Welcome to the ongoing The OCD series. I’m Francesca, a Nutritionist who has lived with OCD since I was 10. In my teens and late 20s, I hit rock bottom with OCD – it was so distressing and debilitating that it almost killed me. Now, after investing time, money and effort in creating a mental health tool box, I'm thriving. And I offer support to people suffering from OCD who want to get their lives back and live free of OCD.
I was recently talking with one of my courageous clients who is on the road to OCD recovery. They asked about my experience of relapse, and our conversation reminded me I’ve been meaning to write about this.
To give you the very short version of my own recovery story…..at age 29 (2009), I'd hit rock bottom for the second time with OCD. I was house bound, hysterical most days and suffering all kinds of physical health issues. Plus the rumination was paralysing….sometimes I literally couldn’t move, I was so frozen in a rumination spiral and mentally reassuring myself I had done things ‘right’.
I finally realized enough was enough, sought help from a wonderful Naturopath experienced in supporting people with OCD. I committed to making nutrition and lifestyle changes and looking after myself in a way I never had before. After 15 months of solid commitment, and a few months before my 31st birthday, I experienced around 90% reduction in my OCD. And an end to the many physical health issues I’d suffered through my 20s (acne, bloating, loss of bladder control, migraines, PMS, constipation, and more). Life opened up, and I began studying to become a Nutritionist later that year.
It was a joyous time in my life.
Fast forward to mid-2014, and, well, things had been rough for me that year and in 2013. In 2013, I went through a marriage break up and moved abroad to a fascinating but often emotionally and environmentally stressful country (Cambodia). Then in early 2014, I experienced trauma, and soon after that, had the experience of enduring surgery, alone, in a hospital in a foreign country. I then had a nervous break down and suffered a savage depression, which in hindsight was really a response to both past and recent traumas. I was suffering from a lack of love and support around me, too. And in mid-2014, I was suddenly made redundant from my well-paying job.
I left Cambodia and moved to London for 6 months – an environment that didn’t suit me at all – and struggled to find work. Really struggled. I was very, very burnt out (mentally and physically exhausted) from the events of 2013 and 2014 especially. And the highly polluted, noisy, class-driven, cut-throat and stressful London environment worsened this. I was also not getting the love and support I needed from people around me.
Looking back, OCD had actually begun creeping back in, in 2013. Just a little.
And then in December 2014, I relapsed. By January 2015, OCD was gripping me badly. I was in the jaws of the dragon again. And shocked that my OCD had returned with such a vengeance.
It’s not surprising to me now that I relapsed at that point in my life. Our bodies and souls can only endure so much physical and emotional stress and trauma.
Fortunately, I'd made a connection with a British psychotherapist in Cambodia who I knew had experience working with OCD, and who offered ERP therapy (Exposure and Response Prevention) and CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). I booked in to see him weekly or fortnightly (I can’t quite recall) via Skype, and got started with adding these new tools to my mental health tool box.
I also got out of London (phew). I slept a lot. I continued to eat nourishing foods and started taking quality supplements again. I practised yoga and enjoyed being in a small town by the sea. I spent time with dogs and enjoyed forest walks. And I spent less time around people who clearly didn’t care about me.
What did my relapse look like? I felt a real lack of safety around some of the people I'd been around at that point in my life - a deep sense, on the basis of their behaviours, that my wellbeing was not important to them and my only value to them was what I could do for them. I felt unloved. I was also still struggling with making sense of the trauma I had experienced in 2014, and still recovering from the accumulated stressors of 2013 and 2014.
And, one of my big OCD fears had returned – the (contamination) fear of coming into contact with floors and anything that had been on a floor. This fear makes being around other people and attending a job very stressful, because people always put their bags and coats on the floor, then pick them up and want to touch you or hand you stuff, or touch your workspace, and so on…. So, my daily life had become very stressful and I found myself spending a lot of time on compulsions, hiding them from others and feeling very anxious in social and professional settings.
There is a happy end to this story.
