As an advocate for OCD awareness, I get lots of emails from people. One of the most frequent questions I receive is some form of “How can I get rid of this terrible anxiety that is ruining my life?” While I’m not a therapist, I have learned a lot in the eleven years since my son was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and one thing I know for sure is that is not the question any of us should be asking.
The reason? Well, for one thing, a life without anxiety is not only an unattainable goal, but an unhealthy one. Anxiety serves a purpose for us and can be helpful. For one, our instinctive fight-or-flight response can protect us from danger (think gathering your family quickly to escape a house fire). Also the presence of anxiety can motivate us to get things done (think feeling anxious about your grade in a course and studying extra hard for the final exam).
But what if you suffer from unrelenting, severe anxiety and are dealing with a brain disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or social anxiety disorder? What if you’re paralyzed with so much fear and anxiety that you can’t enjoy life, or even leave the house?
Then by all means you need help. But the question to ask isn’t “How do I get rid of my anxiety?” but rather “How do I learn to live with my anxiety?”
There’s a big difference.
I know of many people who begin therapy for OCD thinking they will get rid of their obsessions and become anxiety free. What they quickly learn, however, is that exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the evidence-based cognitive therapy used to treat OCD, actually initially raises anxiety as the person with obsessive-compulsive disorder is asked not to perform any compulsions. Over time, the anxiety will become less intense and subside quicker, but there will still be times in their lives when they will become anxious. None of us, whether we have OCD or not, can control our thoughts or our anxiety, but we can learn the best ways to react to them.
If you have OCD, ERP therapy can help you reclaim your life. Some additional therapies that might also be beneficial in conjunction with ERP therapy include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), mindfulness, and medication. You can learn to accept the uncertainty of life, as well as the anxiety that often goes along with that acceptance. Perhaps most importantly, you will be able to move on from a life dictated by fear to a life where you are free to honor your values, pursue your goals, and follow your dreams.