7 ways To Overcome OCD

Apr 25, 20246 min
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Imagine a person with OCD, what comes to your mind? Sometimes when people think of OCD, they think of funny characters from TV shows or movies who like to sit in a particular seat, or who need to wash their hands repeatedly, but in reality, OCD is no laughing matter.

American Psychology Association describes OCD as a disorder characterised by recurrent intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that prompt the performance of neutralising rituals (compulsions). 

  • Obsessions are uncontrollable thoughts images, or impulses that repeat over and over again. They generally revolve around themes of contamination, dirt, or illness and doubts about certain actions (e.g., excessively worrying that one has neglected to turn off a home appliance). 
  • On the other hand, compulsions are used to “fix” or “correct” the thoughts or feelings brought on by a person’s obsessions. Typical compulsive behaviours include repetitive cleaning or washing, checking, ordering, repeating, and hoarding (American Psychology Association, 2023). 

Those living with OCD are constantly trying to beat their fears and obsessive thoughts through the false sense of control their compulsions provide them. However, the reassurance they gain through acting on their compulsions because of the fear of their obsessions is fleeting. Rather, it creates a vicious cycle between the obsessions and the compulsions. With each obsessive thought, our fear keeps increasing and the more we rely on compulsions for that stress relief, the more we ignore dealing with our obsessions effectively making it a vicious cycle of anxiety. 

So how does one beat OCD? Let’s explore ways we can overcome this vicious cycle. 

How to overcome OCD?  

  1. Acknowledge your OCD: OCD can feel like an excessive, uncontrollable force that scares us. But if we allow our OCD to be a faceless villain, we give it more power over us. So give it a name and a shape and bring your OCD out of the shadows, making it easier to acknowledge its existence. Viewing OCD as a separate entity helps us remember that OCD is not our fault and that there is no reason to be ashamed.
  2. Start an OCD Journal: An OCD journal can help you keep track of your triggers or identify new ones, and help you monitor the improvements and relapses in  OCD. The journal is to record what happened after you complete a compulsion. Keeping this record would help you understand the pattern of your triggers, the obsessive-compulsive thinking that ensues and how you choose to engage in compulsions to temporarily resolve the distress. Understanding these patterns is how we gain insight into how we can effectively deal with our OCD.

Journal Example:

Situation 

Issue

Solution

Resolution

Used a public keypad

The keypad was covered in germs. I could contract a serious illness and spread it to everyone I love.

Wash hands and arms

Washed hands and arms three times for 30 seconds for each washing cycle. Then dry hands for two 30-second cycles.

When you are done journaling for the day and read over your entries, then ask yourself the below questions.

  • Why did this situation trigger my OCD? What was my environment like during this situation?  
  • What thoughts came up for me in this situation?
  • How did the resolution make me feel?
  • What bodily sensations could I observe during this situation?
  • What would have happened if I hadn’t performed my resolutions?
  • What evidence is there that shows that my fear, “contract a serious illness and spreading it to everyone I love” would come true?
  • Have there been any similar situations that triggered the same thoughts and compulsion? 
  1. Refocus Attention: If we recognise the triggers of our obsessions and compulsions, then we can refocus our attention on the situation. Refocusing attention can be done physically or mentally. 

Physical Refocusing Strategies:

  • Doing jumping jacks
  • Get up and walk around
  • Hum a song
  • Play with a fidget toy or similar small object
  • Pet a furry animal such as your cat or dog

Mental Refocusing Strategies:

  • List everything you see
  • Name every colour you can think of
  • Spell your name and your friend’s names backward
  • Say the alphabet backward
  • Recite the lyrics to your favourite song
  1. Beat the obsession: Although it may sound ridiculous, we can use our creativity to make imagery to tackle obsessive thinking. For example, Let’s pretend the triggering thought is an evil, bad alien sent to destroy the world. Really picture it in your mind. Imagine your army of heroes are taking their laser guns and bringing all those nasty aliens down. Of course, your "army of heroes" is actually your logical/rational thoughts winning the battle.
  2. Accept the thought: As I said, obsessive-compulsive thinking makes us feel so unsafe and scared that we become desperate and would do anything to make that feeling go away. And once we have started on the vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions, we become quick to not complete the train of obsessive thoughts and jump to compulsions just to feel better.  

To stop this obsessive-compulsive thinking, we would need to accept the thought. That means instead of getting to the bottom of it (which will never happen) or acting on compulsions, you simply observe the thought. The subtle observation allows us to acknowledge the presence of the thought without emotionally engaging with it. And so we get to accept the thought and ultimately make the obsession less terrifying.

  1. Face the fear: As humans, we are programmed to see or feel danger and run. It is part of our fight/flight instinct. So, it makes sense that it is instinctual and intuitive for the OCD person to avoid facing their fears. The problem is, that the compulsions we act on due to our obsessions, send strong messages to our brain that the obsession really is dangerous and deadly. But the only way to make the avoided situation or obsession "safe" again is to stop avoiding it. Although avoiding the obsession brings us relief, it is very short-term in nature, making it less effective when dealing with OCD.  
  2. Seek professional help: The ultimate strategy for overcoming OCD is stopping rituals and safety behaviours. Research has shown that this can be achieved through a therapeutic treatment called exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP involves going into situations that scare you (exposure) without performing rituals (response prevention). Seeking a therapist who can coach you through ERP would help you stay long enough in feared situations to beat the obsessive-compulsive thinking. For those who may be resistant to jumping right into real-world situations, imaginal exposure (IE), sometimes referred to as visualization, can be a helpful way to alleviate anxiety. With visualization, the therapist helps create a scenario that elicits the anxiety someone might experience in a routine situation. As they habituate to the discomfort, with decreased anxiety over time, they are gradually desensitized to the feared situation, making them more willing to move the process to real-life situations. Another technique used in symptoms for OCD is Habit Reversal Training. It includes awareness training, introduction of a competing response, social support, positive reinforcement, and often relaxation techniques. Awareness training may be practising the habit in front of a mirror, focusing on the sensations of the body and specific muscles before and while engaging in the behaviour, and identifying and recording when the habit occurs. For someone with OCD who has the compulsion to touch things symmetrically, introducing a competing response would be directing the client to tense the opposite arm, holding it tightly against their body, preventing them from completing the ritual. These techniques increase awareness of how and when the urges develop, making it more likely that an individual will be able to intervene and make a change.

The goal of therapy would be to develop a tolerance for our fears and learn that, if you take no protective measures, nothing at all will happen. 

References

American Psychology Association. (2023). APA Dictionary of Psychology. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://dictionary.apa.org/obsessive-compulsive-disorder

Kaufman, I. (2020, June 22). 5 OCD Hacks. Psychology Today. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-beginning-the-end/202006/5-ocd-hacks

Miller, H. A. (2017, July 10). 7 Strategies to Cope With OCD. Family Psychiatry & Therapy. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://familypsychnj.com/2017/07/7-strategies-cope-ocd/

Penzel, F. (2019). Ten Things You Need To Know To Overcome OCD – Beyond OCD. Beyond OCD. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://beyondocd.org/expert-perspectives/articles/ten-things-you-need-to-know-to-overcome-ocd

Riven, L. (2021, November 4). Managing Magical Thinking OCD. Psychology Today. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/demystifying-ocd/202111/managing-magical-thinking-ocd

Riven, L. (2022, January 16). OCD Is a Tug-of-War That You Win by Letting Go. Psychology Today. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/demystifying-ocd/202201/ocd-is-tug-war-you-win-letting-go

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Shama Shah
Therapy and Supervision