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Stress and OCD 

 October 22, 2020

By  Jaimie Eckert

In this article: follow along as I share a detailed and intimate case study of stress and OCD— my own. Let me walk you through the process of how stress activates my obsessive-compulsive tendencies and how I deal with it. I’ll share with you:

  • Connections between stress and OCD
  • How I walk myself through CBT and ERP
  • Biblical truths I cling to when my OCD makes me feel out of control

Everyone’s journey with OCD is a work in progress, and I certainly don’t get everything right along the way. But I hope that by sharing some of my own struggles and victories, I can encourage others who are leaning hard into treatment.

Stress and OCD: What’s the Connection?

Stress? Oh, yes. I can tell you a bit about that.

For the last 7 years, I’ve lived in Beirut. I have a lot of good memories, but there’s also an incredible amount of stress — the traffic, the constant political upheaval, the propensity to take advantage of foreigners, the economic strain, and the fallout effects from the Beirut blast in August.

I’m also in the latter stages of earning a PhD, which comes with unique academic stressors, expectations, and deadlines.

And now my husband and I are in the process of moving back to the United States. So that’s another check mark for life stressors. (Take this stress inventory to rate yourself!)

Life’s complexities, added up, can have consequences for our mental health. Psychologist Jordan Peterson believes that at the root of almost all mental health illnesses is stress — layer upon layer — which causes us to “blow out” at our weakest point, typically at whatever biological predisposition we have (OCD, depression, anxiety, etc.).

Stress doesn’t cause OCD, but it can worsen the symptoms.

But not a lot has been said about why that is the case. However, when we understand the three  big lies of scrupulosity, the connection between stress and OCD becomes clearer. Just for review, what are the three big lies that keep us stuck on the obsessive-compulsive rat wheel? They are:

  1. Doubt/Uncertainty is intolerable
  2. All guilt is true guilt
  3. I must always be in control

At some level, scrupulous sufferers buy deeply into one or more of these lies (typically all three, but sometimes only one or two). Put simply, obsessive compulsive disorder is an attempt to placate these underlying beliefs.

And then, along come those major life stressors. Stress reaches in and jams the gears on two of these beliefs — no. 1 and no. 3. Stress brings uncertainty, and stress brings a feeling like we are out of control.

The result is that our “blowout point” receives more pressure than normal, and our symptoms increase.

How I Manage My Stress and OCD with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

When we have times of high stress in life and our OCD symptoms increase, we can react in one of three ways:

  1. Wallow in self-pity (“life is so unfair!”)
  2. Sink into unhealthy escape mechanisms (“I can’t deal with this.”)
  3. Use the stress as a catalyst for growth (“I will make it through this!”)

Clearly, the most mature and helpful response is to wield our struggles as a catalyst for growth. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy…

Sometimes I cycle through all three of the above — even in the same day! But I do believe my success in overcoming OCD is directly proportionate to the emphasis I place on growth. If we truly believe that God is in control of our lives, we can also believe that He is able to turn our pain into progress.

Self-pity and escapism are easy pits to fall into, but when I realize I’ve slipped inside, I try to get back up as soon as possible and keep going. Let me give you a few examples of how I face the challenges of increased stress and OCD and turn it into an opportunity for growth.

Stress and OCD is a catalyst for growth

The Misbehaving Brain: How I Do CBT on Myself

My husband (who is German) comes from a large family. He has two sisters and three brothers, and before we move back to the US we are trying to visit as many family members as possible. Right now, we are taking a road trip through Germany and Switzerland to see everyone.

As we go, the stress of travel, family visits, and background anxiety gives me opportunity to do cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on myself more often than I normally would. Here’s how I do it.

The Dreaded Disease: I-can’t-stand-it-itis

It’s late afternoon when we arrive at his sister’s home on a picturesque mountainside overlooking snowcapped mountains. The scene from the living room windows is like a postcard that makes me remember reading Heidi as a child.

I ought to feel peaceful. I ought to be enjoying myself. (All those “oughts…”)

But I’m ruminating about our moving situation. There are so many details to figure out, and I’m struggling to not get stuck in my head.

As I’ve told a number of my clients, obsessives don’t just ruminate about our OCD themes. It’s possible to get obsessive about solving normal, everyday life issues and even exciting personal projects. We don’t just obsess about whether we committed the unpardonable sin and whether we prayed appropriately. We also obsess about crafting projects, birthday plans, shopping lists, and pet care. Even positive thoughts can become obsessive.

