Ep. 289 Whack a Mole Obsessions
In This Episode:
- What is whack-a-mole obsessions?
- Why do my obsessions keep changing?
- What is the treatment for fears that keep changing?
This episode of Your Anxiety Toolkit is brought to you by CBTschool.com. CBTschool.com is a psychoeducation platform that provides courses and other online resources for people with anxiety, OCD, and Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. Go to cbtschool.com to learn more.
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This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 289.
Welcome back, everybody. I am so happy to be with you again. I won’t lie. I’m still on a high (that rhymed) from the managing mental compulsion series. Oh my gosh, you guys, I am so proud of that series, that six-part series. If you didn’t listen to it, please do go back. I’ll probably tell you that for the next several podcasts, just because I am really still floating on the coattails of how amazingly, so wonderful that was. And it really seemed to help a ton of people, which is so fulfilling.
I do love-- it’s not because of the ego piece of it, I just do love when I know I’m making an impact. It’s really quite helpful to feel like you’re making an impact. And sometimes when I’m putting out episodes, I really don’t know whether they’re helpful or not. That’s the thing about podcasts compared to social media, is with social media, if you follow me on Instagram @youranxietytoolkit or Facebook, I can get a feel based on how many comments or how many likes or how many shares. But with podcast, it’s hard to know how helpful it is. And the feedback has been amazing. Thank you, everyone who’s left reviews. What a joy, what a joy.
What the cool thing is, since then, it’s actually created this really wonderful conversation between me and my therapist. So, for those of you who don’t know, in addition to me owning CBT School, I also own a private practice where myself and nine of my therapists were actually, now 10 extra therapists, in the process of hiring a new person. We meet once a week or more to discuss cases. And the cool thing about the mental compulsion series is it brought the coolest questions and conversations and pondering, what would this help this client? How would it help that client? These are the struggles my clients are having. Because as I kept saying, not every tool is for everybody. Some you’ll be like, “Yes, this is exactly what I needed,” and there’ll be other things where they might not resonate with you. And that’s totally fine. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong. That’s because we’re all different. But it’s really brought up a lot of questions. And so, now I’m actually going to hopefully answer some of those questions in the upcoming podcasts.
Today, we’re actually talking about what to do when your obsessions keep changing. Because we’re talking about mental compulsions and reducing those, and that’s actually the response prevention part of treatment, what’s hard to know, like what exposures do you do for somebody whose obsessions keep changing or their fears keep flip flopping from one to the other? One week, it’s this. Next week, it’s that. And then it’s funny because a lot of clients will say, “What was a 10 out of 10 for me last week is nothing now. And now all I can think about is this other thing. I was really worried about what I said to this one person. Now, all I can think about is this rash on my arm. And the week before that, I was really upset that maybe I had sinned,” or there was another obsession. Again, it’s just what we call Whack-A-Mole. We’re going to talk about that today.
But before we do that, we are going to do the “I did a hard thing” segment. This one is from Marisa. And Marisa is at the @renewpodcast. I think that might be her Instagram or their Instagram. Marisa said:
“Last week I submitted my dietetic internship applications. It was a long, stressful process and anxiety definitely came up during it. And I was able to move through and do the hard thing. I kept reminding myself that the short-term discomfort of submitting the application was worth the long-term reward of hopefully getting a step closer to my goal of becoming a registered dietician through completing the internship. Even though there is still uncertainty and the outcome that I have to sit with while I wait to find out the results of my application, I have learned through my ERP work that I can sit with the discomfort and uncertainty. Thank you, Kimberley, for reminding me that it is a beautiful day to do hard things.”
Marisa, I hope that you get in. I hope that you get all of the things that you’re applying for. This is so exciting. And yeah, you really walked the walk. This is exactly what we’re talking about when we do the “I did a hard thing” segment. It doesn’t have to be OCD-related or anxiety-related. It could be just hard things because life is hard for everyone. I love this. Thank you so much, Marisa.
If you want to submit your “I did a hard thing,” you may go to my-- it’s actually my private practice website where I host the podcast. If you go to KimberleyQuinlan-lmft.com and you go to the podcast link, right there, there is a link that says “I did a hard thing.” It’s actually KimberleyQuinlan-lmft.com/i-did-a-hard-thing/ okay? But it’s easier just to go, and I will try to remember to put this in a link in the podcast.
