Being Happy Gives Me a Horrible Sensation in My Heart

Reader’s Question

I am a 33-year-old female with OCD. I have been married for 14 years, and I have two sons ages 15 and 9. I am a very happy, upbeat person who loves life! I had a form of OCD that was with cleaning and keeping items in my home straight, etc.

A few years ago my husband committed infidelity in our marriage, and my past compulsions turned into Obsessive scary thoughts of hurting my youngest son. I now have no OCD with cleaning and straightening. I was so terrified of these thoughts, not knowing why this was happening and then I became educated and I know this is just another form of OCD. I feel better knowing that I have the tools to cope with this OCD.

My question is this: every time I start to get “happy” about the stuff I used to love, like shopping, or planning my future, I get this horrible sensation in my heart and what goes through my mind is “Why even get happy when something may happen to you, if you get hurt by someone again or what if you hurt someone”? This is very strange and for the life of me I cannot figure this out. I feel like this is holding me back in every way, if it were not for this than I feel I would be complete.

Psychologist’s Reply

You are correct that your obsessive thoughts about harming your son are part of OCD — just in another direction rather than cleaning and arranging things. While you were able to understand and manage the OCD aspect of your situation, you’ve encountered another clinical situation that is related to Emotional Memory.

We normally think of being traumatized as being involved in an assault, tornado, auto accident, or other horrific physical situation. However, we can also be emotionally traumatized by emotionally-charged marital situations. As a normally happy and upbeat person, you were suddenly traumatized by your husband’s infidelity. That news not only prompted an increase in your OCD symptoms (which is very common), but your brain recorded the details and the emotions of the time as well — forming Emotional Memory (see article on this website). Emotional Memories can be triggered by sights, sounds, tastes, locations…and emotional states.

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At this point, while you’ve survived the marital crisis, when you approach a happy, upbeat emotional state, your brain triggers the Emotional Memory of the infidelity. When this happens, the misery and sense of helplessness surfaces again as you “reexperience” the past infidelity. This is actually very common, and many individuals who have been traumatized “pair” emotional events with social situations and emotional levels. I’ve worked with a client who discovered infidelity in his spouse shortly after a job promotion. Since that time, he reexperiences the anguish of infidelity each time he is being considered for a promotion on the job. He actually passed by two promotions before discovering the connection.

You can expect to reexperience the “gut reaction” of the infidelity each time you near that emotional state of being happy and carefree. Recognize that it’s a leftover emotional memory — not an omen or reaction to being happy again. By using some of the strategies I’ve discussed in my Emotional Memory article, you can bypass this automatic memory process and go on with your life.

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