The other night, I was in bed and ready to sleep, but I had a problem. My thumping heartbeat was keeping me awake. My heart was beating at a normal speed, and it wasn’t abnormal, it was just pounding so hard I couldn’t ignore it.
This wasn’t the first time this has happened. It lasted for over a year the first time, thought EKGs and doctor’s visits found nothing out of the ordinary. I’d become aware of my pounding heart throughout the day, and every night I’d lie awake trying to focus on anything else, so I could sleep.
The difference between then and now is that now, I know I have OCD. That’s why, when it happened a couple of days ago for the first time in a long time, it clicked. Googling “OCD heartbeat” turned up a bunch of articles about sensorimotor OCD that were perfect descriptions of my problem with my heartbeat.
Symptoms of Sensorimotor OCD
I figured I’d write a little about it, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen sensorimotor OCD symptoms on a list of more general signs of OCD. When I was first diagnosed and looked up symptoms, it was such a relief to see signs of medical obsessions and harm OCD listed among the more stereotypical symptoms like hand washing.
So what are symptoms of sensorimotor OCD?
- Obsessions focus on normal bodily functions, such as a heartbeat, breathing, blinking, swallowing, extra awareness on a specific body part, or occasionally social functions like eye contact. (I have this one in spades, too: Have I made eye contact too long? Do they think I’m weird and staring? If I look away will they think I’m lying? Have I been blinking enough? Too much?)
- The main compulsion related to this are attempts at distraction, which often don’t work.
- This kind of OCD often comes with other, more typical types, or with general anxiety disorder or panic disorder.
There are a few more examples at Beyond OCD.
How To Deal With It
I think Janet Singer’s advice in the first link is good. The first time I began obsessing over my heartbeat, I’m not sure how I got past it. Knowing how I was dealing with my obsessions at the time, I’m pretty sure I finally just got exhausted with worrying about it and my OCD brain jumped to rabies or something equally awful instead. This probably isn’t the best way to deal with it.
But when everything clicked the other night and I realized that my thumping heart wasn’t a sign of a physical illness, but just a little OCD sneaking out, I did what my therapist has been helping me with and what Janet suggests in her article: I sat with it mindfully, breathing slowly in time with my heartbeat until I fell asleep — and it didn’t take nearly as long as I expected it to. When I woke up the next day, my heartbeat wasn’t bothering me anymore.
Will it work the next time? I hope so. Every time sitting with my obsessions and breathing through it works, I get a little more confident it will work again the next time. And it’s definitely more effective than trying to distract myself ever was.