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The critical first step is to learn to recognise obsessive thoughts and compulsive urges. You don't want to do this in a merely superficial way; rather, you must work to gain a deep understanding that the feeling that is so bothersome at the moment is an obsessive feeling or a compulsive urge. To do so, it is important to increase your mindful awareness that these intrusive thoughts and urges are symptoms of a medical disorder.
Whereas simple, everyday awareness is almost automatic and usually quite superficial, mindful awareness is deeper and more precise and is achieved only through focused effort. It requires the conscious recognition and mental registration of the obsessive or compulsive symptom. You should literally make mental notes, such as, 'This thought is an obsession; this urge is a compulsive urge." You must make the effort to manage the intense biologically mediated thoughts and urges that intrude so insistently into consciousness. This means expending the necessary effort to maintain your awareness of what we call the Impartial Spectator, the observing power within us that gives each person the capacity to recognise what's real and what's just a symptom and to fend off the pathological urge until it begins to fade and recede.
The goal of Step 1 is to learn to Relabel intrusive thoughts and urges in your own mind as obsessions and compulsions - and to do so assertively. Start calling them that; use the labels obsession and compulsion. For example, train yourself to say, "I don't think or feel that my hands are dirty. I'm having an obsession that my hands are dirty." Or, "I don't feel that I have the need to wash my hands. I'm having a compulsive urge to perform the action of washing my hands." (The technique is the same for other obsessions and compulsions, including compulsive checking of doors or appliances and needless counting.) You must learn to recognise the intrusive, obsessive thoughts and urges as OCD.
In the Relabeling step, the basic idea is: Call an obsessive thought or compulsive urge what it really is. Assertively Relabel it so you can begin to understand that the feeling is just a false alarm, with little or no basis in reality. As the result of much scientific research we now know that these urges are caused by biological imbalances in the brain. By calling them what they really are--obsessions and compulsions--you begin to understand that they do not really mean what they say. They are simply false messages coming from the brain.
It is important to remember that just Relabeling these thoughts and urges won't make them go away. In fact, the worst thing you can do is to try to make them vanish. It won't work because the thoughts and urges have a biological cause that is beyond your control. What you can control is your behavioural response to those urges. By Relabeling, you begin to understand that no matter how real they feel, what they are saying is not real. The goal: to learn to resist them.
Recent scientific research on OCD has found that by learning to resist obsessions and compulsions through behaviour therapy, you can actually change the biochemistry that is causing the OCD symptoms. But keep in mind that the process of changing the underlying biological problem, and by doing so changing the urge itself, may take weeks or even months. It requires patience and persistent effort. Trying to make these thoughts and urges go away in seconds or minutes will cause only frustration, demoralisation, and stress. It will, in fact, tend to make the urges worse. Probably the most important thing to learn in this behavioural treatment is that your responses to the thoughts and urges are within your control, no matter how strong and bothersome they may be. The goal is to control your responses to the thoughts and urges, not to control the thoughts and urges themselves.
The next two steps are designed to help you learn new ways to control your behavioural responses to OCD symptoms.
The goal is to perform these steps daily. (The first three steps are especially important at the beginning of treatment.) Self-treatment is an essential part of this technique for learning to manage your responses to OCD on a day-to-day basis.