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Friday, June 13, 2014

OCD and Hyperawareness

A few days ago I had a REALLY bad OCD day.  Most of my days are pretty consumed with OCD, but sometimes I have really hard days which almost push me to a breaking point.  The good news is that it ended with a successful exposure, something I didn't think I would be able to do.  I will get to that at the end of this post.  This is a good opportunity, with many examples, to discuss hyperawareness with OCD.  OCD brains are like sponges.  They soak up and remember everything.  It also makes you very hyperaware of everything going on around you.  Problems and situations presented can lead to engaging in compulsions/rituals and even cause you to avoid that situation in the future because it's now "burned in your brain".  OCD causes me to notice everything around me and have lots of thoughts about what COULD have happened or the possibility of something happening.  For instance some random thoughts I might have:  The person 2 rows ahead of me is coughing at church.  Did that person brush up against my sweatshirt or not when I was standing in line?  The guy behind me in line just cleared his throat hard and didn't cover his mouth.  Did my T-shirt touch the shopping cart handle when I put that grocery item in my cart?  The kid swimming 3 feet next to me in the pool is spitting water out of his mouth as he's playing and that spit is going into the pool.  Is that construction worker really going to eat with paint plastered all over his hand?  My husband just let the dog lick his hand (a full out lick several times) and then just resumes going back to what he was doing on his phone/tablet without washing his hands.  When someone is standing close to me at the store, I take note of their clothes--are there stains?  Do they look clean?  The cashier at the grocery store just itched their nose while bagging my groceries.  The clerk at the department store just licked their finger in order to open up a plastic shopping bag to put my newly purchased clothes into.  I could go on and on all day, these are just a few examples to give you the point.  Eating is particularly hard for me too, because I've seen too many things at various fast food places and restaurants and I don't want to go back to those places.  It also accounts for a lot of why I don't eat at family gatherings.  I've seen people do things and I just can't take the thoughts/anxiety that follow those and I don't want to be exposed to other people's germs.  I've seen my mother in law lick her fingers as she's serving cake.  I've seen my mom set spoons on the bare counter that she is using to stir things on the stovetop.  I've seen my sister pick up topping off a casserole on the table one time with her fingers before everyone ate.  One of my cousin's kids grabbed a cracker off the counter at a gathering and gummed it in his mouth, and put it back on the table and someone else ended up eating eat.  My aunt stirred some corn in the microwave at a holiday gathering, then tested the temperature of the food with the spoon, then used it to re-stir the corn later (after she had eaten of it!)  Now let's stop and be honest here.  Many of these things are VERY unsanitary.  Probably no one is going to get hurt or sick because of it, but the OCD mind can not let these thoughts go. I notice that I do better eating at places where I can't see what is going on the kitchen.  Once I've actually seen something disturbing, then I tend to avoid that place in the future.  Thus why I was down to 3 take out places for awhile...the only places I felt comfortable eating.  As I've mentioned in previous posts I am trying to expand the places I will eat again and become more comfortable in doing so.  I've had a particularly hard time with a sandwich shop in the past.  They assemble your sandwich in front of you, and they do wear gloves.  But why, can I ask, do people automatically think that gloves on their hands makes for a magical germ barrier, and they can still do anything with gloves on their hands?  The point of gloves when food handling is to keep the food sanitary, and is a step above and beyond normal handwashing (which should take place anyway).  But I'll get off my soapbox now....This is where my exposure comes into play.  I had already had an especially difficult day with clothing contamination (my #1 issue right now) and I was just mentally exhausted.  I decided that for an exposure to end the day I would go get sandwiches and try to eat at that place again.  I've had a hard time eating here in the past because I've seen the workers do things that I feel are "unclean" when their gloves are on, and then they continue to make my sandwich (for example wiping down the meatcutter with a washcloth/solution, then immediately starting to make my sandwich when I walk through the door with those same gloves).  It is gross, right?  Right?  But again....most people with OCD wouldn't even think about this or even notice it.  Probably the food worker doesn't even think it through.  I do think about though and I can't get it out of my mind.  If I can catch them doing something "unclean" before I have to pay, then that is good--I can simply make up an excuse (don't we all get so good at making excuses with our OCD to sound normal?) that I left my cash out in my car and leave.  