Being Too Hard on Yourself May Threaten Your Mental Health

Carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders? You could be risking a full-blown case of OCD or anxiety.

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If you’re the type of person who puts way too much pressure on yourself, you could be risking more than unnecessary stress.

In fact, people who have intense feelings of responsibility, such as blaming themselves for negative outcomes beyond their control, may be more likely to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), according to a new study in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy.

Using an online questionnaire, researchers surveyed American college students to determine whether a sense of “inflated responsibility” was a predictor of OCD or GAD. Those who scored high on questions about responsibility were more likely to show behaviors present in people with OCD or GAD.

But what exactly are these two disorders, anyway? People with OCD have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors (obsessions) that drive them to do something over and over (compulsions), according to the National Institutes of Health. GAD is characterized by frequent, hard-to-control anxiety.

That’s not to say that everyone who occasionally feels anxious or has repetitive thoughts has one of these disorders. Instead, it’s the intensity and frequency of the symptoms, plus how much they interfere with your life, that determine whether they’re those thoughts and feelings mean something more, explains study author Yoshinori Sugiura, associate professor at the University of Hiroshima, in a press release. Only a qualified health care professional can give you an official diagnosis.

Could inflated responsibility be a cause of OCD or GAD?

With these disorders and other mental health conditions, the underlying cause isn’t always well understood. Most researchers believe they’re driven by many complex factors. That said, Sugiura and the rest of the research team behind the study aimed to find a common cause for these disorders and to simplify the many theories surrounding them.

Specifically, they wanted to look into the role of “inflated responsibility” on a person’s development of mental illness. They split the idea of inflated responsibility into three categories:

  1. Responsibility to prevent or avoid danger and/or harm
  2. Sense of personal responsibility and blame for negative outcomes
  3. Responsibility and continued thinking about a problem.

The second and third types of inflated responsibility, both of which center on the need to control or maintain certain situations and their outcomes, had the strongest link to GAD and OCD. While this was a small-scale, preliminary study of mostly female university students, researchers believe the findings would be similar in a larger population.

Sugiura is also looking into how to reduce inflated responsibility, anxiety, and obsessive behaviors. One simple step: Try to acknowledge that an unrealistic sense of responsibility might be working behind your worry. Taking a step back to think about what’s truly in your control and what’s not can be incredibly helpful.

For more ways to ease OCD, GAD, and even routine stress, try these tips:

1. Practice mindfulness and deep breathing. Studies show that mindfulness, including meditation and focusing on your breath, can seriously reduce anxiousness. Here’s a quick breathing exercise to try, per psychologist Alice Boyes, Ph.D.: Cover one nostril with your finger so you can only breathe from one side. Breathe out, breathe in, hold briefly. Cover the open nostril, release the other side, then breathe out. Breathe in, then switch to the other side to breathe out. Repeat for a few minutes and see how you feel!

2. Spend some time in nature. Ah, yes, the great outdoors. A recent study found that spending just 20 minutes in nature (technology-free, that is) can significantly reduce your levels of the stress-hormone cortisol.

3. See a therapist. If you have full-blown GAD or find yourself struggling regularly with anxiety or obsessive thoughts, it may be time to see a professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you process your emotions, understand out your thoughts and feelings, and develop healthy coping strategies. “CBT has a fairly impressive success rate of 50 to 75% for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression,” says UK-based psychologist Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

4. Track your symptoms. Writing down when you feel anxious, the activities you’re doing around that time, and the thoughts you’re associating with your anxiety can help reveal your triggers. And yep, there’s an app for that — check out these anxiety management and mood-tracking apps for your smartphone.

5. Get moving. Exercise is proven to help reduce symptoms of both anxiety and OCD. (Have you tried thinking about literally anything else while busting your butt in a HIIT workout? It’s pretty tricky.) But you don’t have to go that hard to feel the benefits; find an activity you enjoy, even if it’s just walking around your neighborhood for half an hour on your lunch break.

See more helpful articles:

10 Self-Care Techniques for Anxiety

Self-Help Tips for Managing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Got Anxiety? Looking on the Bright Side May Help (No, Really)