A key player in perpetuating compulsions is the OCD tendency to catastrophise situations. If the present situation is not enough to induce anxiety, an individual with OCD may look towards possible future consequences, find the worst one imaginable, and fixate on that. Note that, this isn’t voluntary, as in a previous post I spoke about how these thoughts come from outside of you. Your mind goes on some kind of road trip from hell and you are pulled along for the ride.
Catastrophising is say, where you graze you knee from falling. You then worry it might get infected. This is reasonable enough, you can act on this. Then the OCD kicks in. What if the infection gets serious? What if you get sepsis? That can be fatal you know. Think about everyone you love mourning you after you died, think about all the opportunities you would have missed. Can you feel the misery, the guilt, the pain? An OCD mind can be hooked on this thought for weeks, catastrophic thoughts like this usually pass with time, that time is the most miserable state of existence.
Catastrophising is surprisingly easy to fall into, and you may not even realise you are doing it. It’s often helpful to tell someone what you are worried about specifically, and if their response is “what the fuck, how do you think that could ever happen?” chances are you are probably catastrophising.
There is a good technique I learned from my CBT advisor that can really help in these situations, and that is to analyse your anxieties and decide if they are practical or hypothetical.
Practical anxieties are healthy anxieties. These are concerns that present a physical and tangible problem, that can be dealt with accordingly. Examples, did I lock the front door? Go back and check. Is that graze at risk of infection? Keep it clean and stick a plaster on it. What if I don’t wake up for work on time? Set an alarm. Practical anxieties have a practical solution and go away once they have been resolved. You may have a lot of practical anxieties that hit all at once and this can start to feel like Generalised Anxiety Disorder, however, taking the time to analyse your worries and seeing if there is a practical solution to them, means they can all be dealt with in turn. Try writing them out in in a list of most to least worrisome. Then write next to each one a practical action you could take to resolve the issue. Then try it, does that feel better? If so, great! If not, have a look into hypothetical anxieties.
Hypothetical thoughts can be harder to identify, because they disguise themselves as practical anxieties and seem very, very real to the person experiencing them. You can usually tell them apart because they involve the assumption of one or more things happening first, and also usually start with “what if”? What if I left the door open and someone breaks in and steals all my belongings? What if this cut gets infected and I have to have my arm amputated? What if I accidently sleep in, am late for work, get fired, and can’t afford to feed my family? Hypothetical questions do not have resolutions, because there is nothing as yet to resolve. You can’t report your belongings stolen when they haven’t been stolen. You don’t want to buy a prosthetic when you still have your arm. You don’t need to worry about loosing your income when you still have your job. Without a resolution to act on, hypothetical worries just go round and round and round in your head. You might then find yourself trying to mimic resolutions by making a plan for your “worst case scenario”. For example, I found myself googling treatments for diseases I didn’t even have, just to prepare myself for what I feared I might go through. I would mentally prepare myself for major surgery, or for rehabilitation, or plan how I would live my life if I became blind. But these mock-resolutions only provide a little relief. It’s good to plan for the worst case scenario to some extent, but putting down a pre-payment for major eye surgery is going a little too far.
The real solution to hypothetical anxieties is simultaneously easy and difficult; ignore it. Sounds easy, right? Sit back and don’t do anything! But it’s far from plain sailing, to ignore a compulsion, especially a frightening one, is one of the hardest things to do. You might feel like the anxiety will last forever, but trust me it won’t. It will last a little longer than if you were to act on your compulsions, but it will dissipate by itself in time. And what’s more, when you allow it to go by itself once, it becomes easier and quicker to do it again and again!
Catastrophising robs you of your own sense of security, but just know that everything is going to be ok. The future hasn’t been written yet, and there are a million possibilities for every little detail of life, and there is no point worrying about all of that. Take each task as it comes, you might have left your door unlocked, but was your house broken into? No. So what as the point in worrying about being robbed? The thing is, no one can predict what’s going to happen in the future, and that’s fine, that’s a good thing and should be taken as a comfort! Even if your worst-case scenario does come true, you will have more energy to deal with it than if you had spent all that time prior in a state of anxiety.
Don’t waste your energy on worrying about what you can’t control, you are a fabulous and unique individual, and your energy should be put into doing what makes you happy. And if you’ve got energy left over, make other people happy too!