After just six sessions of ERP therapy with my therapist (plus the other lifestyle and nutrition changes mentioned above), I was back to where I had been in 2011 and 2012 – 90% free of OCD. And best of all, I now had new tools - ERP and CBT techniques – for my mental health tool box. My therapist commented that my progress has been remarkably speedy and successful. And I believe this is because I was combining powerful tools. If I'd not had the knowledge of how to look after my mental health with nutrition, supplements and lifestyle tools, I don’t think I would have had the same fast and solid result from ERP therapy.
I want to acknowledge my ex-husband and a few good friends who supported me during my relapse. Their concern, kindness and love was invaluable, even from afar. I still recall the words of a beautiful friend I’d made in Cambodia who also has OCD, during a Skype call one afternoon.
"When I think of you, I don't think of OCD. It doesn't define you. I think of you in so many ways that have nothing to do with OCD. And, if we were meant to be divine in this lifetime, we'd be divine. But we're not...we're meant to struggle and learn and grow."
Real OCD recovery is not about attaining some perfect mental health fantasy. Real recovery is about doing everything we can to keep moving forward, loving ourselves and working on our health, while accepting that sometimes we’ll take backward steps before moving forward again.
We learn from these backwards steps. We get better at being selective about who we let in and who we don’t. We realize which environments suit us and which don’t. We get better at looking after ourselves, loving ourselves, and knowing what our souls need (and don’t need). We learn ever more about the role stress and trauma play in affecting our health. And best of all, if we are willing, we seek out new tools for our mental health tool kits and we come out the other side – healthier, stronger, more resilient.
It’s March 2018 as I write this. I have not suffered another OCD relapse since that tough, tough time. Maybe I never will again. Maybe I will. Whatever may come, I know I have a solid mental health tool kit, loving people and love for myself, to help me get through it.
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Welcome to The OCD series. I’m Francesca, a Nutritionist who has lived with OCD since I was 10. In my teens and late 20s, I hit rock bottom with OCD – it was so distressing and debilitating that it almost killed me. Now, after investing time, money and effort in creating a mental health tool box, I am thriving. And I’m supporting people suffering from OCD who want to get their lives back and live free of OCD.
This article is for anyone suffering from OCD who drinks coffee, tea, cola or energy drinks. You’ll learn how caffeine impacts your nervous system. And I’ll share why I went cold turkey on caffeinated drinks for 6 years (yup!), after 19 years of suffering with OCD, and the changes I experienced as a result.
As discussed in previous articles in The OCD series, nourishing the nervous system is key to OCD recovery. However, nourishing the nervous system isn’t just about adding nourishing foods and supplements. It also requires removing foods and substances that deplete the nervous system.
Caffeine is high on the list of commonly consumed substances that deplete our nervous systems. It can be found in the greatest amounts in:
Cola (Coke, any brand of cola)
Plunger coffee and drip coffee
White tea and green tea
Decaffeinated tea and coffee
Have you ever had a coffee and felt sweaty and on edge? Felt intensely stuck in the jaws of the OCD dragon? Found that rumination seems to grip you harder? Felt panicky? And struggled (more than usual) to sleep that night?
How caffeine affects your nervous system
Caffeine easily crosses the blood brain barrier, a membrane between your brain and blood stream. Once caffeine crosses this barrier, it affects the function of your neurotransmitters – the chemical means by which nerve cells communicate with each other. Sleep, thought, calm, mood, rage and memory all reflect the activity of your neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters function as either excitatory or inhibitory. Put simply, excitatory neurotransmitters speed up nerve cell activity and decrease the pauses between nerve cell activity. Whereas inhibitory neurotransmitters slow down nerve cell activity, and increase the pauses between nerve cell activity.
GABA is one of the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitters in the body. It supports calm, relaxation and sleep. It is important to know that caffeine depletes GABA and lowered levels of GABA have been linked with anxiety, panic attacks, addiction, headaches and inflammation. Furthermore, stress also depletes GABA. So if we are already stressed out by events and situations in our lives, plus we’re regularly drinking coffee or tea, we can end up very low in GABA.
Caffeine also inhibits the reception of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in sleep and in the structural integrity of the myelin sheathing - this is the fatty, protective coating on your nerves needed for normal functioning of the nervous system.
By reducing GABA and blocking uptake of adenosine, caffeine makes it harder for the body to take the foot off the gas pedal and for the nervous system to be structurally healthy. This leaves you feeling more anxious, hyper-alert, more stressed, more prone to anger, caught up in distressing rumination spirals and unable to sleep.