BUT....many times I've had to end up paying and throw out the food when I get home because I feel it is contaminated.  This time I walked in the door and there was already a fairly large line which was good because it gave me a chance to "scope out" what was going on before it was my turn, time to leave if I needed to, even though I desperately wanted to follow through on this.  I only had to stand there for about 10 seconds before I saw a problem.  The kid making the sandwiches kept brushing his gloved hands on his shorts (which who knows if they were clean?) between he was going from one sandwich to the next.  Then the paper that the sandwich sits on as it's being assembled kept brushing against his T-shirt.  And I knew at that moment that I did not want whatever was on his shorts or T-shirt in my food, so I left.  Bummer.  I knew I needed to get something else to eat so I decided to revisit a hamburger drive thru that I used to avoid.  I went there a couple of weeks ago as an exposure just to prove to myself that it was okay to eat there, and I managed successfully at that time, so I thought...hey, I can do this again, right?  This hamburger joint caused me the same issues as the sandwich shop in the past...the whole glove issue.  I stopped eating there awhile back because I saw through the drive-thru window that someone with gloves was pressing something down into the garbage can (probably to make it fit)--and then my mind started worrying if he was going to go right back to making food after he put his hand in the trash?  I don't remember that far back, but I'm fairly sure I probably threw my food away after I paid and haven't been back there until 2 weeks ago.  Anyway, when I did go 2 weeks ago (for a small exposure) I allowed myself a 5 second look through the drive thru window, just to make sure nothing totally gross was going on.  Nothing appeared to be, so I paid for the food, came home, and ate it.  And everything went well.  So I thought this would be no big issue this time.  I remember sitting in the drive-thru and they were taking awhile to get my food.  I kept telling myself not to look into the window, that would only make my anxiety worse, but of course the longer I waited....I just had to look.  So I did look in, and I saw 2 things right off the bat that bothered me.  Both involved gloved employees.  One was standing at the fountain pop dispenser at the drive-thru window, filling up his own personal cup with pop.  The other was using a broom and dustpan and sweeping the kitchen floor.  Both were wearing gloves, so of course I immediately fretted that these people were making my food with really dirty gloves.  Of course once I started looking, I couldn't stop.  I tried to watch them to see if they would go back to the kitchen.  The guy sweeping continued to do so the whole time, so I know he wasn't making our food.  The guy getting his pop was gone for just a moment but then I saw someone hand him the burgers and he put them in a sack.  So I know he touched the packaged burgers, but I don't think he actually made them.  The thing is though, I wasn't 100% sure and that bothered me.  I was so ticked off at that point because I'd already paid....I told myself there was no way I was going to be able to eat those.  Then I thought about all the food, dishes, clothing, shoes, etc...that I have been throwing out recently and I was so mad at myself and so mad at the OCD.  I decided I would go home and my daughter and I would eat the cheeseburgers after all.  The best way I've found for me personally to do an exposure is just to get it done as quickly as possible, that way there is no turning back.  I remember opening the cheeseburger and just eating it as fast as I could...and then there, it was done.  I remember my anxiety going up to about a 9, and it took about an hour for it to get down to a 3, but since then it has not bothered me at all.  I still don't like what I saw, but I'm not fixated on it anymore.  And I should probably go back there sometime soon to eat a cheeseburger again, just to reinforce the point.  So at the end of the day it was a pretty successful exposure for me.  It sounds so ridiculously stupid that eating a cheeseburger would cause me so much stress, but this was pretty huge for me.  The point being that I didn't allow myself to give into the OCD at this time.  And usually I do give in to what the OCD tells me.  It was amazing to me that I went from "no chance am I going to eat that" (giving into the OCD) to eating it and being okay with it today (a big gain in my book).  I'm hoping that as I continue to do more exposures, I will become less "hyperaware" of what is going around me, and maybe just take on a more normal awareness level.  For those of you that are way beyond where I am in treatment (which is still self-treatment at this point), did you find that the level of hyperawareness you experience goes down?  Do you find that the things that once bothered you immensely, you don't even give a second thought to anymore?  Does anyone have any good exposure ideas for how to continue with my eating/restaurant contamination issues? Thanks for reading!  Hope you all are doing good and keep on fighting the fight against this nasty OCD!


