What a Wasp Sting Reminded Me About OCD/Anxiety Treatment
I’ve always been terrified of bees and wasps. In fact, I made it 30 years on this earth without ever being stung by one because I avoid them with such panic and objective hilarity to anyone who's near me. In the middle of singing happy birthday to a 3 year old at a party? I don’t care, if there’s a bee near me, I’m out. Playing outside with my toddler but I see a wasp or bee? PEACE. I don’t know what it is, maybe the fact that I have gone so long without being stung that I don’t know what it would feel like, so that part feels uncertain. And anxiety hates anything uncertain.
My literal reaction to bees/wasps always.
As a therapist who specializes in anxiety, this fear gives me plenty of good storylines and ammunition when it comes to trying to educate my own clients. When educating them about the fear/anxiety cycle, I talk about my fear of bees and wasps. When it’s time to talk about how exposures work, I give my clients ideas of things that would be challenging for me, like being in a small, enclosed space with one bee, or two bees, or walking in the grass barefoot. As for my “response prevention” talk, I say that I’d have to do those exposures above and also do things like resisting running out of the room (avoidance), resisting looking all over the room to track it (checking), and also asking my husband to come and save my life (being ridiculous and also asking for accommodations).
Here I am, thinking that’s all there ever will be to my discussions about bees and wasps, as if somehow I have this protective forcefield around me and I have mastered the technique necessary to avoid bees and wasps for all lifetimes. Then BOOM. I’m in my son’s playroom last night, putting his toys away, and suddenly I feel like a huge fiery needle was being stabbed numerous times into my leg. I start freaking out, batting at my leg and not knowing what the HELL it could possibly be?! I yank my pants up as desperately as I can, the burning sensation still stinging so badly and I yell for my husband to help. Suddenly, I see wings on the floor. I didn’t even look at it long enough before I ran outta there, two dogs now barking and thinking I’m most definitely dying, and ran away to crawl onto my bedroom floor like a wounded animal.
It was pretty dramatic. “Did you kill it yet!??!?!” “HUN, DID YOU KILL IT YET!??!?!” — me, thinking my life was at risk and the life of my child was at risk if my husband didn’t find that motheryouknowwhat and kill it. I’m panicking because Tate couldn’t find it, but suddenly I hear STOMPSTOMPSTOMP and I know he must be onto something. He tells me it was a wasp. What the?!?!? I’ve never been stung by one of those in my whole entire freaking life. Now I’m on the floor of my bedroom with my pants off, holding an ice pack to my leg, and all I can think of is “holy shit! Why won’t it stop hurting!? I never want to be stung by one of those things again!”
Me on my bedroom floor with an ice pack, my first wasp sting, and no pants.
So here is where things could potentially get tricky. Eventually, I have to get back off the floor, right. The playroom still needs cleaned up. My husband killed the wasp and confirms that it’s in the trash can, but my anxious mind is still completely convinced that there is now a deadly swarm of wasps just waiting for me under the playroom couch, they’re in the vents, they’re coming in through the windows, they’re coming in somehow, HOW ARE THEY GETTING IN? They're out for me now, especially now that my husband killed their friend. Then I have a random, innocent itch on my arm. Obviously I think this is another wasp coming to attack me, so I freak out again.
Now. Knowing what I know about anxiety, I know that my anxiety is simply trying to protect me. My body arguably has one really important purpose, which is to keep itself alive. Thank you, body. Great job so far! I had a fear of bees and wasps, therefore my body tried to do everything it could to keep me away from a potentially threatening stimulus - again. When I got stung by the wasp, my anxiety was way up because my brain was looking for threat. It was vigilant. I was overestimating the probability that there was another bee or wasp in the room.
But guess what? I went and continued cleaning up the toys in my son’s playroom, anyways.
I let those thoughts be there. I sat with the uncertainty that maybe there were more wasps around, maybe there weren’t. I didn’t check the couch or under the couch or in the vents like I wanted to. I didn’t ask my husband to come and check the scene out with me like I wanted to. I didn’t avoid the task altogether like I wanted to. I just kept going. I might have been anxious, my brain might have been telling me avoidavoidavoid you’re going to get stung again, there’s probably more over there, don’t sit over there that’s where you got stung! But I kept putting one foot in front of the other and I kept going.
And that’s where anxiety and OCD can really spin out of control - if you let it. If I would have responded to my thoughts by avoiding, checking, having my husband do things for me, and so on and so forth, I would have increased my anxiety about this over time, without a doubt. I would have reinforced my fear of wasps and bees, therefore causing myself to be even more avoidant of them and more scared of them in the future. In the moment, I would have breathed a sign of relief knowing that there were no more bees/wasps, but then I would have totally reinforced that avoidance and checking behavior - "thank God I checked!" - when there was no threat in the first place, people!
Today is kind of similar in that I’m still having a little anxiety around these damn wasps. For instance, I went to go put on my socks and - boom - an intrusive thought that there might be a wasp in my sock.
Again, this is where anxiety/OCD can go one way. Or it can go the other way.
I heard that thought, but I didn’t listen to that thought. I allowed the thought to have a seat in the car because why not, bro, but I did not let that thought be the driver. I allowed that thought to be there as I put my socks on and then I moved on with the rest of my day.
As a result of over coming those things, I can’t say that I’m any “less” scared of bees or wasps right now. I can’t say that I’ll avoid them any *less* in the future. But I definitely don’t think I’ll avoid them *more*. And at the end of the day, I can sit with the fact that - I got stung by a wasp, I handled it, and the world continues spinning on. The bad thing happened and I coped.
Me now that I've overcome my fear of bees/wasps. JK maybe one day!
And that is the best feeling in the world. I’ll take a wasp sting for that feeling any day.
XO - Jenna