Have you ever been in a shootout?
Nope? Me, neither.
But this week, I spoke with someone in law enforcement who told me about a recent shootout. He described a high speed chase, gunfire, shattered glass, and all kinds of things that I found rather terrifying.
When I asked him how he felt during the experience, he told me this (I paraphrase): “When you’re being shot at, or when you’re chasing a car at 130 miles per hour, it feels like a really long time–but then you check the video afterwards and it’s only a few moments. It’s very intense, and incredible how much information can pass through your mind in a single second. At one point, I lost some of the sensation in my outer limbs, but I was able to keep myself together well enough to do what needed to be done in the moment without reacting impulsively.”
In this post, I’d like to draw inspiration from this individual and talk about how to stay calm when we’re in an OCD spiral.
When we’re in the thick of our anxiety, it can sometimes feel like a life-or-death shootout. We can even get physical sensations, like numbness, pain, or the OCD “buzz,” where it feels like every brain cell is vibrating. Can we learn how to stay calm and “do what needs to be done in the moment?”
I believe we can, and I’d like to share a few things that can help. Let’s look at 3 techniques for staying calm when you’re in an OCD spiral.
How to Stay Calm: Glamorize the Moment
This is an effective technique to use when you’re anxious and have that restless, obsessive feeling that you want to DO something to fix your feelings.
Learning how to stay calm in these moments doesn’t need to be hard or complicated. We can begin fostering calmness as we develop a skill that I call “glamorizing the moment.”
It has a lot to do with Christian mindfulness, if you’re familiar with that.
Wherever you are, and whatever is happening, begin searching your immediate surroundings for the gold nuggets and diamonds hiding all around you. Search carefully, because I guarantee you have things and people of worth nearby. These gems are things that give you a sense of joy or gratitude.
Some of the gems you might collect would be your family members, the job you love (most days), or that amazingly crunchy apply you had after lunch. It might be the pretty new set of dish towels, the way your freshly-waxed car is gleaming in the sun, or the amazing sunset.
What Does the Bible Say About Being Present in the Moment?
Most of us spend 90% of our time trying to fix our problems and 10% of our time living in the moment to enjoy what God has already given us. And yet, gratitude is a window to greater joy and peace. The Apostle Paul wrote,
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:6-7
Now, don’t get scared by the fact that Paul tells us not to be anxious. If you’re anxious, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad or sinful person–it just means you have room to grow, like all of us! God’s ultimate goal is for us to be anxiety-free, but this is a learning process that takes time.
What I’d like you to notice from this passage is that we first experience prayer and thanksgiving, and then there is the experience of peace. This is why gratitude and being present in the moment is so precious. Only when we are present can we truly be thankful for the diamonds and gold strewn across our earthly pathway.
As we stand in awe of the current blessings in life, we become aware of God’s presence.
Notice that Paul says that God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds. This word–guard— is the same word that would be used if a platoon of soldiers were sent to surround and watch something. Wouldn’t you sleep well at night if you knew your home was guarded by hundreds of soldiers?
God’s peace guards our hearts and minds. It is protective.
God’s peace comes through Jesus Christ. It is personal.
And God’s peace comes through thanksgiving. Therefore, it is something each of us can do, because we all have things we can be thankful for.
How I “Glamorize the Moment”
Let me give you an example of how I try to make “gratitude” practical (of course, I don’t always do this perfectly, but we’re all learning!)
A few days ago, my husband and I were heading to bed. I was having the anxious buzz (I think most readers of this blog know what that’s like). I’d had an unusually “down” day compared to my norm. We slipped into bed, said our goodnights, and turned the lights out. As I lay there, I knew a few things I didn’t want to do:
- I didn’t want to engage with my thoughts, because that would give life and vigor to them.
- I didn’t want to think about “what’s wrong with me,” because I already know there’s nothing mortally wrong with me; I’m imperfect like everyone else and I don’t need to think too much about my mental health status. Everyone has “throwaway” days, and it’s not necessary to overanalyze them when they happen.
- I didn’t want to get into any compulsive rituals like repeating prayers or mantra verses, because tinkering with our emotions doesn’t work and only makes the situation worse.
With this in mind, I wondered how long I’d need to ride out the emotions before I could fall blissfully asleep.
I sighed in the dark.
Then I felt my husband’s foot slide over against mine. “Are you ok?” He asked quietly.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, I’m fine,” I replied. And here was something useful to think about.
