Beating the bully - how to treat OCD with hypnotherapy
Covid-19 has played havoc with our physical and mental well-being and if you’re someone who suffers from OCD your symptoms may have skyrocketed.
Fear of germs and contamination (and the possible consequences of this) may have resulted in yet more handwashing, more checking and new, even bizarre compulsions.
In this article we’ll look at how hypnotherapy can play an important role in helping you regain a sense of control without having to carry out those rituals.
OCD – the survival brain in overdrive
Let’s start off with something that might sound preposterous: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – all those fearful thoughts and repetitive behaviours – serves a positive purpose: to keep you and others safe.
There really is a positive intention driving all those rituals, whether it’s hand-washing, checking the oven is turned off or the doors are locked, or making sure each item you bought from the supermarket has been sprayed and wiped the correct amount of times.
It really is a case of the emotional or ‘survival’ brain working overtime, never going off duty for long, always keeping an eye open for any potential threat. It doesn’t take much for the alarm to go off – yet again! Before you know it, you’re caught up in that never-ending loop.
How many times have you done it today?
So, this is the first thing to understand about OCD. It is part of nature’s survival mechanism simply gone awry. The good news is that the right treatment can help bring it back into alignment.
Current treatment methods for OCD
Are you currently taking medication for your OCD? Has it made a difference?
The fact is that many people are prescribed medication for OCD, usually a type of drug that’s mainly used for treating depression. (1)
The premise for this is based on the idea that OCD (and depression) is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. We now know that this is not the case: the chemical imbalance is a consequence of depression, not the cause of it. (2)
But the medicines are still dished out. (Just to say, I’m not opposed to medication; it can help but we shouldn’t be so reliant on it when other treatments might be more suitable).
And when it comes to psychotherapy, the main treatment up to now has been Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which might involve ‘Exposure and Response Prevention’ (ERP).
With CBT the main focus is on trying to change your thinking. And with ERP the idea is that you need to confront your fears and commit to not carrying out the behaviours and instead make a different choice.
Both are easier said than done and here’s why…
The emotional trance of OCD
Because OCD is driven by the survival brain it easily overrides your conscious thinking processes. Positive thinking or ‘reframing’ is unlikely to have much impact when you’re locked in such a trance state.
And let’s be clear, when you are in the grip of an obsessive thought or compulsive behaviour you are hypnotised.
You are ‘locked in’, controlled by what I call ‘the OCD bully’, forcing you to do this or that for a certain number of times to prevent some disaster happening.
In effect, you are being blackmailed by your emotional brain: “Do this or else…”And this is where CBT and ERP can miss the trick. You see, the brain processes emotions before thoughts.
What this means is that before those obsessive thoughts get a firm grip on your attention mechanism, your emotional brain would already have ramped up your anxiety levels, preparing you for action.
Once you're in that loop it's almost inevitable that you'll perform the ritual.
But it is the anxiety that needs to be dealt with, not the thoughts themselves.
This is where hypnotherapy can – and should – play a vital role in the treatment of OCD.
Breaking free from your history
Of course, there are many reasons why your emotional brain has responded in this way.
Perhaps there is untreated trauma or negative conditioning from your past? Remember, the way we perceive reality is largely influenced by our early experiences which the brain uses as a template.
“What does this remind me of?” It asks. “When have I been in this situation before?”
In other words, if a current situation has any resemblance to what happened before, we can all too easily find ourselves feeling like a kid again, overwhelmed by our emotions, caught up in some drama from decades ago.
It’s fair to say that your OCD probably has its roots way back in your history.
But rather than trying to change your thinking or forcing you to confront your fears, hypnotherapy accesses nature’s optimal learning state – the REM state.
It is in the REM state that you are able to reprogram old memories and change the emotional content so that the brain registers the memory pattern as ‘no longer necessary’.
When these patterns are ‘re-coded’ as unimportant, the brain will stop seeing current situations in such black and white, life-or-death terms, meaning that your anxiety levels are no longer being triggered in the same way.
Meeting emotional needs
So, rather than trying to change your thinking (which is difficult to do if you’re already under the spell of the emotional brain) or getting you to expose yourself to the fear but not carry out the ritual (which can actually increase your anxiety, making you want to perform the ritual even more), hypnotherapy should aim to resolve the emotional conflict first.
And aside from emotional memory templates, there is something else that can raise your anxiety levels...
When current emotional needs are unmet we can feel more stressed, resulting in the primitive 'survival brain' taking centre stage once again. (3)
Contemplate these questions…
- Do you feel safe and secure?
- Do you have an emotional connection to other people?
- Do you feel in control of your life?
- Does your life have meaning and purpose?
Covid-19 has seriously impaired our ability to meet emotional needs. We feel uncertain, insecure, and isolated - all triggers that can make OCD much worse.
The thing is that if you’re suffering from OCD, helping you to feel calmer by resolving any past issues and helping you meet your emotional needs should be the first objective of your hypnotherapist.
It is only when the emotional brain is calm that you’re able to challenge those thoughts coming from the OCD bully.
A calmer state of mind will help you see through the illusion of those emotionally-driven thoughts, which are 99.9% fantasy anyway (and a good hypnotherapist will also help you deal with the other 0.1%!).
Beating the OCD bully by tolerating life’s uncertainties
Indeed, perhaps one of the biggest challenges to your overcoming OCD is in learning to tolerate uncertainty. To my mind, this should be a cornerstone of any psychotherapeutic approach to treating all mental health conditions.
The fact is that life is intrinsically uncertain. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow!
This is where hypnotherapy can incorporate some of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness to ground your awareness in the present moment rather than getting lost in 'what if' fantasies.
But I would like to suggest that when it comes to treating OCD we should be thinking about mind-empty-ness (as opposed to mindfulness). Emptying one’s mind of all those fearful thoughts and being present in the here and now is a challenge for us all, not just sufferers of OCD.
This might sound like a million miles away right now, but part of your recovery involves building up your resources and mental agility so that you can beat the OCD bully at his own game.
It will be a great moment when you begin to notice you are getting control over him!
And just like addiction, when you can start to see through the false promises the OCD bully makes, the emotional intensity begins to fade. You detach yourself from it and, in so doing, those obsessive thoughts and the resulting rituals disappear as well.
(1) For a comprehensive list of medications used to treat OCD take a look at this article from the Mayo Clinic.
(2) More details about the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ and the use of medication in the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders.
(3) For more on emotional needs check out my article on ‘Being fully human'.
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