The crisp October air and emerald green slopes are beckoning from outside, but I’m glued to my computer. I can’t stop scrolling through real estate listings, looking for the perfect home back in the US.

An obsessive trip through Switzerland

But here’s the thing: I’ve seen everything in the real estate listings a dozen times already. Nothing is the right fit for us. As I scroll through the listings again, a sense of panic starts to rise in my chest.

It takes a moment of awareness for me to recognize that I am obsessing. I recognize my real estate search is obsessive because:

  1. Looking at the same listings over and over again isn’t actually helping me make progress, and
  2. Repetitive searches are only making my anxiety go up.

Once I come to the realization that what I’m doing has crossed a line from a normal, healthy activity to an obsessive one, I step away from the computer and ask myself some tough questions. This is how my CBT process begins:

  • What are my internal beliefs that make me feel I “must” do this?
  • What kind of self-talk is going on in the background that drives this obsessive cycle?

It isn’t difficult to tune into my internal narrative.

I NEED to know where we are going to live, says my internal self-talk. I can’t handle the uncertainty of being in limbo any longer.

It’s this self-talk that drives my obsessive internet searches. A feeling that uncertainty is somehow unsafe and intolerable, and that I truly can’t stand it. It’s the dreaded disease of I-can’t-stand-it-itis.

This belief leads me to feel that I must work hard (i.e. obsess) in order to save myself from this danger of uncertainty.

These beliefs feel true, but they are not. If I want this stressful time to be a catalyst for growth, my role is to replace the untrue self-talk with truth. Jesus said clearly,

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

John 8:32

The way to change my mental patterns is to change the internal self-talk that I allow. Just like parents don’t allow their children to use cuss words, I also need to police the dialogue that goes on inside my head. I make progress as I refuse to allow untrue self-talk.

I can’t stand this uncertainty, says the instinctive part of my brain.

Yes, you can stand this, I reply with my logical frontal lobe. It feels very uncomfortable to be in a sea of unknowns right now, but you CAN stand it. You will not die from these feelings.

I can stand this

It doesn’t make my anxiety or obsessions go away, but it completely removes the panic. Talking to myself with truth helps me start calming down.

Stress and OCD: Dealing with Chaos

But why does the uncertainty bother me? I push myself to dig deeper. I ask more uncomfortable questions.

  • Why am I so bothered by this feeling of being out of control?
  • What is it about a “surprise” future that makes me feel so unsafe?

I think back to my childhood. I pull up memories of chaos, confusion, fear, and disappointment. The emotional memories stored in my amygdala are far more influential than any “logic” I try to relay from my prefrontal cortex. This is why the truth-filled self-talk removes the panic but doesn’t entirely erase the anxious background static.

I work a bit at it until I can summarize my emotional memories in one phrase: chaos is always dangerous.

How many episodes from my young life taught me to associate “chaos” with bad things happening? These emotional associations work faster than logic. As soon as I find myself in an unpredictable, uncertain, chaotic situation, my amygdala activates.

Some people have compared the amygdala — the emotional center of the brain — to a gunslinger from the wild west. It doesn’t need a lot to provoke it, and it will shoot indiscriminately despite the voice of logic.

You can’t talk reason to the amygdala.

And that’s why I don’t waste time trying.

Some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder will get stuck with CBT because they try to force the background anxiety go away completely. While CBT appears to work very well for reducing panic, it isn’t going to restore us to a complete state of normalcy overnight. We have deep emotional memories stored in our brains. These are very powerful. CBT is not meant to help us argue our way out of our low-level background anxiety. It’s meant to help us understand where it’s coming from so that we can begin to build a new, competing set of emotional memories.

In my case, the deep CBT questions help me to isolate and label these emotional memories: chaos is always dangerous. Once I figure that out, I refrain from arguing against it. This will, of course, lead me into another obsessive loop of trying to figure out why I can’t get the emotions to go away. My thought process is more like this:

I’ve had a lot of early life experiences that made me believe that chaos is always dangerous. Right now, my personal life is a bit chaotic and unpredictable, so all these emotional memories are surfacing and making me feel unsafe. I understand why I feel this way, and I understand that it’s not something that’s going to go away overnight. But as I lean into God and work through this transition with my husband, I’ll be able to form new, competing memories of chaos leading to security and joy. And one day, I’ll be able to look at life’s unknowns, not as “chaos,” but as “surprises.”

