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Unmasking Fear's Disguises

Halloween is a time of year when people often decide to put on a horror film and trigger some feelings of fear. If you live with OCD or anxiety, your brain probably already does that for you. Unsettling obsessions or worries can be as haunting as any movie monster, making you feel helpless and urging you to run away.

Confronting and accepting fears is key to overcoming these challenges (this is called exposure and response prevention; ERP). Just like watching a scary movie over and over, you learn you can handle them and discover that they do not accurately reflect reality. As a result, with practice, they gradually lose their grip on your emotions and behavior.

But because fear's purpose is protection, it often finds new ways to fuel your avoidance, leading to fresh obsessions and worries. Feeling urgent and distinct, your experience facing past fears doesn't seem to apply and you can get sucked back into the unhelpful cycles that perpetuate your difficulties.

This pattern can be demoralizing. Just as you make headway, a new thought sets you back and makes it seem like escaping OCD or anxiety is impossible.

For example, maybe you've been facing a fear that you will become sick. Through ERP, you've gotten yourself back to social events and reduced excess handwashing. Suddenly your brain suggests that germs might also spread via your clothes and since you've brought them into your home the threat suddenly feels overwhelming. With this fresh fear, your anxiety spikes, you cancel your upcoming social plans and turn back to washing to try to eliminate the risk.

While there may be distinct elements to new thoughts, when we look closer, we often discover that they lead back to the same underlying fears. The outer appearance has changed, but the core issue remains the same.

Awareness of this can help us unmask these thoughts. In doing so, we step back from their immediacy and recognize them as part of an unhelpful pattern. This allows us to draw on our past successes and focus towards our goals once again.

Germs spreading via clothing still reflects concerns about illness. If you accept that threat and recall how you've successfully tolerated it in other circumstances, you can understand that this is a new opportunity to do so again: you resist the urge to turn your life upside down for this thought and stick to your social plans as intended.

As you work on reducing the extent to which OCD and anxiety control your life, encourage your inner detective, who is wary of sudden shifts in the content of anxious thoughts and committed to unmasking and confronting the fear.


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