Before becoming an OCD specialist myself, I became acquainted with the condition in a different way: I suffered with it for years, before learning to manage it through exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.
This has given me a unique perspective as someone who treats OCD professionally—I’ve actually been in the same position as my therapy members. Drawing from my experience both living with OCD and treating it, here are the 5 main things that I believe anyone should know if they hope to recover from OCD:
1. Don’t get caught up in the content of your thoughts
You must recognize that at the core of the condition exist doubt, uncertainty, and deep feelings of responsibility, no matter what theme or content the thoughts have. For example, someone may think they have checked to ensure the stove was off but they never quite feel sure enough, so they go back but then the same pattern repeats, over and over again. They are unable to accept that they have already completed this action, or at least they cannot feel that they have it with certainty. This doesn’t actually have anything to do with their habits around the stove, their ability to keep themselves safe, or the reliability of their memory. Instead, it comes down to the doubt instilled by OCD.
Individuals with OCD often latch onto certain themes, and their intrusive thoughts may center around one or more core fears. Still, these themes or specific fears are not the driving force behind the condition. We also know that the themes that people with OCD struggle with can switch over time. Sometimes these even go away for long periods of time and then return again. That’s why it’s important to treat the underlying issue of OCD, as opposed to the content of the thoughts.
2. Your thoughts are not actually the problem
Thoughts do not always have any particular meaning—certainly not the meaning we might give to them. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to get rid of these thoughts to have a meaningful and successful life. The goal of recovery is not to extinguish the thoughts; the truth is that everyone gets intrusive, unwanted thoughts from time to time, even those without OCD. Rather, the goal is to allow these thoughts to pass by without interfering in our lives to the same extent.
People with OCD also tend to engage in thought-action fusion, meaning that they believe that thinking something is the same as doing something. It is imperative to learn that thoughts do not need to be labeled “good” or “bad.” Remember that everyone experiences intrusive or unwanted thoughts—we cannot control what thoughts pop into our heads, but we can learn to change how we respond to them.
3. You can choose to respond differently
This is where you have power and control in a disorder that all too often leaves you feeling as though you are spinning out of control. I always tell my therapy members that we can expose ourselves to triggers, but they must respond differently if they want to get better. What I mean by this is that they must continually make the choice not to engage in the compulsions they have relied on. These compulsions have at times brought them a temporary reprieve from symptoms, but they only reinforce obsessions and fear over time.
By responding to fear and doubt by engaging in compulsions, people with OCD teach themselves that by doing the compulsion they have averted danger. They have unwittingly accepted the premise that obsessions pose a threat, but there was never an actual threat. It was all a trick. As they continue to engage in these behaviors more and more, the pattern becomes stronger, and the perceived threat of their obsessions feels even greater.
All of this can happen so seamlessly, completely beneath the surface. People with OCD often do not even recognize what has happened each time they respond to fear and doubt with compulsions. So the cycle continues until compulsive responses are changed with effort.
4. You can tolerate feelings of distress and anxiety
The process of learning that we can actually tolerate distress, anxiety, and uncertainty is crucial to living life in recovery. I often say that I have never met a single person who says that they love to experience anxiety, but that these feelings are tolerable. While most people understand that these feelings are an inevitable part of living, those with OCD may believe that they are incapable of successfully dealing with them without compulsions.
This belief may lead them to avoid anything that could potentially bring about these emotions at all costs. On the contrary, it is crucial when you have OCD to learn that you can tolerate distress and sit in discomfort. You don’t have to like it, but you can manage it.
5. OCD is highly treatable
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is the choice treatment for this condition, alongside medication for some. It’s important to realize that although OCD is considered chronic, it is possible to live free from the suffering it causes.
ERP works to provide long-term relief from anxiety and distress by gradually exposing you to the situations that trigger your obsessions, while guiding you in resisting compulsions that only reinforce your fears. The idea is that people with OCD can learn to habituate to these feelings, teaching their brains that they can “get used to” these difficult emotions and experience them safely. With guided practice and consistency, ERP allows people to regain control over the parts of their lives that were impacted by OCD, and their fears and obsessions often reduce over time as a result.
Specialty-trained, qualified, and licensed OCD specialists will never ask you to do things that go against your values or that will cause you or others harm, nor will they ever force you to do anything that you are unwilling to do. Instead, a successful ERP therapist will guide, support, and motivate you. They will come up with reasonable and creative ways for you to gradually face the fears that are holding you back from living the life that you want to live.
I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment. We’ll assist you in either getting started with a licensed therapist at NOCD who has specialty training in OCD and ERP, or connect you to other resources that might be helpful.