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  • Anthony Bishop

Having Compassion for Our (Faulty) Smoke Detector

OCD and anxiety are attempting to serve a purpose in our lives. It may not feel like it, but they truly are. When we experience anxiety, guilt, or other forms of discomfort it generally is a signal from our brain that something needs to be attended to. Consider this, it's late at night and you're home alone watching the news; you discover there have been a slew of home invasions in your neighborhood over the past month and there is still no identified suspect(s). Whether you're conscious of it or not, your heart and respiration rates increase slightly and your mind begins to do some mental safety checking: "Are all my windows closed? Did I lock the back door? Do my neighbors know about this? Should I have a weapon close by?" While the risk may be low that our home will be invaded, it still might be worth it to ensure our doors are locked and our neighbors are alerted. Who knows, it may just prevent a home invasion. This is a healthy fear response. It is a protective system put into place by evolution to help alert us to and protect us from danger. Consider this situation, a friend invites you to an event that you really don't want to go to, and instead of being honest, you make up an excuse as to why you can't go. Some mild feelings of guilt creep in. This is also an understandable response. Guilt is typically a sign that we did something bad or acted against our value system. It serves as a reminder to consider avoiding that behavior in the future.


Thank goodness we have such systems in place to help keep us safe and guide us toward a more wholesome way of living. Discomfort as a symptom of OCD, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, etc. is also part of that same protective system. It's purpose and intentions are good, to keep us safe, however, there is a point it becomes faulty or hypersensitive. Think of the smoke detector in your home, it's a potentially life-saving device. It can alert us to danger. Smoke detectors tend to work rather well, but occasionally they go off when there is no fire, such as when we burn something on the stove or even light incense. Living with OCD or an anxiety disorder is like having a faulty smoke detector in our mind, it doesn't just go off when there is an actual fire, it also goes off from steam from the shower. Whether the threat is real or not, the smoke detector responds in the same way, with an extremely loud and obnoxious beep, as does our mind. Our mind and body may respond to real or false threats in much the same way. It's quite a challenge to ignore a false distress signal because there's always the possibility that it actually is a real threat, even if the past 99 distress signals have been false, we may ask ourselves "What if this is the one time? " Which, by the way, is a valid question. It then becomes our responsiblity to utilize our tool kit and make a decision as to how we will handle the situation. For a list of helpful books with lots of tools check out my resources section.


Regardless of the threat being real or not, on some level we have to live with the possible risk of things going horribly wrong. I know this sounds terrifying but think of how many of us just go to sleep at night trusting the smoke and CO2 detector will actually work if there's a fire or gas leak. Or how when we drive down the road we trust other drivers to not be absolute maniacs and swerve right into us intentionally.


When we experience a distress signal, whether it occurred as a result of a real threat or

not, let us try to have some gratitude and compassion for the protective system that's in place, as faulty as it may be. It's like when a friend trys to help you out with something only to make matters worse, such as in making dinner, helping your move, or talking to you about a problem. The outcome is annoying and unhelpful, but the intention of your friend is inherently good. It's important for us to separate the two. While it's annoying that our smoke detector goes off when it shouldn't, its intention and purpose truly is well intended.



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