Obsessive-compulsive disorder (often referred to as OCD for short) is a challenging – and, in severe cases – disabling psychiatric disorder that impacts millions of people. It typically involves both irrational obsessions, which can come in the form of images, urges, impulses, or thoughts, and compulsive behaviors, such as checking, counting, ordering, or seeking reassurance. Some individuals, however, have only obsessions or compulsions, but not both. In order to be diagnosed with OCD, the obsessions and / or compulsive behaviors must cause significant distress, cause impairment, or take up an inordinate amount of the person’s time.
Therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, is the most effective form of treatment for OCD. Some individuals may also benefit from medication in addition to therapy. With proper treatment, some individuals are able to overcome OCD. However, since OCD tends to be a lifelong disorder, a more common scenario for OCD sufferers is that they learn how to manage their symptoms so that they can function relatively normally in their day to day life.
If you have OCD, there are many things you can do – in addition to therapy – that will help enhance your ability to cope with this complex disorder. Following are 10 tips:
1 – Educate yourself. Learn about OCD so you can have a better understanding of the disorder. Knowledge is power. Understanding and logic won’t make troubling obsessions disappear or allow you to easily stop the compulsive behaviors, but they can help keep things in perspective and allow you to more readily recognize the symptoms for what they are. This will enable you to stop blaming yourself, or thinking you’re stupid or undisciplined.
2 – Be open and honest with your therapist. Sometimes OCD obsessions – which by their very nature are unwanted and intrusive – can be so deeply personal (e.g. the fear that you might be gay), embarrassing, or even horrifying (e.g. violent images or impulses, or thoughts that completely go against your religious beliefs) that you’re afraid to divulge them to anyone, even your therapist. Compulsive behaviors can also feel too bizarre, extreme, or embarrassing to reveal. You may worry that your therapist will judge your character or confirm your worst fears if you’re honest about your symptoms.
However, if you keep them to yourself you limit your therapist’s ability to help you. On top of that, you inadvertently fuel your own anxiety and feelings of hopelessness by keeping your perceived “shameful secrets” pent up inside. Nothing is more empowering that finally shining the light on the “monsters under the bed” and putting them in perspective.
3 – Stick with your treatment plan. There are no quick-fixes for OCD. Therapy may be a lengthy process, and you have to participate and do the work involved in order to reap the benefits. If medication is prescribed, be sure to take it as prescribed. Don’t skip doses or stop it suddenly. If you have any concerns about side effects or feel that it isn’t helping, be sure to discuss these issues with your doctor.
4 – Learn effective ways to manage your stress. Like most medical and mental health conditions, stress can trigger an episode or exacerbate already existing symptoms. Stress is a normal part of life, but keeping it at manageable levels can make a significant difference. One of the first ways to reduce stress is to eliminate or reduce major stressors in your life. For example, if you’re in a job or relationship that is causing a lot of stress, it may be worthwhile to consider making a major change if and when possible.
There are many other things you can do to reduce and alleviate stress as well. These include practical things like prioritizing and delegating tasks, learning to say no, and making sufficient, restorative sleep a priority. They also include specific stress-alleviating activities, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, guided imagery, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation. Regular aerobic exercise (e.g. running, biking, or brisk walking) also helps reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, and improve sleep.
5 – Have a strategy when symptoms appear. Even though it can feel like OCD is controlling your life, rendering you powerless at times, you do have choices. This is why it’s important to identify the things that trigger symptoms and have a strategy in place when they appear. Many individuals find that engaging in a task that requires focus can help divert their attention when obsessive thoughts start to creep in. Slow, deep breathing can help reduce the panic and anxiety that often accompany obsessive thoughts, allowing them to resist the urge to check, seek reassurance, or engage in other compulsive behaviors. Therapy is one of the best places to learn strategies that can work for you.