Creating Obsessional Boundaries

Practically speaking, there’s more that I do to control my compulsion for excessive internet searches. I create obsessional boundaries aimed at keeping transitional activities healthy.

I allow myself to scan new home listings once a day for a brief period. I only check what has been uploaded in the last 24 hours, and then I force myself to exit. This helps me maintain a healthy relationship with a necessary activity (home searching) while not allowing my obsessional tendencies to run away with me.

Stress and OCD: Response Prevention

How I Do ERP on Myself As I Deal with Stress and OCD

Like most people with OCD, I like control.

I like to know what’s coming next. I like to know where I will eat and sleep every day. I like to have time to prepare for anything new or different in my routine.

Visiting family members means that I don’t always have control.

Let me give you a very small example of how I do ERP on myself when I start to get into that OCD spiral. As I’ve learned to deal with my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, these episodes become more and more minor and less frequent — the following example probably isn’t something that will trigger anybody and it is much less significant than some of the exposures I’ve done in the past. It’s not even closely related to religious or moral themes, but it’s an example of how stress and OCD interact to exacerbate anxiety. So I hope you won’t mind this “minor” example — I do try to walk a fine line between giving helpful case studies and not writing about things that will exasperate and trigger my readers!

One day last week, we were on our way through the Black Forest of southern Germany to see family, and since the distance was too much to cover in one day, we planned to find a hotel and restaurant and continue driving the next day.

As we drove, I had trouble focusing on the gorgeous landscape out the window. I was obsessing about where we would sleep and eat.

These details were out of my control, and subconsciously I really disliked that. I wasn’t enjoying the drive at all.

How I Do ERP on Myself: A Brief Walkthrough

As I became aware of the cause for my discomfort (intolerance for feeling out of control, intolerance for uncertainty) I chose to respond with a gentle episode of ERP (exposure and response prevention therapy). It took two forms:

  1. Exposure: this part was unavoidable. I was in a car with my husband, driving through a landscape of forests and mountains, completely unsure of where I would eat and sleep that day (he didn’t know, either), which provoked feelings of anxiety and obsessive thought patterns. I didn’t choose this exposure, but I chose the next step.
  2. Response Prevention: rather than trying to regain a sense of control through obsessively trying to “figure out” my day, I chose not to engage. I sat back and prayed silently, “God, I give you complete control over everything that happens today. I will let You solve these problems instead of me.” It was difficult, but I forced myself not to ask my husband a single question or pressure him about booking a hotel reservation or finding a place to stop and eat (this might sound simple but it’s a little more difficult to find places to eat when you’re vegetarian).

This went on for several hours. I pushed through the uncomfortable feelings of “something’s not right and I have a responsibility to fix it.” I chose to enjoy the views and good conversation. When the urge to work on a solution resurfaced, I reminded myself that I’d given this responsibility to God and refused to take compulsive action.

Stress and OCD: Embracing Uncertainty

When lunchtime drew near, my husband found a place where we got vegetarian burgers.

Hmm, that wasn’t so bad, I thought to myself. God provided the first need. What about the second?

I’m terrified of chaos — but every time I have a positive experience with God bringing order out of my chaos (instead of ME doing it through obsessive-compulsive action), my amygdala is building a new emotional memory that says, “hey, unknowns are ok. You’ve got God on your side. Life’s unknowns are going to turn out fine if you let go and let Him be in control.”

After lunch we kept driving. Evening drew near, and we still hadn’t made a hotel booking. Of course, I still felt anxious, but my lips were sealed. This was God’s problem, because I’d given it to Him. When the time was right, He would prompt my husband to figure it out (because he’s the booking guy in the relationship, and I’m just the anxious nagger. I assume he probably enjoyed a day off from my OCD-driven pestering).

And, sure enough, evening came, we stopped in a cafe for buttered pretzels and wifi, and he made a booking at a comfortable hotel nearby.

Silly me, I thought, When has he ever failed to provide a roof over my head?

And when has God ever failed me?

OCD and Stress: Happy ERP Endings

It’s not logic, it’s emotion that drives our OCD. ERP is really about rebuilding emotional memories that teach us it’s ok to live through the experiences that scare us.

