Understanding the C in Harm OCD
We live in the most fantastic – or, depending on how you want to look at it, frantic – era where we are more or less able to pull answers to life’s pressing problems out of thin air, simply by tapping a keyboard and seeing what’s “there”.
Welcome to the information age.
Trouble is for a “student” of Harm OCD, so much of it’s blurred!
Make no mistake, cause for confusion among sufferers of Harm OCD is the fact that lines of distinction between “other” OCD and what they are experiencing are not so clearly defined as people might think.
Most of us are familiar with the acronym OCD, and at least have a sense of the meaning behind its fuller expression, Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder. Usually it goes something like this:
“OCD is an anxiety-related condition in which a person experiences frequent intrusive and unwelcome obsessional thoughts, often followed by repetitive compulsions, impulses or urges”.
Sufferers of Harm OCD are no exception to this. It’s just that those crucial last words, “compulsions, impulses or urges”, usually send their anxiety levels soaring way above the “hard-to- bear” status.
Harm OCD is distinct from other forms of OCD in one significant sense: whereas in other forms of OCD where there is generally an overestimation of danger or risk from something external, such as germs in the need to wash your hands repeatedly for fear of contamination, with Harm OCD you think that you are the danger, that you are the risk – to yourself, to others, and most upsettingly to you, to the people you love.
By contrast, an OCD sufferer fearing contamination from germs will be compelled to perform “rituals” of repetitive hand or body washing until they “feel” clean. This is their way of dealing with their “obsessive idea”: i.e. they feel driven to do something to lessen their fear. Even if they know they will only attain a temporary relief, not performing the obsessive ritual can cause great anxiety.
In other words, they feel compelled to act out of their obsession.
With Harm OCD on the other hand, a sufferer fears acting out of their obsessions and sees their “compulsion” entirely different. In reality, they mistake their obsessive thoughts for their compulsion; i.e. they mistake their thoughts of harming others or themselves as their compulsion, when it is rather their desire to escape their thoughts, and the situations that bring their anxiety on, which is their real compulsion, and the one they “act out”.
In other words, they fear they are being compelled to act out their terrible thoughts, when that’s so far from the case!
Of course it’s really hard for the tired Harm OCD mind to see this is so. Caught up in a seemingly endless loop of terribly violent thoughts bearing down on them in the guise of impulses and urges they feel cannot resist, its not unusual for the exhausted sufferer to read too much into words and advice not entirely meant for their notice, to take as gospel some sweeping, all-inclusive explanation of OCD that doesn’t quite fit with what they are feeling, to take too literally definitions of words such as “compulsion” and heed them right to their “irresistible” end.
When your parasympathetic nervous system does not work properly you become overanxious
Words have their limits after all: with them we may attempt to convey our truths and ideas, but ultimately how they are received is not up to us, and unfortunate as it is, no matter how much we might wish to appease a mind stressed out with Harm OCD, it is much more inclined to fearing the worst than one that is rested and well. Indeed, due to the impairment of their parasympathetic nervous system, which is normally responsible for relaxing the body, fraught with worry, their body ever in a state of red alert, flooded with adrenaline and stimulated to the max, a Harm OCD sufferer may very well catch hope and accept what you’re saying on an intellectual level – it’s just that their body is telling them something entirely different and they cannot make change.
Always on edge, always on guard, against themselves and their anxiety thoughts, against people and places that seem to set the thing off, everything’s heightened. A door slamming shut feels to them like a physical blow. Everything’s loud. Exaggerated. They overreact. Their anxiety soars in the vicinity of loved ones and what they perceive as dangerous objects, as dangerous situations: in the kitchen where there are knives, or atop a high building, or in a car. They seem to see things that other folks don’t, items that they as “the danger” might use to cause fatal harm. They feel terrible guilt, incredible distress, how can I be having such thoughts about the people I love? I must be insane. Evil. Because I am thinking such terrible things, I must be able to do them! Suddenly there seems to be an overlap between their old-self, which they fear they are losing, and this wicked, overbearing part of themselves that is egging them on, which they have to resist: “Do it – No – do it – NO – DO IT! – NO!” And the harder each thought they try to suppress, the more it comes back, till reaching a point of such morbid acuteness, terror-stricken, they feel they can no longer stand it, and they panic and flee.
Bewildered and frightened, a Harm OCD sufferer turns to help, having held back from fear of what people might think – but only perhaps after thinking they are just such a danger that they need locking up!
Of course, it’s such a relief to know that you’re not going crazy, that Harm OCD is perfectly explainable and perfectly curable as a condition. (For my part, I can’t tell you the relief I felt knowing this as I came from the doctor’s. It was just that my exhausted nerves and my adrenaline soaked body were wreaking havoc with my idea of “self”, so identified I was with my thoughts and what I was feeling.)
