kimberley: Again, when people say they don’t like imaginals or they think that it’s not a good practice, I feel like, like you said, if OCD is going to come up with it, it gives an opportunity to empower them, to get ahead of the game, to go there before it gets there so that you can go, “Okay, I can handle it.” I would often say to my clients, “Let’s go as far as we can go, as far as you can go, so that you know that there’s nothing it can come up with that you can’t handle.”
Krista: I think that where it gets even more complex is when we’re hitting some of the taboo stuff. Not only pedophilia, but something like right now that I’m seeing a lot more of in my office is stuff relating to cancel culture. This fear that what if I don’t use somebody’s pronouns correctly? What if I accidentally say an inappropriate racial slur? I will ask in session and I’ll be super real. It’s hard for me to hear this stuff because this goes outside of my values. Of course, it goes outside of their values. OCD knows that. That’s why it’s messing with them. I’ll say, “Okay, so what is the racial slur?” My clients are always like, “You really want me to say it?” I said, “We’re going to say it in the imaginal.” I realized how hard that is to stomach for therapists. But in my brain, the narrative that OCD is pushing, whether it is what society views as OCD or taboo OCD, it doesn’t matter. We still have to get it out. It is still hard for that client. If that’s hard for that client to think of an imaginal or a racial slur, it is almost the exact same amount of distress for somebody maybe with an imaginal that I’m afraid I’m getting food poisoning.
We, as clinicians, just because we’re very caring and loving people, sometimes we can unintentionally put a hierarchy of distress upon our clients like, okay, I can do this imaginal because this falls with my values, but I don’t know if I can do this imaginal because pedophilia is something that’s hard for me to do and I don’t want to put my client through that. Well, guess what? Your client is already being put through that, whether you like it or not. It’s called OCD.
Kimberley: Right. Suppressing it makes it come on stronger anyway. Love that. I think that the beauty of that is there is a respectful value-based way of doing this work, but still getting ahead of OCD. Is that what you’re saying?
Krista: Absolutely. OCD tries to mess with us and think, what if you could be this person? Well, like I mentioned before, if a story is like a weapon, well, I’m going to tell a story to attack OCD because it’s already doing it to me.
Kimberley: Yeah. Tell us where people can hear more from you, get your resources because this is such great stuff.
Krista: Thank you. I’d say probably the best way to find me and my silly videos would be on my Instagram @anxiouslybalance.
Kimberley: Amazing. And your private practice?
Krista: My private practice, it’s A Peaceful Balance in Wichita, Kansas. The website is apbwichita.com.
Kimberley: Thank you so much. I’m very grateful for you for inspiring this whole series and for also being here as a big piece of the puzzle.
Krista: Thank you. I’m grateful for you that you don’t mind me just like this. I’m grateful for you for letting me talk even though clearly, I’m not very good at it right now. You’re amazing.
Kimberley: No, you’re amazing. Thank you. Really, these are hard topics. Just the fact that you can talk about it with such respect and grace and compassion and education and experience is gold.
Krista: Thank you. At the end of the day, I really truly want people to get better. I know you truly want people to get better. Isn’t that just the goal?
Kimberley: Yeah. It’s beautiful. Krista: Thank you.