All right. One more piece of housekeeping before we get going is, let’s do the review of the week. This is from Sass, and Sass said:
“I have had an eating disorder for many years and I spent my adult life trying to understand my compulsions and obsessions. When I found your podcast last summer, everything started to make sense to me. You have given me an understanding and acceptance I couldn’t get anywhere else. I look forward to your weekly podcast and enjoy going back and listening to the earlier podcasts as well. Thank you for all you do.”
Sass, I get you. I was exactly in that position when I had my eating disorder. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t feel like people explained it in a way that made sense to me. And the obsessive and compulsive cycle really made sense to me. So, I am so grateful to have you, and I’m so grateful to be on this journey with you. Really, really, I am. Thank you for leaving that review.
Okay, let’s do it. Today, we are talking about Whack-A-Mole obsessions. Now, Whack-A-Mole obsessions is not a clinical term. Let’s just get that out of the way. There is nothing in the DSM or there’s no-- it’s not a clinical scientific term, but it is a term we use in the OCD community. But I think it’s true of the anxiety disorder community. Maybe even the eating disorder community as well, where the fears flip flop from one thing to the other. This may be true too if you have health anxiety. It might be true if you have generalized anxiety, social anxiety, where one day everything, it just feels like this fear is so intense and it’s so important and it must be solved today. It’s so painful. And then for no reason, it goes. And then it gets overshadowed by a different fear or obsession or topic.
And what can happen in treatment is you can start to treat one, doing exposure. This was actually one of the questions that came up through ERP School, which is our online course that teaches you how to create a plan for yourself to manage OCD. Some people will say, “Oh, I created a hierarchy. I followed the steps in ERP School. I started working on it and I did a few exposures and I did a few marginals. And boom, it just went away and then a new one came or the volume got turned down.” It could be that you addressed it a small amount, and then it went away and got replaced by another. Or it could be that you didn’t even get time to address it and it just went to a different topic. And this is really, really distressing for people, I’m not going to lie, because you’re just constantly whack-a-moling. You know the Whack-A-Mole game? You’re whack-a-moling things that feel super important, super scary, super urgent.
And so, what I want to do first is just validate and recognize this is not an uncommon situation. If this is happening for you, you are definitely not alone. And it doesn’t mean in any respect that you can’t get better. In fact, there’s a really cool tool, and I’m going to teach it to you here in a second, that you can use. We use it with any obsession. This is not special to Whack-A-Mole obsessions, but you can use it with any exceptions or if things keep changing. But first of all, I just want to recognize it is normal and it’s still treatable.
What do you do? The thing to remember here is, when you zoom out, and this is what we do as clinicians, our job as clinicians, and I say this to my staff all the time, is to find trends in the person’s behaviors and thinking. And what you will find is, when you’re having Whack-A-Mole obsessions, while the content may be different, when you zoom out, the process is exactly the same. You have a thought, a feeling, a sensation, or an urge that is repetitive, that is uncomfortable, that creates a lot of distress in your life. And of course, naturally, you don’t want that distress. That’s scary. And so, what you do is you do a compulsion to make it go away. It doesn’t matter what the content is. It doesn’t matter what the specific theory is. This is the same trend. And so, when we zoom out, we can see the trend, and then we can go, “Aha. Even though the content is the same, I can still intervene at the same point.” When we talk about this in ERP School, is the intervention point is at the compulsion.
And so, the work here is the content doesn’t matter. Your job is to catch and be aware, like we’ve talked a lot about mindfulness, is to be aware and identify, “Oh, I’m in the trend. I’m in the cycle.” While the one content has changed, the same behaviors are playing out. So, you catch that. You then practice being willing to be uncomfortable and uncertain about the content, because that’s the same too. The same cycle is happening. The thought and the fear create some anxiety, some sensations, and so forth.
And then we have an aversion to that. And then our job is to work at not engaging in that compulsion. So, that compulsion might be mental rumination. It might be doing certain behaviors, physical behaviors. It might be reassurance seeking. It might be avoidance. It might be self-punishment. It might be self-criticism. And your job is actually to go, “Okay, it really doesn’t matter.” And I really want to keep saying that to you. If the fear is, what if I have cancer? What if I’m going to hurt someone? What if I’m aroused by this? What if I have sinned? What if things are asymmetrical? What if I got some contaminant? What if I don’t love him enough? It doesn’t matter. What if it is not perfect? What if I fail? It doesn’t matter. I’ve just listed some, but if I didn’t list your obsession, please don’t worry. It’s for every one of these. The content for all of them are equally as important.