In my mind’s eye, I pictured our little bedroom like a storybook setting. One by one, I gathered all the little gems around me until it seemed glorious.
- A warm bed with cozy flannel sheets
- The calming sound of crickets chirping outside
- Full stomachs and good health
- The snuggly smell of fabric softener on the pillowcase
- A spouse whose last words of the day are not, “don’t forget to do such-and-such tomorrow,” but a calming, unspoken affirmation that if I need something, he’s there for me.
It suddenly seemed like a picture-perfect moment. If I could illustrate all these simple blessings in a glamorous Instagram picture, I’m sure some would be envious. No, we don’t own a home or drive a Tesla or have a beach condo in Miami. But we have little blessings that are worth the world if only we hold them in our hands and look at how the light glistens upon them.
Gratitude. This is how to stay calm. With those thoughts in my mind, I drifted off peacefully to sleep.
You can do this, too. Simply collect the blessings in your moment (not future or past blessings–focus on what’s around you right now) and create a composite Instagram picture in your mind.
If you think hard and can’t come up with much, try to think about what life would be like if you didn’t have certain things. What if you didn’t own a toothbrush? What if you only had one leg? What if you had no gas or electricity or running water in your house?
Oh, yes–now you can start to think of things that bring you joy. What joy to be able to walk down the street on two healthy legs!
And if you really can’t think of anything to be grateful about, you can still glamorize the moment by painting yourself as a struggling hero in your mind. Imagine the theme music while you visualize yourself and Jesus barreling through life’s toughest moments together.
You see, even in the murkiest moments, you’re never a victim. You’re victorious in Christ.
Even if you’re single, jobless, and life is such a mess that you can’t even see the top of your dining room table (or maybe you don’t even have a table) you still have gems strewn somewhere across your pathway.
There is always, always something to be thankful for–and this is one of the biggest keys to helping us learn how to stay calm when we’re in an OCD spiral.
How to Stay Calm: Recognize God’s Work in You
I’m going to make a very bold claim.
There is nothing–NOTHING–that can happen in your life that is for your detriment.
Now, this is not the most sensitive topic to bring up at a funeral. I get it. Nobody wants to be told in their moment of pain and crisis that “this is for your best good.”
But it really is true.
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.Romans 8:28
If the Bible says “all things,” it really means ALL THINGS.
Your season of singleness is working for your good. Your job loss is working for your good. Your friction with your spouse is working for your good. Your OCD is working for your good.
All things are God’s mysterious tools to bring greater good, happiness, and blessing to our lives.
Someone once said that God always gives us what we would ask for if we could see what He knows. The second principle, then, for how to stay calm when we’re in an OCD spiral is to recognize God’s work in us–in, through, and despite the trials we face.
How to Recognize God’s Work in My Trials
Recognizing God’s purpose in our tough moments isn’t easy. It does require a certain amount of “letting go” and humility. We have, first of all, to let go of our sense of being in control of our own narrative. And we also need the humility to recognize that God’s plans are higher than our own plans.
(And for those of you whose religious obsessions make you feel like you need to give up God’s good gifts, let’s remember that our OCD and intrusive thoughts are not a good indicator of His true plans for us. So–I’m not talking to those of you who have a compulsion for letting go of, like, everything.)
I love this passage from Isaiah 49 where God talks about his purposes for His suffering Servant. This is a Messianic prophecy about Jesus, but we can extract some principles for how God deals with us, as well.
Pay attention to the beautiful way that God speaks of His Servant like a secret, hidden weapon, one who achieves great things through His suffering.
“Listen, O coastlands, to Me,
And take heed, you peoples from afar!
The Lord has called Me from the womb;
From the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name.
And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword;
In the shadow of His hand He has hidden Me,
And made Me a polished shaft;
In His quiver He has hidden Me.”
“And He said to me,
‘You are My servant, O Israel,
In whom I will be glorified.’
Then I said, ‘I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain;
Yet surely my just reward is with the Lord,
And my work with my God.’ ”
“And now the Lord says,Isaiah 49:1-6
Who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant,
To bring Jacob back to Him,
So that Israel is gathered to Him
(For I shall be glorious in the eyes of the Lord,
And My God shall be My strength),
Indeed He says,
‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob,
And to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles,
That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ”
Did you notice how the suffering Servant endures unanswered questions and discouragement? Look at how he thinks to Himself, “all my suffering is in vain!” and yet, it is not.
God is working out a glorious purpose in your life–even in your dark valleys.
