Monday, May 12, 2014

Coping Strategies vs. Compulsions

I was at an OCD support group meeting when the topic of coping strategies came up. We all have coping strategies for dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression. This article talks about the habits we foster throughout our lives. Whether it’s that early morning run or the glass of wine after dinner, we all have habits, good and bad, that run our schedules. But when does it go too far? When do our coping strategies turn into compulsions?

As far as OCD goes, I don’t think I’m a particularly compulsive person. My symptoms tend to linger on the obsessive side of the scale. That being said, there are definitely things I’m picky about. The way I fold my laundry, my bedtime rituals, things of that nature. But it’s a slippery slope for all of us. It’s when you get into the habit of doing something in response to something else that it becomes a problem. You have a lousy day so you have a glass or two of wine when you get home from work. You have a couple more lousy days and you do the same. Pretty soon, you’re having a few glasses every day no matter how your day went. And that’s the cycle of addiction that happens, but there’s more to it than that. If you started drinking because you felt down, you’re likely to get more depressed each time you drink. That’s exactly how Obsessive Compulsive Disorder works. You convince yourself that the only way to relieve your anxiety is to keep performing your compulsions. And it feels like it works at first. But the truth is, every time you do that compulsion, you increase the likelihood that you’ll feel anxious and need to do it again. Every time you have a drink, you increase the likelihood that you’ll feel crappy the next day and need a drink again.

Maybe your habits seem better adjusted than my example. Maybe instead of a glass of wine after your bad day, you go out for a run. Endorphins are released, adrenaline surges, and you feel a little better. But then you do it again and again and pretty soon you can’t go a day without a run. Sure, running is good for you, but when it becomes crippling, addicting, compulsive – that’s when you know it’s a problem.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this one. Habits are a part of human nature. We all have them, and it’s hard to imagine a life without some habits. Maybe the solution is just awareness. If you’re aware of your habits and you notice if and how they control you, maybe you can step in and stop yourself before things get out of control. Maybe the only thing that really separates people with OCD from people without it is the inability to stop habits from raging out of control. (Of course, there’s the obsessive side of it too. We seem to get stuck on more things that require a habitual response than the average person.) Maybe the solution is, like this article suggests, is to just make a small modification. Maybe instead of a glass of wine when you get home, you change it up. Maybe sometimes it’s a smoothie or a milkshake. Or instead of a run, maybe you mix it up with some yoga or a bike ride. Keep the routine and the benefits without the repetitiveness that can cause a compulsion.

What destructive habits or compulsive behaviors are you holding on to? What changes can you make to give yourself a little freedom from your habits today?

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