What are some cognitive hacks to interrupt yourself when you can tell you're falling into a borderline obsessive behavior?
October 9, 2012 11:04 AM   Subscribe

What are some cognitive hacks to interrupt yourself when you can tell you're falling into a borderline obsessive behavior?

I'm looking for cognitive hacks that those who suffer from mild OCPD have found work for them to interrupt or head off undesired behaviors.

When you engage in a behavior that goes a little too far, such as trying to do something too perfectly, or research something too deeply, or basically doing anything that you suddenly recognize (with some anxiety) is unnecessary or obsessive—but can't stop because trying to stop increases your anxiety even more—how can you interrupt it? I've read that some people have tricks to head things off. In one example in another AskMeFi thread, someone wrote that they went exercising. That's great, but what I find difficult to understand is how you can interrupt a behavior once it's started. I suspect there are ways, and that people who really suffer from OCPD have found various hacks.

Can anyone share some? Are there resources or compilations of such tricks?
posted by StrawberryPie to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
For breaking bad habits, a lot of people wear a rubber band on their wrist and snap it every time they catch themselves doing the bad thing.

I can't tell if that's the sort of thing you're looking for, though.
posted by phunniemee at 11:16 AM on October 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

1. Recognize that you're involved in the compulsion. ("I'm counting floor tiles.")
2. Acknowledge that you want to stop this behavior. ("I am going to stop counting now.")
3. Replace that behavior with something you've pre-determined you'll do. ("I am going to open my phone and read until the compulsion to count subsides.")
4. Stay with the anxiety this produces and document how intense the anxiety is, but know that this anxiety diminishes with time. ("I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack if I don't start counting again, but I know that I will not.")

It sounds clinical and sterile, but that's because this is a clinical way of looking at emotion-based behavior. I don't know if it suits your situation, but it has worked for me for a lot of my own issues.
posted by xingcat at 11:16 AM on October 9, 2012 [11 favorites]

I've been very impressed with a method that Paul McKenna uses in I Can Make You Thin that gets me to stop obsessing about food.

You do a tapping routine, look up, look down, count to five backwards...it's outlined in his books. What it does is it breaks you out of that cycle.

He uses hypnotism to help reprogram the brain and I really, really like the results. I can only imagine that this technique could be used to disrupt an obsessive episode.

Here's a demonstration from his special.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:22 AM on October 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

I go into obsessive detail about when and how I would have sex with Harrison Ford (or your favorite celebrity of choice). It's amazing how even thinking about sex distracts from everything else.
posted by Melismata at 11:24 AM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

(I'm a heterosexual male and even I would be distracted about thoughts of sex with Harrison Ford).

For me, at least, I have set up, at minimum, 5 different main obsessions (quaintly, people call them "hobbies"). If I ever get too deep or too focused on one, I can switch to another pretty easily.

At some point, my head goes into a holding pattern, where every one of my targeted obsessions seems either equally attractive or unattractive -- those are the points in my day when I can get work done.
posted by thanotopsis at 11:32 AM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you under the care of a therapist or psychiatrist? Did a professional give you this diagnosis?
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:35 AM on October 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

When you recognize the behavior, set it aside for a moment.

-Take a deep breath. Take another one. Pay attention to your breath.

-Try some sort of deep pressure -- if you're in a desk chair, pull up on the arms to push yourself into the chair. If you're in a car, push yourself against your seat by pushing on the steering wheel (if it is safe to do so). If it's socially acceptable to do so, push-ups or pull-ups or some sort of bodyweight exercise. Keep a grip exerciser at your desk to squeeze in your hand.
posted by pie ninja at 11:42 AM on October 9, 2012

Once when I woke up in the middle of the night freaking out about potentially going blind from an eye infection (couldn't sleep before appt), I sorted ALL my coins. Methodical tasks can distract you. Clean apt. Wash dishes. Tire yourself out. But yeah, when I am stuck on ski lifts thinking I may be there forever and freeze to death in the process (and therefore can't do any physical distractors)...yeah, thinking about sex helps too!:) or you can pinch yourself- but that's not really so pleasant!
posted by bquarters at 11:59 AM on October 9, 2012

At the point I recognize that I am doing something obsessive, but realize that stopping it may produce more anxiety, I have to do a find-and-replace. I can say, "I don't HAVE to {count the floor tiles}. But I do have to {wash the dishes}." I've found it impossible to actually stop the behavior without replacing it with something else, but replacing it with something useful and helpful gets me out of the anxiety loop that stopping would otherwise create.

Think today about the things you need to do on a daily or weekly basis. I may need to:
  • Take out the trash, dump the smaller trash cans into the large bin.
  • Walk the dog, brush the cat so she doesn't get hairballs.
  • Wash the dishes, or put the clean dishes in the dishwasher away.
  • Wipe down the countertops with a wet-wipe.
  • Get some fresh air, because it's healthy and I want to be healthy.
  • Balance my checkbook, or pay the household bills online.
  • Put together a meal in the crock pot, or pack the week's lunches.

posted by juniperesque at 1:15 PM on October 9, 2012

For me, OCD-like behavior is generally rooted in fever, allergy, lack of sleep or other physical impairment of my cognitive function. Once I recognized that, it became dramatically easier to interrupt it and do something else.

