Watching Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, “Your body language shapes who you are,” gave me an aha! moment about a new way to gain power over my OCD.

Our body language influences how we think and feel about ourselves

Dr. Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, states that when we are feeling powerful, we open up our stance and make ourselves bigger. When we are feeling not powerful, we close in on ourselves, hunching over. Our body language communicates how we feel.

It make sense that our body language is influenced by our thoughts and feelings. But what’s really interesting is that the opposite is also true—we can influence how we think and feel by our choice of body language. Dr. Cuddy’s research has shown that if you adopt a “high power pose” for 2 minutes*, you change levels of some key hormones in your body, which make you feel more powerful.

How does this relate to OCD? Before I answer this question, let me share a little background.  Because I’ve done a lot of my own exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), OCD doesn’t bother me much on a daily basis. But I’ll admit there have been times when I’ve slacked off on my maintenance ERP, and OCD has taken advantage, coming up with some new obsession that feels utterly scary and completely real.

During those times, I immediately go back to doing ERP. I expose myself to the feared trigger and read scripts such as, “_________________

[whatever OCD is threatening] may or may not happen. I’m going to live with this uncertainty because I want to get better. ” I read the scripts over and over and over again until I get used to the uncertainty.

OCD thinks it’s pretty powerful at times

Now, back to the question above.  During times when OCD gets the upper hand, OCD thinks it’s pretty darn powerful. I noticed that I was reinforcing OCD’s power by going into my ERP sessions all hunched over and curled into myself. My choice of body language was telling myself that I was scared, which was in fact making me feel less powerful.

I decided to change this dynamic by trying Amy Cuddy’s high power poses. I would lean back in my chair with my hands behind my head for 2 minutes and then start reading my script. Or, sometimes I would realize halfway through my ERP that I was in a low power pose, and I would immediately adopt a high power pose for at least 2 minutes and continue reading.

Changing the balance of power

The results were amazing—I felt more powerful. After doing the high power poses, I went from feeling scared of the OCD to feeling angry with it, and my scripts changed as a result:

  • “You want me to think about this, OCD?  We’re going to think about it, but we’re going to do it my way.  _________________  may or may not happen, but I can handle it!”
  • “Is this the best you can do, OCD?  Come on, make that thought even scarier.  Why?  Because I want this anxiety, because this is how I get rid of you.  Bring it on!”

For me, feeling more powerful made doing ERP a lot easier and more effective. Now, I don’t think anyone out there has done research on how power poses affect ERP (but if you are a researcher reading this, it would be a great study!), but in my own personal test it worked pretty well in changing the power balance between me and OCD.

*I encourage you to watch her entire talk, but if you’d just like to see the high power and low power poses, you can see them starting at 10:20 in the talk.

Disclaimer:  Aha! Moments are my own personal experience of OCD and are not meant to be a replacement for therapy.