But wait, there’s more… A third way in which caffeine hammers your nervous system and makes calm, sleep and freedom from OCD even more difficult is via depletion of the anti-stress mineral magnesium and the B vitamins. Because caffeine is a diuretic (i.e., it makes you pee more), it robs your body of these water-soluble nutrients, which are necessary for building GABA.
In short, consuming caffeine creates a vicious cycle of GABA depletion, adenosine inhibition and loss of nutrients needed to make GABA…resulting in less available GABA and adenosine, possible adverse affects on our myelin sheathing, and increased OCD, anxiety, rumination, insomnia, panic and hysteria.
My experience – cold turkey
As soon as I learned from my naturopath that caffeine wasn’t a friend of my nervous system (in 2010, when I began my recovery), I went cold turkey on tea, coffee and cola. I was sick of being sick with OCD and ready to go all in and make changes. OCD had been in my life for 19 years at that point and I knew if I didn’t act now, I would likely spend the rest of my life seriously ill and debilitated, and unable to fulfill my potential. Feeling better – being able to LIVE – was worth way more to me than the taste and aroma of coffee. It was time to give my nervous system the tender loving care it deserved, by both nourishing it AND taking the load off it.
I felt benefits within weeks – calmer, less rumination, less panic, and I was falling asleep more easily. I also regained normal bladder control – possibly because I was no longer losing so much magnesium. Experiencing urge incontinence in your 20s is not nice and I was thrilled to have this health problem resolve.
My new state of increasing calm – even though the OCD was still there, but now less intense - was such a relief and a sign I was on the right path. I didn’t drink a sip of coffee again until 2016. And to this day, it’s something I drink only once a month.
Three things for you to know and action to take
So now you know that if you have OCD, caffeine is not your friend. I encourage you to consider giving up caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, energy drinks, cola) for one month and see how you feel. What have you got to lose? I’m confident the benefits you feel will outweigh any desire to immediately resume drinking tea and coffee.
Quitting caffeine doesn’t have to be forever. We are all individuals and some people find that after time, once they are well, they can reintroduce caffeine and enjoy it as a treat (not a habit).
And, you don’t have to go cold turkey – you can start by reducing the amount of caffeine you drink from say three coffees a day to two a day, then one a day, and so on, until you are off caffeine.
OCD recovery is a process that involves taking the first step, then taking the next step. And then the next. If you’d like natural health support with your OCD recovery, let’s talk. I’ve been there, and I can help you learn how to move from surviving, to thriving.
Welcome to the fourth article in The OCD series. I’m Francesca, a Nutritionist who has lived with OCD since I was 10. In my teens and late 20s, I hit rock bottom with OCD – it was so distressing and debilitating that it almost killed me. Now, after investing time, money and effort in creating a mental health tool box, I am thriving. And I’m supporting people suffering from OCD who want to get their lives back and live free of OCD.
The previous three articles in The OCD series focused on nutritional tools that support mental health. Yet nutrition is not the only tool for recovering from OCD (though it is an important one). I take a holistic approach to supporting my clients. In this spirit, this article will discuss the role of childhood trauma in OCD.
Before we go further, I'd like to say - the information in this article won't be relevant for all of you. Not everyone affected by OCD will have experienced childhood trauma. If this article doesn't strike a chord for you, I invite you to look at the other articles in The OCD series.
First of all, I’m a Nutritionist – not a Psychologist. Yet in working on my recovery from OCD using a wide variety of tools, I've come to understand how events in my early life may have contributed to the development of OCD. Additionally, last year I read a psychotherapist’s theory on how OCD may develop that resonated with me. I will share this theory here.
OCD as a flight response to trauma – ‘running’ away from feelings by thinking and doing excessively
Childhood trauma can include both abuse and neglect – in other words, both things that happened (such as physical, sexual or verbal abuse, or combinations of) and things that did not happen (such as love, kindness, care, valuing, concern). In other words, you don't have to have been beaten or molested to have experienced abuse and trauma that has affected your psychological development.
