*** Disclaimer: My dog does not have OCD ***
My dog, Scotty, is one of the few canines I have ever met that HATES water. He wants nothing to do with swimming, or even getting his paws wet. We are not sure what his past was like before we rescued him, but we do know he experiences higher-than-average degrees of dog anxiety (e.g, hides under the couch when he’s overstimulated, extremely sensitive to noise, always on alert, oftentimes has a general inability to settle, etc.)
Over the summer, I was on a hike with Scotty when we reached a point where we had to cross a creek. I made my way by teetering on a thin log- something I knew my dog would be scared to do. When I made it to the other side, I turned around to see the look of terror in Scotty’s eyes. He wanted to be with me badly, but he didn’t want to get wet: a serious dilemma for an anxious pup. He began whimpering and anxiously pacing back and forth, never taking his eyes off me. I could tell his heart was racing by the way he began aggressively panting. After quickly realizing there was no other way to get to me besides jumping (and risking getting wet), Scotty sat down, stared at me from the other side, and yelped for help. Like most doggie mommas, I saw his distress and immediately began considering how I could “fix” his dilemma. I could balance across the log with him in my arms, but I knew that would likely end in us both getting wet. I even considered changing course and finding a different trail. But before I had any time to think further, Scotty leapt into the air and jumped across the creek! He was SO proud of himself- wagging his tail a mile a minute as soon as he landed safely. The anxiety specialist within me was deeply proud. Here my dog was, prioritizing his values over his fears. The value was me, his owner. He didn’t know whether or not he would land safely, but staying back, away from his Mom, was not an option.
As an OCD therapist, I meet clients all the time that believe their fears are bigger than themselves. When you finally understand what the intrusive obsessions and compulsion cycles are, you start to understand the need to challenge the thoughts and images. In theory, people suffering with are committed to the work- they’ll, “do anything” to stop the OCD spirals. But when it comes time to do the hard stuff (the exposures), they often freeze. (Who can blame them? It’s REALLY hard work!) After all, we have an evolutionary drive to protect ourselves from danger. And our brain is right there making it seem so real, “But what if my fear comes true!?” clients often ask. Unfortunately, the longer we ruminate on what might happen, the bigger our fear bubble inflates. Us therapists call this anticipatory anxiety. Have you ever stood at the edge of a diving board for too long? Our brain starts to realize the potential danger in an otherwise very fun diving board option to increase an epic cannonball splash in the end of the pool. Very simply put, when we avoid our fears, we give the thoughts and the fear more power. But we could all learn a lesson from Scotty: Fear does not need to stop you from living your best life. Or in Scotty’s words Arf arf, whimper, I love my Mom, hold me, yay! Arf Arf, wag wag wag….<licks Mom’s face>
It is important for clients to consider how their fears hold them back. Oftentimes, OCD robs us of our connection with the outside world and the people we love most. Exposure work can feel intimidating, vulnerable, and at times, even defeating. As OCD therapists, we are here to support you, but we cannot carry you over the creek. You must make that brave choice on your own. And when you do, you’ll regain your power. In the meantime, we will be there on the other side- constantly reminding you that you are more capable than you believe and it is possible to live a life that is meaningful for you.
Jillian is a Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate who received her Master of Counseling degree from Regis University. A specialist in OCD & Anxiety Therapy