Friday, July 19, 2013

OCD and The Layers of Fear

People can exist under several layers of fear, some of which they don't realize. The top layer of fear is experienced by all, this is collective fear, which is the fear that entire societies have. There is no mystery to this- It consists of anxiety about another terrorist attack, political upheaval, weather disaster, etc. We have all experienced this. Do you remember 9/11 or the last tornado, tsunami  or hurricane warning? 

Then, there is conscious anxiety, fear for personal safety or safety of a loved one. Many people are also aware that they suffer from these- fear of illness, divorce, bankruptcy, or any other event which directly impacts a person's life. We can add our phobias to this also- fear of heights, closed spaces, spiders, snakes, etc. Even though we are aware of these, many people have no idea where they come from.

All to often, lurking under all of this, is emotional and subconscious anxiety. These fears often get buried in the far off recesses of the mind. Events can become distorted and fear develops. Here is where we can say fear is "False Evidence Appearing Real"! This type of anxiety is usually suppressed and rooted in childhood. It consists of actions and influences from other people, events, things that we have  absorbed from  the environment, any fears passed down through generations. 

Some  people claim that there is also spiritual anxiety, which is directly related to our karma and the condition of our souls, fears brought into this lifetime from a past life.  I can understand this, but also realize these may be personal and religious beliefs, so I won't go into detail here.

Wow, that is a lot of stuff to be going on, enough to make one paralyzed in layers of fear! This can be how OCD develops, as a "remedy" to lessen our fear with the erroneous belief that a ritual can stop our feared event from happening. And its not only OCD, fear is responsible for a wide variety of mental disorders. 

What can be done about it? The first thing would be to understand our fear logically instead of letting it envelop us. Thinking of fear usually enhances fear, but if we can attempt to do this calmly and consciously, the layers and sources of fear may become apparent.  Sit quietly and in your mind's  eye go back to your childhood, reflect on yourself as a child, see yourself feeling anxious and try to remember what caused it.  Once you identify the source of it, you can try to find out how to deal with it. An event from childhood may have repercussions you are not aware of. This realization in itself can be very helpful for self understanding and awareness.  It can teach you to identify all the other sources of your fears, and see how irrational they can be- the formula is the same. Once you see the layers, you can begin to unravel them, one layer at a time. This knowledge can also help you to not telegraph your fears onto others. This has helped me a lot.

 When I was very young, a plane crashed about 2 blocks from our house. I remember the sound of the plane descending and then the crash, it was the loudest thing I ever heard. Many people were killed and the neighborhood was in total chaos. I knew that my fear of low-flying planes was born then, but what I did not realize until much later on was that I also developed separation anxiety from the event. For years I feared that if my parents went out together something terrible would happen to them. My fears escalated to include other people and I became afraid of many unrelated things and developed OCD rituals for safety. Much of my early life was lived in terror, not realizing that the plane crash was the catalyst of all these fears. 

I found a very interesting article that written by Rachel Waxman, titled, "The Layer Cake of Anxiety." It is about parenting, but it explains my point...
"When I brought my small son to preschool this morning and he clung to me as I said goodbye, I started worrying that perhaps he was having a hard time adjusting to preschool...Was I letting my own irrational anxiety show? Maybe, I thought, my son was noticing subtle signs of my tension and he was becoming more anxious and clingy as a result. Oh, no! Maybe I was making my son have trouble adjusting to preschool. Now that would really be something to worry about!

That kind of catastrophizing about my own emotions is a distinctly human trait. People have a beautiful capacity for self-reflection, which enables us to set personal goals and plan how to achieve them, recognize and correct our errors, and build a more meaningful future. However, we can also turn our self-reflective ability against ourselves. This often happens in the case of negative emotions. We might observe ourselves feeling upset, and react to that observation by intensifying the emotion. It is fairly common for people to feel depressed about their depression, angry about their anger, or as in my case, anxious about their anxiety. And it needn’t stop there! Imagine recognizing that you are anxious about anxiety and then thinking, “Uh, oh, maybe this means I’ll never break free of the anxiety cycle!” That thought frees you up to worry about all the potential consequences of your future anxiety. A truly determined worrywart can keep layering new cognitions on top of old fears indefinitely, building an anxiety structure as complex as a wedding cake (but much less palatable).

Fortunately, we can bring that same self-reflective capacity to our rescue. For instance, when I found myself catasrophizing about my maternal anxiety, I took a step back and noticed the absurdity of the whole thing, which helped me cut the cycle short. I also noticed something else: the fact that I have a tendency to worry easily, especially about the welfare of my children. But this reflection didn’t make me worry at all. Instead, I found it encouraging to recognize my own predisposition, because I can use that self-awareness to evaluate and de-fuse future anxiety experiences. Although many of us have certain emotions that come to us easily, acknowledging our own emotional habits may help us respond to our layered thoughts a little more realistically and thereby introduce a new, more pleasant flavor into our mental experience."

I truly hope that by calm self-reflection people will be able to realize the beginnings of their fear-inducing thought patterns and begin to peel away their layers of fear. Self knowledge is a very powerful thing!