Remembering this great truth can help us learn how to stay calm when everything seems to pile in upon us.
How to Stay Calm: A Story of Recognizing God’s Work in Our Difficulties
The application of this principle is very simple and soothing. It is a constant recognition that nothing truly negative can ever happen to me. This is how to stay calm and trusting.
Death, injury, loss, conflict, sorrow–all these things are unpleasant, but they are not negative in an absolute sense.
There’s a story of an old man who lived in a poor village. One day, his one and only horse ran away. The villagers came to sympathize. They told him, “Oh, you poor man! What a tragedy that your horse ran away!”
The old man told them, “I do not say that it is bad. All I can say is that it is part of God’s plan.”
The villagers laughed. “God’s plan? How can it be God’s plan that your horse ran away? You are crazy, old man!” And they left.
Several weeks later, however, the man’s horse returned–and he brought a dozen wild horses with him!
The villagers came to call again. “What a blessing!” They exclaimed. “Maybe you were right. Maybe this was God’s plan!”
The old man smiled. “I am very happy today,” he said. “This is a pleasant page in the book that God is writing.”
Several weeks went by. The old man had one son, who began to break the wild horses. One day, as he rode upon a half-trained horse, he was thrown off and broke his leg.
Once again, the villagers came to visit. “What a tragedy!” They exclaimed. “Now your only son is laid up with a broken leg. He cannot help you train the horses or bring in your harvest! Maybe this really was a curse, after all!”
The old man was quiet. “I do not say that this is bad,” he replied. “All I can say is that it is part of God’s plan.”
Several weeks passed as the son began healing. At that time, the small nation went to war, and all the young men of the village were drafted. However, the poor man’s son was not enlisted because of his broken leg.
The villagers returned again, weeping and wailing. “Now we understand what you mean about God’s plan,” the old mothers cried. “Perhaps we shall never see our sons again, but yours will always remain with you!”
The old man shook his head. “You still do not understand,” he said. “You look on externals and say what is good and what is bad. But for God’s people, everything is always good. A happy day is when I can see the goodness–but the good is always working, whether I see it or not.”
The question of how to stay calm in our difficulties and anxieties is in part answered by the recognition that God is always, always working. No loss is ever a true loss. If we would remember this, it would be a soothing balm to our hearts.
How to Stay Calm: Engage in Self-Care
One of the best ways to calm down from an obsessive spiral is to invest in self-care. This, of course, looks slightly different for everyone.
If you’ve not thought much about self-care (I’m talking to you, men), believe me when I say this is important for managing anxiety.
Self-care is not about strolling through Marshall’s to touch fuzzy throw blankets and sniff scented candles before getting a pedicure. That’s nice if it’s your thing, but I feel like the idea of self-care has been overly feminized due to the immense volume of mommy-bloggers writing about this topic.
But let’s be honest: men and women both need self-care, particularly when we struggle with how to stay calm in whatever mess-of-the-day we’re facing.
And, lest you feel undeserving of self-care (a common point of resistance among individuals with religious OCD) let me share a verse that is pertinent to this point.
And He said to them [His disciples], “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.Mark 6:31
Jesus is not a slavedriver. He never works us to the bone–though our own perfectionism can do that to us. Let’s remember that when we’re anxious and stressed out, it’s not Jesus doing that to us. He calls us aside when we need a break. He gives us rest.
I also love the imagery that Jacob uses when he speaks about leading his flock and family.
In Genesis 33, Jacob has just met up with his formerly-bloodthirsty brother, Esau, and they’ve made peace with each other. Esau has offered to have his soldiers go with Jacob’s flock and family to offer protection, but Jacob worries that the tough soldiers will not have the care and tenderness needed for a flock with young lambs and children.
But Jacob said to him [Esau], “My lord knows that the children are weak, and the flocks and herds which are nursing are with me. And if the men should drive them hard one day, all the flock will die. Please let my lord go on ahead before his servant. I will lead on slowly at a pace which the livestock that go before me, and the children, are able to endure, until I come to my lord in Seir.”Genesis 33:13-14
My mind immediately translates this into “Good Shepherd” terminology. This is how my Shepherd leads me. He doesn’t “drive” me, He leads on slowly. I love it even better in the old King James Version, where it says he will “lead on softly.”
Would Jesus approve of self-care? Absolutely.
It’s a reasonable, rational way for us to learn how to stay calm and carry on.