6 – Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Many people with OCD often look online for answers and reassurance regarding the troubling symptoms they are experiencing. While the Internet contains a lot of valuable information, it also contains a lot of misinformation. Additionally, online forums and unmonitored support groups are often filled with well-intended (but misguided and untrained) individuals eager to give advice that may be more harmful than helpful. Time spent there can leave vulnerable individuals feeling more anxious and confused than ever. Your safest bet is to stick with legitimate mental health and medical sites.
7 – Don’t try to do exposure therapy on your own. Exposure therapy is sometimes used in the treatment of OCD. As the name implies, it involves exposure to things that trigger anxiety (e.g. watching gay porn for someone struggling with homosexual OCD). The idea is that by gradually increasing the frequency and intensity of the exposure, your anxiety decreases because you become desensitized to it.
Unfortunately, some people – desperate to alleviate their symptoms in any way possible – attempt exposure therapy on their own. Exposure therapy should only be done under the guidance of a therapist who’s qualified to treat OCD. Doing it on your own is risky because 1) you don’t know how to go about it properly, 2) you may try to do too much too fast, and 3) you don’t have the support of a therapist. Also, you won’t have a strategic plan in place that will allow you to use the process to your benefit.
If you’re interested in exposure therapy, find a therapist who is experienced in treating OCD using this particular method. A skilled therapist will be able to guide you through the process and, perhaps more importantly, know when and if you’re ready for it.
8 – Steer clear of substances. OCD can really take a heavy toll on those who suffer from it. As with other disorders, it increases the risk for substance abuse and addiction. Even if you’ve never abused alcohol or drugs, they’re best avoided when dealing with anxiety-related disorders. The temptation to self-medicate symptoms can be hard to resist. Not to mention, drug or alcohol use can potentially trigger symptoms or worsen current symptoms.
If you’ve been relying on alcohol or drugs as a means of coping, or abusing them in any way, talk to your therapist or an addiction specialist about dual diagnosis treatment. You can’t effectively treat your OCD if you’re also abusing alcohol or drugs.
9 – Surround yourself with supportive people. Living with OCD can lead to social isolation for many different reasons. Some people limit their interactions with others due to shame, or because their symptoms take up so much of their time. Some lose friends due to their “quirky” OCD behaviors. Sadly, isolation can lead to an exacerbation of symptoms by adding stress to your life and leaving you with even more time and privacy to obsess and engage in compulsive behaviors.
In order to get better (and cope more effectively), it’s essential to find ways to bolster your support system. One of the best ways to do this is to find an OCD support group – preferably one that’s local so you can attend in person, as opposed to an online support group. If your closest friends or family members have pulled away, it might be helpful to talk to them about your OCD in order to help them better understand it. The less you allow it to define who you are (e.g., not making every conversation about your OCD), the more comfortable others will feel around you.
10 – Be patient with yourself. OCD can cause a lot of doubt, anxiety, and confusion. The obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors will seem blatantly ridiculous to you at times. It’s easy to get down on yourself, believing that your symptoms occur because you’re weak, stupid, or undisciplined. But OCD, like many disorders, can afflict anyone. In fact, it can strike out of the blue, leaving even the most competent and intelligent individuals feeling as if someone just yanked away the rug that had been beneath them.
Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up. You’re not stupid. You’re not weak. You’re in the throes of an often devastating psychiatric disorder. It’s not your fault that you have OCD.
OCD can be treated, but it takes time and effort, and a commitment to get better. Even the best therapist can’t work miracles overnight, so don’t expect them. If you get into therapy, understand that it may be many weeks or even months before you begin to notice any substantial benefits. It’s crucial that you’re patient with yourself, as well as the process.
OCD doesn’t have to ruin your life or leave you feeling like an anxiety-ridden mess each and every day. If you’re not yet working with a therapist, the sooner you find one who’s qualified to treat OCD, the better. That’s a crucial first step, along with the tips above. If you’re already in therapy (or have had treatment and are striving to maintain the progress you’ve made), following the tips outlined above can help you cope more effectively.