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Chaos Under Control: Dealing With Anxiety About Moving

How to manage the inevitable upswing in anxiety that comes with moving.

There is nothing on this godforsaken earth I despise more than moving. Not third-world poverty, not heiress-based reality television, not house centipedes with their creepy little legs. It’s moving. Moving is the worst.

When I’m stressed out, I don’t have the time or mental resources to maintain my ordinary vigilance against my obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it takes the opportunity to run rampant. When things are chaotic and out of my control, my OCD flares up, demanding I use rituals and obsessive thinking to force my environment to make sense again. And when I’m going through an important change, my OCD tries to slow things down, to drag me back to where things were certain and familiar and safe.

Unfortunately, moving out of an apartment is all about stress and chaos and change. It’s one of the worst possible events for someone struggling with OCD: the rapid dismantling of a carefully ordered space, the tiring physical work, the sudden change to a new environment, and the need to make important decisions on a moment-to-moment basis all combine, like the symbiotic organisms that cohabitate as a Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish, creating a slimy toxic blob of mental unpleasantness. Moving is a pain and sadly, like so many things in life, you don’t get a coupon on it just because you have a mental illness that makes the process more challenging for you than it is for most people. If that were the case, all paperwork to cross my desk would fit on a postage stamp, and I’d get a waiver from God permitting me to eat 3,000 calories a day without needing exercise.

Since college, I’ve had to move three times in four years, and it’s been an ordeal every time. But the upside of this is that I’ve had several opportunities to learn how to minimize and manage the inevitable upswing in symptoms that comes with moving. It’s still not something I enjoy, but it’s something I can cope with instead of dreading for months in advance.

The most important thing to recognize is that your anxiety symptoms will increase during a move. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s like death and taxes, especially if your OCD causes you to obsess about your mortality or finances. So rather than trying to eliminate your symptoms, plan ahead and figure out ways to distract from or reduce their severity. Consider making an itinerary to help you feel like you’re making progress and maintaining control over the process. Are there activities that you ordinarily use to help relax (a hot bath, exercise, a cup of tea, capping foul-mouthed anonymous preteens in Team Fortress 2)? Plan ahead to make time for these during the moving process—regular, scheduled breaks can give you a chance to pull yourself together for the next round of chores.

And as long as we’re talking about planning ahead, I recommend you do everything you can to start the moving process as early as possible. If it's financially feasible, try to overlap your old lease and your new lease by at least a week, so you have time to move at a more leisurely pace; some landlords will allow you to move in early or delay departure at a prorated rent. But even if this isn’t an option, you can still begin to pack and clean way in advance. If you’re OK with living out of suitcases for a few weeks before moving day, you can really reduce the amount of work to be done.

Finally: though not all OCD sufferers struggle with hoarding behaviors, many of us still struggle with an inclination to cling tightly to junk we should be tossing out. So consider using the move as an opportunity to clean out old stuff—take a long hard look at every knick-knack in your collection and ask yourself: is this really worth packing up and dragging to a new place?

I’m in the middle of packing right now and, much as I loathe to admit it, there are at least a few objects in my bachelor’s bower I might be able to part with and still live a productive and meaningful life. Glancing over the clutter, I find a $25 Target lamp filled with colored light bulbs that has not been turned on in four years; a messenger bag with a broken strap that I’ve convinced myself has sentimental value; three pairs of cargo shorts from before Kanye West tweeted that I’m no longer allowed to wear cargo shorts; a plush raccoon puppet named Norbert, from my old sketch comedy days, used exactly once in a skit so complicated and obscene to explain that I will never feel comfortable passing him along to an unsuspecting child.

I constantly remind myself that my OCD wants me to keep everything—and it’s much harder to justify holding onto something useless once I remind myself that doing so would put me on the same side as my anxiety disorder.

There’s nothing that can actually make moving enjoyable, short of an electrode that zaps the pleasure center of your brain every time you fill another 1.5 cu. ft. cardboard box from U-Haul. And sadly, an anxiety disorder only compounds the problem. I won’t promise that going in with a game plan can save you from this—but it might make the process only as annoying as house centipedes or reality programming, instead of worse than both combined.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013.

Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012."

Read my Psychology Today blog: Triggered

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