If you have—or think you have—obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you may spend a lot of time trying to suppress OCD thoughts. This attempt at stopping OCD thoughts is both common and understandable, but it’s not an effective way to deal with the intrusive thoughts you don’t like—or the actions that you take as a result of those thoughts.
Best treatment for OCD
Given the impact that OCD can have on your life, it’s normal to want to know ways to overcome OCD. You might think that “one therapy fits all,” but when it comes to mental health conditions, that’s not the case. Talk therapy, for example, is not the most effective treatment for OCD. So what is? Well, the best treatment is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) known as Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Instead of avoiding your triggers, ERP involves exposing people with OCD to things that trigger their symptoms. By doing this, you work with a trained therapist on resisting rather than following your urges or compulsions in these situations.
Effective, specialized OCD therapy is hereLearn more
OCD is a vicious cycle. It hijacks your brain and convinces you that you can only handle intrusive thoughts by doing compulsive rituals. ERP helps you learn otherwise, which is why it’s the first-line treatment for people with OCD.
In ERP therapy, you explore your obsessions, avoidances and compulsions with a therapist and set goals for what you want to achieve despite your OCD symptoms. You and your therapist then design exposure exercises to help you face your fears, starting with the least distressing. You practice working your way through scary situations without turning to avoidance or compulsive rituals. In time, your anxiety decreases and you learn how to healthily respond to triggers instead of letting OCD run the show.
Are there lifestyle treatments for OCD?
To put it simply, changing your lifestyle without beginning ERP therapy is not an evidence-based method for overcoming OCD. But once you’re paired with the right ERP therapist, there can certainly be some habits that help you manage your symptoms and stay on track on your recovery journey. Let’s explore six of those tools.
Practice mindfulness to manage stress
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the moment, accepting your experience without judgment or the need to escape it. You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere. All you have to do is notice and observe your thoughts and feelings. Acknowledge that they exist and will pass, like clouds passing in the sky, and that you don’t have to act on your feelings for them to go away on their own.
Mindfulness skills are valuable to learn even before ERP work, as they help people accept the presence of thoughts and feelings (like anxiety or discomfort) that arise during exposures without engaging with them compulsively.
Don’t expect it to be easy right away. Acknowledging your thoughts without acting on them is easier said than done, especially with OCD. Find a practice that feels good to you, whether that’s meditation, yoga or something else entirely. Eventually, your OCD mindfulness practice will become easier and feel more natural.
Get plenty of exercise
Exercise is an effective way of fighting OCD stress and anxiety. It helps to refocus your mind when intrusive thoughts and compulsions arise.
Experts recommend 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once. In fact, three 10-minute sessions of mindful exercise is much better than one 30-minute session of distracted jogging or bicycling.
It’s possible to exercise and still be ruminating on something distressing, but as you continue to practice mindfulness you may find yourself better able to accept intrusive or upsetting thoughts without as much distress.
Like exercise, sleep is an anxiety antidote. Unfortunately, good sleep can be elusive for people with OCD, who have higher rates of insomnia than the general population.
Intrusive thoughts can keep you awake long into the night, robbing you of the precious shut-eye you need to fight anxious moments the next day. Fortunately, there are things you can do to manage your OCD symptoms and get better sleep. For example:
- Follow a bedtime routine to tell your body it’s time for sleep.
- Limit your screen time before bed.
- Try a supplement like melatonin or valerian route, or an herbal tea like chamomile.
Pay attention to what techniques work for you and build your bedtime routine accordingly.
Avoid nicotine and alcohol
When you have OCD, especially when you’re just learning to manage it, self-medication can be tempting. Many people turn to alcohol and nicotine, substances that have a false reputation for calming and actually worsen OCD symptoms. Alcohol feels like it relaxes you at first, but as it wears off it increases your anxiety levels. Nicotine is a stimulant from the get-go and will exacerbate your OCD symptoms.
Reach out to family and friends
OCD symptoms can sometimes be so intense that they take over your day-to-day life and keep you isolated from family and friends. Isolation can make OCD symptoms worse, so make sure you prioritize time with people you care about.
It’s okay and even helpful to talk about your OCD experiences with supportive friends. Just be careful not to ask over and over for reassurance. Excessive reassurance seeking is a common pattern in people with OCD, and while it seems harmless at first, it gets in the way of your ability to manage your symptoms independently.
Ready to look into an ERP therapist?
As mentioned above, no matter what additional lifestyle changes you implement, therapy is the most important tool in your OCD management arsenal. At NOCD, we can match you with a licensed ERP therapist who can help you to develop a personalized strategy and treatment plan.
Effective, specialized OCD therapy is hereLearn more
ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. All it takes is a 15-minute call to get started.