Planning Your Self-Care Strategy
There are two main branches of self-care:
- Self-care for the extroverts
- Self-care for the introverts
Your path to establishing a calm baseline is going to depend on your personality type. In general, extroverts tend to gain a sense of well-being from moments of connectivity. This does not need to mean “wild partying,” but rather planning regular moments to recharge with others. The self-care type of connectivity will look for calming activities that can be done with your tribe.
- Eating out with a loved one
- Going to the gym or fitness class with a friend
- Switching off your phone and taking the kids to a zoo or aquarium
- Working on a low-key building project with your dad, uncle, brother, etc.
- Taking a walk in the park with your dog or loved one
- Building a backyard bonfire and roasting marshmallows with the kids
- Taking your child fishing
- Getting a massage
- Lounging in a hammock and talking about everything and nothing with your spouse
- Just “hanging out” with friends and family without any particular agenda
Self-care for introverts will typically involve solitude. It’s not that introverts are loners, but they do tend to need quiet moments of aloneness to fully recharge. This can be difficult or a bit more complicated if you’re married or have children, but it’s still doable. Introvert self-care strategies may look like:
- Reading a book or working on a puzzle
- Taking a quiet walk in the park with a dog or alone
- Spending an afternoon at the library, park, or just in your bedroom
- Writing a poem, song, or memoir
- Working out alone
- Pursuing a hobby
- Making something with your hands–cooking, building, sewing, landscaping, etc.
- Listening to a podcast or music playlist
- Bath bombs, pedicures, facials, etc.
- Cleaning the house (yes, this can be self-care for some people who feel calm in organized settings!)
- Quiet outdoor activities like birdwatching, photography, fishing, hiking, kayaking, foraging, or gardening
Whether you are an extrovert, introvert, or switch-trovert, it’s important to recognize that rest and rejuvenation are important factors for learning how to stay calm in an OCD spiral. Try to plan a strategy that will give you regular moments throughout the day and week to recharge.
Troubleshooting the Non-Self-Carers
Why do some people with high levels of anxiety fail to implement regular self-care practices? There can be a few reasons.
When it comes to scrupulosity, one reason can be spiritual objections. I hope I have at least partially answered some of these above when I referred to Genesis 33 and Mark 6. It is Biblical to rest. If you have any further questions about that, just check out the fourth commandment. It’s the only commandment that begins with the word “remember.” Why? Because we so often forget to rest!
Chances are, if I ask you right now, “do you have an intentional strategy for implementing regular self-care in your weekly schedule?” Most people would say no.
Rest and self-care usually happen by chance, or when they happen to be convenient. It’s not something we prioritize. So, naturally, in our overworked and overwhelmed and overly-anxious state we descend into a place where we’re dancing on the edge of a shattered nervous system. We live a highly artificial, fluorescent, indoor life where we work like crazy and spend our downtime scrolling through pictures of everyone else’s curated, photoshopped lives.
No wonder we’re anxious.
Certainly, self-care isn’t the answer to all our nervous ills, but it’s a huge piece of the pie. If we ask how to stay calm in today’s world, we need to be more intentional than ever.
We need to go so far as planning sanity structures into our schedule.
Some people don’t care for themselves very well because they can’t figure out the logistics of how to do that. They’ve got four kids climbing the curtains and one baby spitting up on their shoulder. There’s laundry that needed to be folded three days ago and the dishwasher just broke.
This is a logistical problem.
Others don’t care for themselves very well because they have longstanding insecurities about themselves. Maybe they grew up with authoritarian parents or experience abuse at a young age. They don’t feel worthy of self-care. Running themselves ragged is almost a form of self-harm, and it’s all they know. They have not yet formed a working blueprint for how to feel good without feeling guilty at the same time.
This is a self-image problem.
Some people don’t care for themselves very well because they believe God is only pleased with them when they work, work, work. They have a mental image of a God who places impossible demands on them. They would relax if they could, but they are filled with guilt every time they try. Even though they’ve read passages that seem to justify health and rest, they can’t seem to get past the “what ifs” every time they try to care for their needs.
This is a scrupulosity problem.
And lastly, some people don’t care for themselves very well because they’re surrounded by toxic people who have a long history of manipulating them for their own purposes. In codependent relationships, these are the people who give of themselves until they bleed, because they don’t yet know how to draw healthy boundaries for themselves.
This is a codependency problem.
