Uncertainty and doubt seem to lay at the bedrock of OCD. OCD demands 100% certainty, no matter the cost—a feat that is, of course, impossible to achieve. That’s why OCD is also known as the “doubting disorder.” It won’t allow you to feel comfortable with uncertainty.
So while many individuals with OCD say that they know deep down that the intrusive thought, image, feeling, or urge is illogical, if there is even the tiniest chance that they could prevent the perceived thought or obsession from occurring, they will feel compelled to engage in a compulsion, “Just in case.” That is the crux of this illness—but as you may have guessed, no matter what the sufferer does, they will never feel sure enough, and the OCD cycle continues on.
If you’re wondering how you can interrupt this cycle and learn to allow uncertainty, here are five strategies that can help.
1. Don’t try to avoid uncertainty
Accept that in life, there will always be uncertainty. It’s okay to notice that you feel uncertain. It’s okay to only feel confident “enough.” Become friends with the idea of not knowing some things, at least not without a shadow of a doubt. Ambiguity doesn’t need to be fought against—you can simply make decisions based on the information that you have right now. You can accept that your decisions may change in the future as new information becomes available. Get rid of “either/or” thinking. All-or-nothing thinking often leads to stress, anxiety, and increased doubt. Challenge the idea that you cannot possibly tolerate the uncertainty and doubt that life inevitably brings, and give yourself credit for all the tough feelings you’ve already experienced and made it through.
2. Don’t attend to all of your thoughts
Just because it pops into your mind doesn’t mean you have to believe it or give it any attention at all. Humans have many, many thoughts on a daily basis, but to use the analogy of an email system, people with OCD seem to be lacking a fundamental ability to determine which thoughts are “spam.” In other words, they have difficulty sorting through senseless or irrational ideas and focusing on the thoughts that truly require their attention. This over-attentiveness to meaningless thoughts, images, and urges takes up time and energy and leaves the sufferer confused about why they’re getting these thoughts in the first place. Remember that while we don’t get to choose the thoughts, images or urges that pop into our minds, we can determine what we do with them. Approaching things in a non-judgmental manner can reduce the distress they cause and improve our self-esteem. We don’t need to be such harsh critics of ourselves.
3. Stay in the present tense
When you feel anxious about something, you are, in essence, living in the future. When you suffer from depression, it is often because you are revisiting the past. Therefore we must realize and recognize when we are doing either of these things and turn our attention to the here and now. When you have OCD, you may doubt the past and the future but it is hard to argue with or doubt what is happening in the immediate present. If you ask yourself, “What is actually happening at this particular moment?” you can assess what actually needs to be done.
4. Accept that change is natural
Life is a series of changes. The sooner we can become comfortable with change, the sooner we can live with more contentment. Feelings change, thoughts change, and it doesn’t need to be good or bad—it just is. I often tell people I work with, that just as the seasons change, so will what they are experiencing. It may be hard to imagine a life where OCD is less triggering, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. We need to come to a place where we can accept and understand the emotions we are feeling in a particular moment, and recognize that we won’t always feel the same way—and that’s okay.
5. Focus on your meaning, your identity, and your purpose
This is a tall order for anyone to be sure. I believe that OCD attaches itself to how you feel about yourself. It can attack the things you value the most. It wants you to doubt who you are and what you are capable of. That’s why I think it’s so important that we find our identities separate from OCD. OCD may be a huge part of your life, but you are so much more than just the condition. When you gain confidence, comfort, and motivation in who you are and what your purpose is, other uncertainties don’t feel as threatening.
There is help available to cope with uncertainty
People with OCD experience the same thoughts as those without. The difference is that people with OCD attribute meaning to their thoughts and become “stuck” on them. This is due to the brain sending out a faulty alarm that tells the OCD sufferer that they are in danger when they really are not. Though we cannot control the initial thoughts that pop into our brains—we can control what we do with them. In the long run, trying to solve perceived problems only increases anxiety. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy teaches you to identify the thought and behavior patterns that lead to heightened anxiety and how to stop them.
ERP teaches people with OCD that thoughts, feelings, and urges do not have to have meaning. They are not indicative of who you are as a person and what you want. ERP gives you the tools you need to sit with uncertainty and doubt and tolerate anxiety and distress.
If you’re struggling with OCD and want to take the power away from your intrusive thoughts, NOCD can help. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs—and that means the best care for our members. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment.