As an advocate for OCD awareness, I get lots of emails from people. One of the most frequent questions I receive is some form of “How can I get rid of this terrible anxiety that is ruining my life?” While I’m not a therapist, I have learned a lot in the eleven years since my son was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and one thing I know for sure is that is not the question any of us should be asking.
The reason? Well, for one thing, a life without anxiety is not only an unattainable goal but an unhealthy one. Anxiety serves a purpose and a few of the ways it can benefit us include:
- Our bodies instinctive fight-or-flight response related to anxiety can propel us into action and protect us from danger. An example might be gathering your family as quickly as possible to escape a house fire.
- Anxiety might be a warning sign to pay closer attention to whatever it is that is making you anxious. For example, if you are extremely stressed and anxious when coming home after work every day, maybe that’s a sign that there are issues in your marriage or home life that need to be addressed.
- Anxiety can motivate you to get things done. For instance, if you’re a student, feeling anxious about getting a good grade on a final exam can motivate you to study hard and do well.
These are some of the more common benefits to anxiety, though there are certainly others.
But what if you suffer from unrelenting, severe anxiety and are dealing with a brain disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or social anxiety disorder? What if you’re paralyzed with so much fear and anxiety that you can’t enjoy life, or even leave the house?
Then, by all means, you need help. But the question to ask isn’t, “How do I get rid of my anxiety?” but rather, “How do I learn to live with my anxiety?”
There’s a big difference.
Using OCD as an example, I know of many people who begin therapy thinking they will get rid of their obsessions and become anxiety free. What they quickly learn, however, is that exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the evidence-based cognitive therapy used to treat OCD, actually initially raises anxiety as the person with OCD is asked not to perform any compulsions. Over time, the anxiety will become less intense and subside quicker, but there will still be times in their lives when they will become anxious. None of us, whether we have OCD or not, can control our thoughts or our anxiety, but we can learn the best ways to react to them.
Professional help might include some therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and possibly medication, those who have been totally controlled by anxiety can absolutely get their lives back. They can learn to accept the uncertainty of life, as well as the anxiety that often goes along with that acceptance. Perhaps most importantly, they can shift from lives dictated by fear to lives where they’re free to honor their values, pursue their goals, and follow their dreams.