The motion’s the problem
Here’s how it goes: you’ve been stressed for a while, and you get your “standard operating condition” set around the “fight” or “flight” state, and inside you’re pent up and racing, switched on and alert for danger and thus life saving action.
Because adrenaline’s leaking, overflowing, into your system, lending to a feeling of impetus in you. You want to move. In fact you feel that you must. You’re feeling so stressed and your heart’s racing and your breathing’s heightened, and there’s a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach caused by blood rushing to your limbs, your pupils dilate, your sight sharpens, you’re hypervigilant, agitated, on the look out for signs of every possible danger. But there’s not a lot going on, there’s nothing to flee from, nothing and no-one to fight; everyone’s getting on with their day quite normally.
But you do not feel normal. You feel perplexed. Anxious. Sensing danger about you. But where is it? You note a blunt or sharp object – a dangerous object! But where is the dangerous subject? Where is the threat that could use that dangerous object? And then because you’ve got this incredible activity going on inside of you, and you’re nerves are so so sensitized, and this dangerous object has got your attention, in an instant you get this terrible flash: “What if it’s me? What if it’s me?” And whoosh!
With such alarming rapidity you’re up and running with that and another thought comes, and another and another, and each one is worse than the one before, and because you don’t know what’s going on, and you’re panicking that you’re going to do something terrible and that you’re losing your sanity, this in turn hikes it again, hikes the stress chemicals flooding your body, hikes the spur to move, hikes the enormous impetus in you to frightening levels, and it seems to confirm that you’re going to do it!
But you’re not! You’re so not. You’re having catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily sensations, that’s all. Your mind’s tired and you’ve got this motion thing going, going, going, going, and you know, this is what you’re really needing to get, it’s a journey of being patient with yourself while you learn the various ways you can deal with this motion.
Without this motion thing going, you would show no concern for such nonsense thinking – because, yes, you know, despite your doubts, despite and all those negative expectations that creep in because you’re exhausted, you know the truth, you know you’re good. But this motion thing bluffs you. It sets you on Red Alert for thoughts you don’t want, which once in your head get taken up by this torrent raging inside you. In other words, they become obsessions, which in turn you mistakenly perceive as compulsions.
Another thing. Haven’t you noticed how nice thoughts don’t get swept up in this flow? Well, again, this is because you’re not looking for them. Your genetically hard-wired early warning system is switched on and set for threat resolution, and it’s looking for things of menacing omen. And that’s all – and especially so since your parasympathetic nervous system isn’t working properly and the perception of threat is being prolonged.
So, to clarify, if you slow down and stop adding to this motion the severity and frequency of your Harm OCD is going to abate.
A Cause for Confusion
Time brings healing when you get the right information, when you prove diligence for learning what needs to be done, and when you gain insight into a place within us we may refer to as the “depths of our being”, where final disaffiliation between ourselves the storms of Harm OCD can be decisively realized.
In the meantime, however, as a bearer of Harm OCD now seeking to understand what you’ve got, you may stumble upon this list of “compulsions”…
- Touching – objects/people
- Checking – whether something is safely closed, safely turned off, correctly arranged etc.
- Cleaning – excessive cleaning of clothes, house etc.
- Washing – repeatedly washing hands, bathing
- Hoarding – the unnecessary acquisition and storing of items that are often worthless and unsanitary
…and wonder quite rightly where you fit in.
A far more helpful list for bearers of Harm OCD might go something like this:
- Avoidance – of people and social situations, places
- Thought suppression – trying to ignore or control distressing thoughts, i.e. use of covert mental rituals such as counting or repeating phrases to counter unwanted thoughts
- The hiding of objects perceived as dangerous – such as tools or knives
- Seeking reassurance – excessive, short-term appeasement of fear and doubt
Generally speaking these are the behaviors or mental acts a bearer of Harm OCD most often employs as they attempt to prevent or reduce the distress they are feeling. Sadly, however, rather than negating as desired their fear of their harming obsessions with use of these “acts”, in the long term they merely sustain them, and, perhaps more accurately, amplify them as things they just cannot tackle.
As we recover, as our nerves heal, we’re more willing and able to deal with our compulsive behaviour. We’re more willing and able to relax instead of fighting and hiding.
We accept the idea that recovery from Harm OCD, in a very large way, entails gathering truths about the human condition whilst cultivating self compassion as we move from the darkness into the light.
Understanding the nature of our anxiety is to have it dissolve; learning to see correctly the belief systems associated with the fear is to have it dissolve.
You have been here before!
Remember, how in Harm OCD everything’s heightened? Well, oftentimes where things seem so awfully different, really they’re not.