As we slipped into a warm, cozy bed in a hotel room with heated floors and a luxurious shower, I knew my day’s ERP had been successful. I felt anxious but prevented my normal obsessive-compulsive response, and things turned out just fine.

Score! One more point for my post-OCD brain structures…

It reminded me of those verses in Scripture that tell us to remember the mighty works of the Lord. As we recall His goodness for us, this is not just a cutesy way of passing our devotional time. We are literally building trust structures in our brains. We are developing a deep ability to lean into God, release that toxic OCD-ish control, and relate to Him as a genuinely dependent child.

Dependent on our Heavenly Father

I love the Lord, because He has heard
My voice and my supplications.

Because He has inclined His ear to me,
Therefore I will call upon Him as long as I live.

The pains of death surrounded me,
And the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me;
I found trouble and sorrow.
Then I called upon the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I implore You, deliver my soul!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
Yes, our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple;
I was brought low, and He saved me.
Return to your rest, O my soul,
For the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

Psalm 116:1-7

The Lord dealt bountifully with me that day, and I can say every day. But ERP has to be an ongoing exercise because it consistently forces me to think through whether my dependence is on myself or on God.

Times of Stress and OCD: Scriptures to Lean On

Here’s a collection of verses I lean on during times when stress brings out my worst mental health weaknesses. Beside each passage, I’ll ask a question that might help you relate deeply with the text.

If you’re going through a time of heightened personal stress, I encourage you to cozy up with your Bible and prayerfully ponder these passages. Allow God’s words to speak to you and soothe your heart.

Passages About Letting Go of Control

  • Job 23:14 and Psalm 57:2 — who has ultimate responsibility for solving our problems?
  • John 15:5 — how can we embrace our powerlessness in light of this verse?
  • Exodus 14:14 — does God still do this today?
  • 1 Peter 5:7 — how can you cast your particular obsessive cares on God?
  • Psalm 34:17 — what is your only task during times of stress, according to this verse?
  • Romans 8:16-17 — how much “control” are children expected to have, and how much control should the parent (our heavenly Father) have?

Passages About Dealing with Stress

  • Psalm 62:8 — how do you feel after pouring out your heart to God in times of stress?
  • Matthew 11:28 — according to this passage, what will soothe our spirits in times of stress — trying to “figure out” our problems, or coming to the presence of Christ?
  • Isaiah 26:3 — what can I do with my mind that will bring relief from worries?
  • John 14:27 — can I manufacture my own sense of peace, or must it come from a supernatural source?

Passages About Uncertain Times

  • Psalm 131 — this psalm talks about humility in the face of uncertainty. What does the metaphor of the weaned child teach us about withdrawing from our need for absolute answers?
  • John 20:29 — when is it a positive thing in our spiritual lives to have a measure of uncertainty?
  • 1 Corinthians 13:12 — is it bad to have partial knowledge?
  • 2 Corinthians 5:7 — uncertain times give us an opportunity for growth in our spiritual lives; how is God calling you to grow through uncertainty?

Conclusion

In this article I’ve talked about some of the ways stress and OCD interact to bring a flareup of symptoms. We all deal with it at some point. If you find yourself having increased obsessive symptoms during times of stress or life transitions, don’t be discouraged. You are NOT regressing, you are in a stage of faster and more intense growth.

It is during these times that we develop new emotional memories of God’s deliverance and presence. We challenge incorrect thought patterns and refuse to respond to our typical triggers. And we lean heavily on God’s Word to soothe our spirits.

How have you seen stress impact your OCD? If you’ve had moments where you really saw God meet you in your pain point, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!

We have no reason to fear these uncomfortable moments, because we have the assurance that God is using them for our growth and sanctification.

Keep going forward, pilgrim. We’re almost home, and God is wrapping up His perfect work in you.