The good news is that all these problems can be solved. None are permanent. If you have a logistical problem, it can be sorted out by finding extra help from your tribe or church family. If you have a self-image problem, now is the time to work through that and clean out the closet. If you have a scrupulosity problem, get signed up with an OCD specialist in your area (or join our group coaching session every week on Sunday evening or Wednesday afternoon). And if you have a codependency problem, start reading up on boundaries (here’s a good one to get you started).
How I Do Self-Care
I’m an introvert (meaning I need “alone” time to recharge) and I’m an HSP (meaning I need more time than most people to draw back from stimulation). So the way I do self-care will be different than many others, but I do it–regularly.
I consider this a great victory, because one of my biggest OCD problems was a work/ministry compulsion that never allowed me to rest. Thus, the fact that I can regularly include elements of self-care into my life is a sign that even our biggest compulsions can eventually turn into valued, post-scrupulous rituals that enrich our lives.
As I’ve spoken about elsewhere on the blog, an important aspect to my self-care is Sabbath. Weekly Sabbath rest is extremely important to me. I typically (but not always) shut off my phone and emails on this day. I don’t clean my house or do yard work. It’s a full day of worship, family time, and outdoor enjoyment.
During the week, I also plan about an hour per day of quiet time. I typically crochet, work on a puzzle, or watch something on YouTube.
Another important aspect of my self-care prioritization is not necessary what I do, but what I don’t do.
I don’t do everything people ask me to do.
Learning boundaries has helped me prevent the overwhelm that leads to anxiety that leads to an OCD spiral. I say no when I need to say no. I say it nicely, but firmly.
“I’m so sorry, I wish I could help you more with the VBS program, but all I’m able to do is one evening this week.”
“I understand you’re looking for an editor that has my qualifications, and sure, it would be nice to work for a family friend, but I can’t help right now…No, I’m sorry, not even part-time…No, actually, I’m not available to do hourly work. My schedule is full, so I’m going to have to say no.”
One of the most important ways I care for myself and create a low-anxiety setting is by saying “no” to the things that I know will overwhelm and overburden me.
Pulling It All Together
To answer our question about how to stay calm in our most insane OCD moments, we need to begin fostering a few positive traits. No, we don’t want to tinker and argue with our obsessions and intrusive thoughts. We don’t want to sit and pick apart “what’s wrong with me?!” (Because nothing is wrong with you.)
However, we don’t want to leave ourselves in a vacuum of doing absolutely nothing to avert the OCD spiral. Because there are helpful strategies that can mitigate that uncomfortable pigsty of emotions.
In this article, we talked first of all about gratitude.
We can learn to “glamorize” every moment to foster a sense of thankfulness. This is simple and does not take too much practice to implement, but if done consistently over several months will begin to be an automatic response. It also does not need to be fake or forced. If you don’t find many gems on your pathway, just place yourself in the explorer role and thank God for the gems you’re about to find.
That brings us to our next point. We spoke about trusting God’s ultimate plans that cannot be derailed.
No, you’re not going to “miss the bus” or ruin His plans for you. He has already calculated every move you could ever possibly make. He knows your confusion and fear, and has factored that into your narrative. He is for you, not against you. Nothing that happens to you is ever a true loss. You are under His supreme protection–and as we think this thought, it brings peace.
Yes, He is even protecting you from the things you fear most (loss of salvation, blasphemy, disobedience, etc.). You do not need to fear for your future because He is working out all things for your good. As we think these thoughts, our obsessions begin to lose their power. Sometimes we can completely avert the OCD spiral at its outset–not by arguing with the thoughts and trying to prove to ourselves that they’re “wrong” or “not ours,” but by recognizing that our messy, OCD self is in God’s hand, and He’s taking care of us.
Lastly, we spoke about self-care as a way how to stay calm in an OCD spiral.
Self-care can help us to set a regular, balanced emotional baseline. Being constantly strung out on too many commitments is a surefire way to have more OCD spirals. Stay healthy-busy but not insanity-busy. Know yourself and know why it’s hard for you to care for yourself properly. Learn better ways to compensate for the weaknesses you may have grown up with or developed inadvertently. As you establish appropriate boundaries and prioritize self-care, you’ll most likely see your OCD spirals diminish.
What about you?
What have you found that helped you move quickly through an OCD spike, staying calm and composed, without reacting to the unwanted thoughts? Can you recommend any other tips on how to stay calm when the OCD hits?
Let us know in the comments below.
So glad to be on this journey together with each of you. May God bless you as you keep making baby steps forward.