Psychotherapist Pete Walker identifies that childhood trauma, when severe enough, commonly leads to the development of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). Walker states that C-PTSD is a severe condition and less well known than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to Walker, C-PTSD is “delineated from PTSD by five common and troublesome features”: emotional flashbacks, a vicious inner critic, social anxiety, toxic shame and self abandonment.
In his excellent, practical guide for those recovering from C-PTSD, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Walker explains that individuals typically develop one of four ‘survival strategies’ to “prevent, escape from or ameliorate further traumatization”.
The four ‘survival strategies’ are:
Walker describes the trauma survivor who has adapted the flight strategy as “Driven by the unconscious belief that perfection will make them safe and lovable. They rush to achieve. They rush as much in thought (obsession) as they do in action (compulsion).
“As children, flight types variably respond on a continuum from …. the driven A student [to] the ADHD dropout. Flight types relentlessly flee the inner pain of their abandonment with the symbolic flight of busyness”.
Walker goes on to say that when flight types are not doing and hurrying, they are busy worrying and planning about doing, to stay one step ahead of their inner pain. He also says flight types may be more drawn to risky activities, with their associated adrenalin highs, and to workaholism. Walker states “Severely traumatized flight types may devolve into OCD”.
It wasn’t until my early 30s that I really began to grasp how emotionally unhealthy aspects of my family life had been. And I began to understand how aspects of my past have impacted and continue to impact my emotional and mental health. Last year, I learned I have C-PTSD. I continue to work on my healing and I was fortunate to find a warm and empathic psychotherapist who is skilled in working with childhood trauma. I also read Pete Walker’s book on C-PTSD last year and I still refer to it often. It has been so helpful for me.
If you’re suffering with OCD and the theory discussed in this article resonates with you, I recommend Pete Walker’s book (details below) as an excellent starting point for childhood trauma recovery and mental health support. And I recommend finding a psychotherapist or psychologist you feel safe with. Importantly, find a therapist who specializes in family trauma and who has personal experience of family trauma and not just textbook understanding. In my opinion, it’s difficult for a therapist who had a mostly good, loving childhood to understand the impacts of a traumatizing childhood. While no therapist is obliged to share any details of their personal life with a client, I believe it is acceptable (and important for your wellbeing) to ask before commencing therapy or early in therapy if your therapist has personal experience of childhood trauma. In my experience, a therapist who has this kind of life experience will touch on it fairly early in therapy, in a spirit of empathy – and as a way of signaling hope for better days ahead.
Trust your gut when it comes to therapy and whether you have found the right therapist for you. While therapy is not easy and you may not always agree with your therapist, you should always feel supported and believed by your therapist, and feel you are making progress. If you ever sense that your therapist does not believe the family traumas you’ve experienced or grasp how deeply they’ve wounded you, I would encourage you to find a new therapist. You want to invest your precious time, money and effort in therapy that is going to support your healing, not add to your trauma.
Finally, from the nutritional perspective, traumatic experiences have significant metabolic effects that impact our physical health too. Abusive families don’t tend to stop being abusive as the child grows into a teen, then adult, and those of us who have experienced family trauma have often been living in a stress response for decades. The metaphorical foot has been on the gas pedal for too long, burning us out and literally depleting our resources.
In my work as a nutritionist supporting people recovering from OCD and other mental health problems, part of the treatment plan for my clients often includes addressing the metabolic effects of trauma and excessive stress. These effects can include long-established nutrient deficiencies and dysfunction of the nervous and endocrine systems. By obtaining support with addressing the metabolic effects of your trauma, you can experience significant reduction in symptoms like insomnia, an excessive startle response, fatigue, rage, digestive problems, PMS, depleted immune function (frequent illness), depression and especially chronic anxiety.
This is one of the more personal articles I’ve written on OCD recovery. I hope that in sharing a little of my experience of this environmental contributor to the development of OCD, you may gain deeper understanding of your own experience of OCD. And know that you are not alone.
And if you’d like my help with recovering from OCD, you may contact me using the form below.
“What hurt am I running from right now? Can I open my heart to the idea and image of soothing myself in my pain?” ~ Pete Walker
Walker, Pete. (2013) Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma. Azure Coyote, Washington.
Pete Walker's book is available at Amazon.
All articles and recipes are created by Nutritionist Francesca Eldridge unless otherwise credited.