Best wishes on the journey,

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  1. Hello there. My name is Robert and I'm from Romania. I've been reading your articles and watched your videos too and found a slight improvement. Thank you 🙂
    Long story short because I don't want the take up too much of  your time; maybe other people need your help more than me.
    I was born orthodox, but started believing again about 6 years ago. Since then I've been having intrusive thoughts about God. In the beginning it was very harsh, I could not sleep and tortured myself with the thoughts. I want to say that this thought was troubling me only when I prayed, but now, sometimes, I think about it obsessively for the whole day. It's more like a subtle course rather than being a thought. I learned to live with it because I know it comes from the devil, but the thing is that I can't get rid of it completely. It was times when I stopped praying and the thought went away.  When I came back to Jesus again the troubling started and it was so frustrating and anxious that it made me say to God with tears in my eyes that if He wants me dead to kill me rather than letting me think like that.
    I've tried to gather a lot of information about this and many people seem to face it. I even found a few videos on youtube with holy men that say the solution is to keep your mind in hell, but never give up, among many other solutions. I don't seem to get rid of this thought and it follows me all day long sometimes, which affects my family life. I have a wife and a 2 year old daughter. The wife recently told me that I'm changed and that she sees me that I'm worried and always thinking (with my head in the clouds. if i translate from romanian).
    I decided to write you, hoping you could point me in the right direction to overcome this struggle in my life!
    Thank you Jaimie!

    1. Hi, Robert,

      I have friends and family from Romania, so I hope to one day visit your beautiful country. I always enjoy it when they give me sarmale and zacusca and other nice foods to eat. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing a bit about your situation. I do have a few thoughts that might be of help.

      First of all, when you mention that your thoughts were so intense that you “tortured” yourself and could not sleep, this is more of the spiritual panic than the lower-level background anxiety. With panic we can respond with CBT and also something called “flooding,” which I encourage you to look up online since I don’t have an article about that yet; with the consistent, bothersome thoughts we can respond with ERP and just plain learning to ignore them.

      Another thought is related to your observation that the religious OCD increased more when you came back to Christ. OCD will cling to whatever is most important to us. Developing a deeper relationship with God is obviously something valuable and important, and may be surfacing some of your deepest fears. It can be helpful to try to understand what your fear actually is. Try to boil it down to a single statement: “I obsess about _______ because I’m afraid of ________.” Fairly often, I find that the spiritual fear is related to one of four things:

      1. A misconception of God’s character (a subconscious belief that God is not safe, loving, good, approachable, etc.)
      2. Doctrinal misunderstandings (typically imbalanced or unbiblical views about sin, hell, or salvation)
      3. Spiritual traumas (being sexually or emotionally abused by clergy, being in a cult, feeling judged by church members)
      4. Biological predisposition to anxiety (sometimes there is no underlying spiritual issue at all)

      Don’t overanalyze this list. 🙂 But do think it through!

      1. Hello again Jaimie! Thanks very much fir all the tips. It's very nice to hear that you've got family from Romania. I also love sarmale and zacusca 🙂 Zacusca is also good for when I'm fasting.
        I recently started therapy with a psychologist, but didn't do much therapy because it was the first session and I mostly told him about myself and the situation. I will tell the psychologist about CBT and ERP too. He told me he will help me accept the thoughts and teach me some relaxation techniques in the next session. I've tried too pin down the problem too with him, but can't figurenout whether is my misconception about God or it's about myself trying to straddle beteeen the pleasures of life and thinking I'm not good enough for God.

        PS: If the things won't work with this psychologist, could I book an online therapy session with you on Skype?

        Thank you very much!

        1. Hi, Robert,
          How is it going with your therapy sessions? I’m a Biblical scholar and not a psychologist, so I don’t offer any therapy — just coaching sessions to work through the spiritual side of religious OCD. But what I can tell you is that when your therapist talks about “accepting” the thoughts, he/she probably means that you need to accept the presence of these thoughts, not necessarily the content of them. And that is completely Biblical. Remember when Jesus stood before King Herod? The king and the pharisees hurled all kinds of false accusations at Jesus, but He didn’t answer a single word. We could say He “coexisted” in the presence of unwelcome, untrue thoughts. He didn’t answer because He knew it wouldn’t do any good — at another time in His ministry, He said we shouldn’t cast our pearls before swine. Same idea. Responding can sometimes do more harm than good. So when your therapist asks you to accept the presence of unwanted thoughts rather than argue back against them, remember that from a Christian perspective it’s ok to do this. I almost always encourage people in the religious OCD community to try and stick it out with their therapists, even if there is a bit of confusion on the therapist’s part about how to deal with the religious aspects of the disorder. Try to explain your beliefs and why they are important to you. Help them understand your situation by explaining which parts of your spiritual life are typical for your religious community and demands are unique to you — that is, what spiritual things do you feel pressured to do that nobody else in your church does. This will help your therapist help you the most.

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