I don’t feel so much anxiety anymore so does that mean I’m fine? Did I even really have OCD?

Questions like this come partly from very popular misconceptions about anxiety, OCD, and mental illness in general.

First of all, OCD is not chronic. But you do have to put in the work to get over it. Saying you still have OCD after learning how to accept the stuff in your head and not engage in compulsions would be like somebody learning how to swim and then introducing themselves as a drowner. Your challenges in the past don’t have to continue to define you. They can. But they don’t have to.

Secondly, anxiety is a symptom, not the problem. It is not a useful gauge of how healthy you are and it’s definitely not a sign that you should go back to the old behaviors that caused the anxiety in the first place. Anxiety is a type of pain. It comes after doing something that causes pain. For example, if you experienced pain in your knee while running, that could be a sign that the way you’re running isn’t healthy for you. You could get help from an experienced trainer, do physiotherapy, take pain killers, etc, to get rid of that pain and learn new ways to run that don’t cause the pain. But once you’re running again without pain, you can’t go back to the way you were doing things before. That will only lead to the same result. This is also true with mental health. If you believe that the absence of pain is an excuse to go back to your old, unhealthy ways of doing things, you’ll just experience more pain again.

I encourage people to approach mental health and fitness the way they would approach physical health and fitness. Focus on your fitness goals, not the things from the past you’re leaving behind. For instance, let’s look at somebody that’s never exercised, they always eat unhealthy, they’re very obese, can’t run 100 meters with stopping several times. If they started to do lots of healthy things and they practiced running and they ate healthy and they made changes throughout their life to support that, they would gradually increase their cardiovascular endurance, their strength would improve, they’d start to move towards a healthy weight, they’d be able to run 1 km or more without stopping, they’d start sleeping better, they’d have more energy, they’d be able to do more. Eventually they would see the changes they wanted to see. So they can stop exercising and taking care of their health now, right? They’re fine. The problems they had in the past are gone, right?

Physical health and fitness, like mental health and fitness, is chronic. If you’re not taking care of them, they’re getting worse. Quite often, people will do some healthy things for a little while to deal with some anxiety issues, and then when they decide they don’t feel as much anxiety, they stop doing the healthy things they were doing. And they slide backwards and say that OCD is chronic, it’s jumped themes, they’ve relapsed, but they were doing so well and now this?!

But experiencing poor health is a natural result of not doing things to improve your health. Your health and fitness aren’t static. They’re a natural result of the decisions and activities you engage in every day. If you stop maintaining and improving your health and fitness, it gets worse. That’s totally natural. If you stop practicing running, your ability to run quickly diminishes. People seem to generally be aware of that when it comes to physical health and fitness, but seem less aware of that when it comes to mental health and fitness.

It helps to shift your focus to healthy goals you want to pursue, so that also means picking goals that are creative, about building and adding to your life rather than subtracting. What that means is not focusing on a goal like: losing weight. If you focus on weight-loss, you’ll keep losing weight and regaining weight and losing weight and regaining weight. And that makes sense because you’re measuring success by losing weight. So what do you need to be successful? You need more weight so you can lose it.

So be very careful about measuring success based on getting rid of OCD symptoms. If getting rid of them is what you need to be successful, they’ll keep following you around. Instead, I find that it helps to shift the focus to the healthy things you want to do in life. It doesn’t matter what you’re brain is doing because you know you can accept whatever happens up there and focus on actions that align with your values, that help you be healthy and happy in the long-term. What are goals you can pursue connected to the things that make you health and happy? Pick goals that are creative, about building things in life, not about trying to get rid of thoughts or feelings. It’s the difference between somebody that’s focused on losing weight and somebody that’s focused on being able to run faster or further this week than they did last week. The person that focuses on losing weight will keep falling back into their old habits. But the person that focuses on improving their ability to run will be able to keep improving their ability to run for the rest of their life.

OCD isn’t chronic. You can put it behind you. But don’t pick goals that require you to keep it in your life. What are mental health goals you can improve on the rest of your life? What goals are going to help you move far away from OCD?

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