The human brain was not built to receive and process the ever-present, nonstop safety threats that we are constantly bombarded with. Our hard working brains are at their best when receiving an occasional threat alert. Our brain can bring its A game when scanning the forest, attempting to decipher if a long, dark shape is a tree branch or a snake or if a sound coming from the bushes is the wind or a lion about to pounce. Once we investigate the situation we can determine if we are in fact in danger and need to enter "fight or flight mode" or if the coast is clear and it is safe to return to a state of rest and relaxation, until the next threat is detected.
But what is our 2016 brain to do with all of the nonspecific THREAT WARNINGS that it receives on a daily basis? For example, what is our brain to do when it learns the government increased the nation's threat level from orange to red? Or when it receives a call from a physician, discussing the need for additional testing, because potential signs of disease have been detected. Or when it learns that cancer-causing agents may be found in any and all food, in one form or the other. In modern life, our hard-working brains are constantly reminded that danger is always present, but there is no one act that can be engaged in to rule out danger and allow for a return to the state of rest and relaxation.
I specialize in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and related disorders, and I have developed a tendency to view much of life through an OCD-prevention lens. I am so thankful for this framework that I have obtained through assisting my fabulous, brave clients in busting out of their OCD prisons. Some key lessons I have learned:
1. Life is uncertain.
2. The human brain craves certainty.
3. Some brains are more demanding and less tolerant of uncertainty than others.
4. We humans are creative and hard working and will engage in all sorts of behaviors (otherwise known as compulsions) to provide temporary relief from anxiety and the illusion of control.
5. Compulsions don't just take the form of handwashing and stove checking. They come in all shapes and sizes. Examples of less obvious compulsions are constantly checking Facebook, always having one's phone accessible to make sure no important calls are ever missed, or frequent visits to doctors to rule out any and all illnesses. The list of creative modern-life compulsions is endless but their function is singular: to attempt to obtain control over the uncontrollable.
6. The more compulsions one engages in, the more doubt one will come to experience. In contrast, the less one engages in compulsions, the safer one will come to feel.
So people who have ousted OCD from their lives have much they can teach the rest of us about how to navigate the uncharted waters of modern life, where we are constantly reminded of the limits of our control and ability to protect ourselves from danger. The most effective treatment for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP) training. ERP entails practicing intentionally exposing oneself vs. avoiding contact with uncertainty while limiting engaging in compulsions. After a successful ERP treatment, one learns to better tolerate uncertainty and how to live more fully in the moment. By practicing ERP to the modern threats, we can learn to calm the mind in this "Age of Terror."
ERP to modern-life threats:
• Review and outline all compulsions that you are engaging in to protect yourself from uncertainty.
• Separate all effective safety behaviors you may be engaging in (example: turning the alarm on when you are not home) from compulsions (example: checking the lock several times after shutting door).
• If you are unclear if a behavior would fall more in the realm of a compulsion than an effective safety behavior, review your list with a trusted loved one.
• Once you have outlined certain compulsions, create a daily plan to actively expose yourself to a bit of uncertainty each and every day. You can see a movie that you would like to see if it were not for the fear of feeling trapped in a crowded movie theater. You can take a 15-minute walk without your phone to try to tolerate that something may happen to you or a loved one while you don't have your phone. You can get on an airplane and not assess every fellow passenger to determine if they look like a terrorist.
The possibilities for uncertainty-tolerating exercises are endless. And the good news is that the more you actively practice relinquishing control and tolerating uncertainty, the safer you will come to feel. And soon your brain will become better equipped at moving past vs. becoming entangled in the ever-present threatening messages constantly being generated from multiple sources in our Age of Terror.
To learn more about CBT-based treatment for anxiety and related disorders, please visit the http://www.adaa.org/finding-help/treatment/therapyADAA website: (