Anyone who has ever struggled with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), whether it was short-term or long-term, specific or generalized, included body symptoms or intrusive thoughts, knows that the experience can be extremely scary and unsettling. As much as you might try to get far away from this feeling, it may feel like an ever-present shadow, darkening your mood and your outlook on the future. While the most common instinct is to resist the discomfort by trying to deny, distract, or block out the anxiety, research has consistently demonstrated that thought suppression does not work. In fact, the more effort you make in trying to distance yourself from the anxiety, the greater the boomerang effect the anxious thoughts will take in returning to your consciousness. As counterintuitive as is sounds, you need to allow and even invite your anxiety to be present in order to work through it and overcome it. One method for doing so is to use paradoxical interventions with the help of a mental health professional.
Before we procced, we need a working definition of a paradox. According to Oxford Languages a paradox is “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.” In evidence-based anxiety and OCD treatments such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Exposure and Response Prevention, and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, this paradox means getting closer to the anxiety in order to free yourself from it. To implement a paradoxical intervention, you practice calling up the anxiety, rather than waiting for it to blindside you. In essence, you are saying that you want to feel anxious and by choosing to initiate the anxiety, you are able to practice gaining management over it. One way of using paradoxical techniques to overcome anxiety, is to try to find humor in the worry or feared outcome. When you are in the throes of anxiety, this may seem like a very difficult feat! Your fear of being anxious and out of control may feel like a gigantic obstacle to utilizing this technique. However, if you can find humor in your worry, you are in essence, taking the wind out of anxiety’s sails. Research has consistently shown that humor can decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression and can also serve as a protective factor against experiencing such symptoms in the future. Often, people feel so overwhelmed by their anxieties that they become fused with them and begin to believe that they are true or inevitable. This emotional reasoning can prevent individuals from accessing their ability to rationalize and reason their way out of their fears. Anxiety and OCD can be very tricky this way — for every logical point you make against our worries, there seems to be a “What if….” response that takes its place. While many people will try to “out-logic” their anxiety, this will generally lead them to become exhausted and feel overwhelmed by trying to maintain their short-lived relief.
I am a big believer in using metaphors and media clips to illustrate ideas and make a more impressionable rationale for using techniques, particularly paradoxical techniques, since these interventions seem contrary to common sense. There is a scene in the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that demonstrates the paradoxical technique of using humor in the face of fear. Please watch the clip below before continuing on.
Much like the boggart creature in the clip, anxiety can be a shape-shifter. It presents differently for everyone, but with the common theme of focusing on those triggers that each individual finds most distressing and consequential. This theme is why anxiety seems so powerful and difficult to overcome. Feeling distressed and intimidated makes people respond to their worries with grave seriousness and fear. Humor evokes the opposite effect by diffusing the tension. Humor has also been proven to boost mood, strengthen your immune system, and relieve both physical and emotional pain. What is important to note is that it is not the trigger that is the culprit of your discomfort, but rather, it is your reaction to the trigger. Sometimes this can feel like a blurry boundary and may feel quite challenging to discern. Ultimately, the less tightly you grasp onto your worries and the less you deem them to be significant, the better you can disengage from them. Humor, as paradoxical as it seems, can be an asset to promoting disengagement from anxiety. Examples may include repeating your intrusive thoughts in your mind in a cartoon character’s voice, such as Mickey Mouse, envisioning a pedestrian hit by your car being flattened like a pancake to the ground and then popping up fully formed without a scratch on them, or visualizing your pounding heart bursting into hundreds of tiny confetti hearts. The more you can exaggerate the fear, the better you will be able to see it as outlandish and excessive, which will dampen your belief in both its seriousness and its perceived inevitability. In facing your fears, you can begin to decrease your reactivity to them and thereby reduce their credibility and impact on your life.
Paradoxical interventions, are not one-size-fits-all, nor are they stand-alone techniques, but rather they may be utilized in conjunction with a host of other strategies implemented during the course of evidence-based treatments. They are one of many tools that the expertly-trained mental health professionals at The OCD & Anxiety Center will help you to learn and implement in order to conquer your OCD and anxiety. To begin your treatment process, please contact our office at (630) 522-3124.