  1. Congratulations! I have not been able to do any exposures. I have been gradually developing cleaning OCD this past year. Somehow I am not that worried about eating out as I am about the things I bring into my house and the things my daughter is exposed to. I am extremely hyperaware of everything people that visit my home are doing and instead of enjoying their company, I am secretly focused on making a mental list of everything I have to clean after they leave because they have contaminated it. It's so exhausting. I know it doesn't make sense, but I have no idea how to stop it. My hands are all cut up from the dry skin from washing them every time I touch something that isn't what I consider clean. I ate going to the grocery store because I have to wash everything when I get home before putting it away. I am afraid to do an exposure because if I leave my hands dirty I am afraid I will contaminate my whole house and I am exhausted just thinking about losing control over which areas are clean vs dirty. I could freak out and have to clean the entire house, cupboards, drawers, refrigerator because of cross-contamination. I am not so scared of getting sick as I am grossed out by insects and/or traces of feces that might be present. I have no idea what kind of exposure I could do to begin dealing with this. I am able to still go out by myself if I decontaminate myself after I get home. When I go out with my daughter, it's more difficult because I am constantly putting on antibacterial hand sanitizer before touching her. I am afraid I will just get worse and worse because I am similar to you in that now that I am hyperaware, the more I see, the more places and things I try to avoid in the future. Any ideas what exposure I can try?

  2. Correction: I "hate" going to the grocery store...

  3. Hi Viole! Thanks so much for stopping by to read my blog, and for your kind words. It means a lot to me when people take the time to comment, as I love to connect with others, so this will probably be a long response to you :) (and it probably won't let me type it all out in one comment, so there will probably be several in a row!)
    So, have you just starting developing OCD then over the past year, or have you been dealing with it longer, and now just getting to more cleaning rituals over the past year? You also mention a daughter, how old is she? I will be honest, one of my biggest motivators right now in trying to get ahold of my OCD is because of my daughter. I do not want her to develop these tendencies as she gets older, and I know that OCD does have some genetic predispositions, and that terrifies me! It sounds like we both have contamination issues, but it sounds like we both deal with them in very different ways. I honestly have never had trouble with needing to wash off my groceries when I get home, so it's hard for me to think of an exposure for you to try there. What is it exactly about the insects or feces that concerns you? Usually there is some trigger episode that you can trace things back to, that kind of gets you obsessed on a certain thing and makes you feel like you need to keep doing it that way. Trust me, even though we do not have the same issues exactly, I know what it feels like to feel like you HAVE to keep doing something, but then once we get started, it's so hard to stop!

    1. Hi hopeful. I read this blog and recognise a lot of me in it. At the moment I really struggle with people licking their fingers to open bags - this happened to me yesterday and I feel my phone is now contaminated after touching a tissue I used after picking up the bag! Do you have any tips how to deal with this? It's a way of life and wiping everything you buy is not the answer (and not practical)! Thanks!

