Author: Xiaojie Qin
Psychotherapist, Director of CandleX
Time: Aug 2023
Over the past year, I have found myself getting more and more anxious as my asthma symptoms worsened. OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder) is something that can be developed when there are stressful events. As a teenager, I had some quirks that overlap with OCD patients‘ behaviors. I remember I had to buy my journals from the same store, and use the same pen to write in that journal. If I didn’t have the same pen, I wouldn’t want to write. I grew out of it eventually, but as an adult, I continue taking note of my mental hygiene tendencies.
In the past six months, I tried many different ways to manage my asthma symptoms: all different kinds of western medication in different combinations and dosages; Chinese medicine on top of western medicine; acupuncture, the traditional kind, the new kind; dramatic change of diet; management of the environment in terms of humidity and air quality, and the list goes on and on.
When you cannot breath, you are desperate to find the cure, any cure that could effectively help you live like a normal person. My fear of not being able to breath increased excessively after a few random asthma attacks.
I have seen my brain trying so hard to make connections between what are really just random dots, which doesn’t really make sense. That’s the emotional brain’s need to release the anxiety generated by not knowing. It asks my rational, or sometimes as I call it, my thinking brain to do whatever it can to make sense of what’s happening. The benefit is that we have a chance to figure out what’s going on and manage it; the disadvantage is that the dots might not align and things not making sense can lead to a feeling of desperation.
I find sometimes that hours pass by while I research asthma treatments online. An entire weekend morning could go by without me even noticing. This pattern began to take over my schedule which was initially filled with fun stuff: walking my dog along the river, practicing handstand, rehearsing a dance routine, etc. It made sense to do all this research at the beginning, a few months back, when I knew little about asthma. But now, I don’t find new info anymore. If I continue to get caught in that same researching mode, my day is spent in an anxious, exhausting, and ineffective way.
Luckily, being a therapist myself, I know the best way to save myself is to make sure I contain the emotional needs to know. My daily yoga and meditation practice serves as a foundation for me to create space for my emotion needs, and not get too carried away by them (check out my recent article on yoga here). I use distractions, such as indulging myself in my hobbies, so my mind is not overly obsessed with finding out how to treat asthma.
Very recently, my airway opened up a lot more. Not sure what worked, but I suddenly felt a release of pressure in my bronchial tube. It felt like the invisible hand that’d been squeezing my breathing pipe for weeks suddenly let go. I was thrilled and nervous at the same time. I’ll get to the nervous part in another chapter. For now, I want to keep the focus on what happened to my emotional brain, which yells at my thinking brain and demands it to make sense of things so the emotion of confusion could resolve. The rest of the day, I kept wondering what it was I did that helped. Was it the new type of acupuncture, maybe the newly added emergency treatment, could it be that one medicine that I started taking again? Or could it be the bubbly water that I started drinking? I do also feel a sudden relief of the airway pressure when the bubbly water makes me burp… There were so many voices came to my head. “It has to be the bubbly water”. “It has to be the new medicine”. “It has to be the emergency treatment.” Even my mom’s voice interjected to say- with humor yet complete seriousness- “I donated money to the temple and put your name on it. I think that’s what’s working”.
If I am not careful enough, I can feel the tendency to just believe in one voice so that I can rest. Our mind works on its own to seek relief. In this case, I know it started to form a belief that soda water would stretch my airway and I would be able to breathe through conversations. I began to find myself drinking more soda water, especially before meetings when I struggle to get air or felt nervous. Sometimes I found myself reaching for soda when I got anxious about my asthma. My mind tried to ease itself by doing something about the situation. I know I had to be careful with this behavior because one soda water could potentially turn into 2, 3 and 4. That’s what happens to OCD patients with ineffective routines: as long I check the door lock one more time, I can be re-assured that it’s locked, thus the house is safe and my family will be okay. One check turns into 10 checks, which then turns into 100.
I had to have a calm conversation with my mom about the fact that so far, we have not found any specific triggers for my asthma, and the doctors haven’t found out an effective treatment that leads to sustained improvement. “Your donation and prayers might have worked, and they might not have” (I feared she wouldn’t accept if I said ‘probably’ or ‘could not’). I paused, and luckily, she replied, “You are right. I do not know. I’m just glad you can breathe normally today as well.” She has been worried sick, feeling useless being a mom not able to help her daughter (I’ll always be her little girl even when I’m 60!). She’s seen my asthma symptoms worsen over the last few months despite undergoing more treatment. I know that knowing how to help me would ease her anxiety and allow her to relax emotionally.
When I heard her associating my recovery to her donations and prayers, I was concerned that she’d just keep donating money on my behalf and praying. Once we go down that road of fixation, we are heading towards the possibility of OCD behaviours. I am not particularly worried about myself and my mom, because we do not tend to cope that way. But if my mom did have OCD tendencies, she might go down that road. In this case there could be potential for her to donate more and more money in order to feel she’s done enough for me. The temporary mental relief she’d get from the act of donation would then lead to the need to repeat the same behavior more frequently and intensively to produce the same emotional result.
Does it sound familiar? The negative loop- OCD patients spiraling down into a thinking/behaviour pattern and becoming trapped inside. It’s a similar pattern for addiction to gambling, sex, drugs & alcohol, and all that fall under the addiction category.
This note of my observation serves as an exercise for me to understand what’s going on in my mind in response to the new situation of worsening asthma, so I can be careful of falling into any habitual mind traps. I also hope this note can help those with OCD to unpack their own situations and better understand the anxiety, fear, compulsions, and emotional/physical pains that come with the unknown. I would like to end on a positive note with this encouragement for all: Let’s not forget, to live, to laugh, to love and to enjoy life nonetheless.
Xiaojie is a Chinese-English psychotherapist and the director of CandleX. She runs a video channel that addresses common questions the public has about psychotherapy and psychology. Scan the QR code to follow her. If you are interested in inquiring about her psychotherapy services, whether for individuals or couples, please feel free to email her directly at email@example.com.