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  • Michael Alcee Ph.D.

Why Focusing on Feelings Can Help Heal OCD

Your feelings just might save you from all that anxiety.

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  • Many OCD treatments focus exclusively on managing thoughts rather than on confronting feelings.

  • Focusing on feelings can reduce anxiety and promote greater self-efficacy.

  • Focusing on feelings may also help provide greater meaning and personal understanding of your OCD.

  • Focusing on feelings can help you see the strengths so often hidden by your OCD anxiety.

As someone with OCD, you are quick to use your mind to control your world. It’s likely the first place you go to make sense of your feelings and find safety. Yet as much as it tries to help, your overactive mind quickly runs away with itself, bringing on vicious spirals of worry, doubt, and fear. All that jumbles together to form anxiety.

The OCD mind thinks it knows better than the feelings you carry in your own body. It tries to speak for your feelings but much gets lost in translation. As the old Italian expression goes: Traduttore, traditore. To translate is to betray. Your mind is quick to believe it is the best messenger, but it so often lacks the nuance of what your feelings can say in their own native tongue.

To balance out this tendency, let's practice noticing and translating your feelings when your mind tries to speak for them. This can reduce your obsessional spirals and connect you more fully to your emotions and yourself.

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Burning Down the House

If anxiety is the inferno, feelings are the sparks. It’s excellent preventive work to notice the feelings before they start a blaze.

Anxiety moves fast and is difficult to extinguish when it’s a five-alarm fire. Happily, the feelings underneath are much easier to work with to keep your OCD from burning your metaphorical house down.

In order to apply this to your own situation, let’s use the case of Adam to showcase how you can find your way to your feelings when your mind tries to keep you locked in your obsessions.

How to Move From Anxiety to Feeling

Adam had obsessive worries about his wife's health. He was consistently triggered with obsessive-compulsive anxiety when she ate junk food or large portions of fatty foods—or even worse, when she had too much to drink or occasionally smoked. What from the outside might look like anxiety and controlling behavior was an emotional mix Adam had largely avoided: fear, anger, and desire.

Now it's your turn. What is the prominent obsession that is fueling your current OCD spiral? Like Adam, what triggers your anxiety the most?

Step 1: Identify all the emotions within your anxiety.

What are some of the feelings that may be within your anxiety (i.e. anger, fear, envy, sadness, or any other emotion you can identify)? If so, as Adam does above, say or write out any of the particulars about how you feel about the situation.

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Step 2: Identify past sources of your anxiety.

It wasn't totally surprising that Adam had these obsessions. His mother was a lifelong smoker who had died young of emphysema despite so many begging her to quit. Adam could remember feeling an angry desire as a child to swat the cigarettes out of her hand, as well as the haunting nightmares he had about losing her. He had loved his mother very much and had much difficulty holding the ambivalence of such strong hateful and loving feelings.

Are there any past sources of anxiety that provide further context so you can be more mindful and compassionate with your feelings?

Step 3: Going for the easiest available feelings first.

Which feeling should you focus on in the mix? Sometimes, it's easiest to go to the least dangerous feelings like desire, love, or even fear.

Adam could talk very openly about how much he cared for and loved spending time with his wife and how much he wanted to live to old age with her. He could also easily talk about his fears of losing her.

Anger is an emotion that OCD therapists often have to model as something OK to explore, noting that it doesn't negate the love or the fear, and also won't destroy the person that is so loved. Adam allowed himself little room to feel anger out of concern that it wasn't fair or would hurt his wife or mother. Why add any more negativity to the mix?

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By focusing on each of these component feelings that led to the bigger anxiety, we could better tame Adam's OCD. Identifying, processing, and organizing Adam’s feelings were enormously helpful. Why?

  • Up until this exercise, Adam hadn’t noticed how much he had been avoiding his feelings and focusing almost exclusively on his thoughts. It wasn’t his fault; that’s how most OCD treatments are currently structured.

  • Having a practical and concrete tool to help him sort through his feelings greatly improved his feelings of self-efficacy, providing him with a much better alternative to the ways his anxiety attempted to maintain control.

  • For most people, it is a strange thing to ask them to totally ignore the signals that are coming from inside and trust that they have no inherent meaning or purpose. The exercise provided a more personal and coherent sense of meaning to his particular obsessions and compulsions. It answered the questions as to why these issues were troubling him so much.

  • Adam came away from this exercise feeling that he had a strength instead of a problem. As a result of tracking his quite nuanced emotional experience, he felt proud of the richness with which he viewed himself and his relationships.

What Are the Feelings Underlying Your OCD Anxiety?

The emotional theme of nearly every form of OCD (harm OCD, contamination OCD, relationship OCD, etc.) is the loss of something or somebody important and precious to you. The rest of the feelings inside your OCD can run the range, and we'll focus on a few.

Let’s locate the desire first. What do you most wish to maintain and keep in the situation or relationship that is triggering your OCD? Notice how it might connect to other important relationships/issues from the past, as Adam did with the connection of his fears about his wife and his early childhood fears of losing his mother.

What are the specific fears you have about losing the other person or thing and, by extension, a part of yourself? Notice how it connects to important values and attributes you want to carry inside yourself.

Is there any anger that you have a hard time giving yourself permission to express to yourself or others? Acknowledge that you are entitled to your feelings. Notice why it angers you that this person or situation makes you upset, even if you feel positive about them/it in other ways as well.

Notice whether untangling these feelings allows you to feel more connected to yourself. You might feel a little less chaos in your head or less tension in your neck, shoulders, or throughout your body. Notice how different that feels from being taken over by the anxiety fueling your obsessions and compulsions.

Good! That’s the new creative way to approach your OCD to get to the core emotions so you can feel better, calmer, and more powerful.

Michael Alcee, Ph.D. - website - publications


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