Avoidance Vs Redirection To Overcome Anxiety And OCD, Part 2

This is part II of an article focused on discussing the differences between avoidance and redirection behaviors. This article will focus on issues related to effectively using redirection. Click here to read part I.

When Should I Redirect And When Should I Engage My Exposure?

Exposure Therapy is an intentional exercise where you either go out of your way to face your fear, or you happen to encounter it in your every-day life and choose to resist compulsive behavior (including avoidances) in the moment. The latter we call “natural exposure.” Choosing to engage the exposure or redirect is a choice you’ll make when you are triggered.  

This FearCast episode discusses the importance of embracing imperfection in treatment

As a rule, if you can, face the fear and experience the rise and fall of anxiety. The feeling is always temporary, you can always move forward and make personally valuable decisions despite the feeling, and you will learn that you can get through it. In this case, the avoidance vs redirection debate doesn’t even come into play.

You have choices. When triggered, you may choose to redirect your focus at times that you are unable to face the exposure. Maybe you are in a meeting and it would be unprofessional to pause the meeting so you can ride through the thought that you’re going to murder everyone in the room. Or, maybe that date will take an awkward turn if you put it on hold so you can sit with the fear that you don’t really love them and you would be better off with your ex from high school.

In these cases, it’s about a subtle shift back to the task or interaction at hand. Not about shutting down or pretending like thought wasn’t there in the first place, but a re-engagement with more important things.

How Can You Effectively Redirect?

Two of the most effective ways I’ve found to practice redirection are through Non-Engagement Responses, and through delay tactics.

While sounding like a paradox, Non-Engagement Responses help you to acknowledge the presence of a thought, while intentionally continuing on your way toward more important things. Like saying “Hi” to an old acquaintance at a party without getting into a lengthy conversation about work or that weird shaped mole they have. You see them. You acknowledge they are there. You move on. You aren’t yelling, “OMG, Glen! I hate that you’re here. Shut up before I cut you!” That’s giving Glen way too much attention, and is going to draw some very concerned looks from others.

Some examples of Non-Engagement Responses are:

  • “Man, I really want to wash my hands right now. Whatever”
  • “Wouldn’t that stink if that thought were true”
  • “Oh no!… Anyhow”
  • “Cool story, brain”
  • “No thanks, I’ve got other things to do”
  • “That’s a thought”
Woman turning away from a man who is trying to get her to argue with her and come back to him. Redirection away from unwanted thoughts can be a helpful tool to fight OCD.
OCD: “C’mon. Better safe than sorry.”
You: “No thanks. I’m good”

The other great way to practice redirection is to practice delaying the compulsion. Delay tactics often work in concert with a Non-Engagement Response while putting off the compulsion to another time. That space between the delay and the compulsion is often enough time to let the urge go away all on its own.

Saying things like “Interesting thought, brain. I’ll have to put a pin in that and get back to it later. I’ve got Chemistry class right now,” or “That sounds a problem for Future-Me. I’ll deal with that tomorrow,” acknowledges the thought while giving you permission to let go of active engagement (read: compulsions) with the subject. As you shift your focus to that Chemistry class, your brain will likely get interested elsewhere and eventually be triggered by other things that you’ll similarly acknowledge and move past.

Dealing With Rumination About Avoidance Vs Redirection

What if you do it wrong and are accidentally doing avoidances and not redirection? This is a common concern for many earnest people struggling to overcome their intrusive thoughts.

Meme based on Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars yelling, "It's a trap!"
Don’t get tricked by OCD. Rumination about whether it’s OCD is a trap! Instead, redirection is key.

This pitfall is just another way for anxiety to pull you into rumination, perfection, and mental battle. You aren’t falling for that though. You know that this tactic and where it leads; more compulsion.

Being no different than any other obsessive doubt, you’ll treat yourself with compassion while applying acceptance and redirection, yet again. You’ll casually say, “Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I’ve got other things to do today,” or “I really want to jump in the deep-end to figure out if I’m suppressing or avoiding the right thing to do that will help me get better, but the movie is about to start and I’ve got to go.”

By Kevin Foss, MFT

To learn more about avoidance and redirection as it impacts your recovery, or would like to speak with someone about starting treatment for anxiety, including OCD, please contact CalOCD. We provide online teletherapy and face-to-face in-office therapy for OCD and anxiety spectrum disorders.

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