“In Africa there is a concept known as 'ubuntu' - the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievement of others”. Nelson Mandela
Growing Happy Inspiration of the week is: Craig Shirley
It’s a real pleaure to be able to share the story of someone whose journey I have been able to follow from the sidelines. As a 12 year old playing football on a Sunday afternoon it was easy to ignore Craig’s lack of confidence and absences as the manifestations of a shy teenager. It was only later that I learnt of the inner turmoil and often crippling condition that Craig and his family were working so hard to manage.
To see his confidence and contentment grow through college, university and finally as a successful therapist and co-founder of his own OCD clinic (not to forget the starring performance on ITV’s This Morning) has been really special.
Craig is a humble, warm, engaging and generous person who is testament to the fact that our thoughts do not have to control us, and over time (with the right help) we can tame the relentless flames of fear and anxiety.
If Craig’s story resonates with you or someone you know, please get in touch and if needed, we will put you in touch with people who can help.
Tell us a little bit about your condition?
I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) when I was 6 years old, and continued to suffer with the condition for over 11 years, finally recovering just before my 18th birthday. The condition started off fairly stereotypically, with many classical, commonly known compulsions such as switching light switches off repeatedly, feeling like there were lucky and unlucky numbers and seeking reassurance from parents that nothing bad was going to happen. Over time they increased in severity causing me to isolate myself from friends and family, ultimately becoming crippled by fear. My own brain truly felt like a prison; I quickly started to develop lots more compulsions: mentally problem solving everything until I felt that I had organised and neutralised all of the negative thoughts. Everything had to feel ‘just right’, a common trait of OCD.
When I was 17 I attended a two-week intensive treatment course specialising in OCD. It was here that I learned to understand the condition, and to not take my thoughts at face value. After lots of practice, I managed to stop believing the scary stories that were coming into my head and learnt new ways to face my fears. It was hard work, but I believe it is something everyone could do when shown how. After my recovery, I decided to dedicate my studies to Psychology, helping others manage and overcome their OCD and anxieties.
What are your key tips or recommendations for someone who may be suffering from OCD or an anxiety disorder?
Learn and read around the condition
As a first step to recovery it is so important to understand the condition. Without some basic knowledge, it’s so easy to become a puppet to your brain, continually spiralling downwards into a cycle of obsessive behaviour. Education and improved knowledge won’t solve every issue, but it can go a long way to alleviating symptoms.
OCD often brings with it quite a negative stigma, and it’s important that the person experiencing the symptoms visits a professional and explains what they are experiencing, in order to receive the correct help. Whether it be the NHS or privately funded, there is no need to suffer alone and in silence. One of the most effective treatment methods for OCD is to practise Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERP), and it is likely that you will need an experienced therapist to commit to these exercises.
Relaxation techniques, Meditation & Mindfulness
Inside of our brains, we have something called the amygdala, more commonly known as the little ‘almond’, that controls the fight, flight and freeze response. This part of the brain needs to be ‘shown’, through behavioural change, that the things we often fear are irrational and over time the brain will eventually go “oh…okay, maybe this isn’t as dangerous as I thought”. Everyone has an amygdala, but for people with OCD this becomes hyper-sensitive, almost like the volume on a dial has been turned up full. Thoughts get louder, emotions become stronger, and we start to try and combat these experiences by performing ritualistic behaviour.
By practising relaxation techniques, from breathing exercises to laughing yoga, our bodies can become more relaxed, which in turn has a positive impact on our state of our mind. Increased stress can lead to more repetitive and louder thoughts, so this is a great way of doing something today that can make a huge difference.
Equally important is creating a positive, rather than negative, relationship with our thoughts; recognising over time that they do not control us. Meditation can help us watch our thoughts come and go, being aware of them, non-judgementally, without attaching to them. Just like building muscles at the gym, you need to practise. The more you practice mindfully watching your intrusive, negative thoughts, the better you’ll become at seeing them for what they are: meaningless distractions that you can simply ignore if you wish. Practising mindfulness for just 10 minutes a day has been shown to have a positive impact; improving clarity, empathy, energy levels and general happiness.
What’s your number one book recommendation?
On the face of it a little unusual, but I assure you it’s a brilliant book, with a lot of methodology and science behind it. The book is called “F*** It: A Spiritual Guide”, by John C. Parkin. At the book’s core, the message is simple: take steps towards acceptance every day. By saying the two simple words, or alternatively “So what!”, we learn to accept the things in life that we can’t change, promoting both internal psychological freedom and increased self-esteem. Saying “F*** It” offers a simple, yet effective step towards acceptance and inner peace.
What are you doing now?
I am currently the co-founder of a family run specialist centre for OCD based in the South West of England. After my first-hand experience, I felt both a passion and an obligation to find ways of helping others. After achieving a degree in Psychology, I went on to study a wide array of therapeutic techniques, qualifying as an integrative therapist who specifically works with anxiety disorders and OCD. We currently work closely with the NHS supporting clients from all over the world, as well as helping to educate other professionals and family members about the condition. We are active in the media, looking to raise positive awareness of OCD, and show anyone suffering from this potentially debilitating condition that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Final thoughts and recommendations?
The thing that surprised me most about working in this field, was just how many people appear to be suffering from both OCD and other anxiety related disorders. It almost feels like an epidemic, with so many people out there suffering who simply can’t find, or don’t know how to find, the correct help.
I advise anyone with the condition to try and read around what they are experiencing, to educate themselves with the idea of taking part in some exposure response prevention program. The idea of facing our fears can seem at first, impossible to think about, but once we understand ourselves and our brain a little more, this knowledge can support the sufferer in making more rational, informed decisions about their recovery. It is likely that anybody with OCD will also need to find a therapist that understands the condition, and can help them with the behavioural component of exposure. We are talking about habits here, so once we show ourselves that maybe, just maybe our OCD is lying to us, then we can find a new clarity, allowing us to work on exposures at home with more success. When repeated, these break the cycle of OCD, distinctly changing our belief systems and creating a much healthier, happier relationship with our thoughts.
If I can do it, so can you! Good luck on your journey.