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Starting Exposure Therapy: What’s it Like?

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For anyone new to exposure-based therapy, such as exposure and response prevention (ERP), there is often much anticipatory anxiety about starting treatment. “What is it? What will it be like? How bad will it be? Can I handle it? Will I be forced to do things I’m unwilling to do?” These uncertainties are typical for most people beginning the process. They’re also understandable. When you begin treatment, it often feels like you’re putting your fate in someone else’s hands. Because that someone is typically a stranger (i.e., your therapist), it would be a bit odd if you didn’t feel that way. Moreover, if you know the basics of exposure therapy, you understand that eventually you’ll be confronting the very things you fear. Some people accept this prospect with dread but others feel a sort of nervous anticipation. Although they...

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Treatment of Unwanted Thoughts & Sensations in OCD

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In my post about the treatment of sensorimotor OCD, a reader asked about the ultimate goal of treatment. Should the goal of treatment be to never notice an unwanted thought or symptom? Suppressing Unwanted Thoughts & Sensations in Pure-O & Sensorimotor OCD Let’s explore this idea in detail. Suppose I adopt the goal of being 100% symptom free. After all, this is the endpoint of treatment that most people are seeking. What are the implications of this goal? You will likely slow down your progress. Why? Because every day you will encounter something that violates your expectations. Unwanted thoughts are a normal part of the human experience. Everyone has thoughts that are unwanted, aggressive, selfish, perverse, or deviant at times. For people without OCD, these thoughts tend to be fleeting because the thoughts themselves aren’t treated as significant. They...

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Thought Control & OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)

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OCD & Thought Control Can I learn to eliminate my OCD thoughts? I hear this question all the time from new patients who are searching for ways to suppress their unwanted thoughts. When I answer this question with a resounding “no”, there is often much surprise and grief. After all, this is why they’re coming to see me. Many people with Pure-O OCD imagine thought control to be the only way to improve the quality of their lives. Unfortunately, thought control conceptualized in this way is not an attainable goal in OCD treatment. Our brains just don’t work like that. I explain it like this, “A penguin obsessed with flying is an unhappy penguin.” Expecting thought control to work is a little bit like a penguin flapping its wings and expecting to fly. It may work for the other...

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Fear of Saliva Swallowing & Choking: Treatment & Symptoms (OCD)

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Question: I have sensorimotor OCD, and I’m suffering from conscious swallowing. My main fear is that I’ll choke or swallow my own saliva whenever I’m speaking or singing. Any tips for how to tackle this fear via exposure and response prevention (ERP)? Great question. Consistent with general exposure and response prevention (ERP) principles, your exposures need to address your specific feared outcomes. Feared outcomes can vary greatly for individuals with the same presenting problem. I discuss this idea in a different context here: feared outcomes in OCD. For people with a fear of swallowing or drinking saliva, there are several possibilities. Fear of Potential Embarrassment: Social Anxiety If you are afraid of potential embarrassment due to coughing or choking while speaking, your symptoms might actually reflect underlying social anxiety (rather than somatosensory OCD). However, it’s also possible for social...

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OCD: Screaming, Blurting Out Obscenities/Cursing/Profanity, & Other Unwanted Impulses

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Question: I’m a teenager and keep having OCD symptoms related to impulse control. I often worry that I’ll lose control and scream or blurt out obscenities. I am especially triggered in quiet public places like classrooms, churches, and movie theaters. I have never actually acted on my impulses and cursed in public, but I still feel very anxious whenever these thoughts occur. Do you have any tips for me? These types of symptoms are very similar to other OCD symptoms in which people worry about losing control and acting on unwanted impulses. Most typically, these types of thoughts attach to situations that are considered morally or socially taboo. Related OCD symptoms include fears about losing control and: Harming a loved one (most often fear of harming a child, spouse, or parent). Killing a loved one (i.e., stabbing, shooting, suffocating,...

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