By way of example, if I’m at work and I focus incessantly on what I don’t like about it, then by default of not changing my focus I’m adding to this stream of thought and before I know it there’s this great inner tug of war between what I am wanting and what I really don’t want, i.e. between the work I don’t like, and a desire to be anywhere else. And then, depending on whether I’m in a good position to be somewhere else, I will indeed obey my compulsion to be somewhere else, because I want to feel better – or I’ll keep going, and endure with resentment the work that I’m doing.
Well, it’s somewhat like this with Harm OCD, only the sway of struggle is far more intense.
That is, it’s hard to change focus: caught up as I am in the bigness of this life situation where my obsessions are so very weighty, and certainly not a match to anything close to what I am wanting to live, and my systems are racing, with Harm OCD, the discord between what I am wanting (i.e. a return to my former self) and what I don’t want (i.e. to harm anyone, though I fear that I might) just rips me apart.
The more you try not to think about an unwanted thing, the more you think about an unwanted thing
Here’s how it goes: you feel your upset, you decide to stop thinking about what is upsetting, so now you’re thinking about what you’re not wanting to think about, and the more you try pushing it off, the more you are keeping it active, and the worse you feel.
Compulsions arise through our resistance to what we don’t like, and generally speaking if we don’t deliberately intend to focus on a thought that produces an improved feeling, the more we don’t like something, a person, a situation, a place, the more we will think about what we don’t like, and the more we will increase the frequency, intensity, and discomfort of our perspective.
In this sense, Harm OCD is no more than intensification of a quite human habit: the tendency to dwell upon unwanted things to the point of becoming unhappy.
For example, the mild discomfort of being stuck in a job that doesn’t quite fit our ideal, leads to a mild desire or compulsion to be in other employ. It need not overwhelm us, however.
On the other hand, with Harm OCD, sensitized as we are, our outlook is far less accepting: “I can’t bear what I’m thinking!” And of course, such is our discomfort, it seems that we can’t.
Changing perspective on the road to rude health
As we do what’s needed, as we recover, the fear of unwanted things jumping into our lives begins to diminish – we know we’re not inviting the unwanted in with our harming obsessions. Such thinking abhors us, because it’s not who we are. But we do not react. We know if it were not for our bodies being so on edge we would show no concern, and that indeed is how it is in normal circumstances and what we see happening as we move to full health. We watch and observe, some days are better than others, but we do not despair. Gone are the shock-waves that tore through our body each time we thought something “bad”. Days pass, and more and more we able to say: Ah, here it is again, so what? It is just passing through. And indeed this is the way, not easy at first – but this is the way. Our “nonchalance practice”. Our becoming detached. The storms of Harm OCD we no longer run from. We sit as they pass. We breath, no gasp or sigh of relief, but because it is soothing. We pamper ourselves, because we’re deserving. We rest, because it is needed. And we do not feel guilt. We take care of ourselves. We know if we treat ourselves right, it’s the end of this “thing”.
The end of compulsions and a changed view of pain
Full recovery from Harm OCD means there’s no need for such “actions” and end to compulsive behaviour – no floating concern for the presence of “terrible thoughts” – indeed no sense our thoughts are truly representative of all that we are, now more fully apprised of how our feelings instruct.
Put simply we know more assuredly than ever before that when we feel bad, the thoughts we are thinking are not in alignment with who we are at our roots.
We know, having opened ourselves to deeper and deeper parts of our being through the necessity of finding the calm in the eye of the seeming storm, through various methods, we are more than we think, and we are good, our compulsions and harming obsessions, though they rose as tsunami, were nothing but ripples on the surface of life.
For there we once lived, unmindful of what was going on inside us as we strove to please others. Unmindful of the tension and pain under our armour, our hate for disapproval and the shame we were feeling for display of our more vulnerable side. Unmindful for days not lived to their fullest, the deferring of dreams, on and on, a listing of signs and prodding’s for us to hearken the heart.
But now we bring into full harmony all aspects of our lives and no longer suppress or shy from what we are feeling – or what we are fearing! We are facer’s of life. True to ourselves, we know having encountered Harm OCD we can counter most things and come out unscathed.
Even so, we are not about struggle. We’ve seen where that’s led us. Kind to ourselves we choose the more pleasing paths, upon which our true nature can flow. We challenge ourselves in order to grow. More and more we feel the thrill and exhilaration of creating a life that defines us. Others will notice. They might ask our story. And maybe we’ll tell them, with no second thoughts. Maybe we won’t.
Either way, we’ll not look back with an ounce of regret. We’ll know, that in losing ourselves for a matter of time, it caused us to look in a place we might never have looked. We’ll see our pain as the whetstone upon which we are sharpened. No robber of time, but Clearer of Eyes, the Wakener, the Rouser, the Rough Friend that shook us to reach for our higher endeavour.