One of the common ways that people deal with anxiety is through avoidance. Afraid to fly? Well then, don’t. A large crowd of people too much to deal with? Just stay away from parties or large gatherings. Too anxious to ever give a presentation? Don’t apply for that job you’d otherwise love.
So what’s the problem? In isolated instances, avoidance may work. But as Dr. Charles Elliott, a clinical psychologist and a Founding Fellow in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, says in reference to this behavior: “It makes your world smaller and fosters your fears. The more you avoid, the worse things get.”
I believe this is especially true when talking about avoidance and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
OCD is characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead the sufferer to engage in repetitive thoughts or behaviors (compulsions). Obsessions are always unwanted and cause varying degrees of stress and anxiety, and compulsions temporarily alleviate these feelings. In an attempt to reduce anxiety, those with OCD often try to avoid their intrusive thoughts altogether. Unfortunately this rarely, if ever, works for anyone.
If you tell yourself, for example, not to think about jumping off of a bridge, chances are all you’ll be able to think about is jumping off of a bridge. It’s just how our brains work. The more we try not to think of something, the harder it is to get it out of our minds.
I think it is worth mentioning here that the intrusive thoughts of those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are often no different than the thoughts of so called “normal people.” But instead of just accepting their thoughts as “just thoughts” and letting them go, those suffering from OCD may attach too much validity to them, to the point of becoming distraught at the realization that they could even think such horrible things. This reaction can fuel the strong desire to avoid these thoughts at all cost.
In my son Dan’s case, he had obsessions which involved unwillingly harming those he cared about. These thoughts were extremely disturbing to him because, in reality, Dan could literally not even hurt a fly. So it is often not the thoughts themselves that are really the problem; rather, it is the OCD sufferer’s reaction to them.
In addition to trying to avoid unwanted thoughts, OCD sufferers may also avoid situations that might trigger their obsessions. For example, if intrusive thoughts revolving around germs and contamination are the issue, the person with OCD may avoid going anywhere where they may have to use a public restroom. This avoidance may then expand to not being able to eat anywhere outside of his or her home, or not being able to be in a social situation where handshaking is expected. In extreme cases, the OCD sufferer may become totally housebound.