Vincent was a young man experiencing intrusive thoughts. All he wanted in life was to get rid of those tormenting images and thoughts once and for all. One day, after coming back from a camping trip he told his therapist, “I was so busy and focused on what I was doing that I didn’t have time to analyze my thoughts and obsess. I was mainly focused in the present moment. If only I could go on camping adventures every day!”
Vincent’s OCD symptoms had begun when he was 12 years old. He had created thinking patterns that weren’t helpful. In the past, he had tried different “distracting strategies” but their effectiveness was short-lived. He also had discovered that fighting his internal experiences was not the best option.
His camping trip adventure helped Vincent realize that his intrusive thoughts were still occurring, but that he didn’t have to react or engage in them. He didn’t have time to evaluate his thoughts or figure out why he was encountering them. His activities took priority. He reported that it had been a great weekend but not because of the absence of unpleasant thoughts. He simply had chosen to focus on what mattered to him that weekend.
Before this event, he had neglected mindfulness practice. As he renewed his mindfulness routine, he discovered that he could allow the presence of thoughts, feelings and sensations without rejecting them. The practice of mindfulness skills enabled him to become more focused in the here and now.
What about you? Do you understand the benefits of mindfulness and how it can enhance your awareness and acceptance? If you struggle with OCD, your instinctive reaction may be to battle unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness can help you change your relationship with them.
Here is a mindfulness exercise (Hooker & Fodor, 2008) that may help you start your journey to becoming more open to your internal challenges.
- Set a timer for 3-5 minutes.
- Sit comfortably on a chair or couch and close your eyes.
- Then say to yourself: “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?”
- Acknowledge the thought as it comes in by saying, “That was my next thought.”
- Then repeat the question, “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?”
- Allow the thought and acknowledge it again with the same phrase, “That was my next thought.”
- Then ask the question and acknowledge it again as indicated above.
Practice this exercise every day.
You can wait for the thought just like a cat would wait for a mouse to come out of its mouse hole, but you don’t need to chase the thought. You may be in the habit of grabbing your thoughts so you can figure them out. Instead, notice their presence without reacting to them.
As you practice this exercise you may lose your focus. Don’t worry. That’s what minds do. Acknowledge that this is happening and bring your attention back to the question, “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?” and wait for the thought.
A thought may show up before you finish saying the question. Your mind may go blank when you finish saying it. Notice it, and continue with the exercise. Sometimes the next thought may be related to the previous thought. Allow it, and ask the question again. Repeat the process until the timer goes off.
Awareness is essential before you can implement additional skills. Remember that your mind is an amazing thought-producing machine. That is its job and you can’t stop it from doing what it was built to do. However, by practicing mindfulness, you can learn to become flexible with your thoughts. You can learn to let thoughts come in and out of your mind without having to obsess over them.
You don’t have to go on camping trips to become present and enjoy what matters most in your life!
Adapted from Hooker, K. & Fodor, I. (2008). Teaching Mindfulness to Children. Gestalt Review, 12(1):75-91.