Sometimes what we do is we go, “Oh, that one is okay. But this one is really serious, and we have to pay attention to it.” And so, we have to catch that and go, “No, it’s all content. It’s all--” you could say, some people say it’s all spam, like the spam folder. Because when we get an email, we have emails that we really need to see – events, meetings coming up. And then we always have spam, the stuff that’s like, “Please send me money for Bitcoin,” or something. So, we put that in the spam folder. And so, your job is to catch the trends here, the patterns, and learn how to put those obsessions in the spam folder, no matter what the content.
Now, this does require, and here’s the caveat, or I would say this is the deal-breaker, is it does require a degree of mindfulness in your part to be aware of what’s going on. And this is a practice, like a muscle that you grow. So, what it requires is you have to be able to catch that you are in the content. You have to be able to catch that you are in the cycle that keeps you stuck. And that does require you to be mindful again. And I get it. I’m not saying that you’ll ever be perfect at this because I don’t know anyone who is. There will be times when you’re so caught up in the content and you’ve been doing compulsions for an hour, two hours, two days, two months and you haven’t caught it. And you’re like, “Oops, wait. Oops, I didn’t catch that one.” That’s okay. We don’t beat ourselves up. Then we just go, “All right, I’m at the point where at least I’ve caught it. I’m aware that I’m in the content. I’m aware how this is playing out exactly the way that it played out yesterday, but with a different obsession.” And then you just move on from there. Don’t beat yourself up. But it does require you to strengthen the muscle of being able to catch that you’re in the content. And it’s what we call insight. It’s having the insight to recognize.
Now, insight is something we can strengthen with practice. It’s not just one and done. It’s practice. It’s repetition. I have to do this all the time for myself. While I don’t have OCD, I do have anxiety and I will catch myself going down the rabbit hole with something until I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, you’ve been here before. It looks exactly like what you did on Tuesday where you’re trying to figure out something that’s not in your control. Kimberley, this is not in your control. You’re trying to control something that isn’t even your business.” And I’ve seen that trend in me. And so, my job is to catch it. Once I can catch it, then I know the steps. I know, “Okay, I got to let this one go. I got to accept the discomfort on this one. I’m going to have to ride this wave of discomfort. I’m going to have to radically be kind to myself.” We know the steps. And once we can get those steps down, it’s about catching it. But this is what we do when the obsessions do keep changing.
Now, I’m not going to say this is easy because it’s not. And if you require help doing this, reach out to an OCD therapist or an anxiety specialist who knows ERP. Remember here, and I’m telling you this with the deepest, most absolute degree of love, is CBT School, the whole mission of CBT School is to provide you tools and resources for those who don’t have tools and resources. So, if you haven’t got a therapist and you’re finding this really, really helpful, but you’re still struggling, don’t be afraid. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It just means maybe you need some more professional help. Maybe you have a therapist and you’re listening into this just to get extra tools. Great. Take what you learn and then take what struggles you have and figure that out.
I really want to stress here, and the reason I bring that up is, when I say this, it isn’t as easy as it sounds and it does require sometimes having somebody else, this is why I go to therapy myself, is even though I know the tools, it’s really nice to have a second set of ears just going, “Wait a second. Sounds like you’re caught up in the content.” If it’s not a therapist, maybe you could have a loved one or even journaling I have found is really helpful in that when you journal it down, and I do this regularly, I then read it, not to judge it, but just to see what trends. And I get a highlighter and I just highlight like, where are the trends? Where am I seeing the same patterns playing out? And that’s where we intervene.
So, that’s Whack-A-Mole obsessions. That is what to do when your obsessions keep changing. I do hope that that was helpful, not just to validate you, but to give you some skills moving forward. I am so grateful to have you here. Don’t be afraid to let me know what you think. I love, again, getting your feedback via reviews. I urge you to join the newsletter. That will then allow you to reply and give me feedback that way. I love hearing from you all.
All right. I’m going to sign off and I’ll talk to you very, very soon.