Three steps to healing OCD with RAIN
- Mapping OCD habit loops
- Seeing clearly that OCD doesn’t feel good
- Befriending OCD with RAIN. Replacing compulsions with more rewarding behaviors like mindfulness and compassion.
The first step is to get a clear understanding about how our OCD habit loops are driving the neverending nature of OCD. We need to start to see how the anxious mind actually works and that our compulsive behaviors are complicit in our ongoing suffering. I encourage you to map out your own habit loops containing a trigger, behavior(compulsion), and a reward(the lowering of anxiety temporarily). For more information on mapping habit loops see my previous post on the topic.
This first mapping phase is really important because we are bringing awareness to what’s happening. We are coming out of autopilot and really seeing clearly how our compulsions perpetuate OCD. Anytime we notice and become aware of any of the three parts of the habit loop, we are on the right track. With practice we will be able to map the complete habit loop of trigger, behavior, and reward for any given obsession.
Here are a few examples of some common OCD habit loops that were stuck in my mind and body for years…
Thoughts that I might be gay trigger anxiety-checking on the computer in forums to prove im not gay-feel a little better
Thoughts I might be gay return(feel anxious)-engage in mental rumination about times I was atttracted to women to prove to myself i’m not gay- feel slightly better momentarily
It’s important to remember as you read over my example OCD habit loops that every time we do compulsive behaviors and get a reward we are training our brains to remember the trigger and the behavior. This makes it more likely that we will do the compulsion in the future because our brains know that it led to a reward in the past. It also makes it more likely that whenever we are anxious our brains will send us the triggering thoughts previously associated with anxiety so we can get the same rewards.
Fear the bump I heard while driving was me running someone over. (Feel anxious and need to know the answer)- I turn around and check the road- I feel a little better
Now I am home and I have thoughts about whether I checked sufficiently which triggers more anxiety- I engage in mental compulsions to figure out how well I checked for the person to try to prove to myself that I didn’t run someone over- I feel momentarily better
Again, the key here is that when we start engaging in the mental compulsions, they give us a reward. They teach our brain to remember the triggers and the behavior. Our brains want rewards so it makes sense that if the trigger and behaviors are thoughts, then our brains can send us the trigger at any time to get the reward. This keeps us caught in the OCD cycle.
Here is one more example from my own life:
Fear I committed a sin by doing x(feel anxious)- Read a bunch of books about sin and God to find answer- find momentarily relief
The relief is only momentary so in order to feel better I need to keep doing the behavior (compulsive searching in the book). Therefore, as I read new information on every page I am toggling between compulsive searching and little subtle rewards which are becoming less and less rewarding.
The above habit loop can transition into mental rituals becoming the behavior when the books are exhausting or not available. For example, in the past I would obsess in my head over the answer to the question of whether or not I committed a sin or whether or not God exists.
Every mental behavior would offer a tiny reward, but the anxiety remained present and the cycle repeated itself. Over time rewards become less and less rewarding, but the brain is a creature of habit and it doesn’t want to change even if the behaviors are no longer offering us anything.
However, we can teach the brain to see really clearly that the rewards of the OCD habit loop are nonexistent….
The next step is to start paying attention to what we are really getting from these OCD habit loops. What I have learned from my own life is that these habit loops are not rewarding at all. Actually, they get less and less rewarding over time.
If I think I have a tick on my head and I check I feel relief from the bodily tension that the thought created. However, if I continue to check over and over to get certainty then I start feeling a huge amount of anxiety. This makes sense because the reward I get for each subsequent episode of checking becomes tinier and tinier. I have to keep doing the behavior more and more to try to feel better but even then I don’t feel much of a reward. In this step we pay attention to all aspects of the habit loop and get curious about how rewarding the reward actually is. Do we feel better or worse? In the short term? In the long term?
Here I encourage you to get curious and just see what happens. There is no need to change your OCD here or to force yourself to stop doing the compulsion. Just notice what you get from doing the compulsions and notice how you feel in the short term and in the long term.
After becoming disenchanted with our OCD habit loops, the next step is all about actively replacing our compulsive behaviors with behaviors like mindfulness and compassion which are inherently more rewarding. This is where the mindfulness and compassion tool RAIN comes in.
I’ll use one of the previous examples here:
Fear the bump I heard while driving was me running someone over.
Recognize- I pause and recognize the thought about the bump and the subsequent anxiety that is now moving through my body. I’m noticing that an OCD thought has triggered unpleasant sensations.
Accept/Allow- Here I can just drop into my body and make the intention to just allow these sensations to be here. I understand at this point from mapping my habit loops how OCD works and that anxiety is part of life. If any more OCD thoughts come into my mind, I can simply allow those thoughts to be there and go back into the body to allow the sensations to be there as well.
Investigate- In this step I can go into my body and get really curious about what the sensations of OCD actually feel like. At this point, the thought that caused the anxious sensations is actually irrelevant. Investigate is all about feeling the felt sense of OCD in the body. Maybe I am noticing some burning in the chest and upper arms. I could be noticing contraction around my eyes. A pulsing in my thighs. Investigate is about getting curious and starting to explore the sensations. The goal here is really about getting to know OCD. Not the OCD thoughts but actually OCD as it lives in the body. It’s easiest to pick the area in the body where the sensations of OCD are the strongest and focus your investigation there. If you mind wanders or more OCD thoughts come into the mind, just gently direct your attention back into the body and continue exploring the sensations of anxiety.
The more we investigate the felt sense of OCD the less surprised we will be by the sensations when OCD comes to visit in the future. It’s really all about trying to learn as much as possible about the sensations of OCD so we don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.
Nurture- Here I can gently ask myself what this OCD place inside me most needs. Maybe It’s really strong and needs to feel soothed so I put my hand over my chest and say “I love you buddy.. I’m here for you”. Maybe the place needs to know I am loved so I think of an image of my dog and how happy he is to see me. This image brings some warm sensations that waft through my body and I just bring my awareness to this warmth and let those sensations soak in. Maybe I am feeling a little bit safer so I am able to bring part of my attention to the sensations of OCD and part of my attention to the warm, compassionate sensations. I can let these compassionate sensations “hold” the OCD ones. It’sreally about practicing and just getting in touch with your own experience about what might be most needed for you in the moment.
With OCD the I and the N are really about finding a balance between getting curious and feeling resourced and supported. If you feel like you have sufficient courage to turn towards OCD then you can continue to investigate with friendliness. If you feel like the sensations are too strong and you are losing your ability to be with them, then you can move into nurturing and compassion practice to basically build up the good safe vibes until you are ready to turn towards the OCD sensations again.
The idea really is that with practice you can develop the ability to turn towards the OCD sensations with a curious warm friendliness like you might listen to a good friend. Eventually OCD starts to become a familiar friend whose arrival you don’t resist and who you expect. As you become better friends with OCD, a curious thing starts to happen. OCD comes to visit less and less frequently.
This practice of RAIN can then be applied to all other areas of your life where you are dealing with pain or difficult emotions or are trying to change a habit. The work you do with RAIN for OCD will support your ability to turn towards whatever comes up in your life without resisting it. It’s a lifelong practice of befriending OCD and befriending life!