I have come to recognize it as evidence that I am not right in the head, and that makes it so much easier to refuse to accept that internal voice telling me how really, imperatively important it is, yadda yadda. I now know that when my fever breaks (etc), not only will it not be terribly important, I probably won't really remember it. IF I remember it after I am physically functioning better, then it might merit some attention. Otherwise, time to do something else and not worry about it.
posted by Michele in California at 2:36 PM on October 9, 2012

I suggested a checklist to someone who is OCD. When he reaches the end of the checklist it's okay to move to another activity. That seemed to help a bit. A timer set for 15 to 20 minutes might get him to redirect, too.
posted by dragonplayer at 2:47 PM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mefites, this question is about OCPD, not OCD. A person with OCD already knows that they are being obsessive, OCPD people do not - they think what they are doing is absolutely correct. OP is asking about how he can know he is being obsessive.
posted by Brent Parker at 9:47 PM on October 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi everyone,

Thanks for all the replies so far; I appreciate your time very much.

To avoid some misunderstandings, maybe I should point out that I never said I had OCPD :-). However, the question is in fact motivated by a desire to change my own behaviors and not someone else's. These are behaviors such as sometimes being too focused on solving a problem right now that doesn't need to be solved right then, or doing a deep-diving research expedition for 3 hours on something that ultimately didn't warrant it, if only I could just stop and get perspective for a moment. In my life and in my line of work (academic research and software development) they turn out not to be debilitating, but as I gain more work responsibilities, I have to switch gears more quickly, and the past few decades of letting myself be my uncontrolled self have left me with default behaviors that can get in the way (or so it seems to me). Some research led me to the conclusion that these same behaviors are mild versions of what OCD and OCPD sufferers seem to experience. So that lead to the idea of asking how they cope – maybe I can apply the same tricks to training myself out of my undesired behaviors.

I apologize if I don't have my terminology quite right. I guess I'm still not clear whether I should be asking about OCD versus OCPD. I used the term OCPD because it seemed like that's the one where the subject is behaving in a way the subject thinks is correct, but on the other hand, I can also be aware that I'm doing something I wish I wasn't. (But on the third hand, I can be doing something, then realize after 2 hours that I've spent too much time on it and should stop, and instead I'll press on in an effort to finish it quickly rather than shelve it, despite that my stress level jumped because I know I should have stopped.)

In any case, the suggestions by @pie ninja, @juniperesque and @dragonplayer are great and very actionable, and along the lines of what I was hoping to find.

One thing I have already tried is setting timers, but that often hasn't worked: I just see the timer, turn it off, but sometimes can't convince myself to stop whatever I'm doing. (Maybe that one is just a willpower issue!)

Anyway, thanks again! More ideas are welcome.
posted by StrawberryPie at 12:13 PM on October 11, 2012

I got a timer app that allows me to set multiple alarms & label them. So there's one for "Move On" as well as ones for laundry, make dinner, the dryer & a few others. For some reason I am much better at following through when I read the label than with a sound alarm only.

I definitely need to hit the Move On timer when I'm playing video games or I stay stuck.
posted by dragonplayer at 1:01 PM on October 11, 2012

I fear that my earlier comment about diagnosis came off as curt or accusatory--sorry about that! For perspective, I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist or mental health professional.

By definition, if it were mild, it wouldn't be a personality disorder, it would be a quirk or just a plain old personality. Personality disorders are severe and pervasive.* That's why I was a bit confused.

I'm not talking about your terminology in order to nitpick or criticize you, but because if you're dealing with something that's interfering with your life significantly (and it's hard for me to tell if this is true for you) then it's important that you have a good diagnosis to work with, because the diagnosis often informs the treatment and approach that you take to dealing with the problem.*

If I had to guess at your problem, I would guess that you're very, very smart, you are very interested in your work and well-suited for it, and perhaps that masking the fact that you have mild ADHD. It is actually a disorder that affects the ability for appropriate attentional shifts, keeping people from focusing AND causing them to focus on tasks for a long time despite the fact that they would like to do something else. That means the part of the brain that says "okay, stop reading, you heard the alarm" is weak in people with ADHD.

But ADHD sometimes does come with OCD, or you could not have ADHD at all, and this could be not even a super-significant problem, and I could be talking out of my ass...

If this is really affecting your work, it's worth it to talk to a professional.

(The traditional OTC ADHD tool is caffeiene, by the way, or someone literally being in your face and forcing you to shift your attention).

*I am oversimplifying decades of research and argument and this is by no means as simple as I'm making it sound, but for our purposes this is generally true.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:11 AM on October 12, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for your replies!

@dragonplayer: You have a great idea in displaying a message when a timer goes off instead of simply using the event alone. I've started putting this into practice, giving myself a message ("Is this really that important?") to try to jog me.

@young rope-rider: Thanks, and no offense taken. Those are all excellent points, and you are probably right about this not being really a disorder. It's just that in reviewing my own behavior from the past three or four decades, and comparing that the traits that are ascribed to people who do have OCPD (e.g., in the Wikipedia page), I find recognize in myself an uncomfortably high number of the traits. ADHD is also possible, although my sense is OCPD is closer. I do drink a lot of coffee though :-)
posted by StrawberryPie at 6:26 PM on October 18, 2012

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