In my first blog post, Living WITH OCD, I discussed the importance of mindfulness in OCD treatment. However, I thought it was important to expand on this topic while also debunking the myths about OCD, anxiety, and meditation. I like to think of mindfulness as an umbrella term, and meditation is one way we build and practice this skill. Mindfulness is being aware of our current thoughts, emotions, bodily experiences, and environment in the present moment. It is about observing these experiences from a non-judgmental and non-reactive lens. This is one of the most valuable skills in OCD and anxiety treatment because it helps us observe intrusive thoughts/images and uncomfortable emotions from this lens. Mindfulness has gained significant attention in today’s current societal climate and is shown in research to have numerous psychological benefits. However, it is essential to note that there are several myths surrounding these meditative practices. In this post, I will discuss the meditation myths I often hear from my clients with OCD and anxiety when first starting treatment.
Myth: You’re supposed to clear your head of thoughts during a meditation. So, if you have OCD you can’t meditate.
Fact: This is one of the most common myths I hear from clients, and it is NOT true! The goal of meditation is to observe thoughts and not attach to them. We can observe a thought enter our consciousness and let it go until another one comes in. This can be compared to watching clouds in the sky. We can describe the cloud and watch it continue to float along the sky until another one catches our attention. This idea can also be related to the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) skill of defusion. There is a popular defusion exercise called Leaves on a Stream, found on YouTube. This exercise allows you to visually place your thoughts on leaves as they float down a stream. I always encourage my clients with OCD to practice this exercise, especially those with Pure-O. This type of exercise is different from avoidance or pushing away a thought. Instead, it focuses on willingness to have a thought and then allowing it to float around for however long it wants without pushing it away. It is also essential to recognize that the thought might pop up repeatedly during meditation practices. This is perfectly normal, especially for those with OCD. We want to let the thought pop up until it is ready to leave. These meditative exercises also help you with response prevention within ERP because you are training your brain to disengage from a thought without engaging in a compulsion.
Myth: You’re supposed to feel calm and relaxed during and after a meditation.
Fact: The goal of meditation is to show up in any emotional state and practice sitting in this emotion while nonjudgmentally observing it. This is an important myth to debunk because many clients will start to use meditation as a compulsion (i.e., relief-seeking). On the other side of the spectrum, they will only practice meditation if they are feeling calm, in fear of sitting with anxiety. To help avoid meditation becoming a compulsion, I have my clients practice the exercise at the same time every day. Now you have to sit with whatever emotions your experiencing during this time.
The key here is also the practice of mindful reactions to emotions rather than judgmental reactions. When we constantly judge our emotions as BAD or AWFUL, this signals to the brain that they are threatening and need to be avoided or eliminated (aka bring on the compulsions!), which reinforce symptoms. One of the first things I do in treatment is point out an individual’s judgmental language when describing their emotions. We can help regulate our emotions by labeling the emotion for what it is (e.g., anxiety, guilt, shame, sadness) then continuing to neutrally and mindfully describe how the emotions feels within out body. Practicing a meditation while uncomfortable also allows us to get curious about an emotion as opposed to running away from it. The more we can pivot towards an uncomfortable emotion and experience it the less we are reinforcing it to stick around.
Judgmental: “I feel so awful right now. I hate it and want it to stop.”
Mindful: “I’m noticing I am experiencing anxiety right now. I feel very uncomfortable but I am willing to experience it and become curious about this emotion. I notice my heart racing, a pit in my stomach, and my hands are sweating.”
This may seem forced or unnatural at first, but changing our language around emotions plays a crucial role in the treatment process. It allows us to create a different relationship with our internal experiences. It can be uncomfortable to experience a wave of anxiety, but responding to it with negativity and judgment only intensifies your anxiety. Now you are anxious about being anxious! Instead, if we can be willing to ride the emotional wave and mindfully notice the discomfort, we won’t get trapped in the wave.
Myth: You have to be able to practice meditation perfectly.
Fact: Meditation is challenging, and there is no “right way” to meditate. Let me repeat it for all my perfectionists out there – there is no right way to meditate! There are many different forms of meditation, such as guided practice from an app or yoga. The goal is to find a meditation that works for you. The simple fact of you slowing down and being with yourself and your inner world is a form of meditation. Even if you get distracted the entire time during a meditation practice, you are still building that mindful muscle. Many of my clients with OCD and perfectionism will get very frustrated when first trying out meditation because of unrealistic expectations they are holding. So, this is your reminder to let go of all expectations and embrace whatever comes up during your practice.
Lastly, I cannot stress enough how important this skill is in treatment. It is only possible to engage in ERP, especially ERP for Pure-O, by being mindfully aware of our internal experiences. Many individuals will describe compulsions as automatic, which is a sign of lacking mindfulness. Once we can slow down and recognize intrusive thoughts, we become better equipped to respond to them. Just like how we go to the gym to build muscles, we must practice meditation to build mindfulness muscles!