  4. I know what you mean about lists too. I used to keep "mental lists" of everything I needed to keep track of it, but then it gets so overwhelming to the point where I start writing everything down. I commend you if you are still able to have people at your house, because I've started to avoid it and really don't want anyone coming into what I feel like is my "safe zone". My hands look horrible too! I am pretty deep into my OCD right now, and decided I really need to start doing something. I may not be able to fully get over it, and I honestly don't think I'll beat it without professional help, but my goal right now is to start expanding my world again..because right now it feels like it's shrinking everyday. I don't want this to happen to you either, and I hope it's not already, since I don't know a whole lot about your situation. A couple of things that have been really helpful to me in starting to "self-treat" myself is to make a list of my hierarchies. For instance I made this food one here on my blog, but I also have several other areas that my OCD hits bad...with laundry, my husband, clothing feeling contaminated, my dog, I made lists of everything and put all of "compulsions" underneath each header and how anxious it would make me to do each one. I decided to tackle some food and basic laundry issues first...they are not the ones that interfere with my life the most, but they are a starting place for me, and something I feel I can be more successful at. I think you mentioned in another comment to me that as I continue to do exposures, it will get easier each time, and it does! I am amazed at how powerful the mind is. Once we've been doing things a certain way for so long, it is SO HARD to stop...but the truth is before we started these rituals, we didn't have to do them, and we have to remember..that back when we weren't doing them...we were OKAY!!! And we weren't caught up in the OCD, and we were living a happier, more fulfilling and productive life. Another thing that helps is your "self-talk" as you are doing an exposure. I have found that talking positively to myself through an exposure, really helps. For thing I've really been working on is doing my laundry only one wash cycle through. I didn't think I would EVER be able to do this, but the funny thing is, is that when I didn't have laundry issues with my OCD I never even gave it a second thought. Then something happened to where I felt they weren't getting clean enough, and then more and more steps were added all the time to where my laundry has just become a nightmare! When I put the laundry in, I literally tell myself something like this, "Most people only wash their laundry one time. I only used to wash it one time. Clothes are clean after they are washed once. People would be dropping like flies if there was something dangerous about washing your clothes only once. I have to do this to get better. I have to do this for my daughter. I don't want to have OCD anymore, and the more I give in to it the worse it gets. If I don't get a handle on this now, it is going to consume. I want to spend my time hanging out with my daughter. I do not want to be tied to the washing machine. This is just my OCD telling me to do this. I am not going to listen to the OCD anymore....etc" You get the point! I literally just have to keep reminding myself that

  5. of the reasons why I want to beat this, and most people do not have to do this and they are just fine. And that before I did things these "special ways', I was fine too. And I was happier back then, and my goal is to get rid of this, so I know I just have to do it. I think the anticipation sometimes of the exposure is the worst part, so I know you can do it!! You are stronger than your OCD, and I encourage you to again make a list of things. Can you tell me a little more about the problems you experience, and then I would be happy to come up with some potential exposures? Baby steps have been the key for me.....the important thing is to keep doing something. It is too easy to give into this OCD and then it continues to grow and it's very important to keep exposing yourself to things, I promise you...if you start somewhere easy, you will be amazed at what you are able to do, that you think you can't right now. I have truly had many exposures where I'm thinking "no way can I do that", and then I just do it, and it's really not that bad. I have a LONG ways to go, and I'm only starting out with the easy stuff, but I do feel like I'm progress, and I believe that you can too! Again please feel free to send me more information on your situation, and I will be glad to help you all that I can! If it's easier to connect via e-mail, I'm happy to go that route too!! :)

  6. i can fully relate with you, I too am hyperaware of everything around me when shopping or in crowded places. so usually, i just turn off some of my sensors or just ignore the sneezing, coughing, clutter at the cashier, etc. ie play blind or deaf. the heck, i didnt pay attention to them for 30 years!

    developed my ocd contamination last march and been on ssri for 8 weeks now, and i take xanax before going out and it helps. my doctor has referred me to a psychotherapist but im too scared to go because i know they will subject me to an ERP program. i agree though with exposure bit by bit otherwise you can worsen the condition. i ve purchased a few self-help books from amazon. im really thinking of starting my therapy sooner because my ocd grows everyday.

    i hate groceries too a month ago, but i notice my anxiety decreases every time i go and i guess the exposure technique seems to work.

  7. My OCD sort of flares then regresses...the severity is often linked to my overall stress level, so right now since I am on summer break and nothing overly stressful has happened recently I am currently doing pretty well and the hyperawareness has gone WAY down which has allowed me to do things without even thinking much about them that are usually totally also means that when the OCD starts flaring again that I am terrified that I have caused myself to get really sick because of all the "dangerous" things I have done...because, for example, right now I can totally see that touching my shampoo bottle and then touching my hair without washing my hands thoroughly first is not very likely to cause me to get sick, but lately I've been skipping the handwashing in between to speed things along since it seems unnecessary, but I know that if anything caused the OCD to flare I would immediately deeply regret not having washed my hands and be terrified that it was the cause of me getting sick...I hate OCD...

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