Positive Lessons from Anxiety and OCD
I have a relatively light form of OCD with associated anxiety. It’s not a lot of fun and mostly it takes without giving back, but it has given me a couple of things. High on that list is a series of tools based on intellectual separation. See also: the recognition that my brain is a dick and that it messes with me.
One form of this is that I can often short circuit the worst of a flip-out by reminding myself that the source of something that’s stressing me out isn’t coming from what I think of as my core me, it’s my anxiety making shit up and lying to me.
Another aspect is an intellectual separation from impulse and this is going to take a bit of explaining so stay with me, I’ll get there. A side effect of my atypical neurochemistry is that I have frequent (like multiple times a night) vivid dreams which usually include at least one or two nightmares.
So, let me start there. It’s fairly easy to wake up from a dream in which you’re being pursued by gigantic carnivorous hamsters and realize that such things do not exist. Your fear from the dream is real. You feel it in your limbic system. But you know that gigantic carnivorous hamsters are not a real thing. That helps you step away from the fear once your thinking brain kicks in.
A nightmare about bears in your living room might be a bit harder to step away from because, while there are no bears in the living room, it’s an actual possibility. One about a fire starting in the basement is even tougher to let go of and might require a trip through the house sniffing for smoke. However, if you do it often enough (say three or four times a night) you develop the intellectual tools that allow you to quickly let go of even the most plausible nightmares.
Now apply that to incredibly vivid nightly dreams about all sort of things from the phantasmagoric to the sublime to the erotic. It quickly becomes apparent that your dream about wild sex with elves is no more real than the gigantic hamsters. So is the one about the rock star you’re crushing on, and from there to the dream about an actual human you know is another obvious step. The sex drive or affection is real, the connection to another specific person is not.
But dreams aren’t the only place where we experience parts of our brain coming up with impulses or scenarios that aren’t real. Especially if you’re not neurotypical and, given that neurotypicality is a spectrum, we’re all somewhat closer or farther from the mean on some axis. What this means as a tool for life management is that when I’m flipping out about getting stuck in traffic on the way to the airport, I can remind myself of the fact that we left two hours early, and that probably has us covered.
It also means that when I have an inappropriate attraction response to another human being, I’m pretty good at saying “That’s nice, brain, now find another hobby.” Which is an excellent skill for remaining happily married.
Skill. Let me pull that word out. Impulse control is a talent we all have to varying degrees, but it’s also a skill that can be practiced and improved upon. My anxiety and OCD have forced me to learn to separate impulse from action in a very intellectualized way—the fear of the hamsters is real but the hamsters not so much—and that’s been useful to me. I’m writing this in hopes that for at least a few of you folks out there the realization that it’s possible to make that separation between oneself and one’s brain being a dick might be useful to you.
So, when you’re stressing out about something, consider the question: is this me, or is it just my brain being an asshole?