Thoughts and Attitudes Can Cause Relapse

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist

This is the last article in a series of eight on obsessive compulsive disorder.

Let's suppose your dream is to reach the crest of Mount Everest.  One day, after much effort you finally do get to the top.  But, are you prepared for what happens then?  Bone-chilling cold makes it impossible to spend a night there; there is no facility to cook your meals, and the air may be too thin to breathe. If you had not planned well in advance, you might start thinking of coming down even before you got there.  As the saying goes, "It's lonely at the top."

The land of recovery from an emotional illness may not be quite as foreign and unfamiliar as Mount Everest, but it is still an entirely new world.  When you are symptom-free, you will have to play the game with a different set of rules, with a different team of players and you may have to acquire newer skills and attitudes to stay in the field.  Therefore, "plan and prepare" is the motto of relapse prevention.

For example, if you are trying to lose weight, you work on developing a taste for healthy and wholesome food, a routine for exercise, and activities for leisure time.  But if you don't plan what you are going to do after you stop dieting, chances are you will go right back to the weight you had before.  Likewise, if you are trying to overcome alcohol addiction, you find ways of socializing with sober friends, start going to AA meetings and have a game plan for parties and social occasions, so you don't succumb to drinking.  If you don't plan what you are going to do after you sober up, you are going to relapse and perhaps become even more dependent on a substance than ever before.

Likewise, people with obsessive compulsive disorder have to decide beforehand what they are going to do with the hands they won't be washing repeatedly and what they will be doing with their minds when they  won't be thinking obsessional thoughts over and over again.

If old attitudes and patterns of thinking don't change, they can instigate obsessions and compulsions.  One of these attitudes is perfectionism.  The idea that one should make everything perfect and feel useless and guilty when one can't is a guaranteed formula for a lifetime dissatisfaction.  Perfectionists think they can be perfect if they would only try harder.  That idea is totally imperfect.  They lose the battle even before they begin.  We, therefore, have to learn to say "yes" to excellence, but "no" to perfectionism.  

A second attitude is that we can completely control our environment.  The need to control everyone around you and put everything in exact order as you want it can keep you constantly tense.  Similarly, the resolve to take uncertainty totally out of your life can make your life very constricted.  Excessive fear of making mistakes or of doing something wrong can freeze opportunities.  If opportunity knocks on the door and you don't answer the door for anyone who looks like a stranger, you might fail to answer the call of Miss Opportunity.  As someone said, the advice to "live safely" may be the most dangerous advice!  Aversion to risk-taking can hinder growth and make on excessively cautions and restricted.

It is also an unworkable idea to check everything in an effort to keep one's life in order and thus avoid all problems in the future.  You will occasionally stumble and fall, and from those mistakes and failures, you will hopefully figure out how to succeed on your path.  Do successful people fail?  People whom we all look at as "successful people" have had far more failures than an average person.  But just as they have more failures, they have more successes as well.  If John takes a thousand shots at something, and Jack takes only a couple of shots at it before he throws in the towel, you don't have to be an Einstein to predict that John will have far more "misses" and far more "hits" than Jack will.  An attitude of calculated risk-taking and acceptance of failures as opportunities for growth makes one, as a person, more open and flexible.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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