Yoga has been found to help people manage their stress levels, improve their mood and even reduce symptoms of depression. Yoga can also help manage obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a chronic mental health condition consisting of intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. While not a treatment for OCD — it won’t cure OCD or magically make it get easier to manage — a regular yoga practice can be part of a larger strategy to help you manage OCD symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Yoga is a set of spiritual, physical and mental practices that originated in ancient India. When you walk into a typical yoga class today, you’ll likely experience a combination of various types of physical exercise, movement, stretching and mindfulness-based practices. All of these components of yoga can help OCD by reducing symptoms of anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Though stress and anxiety aren’t the cause of OCD, they can trigger intrusive thoughts or make them worse.
Like all physical exercise, yoga can help you feel more relaxed, improve your cognitive functioning and improve your sleep. People with OCD have a higher-than-normal rate of insomnia. This is often a result of experiencing obsessions and engaging in compulsions throughout the night. Practicing healthy sleep hygiene is a helpful way to manage this, and exercise is a recommended component.
The practices taught in a yoga class help to refocus your mind when intrusive thoughts and compulsions arise through mindfulness. Mindfulness can be defined as an awareness of your mental and physical state in the present moment. A typical yoga class might include a series of movements where you’re focused on connecting to the natural pattern of your breath. Most of us are not thinking about our breath when we go through the day. Whether we’re sitting at a desk, eating lunch, or watching TV, the fact that we are breathing is almost never on our minds.
The practice of bringing awareness to one’s breath is a large part of what makes yoga effective for stress relief. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is because your mind can only fully focus on one thought at a time. So when you’re paying attention to your breath, you can’t be thinking about your to-do list. Even if this only lasts for a few seconds, it still feels like a breath of fresh air from the ever-present racing thoughts in your mind. With practice, the time you are able to focus on your breath will increase, and the rate of thoughts popping into your mind will decrease. This can especially help those with OCD relieve stress and potentially experience a reduction in intrusive thoughts.
When people talk about mindfulness, they might think of someone sitting on a meditation cushion for long hours until their mind is completely blank. The problem is, for people used to living at the fast-paced speed of modern life, it can be difficult to sit down, close your eyes and suddenly begin to meditate. Many people find yoga to be an accessible and effective way to practice mindfulness. During a yoga practice, you’ll do this by paying attention to your breath, your physical movements or both. When you’re moving your body and challenging yourself physically, you may find that it’s easier to become aware of and focus on your breath.
Yoga can also help you practice paying attention to your thoughts without reacting to them, which can be particularly helpful for managing intrusive thoughts from OCD. So let’s say you’re in a yoga class and all of a sudden the thought, “I can’t wait to eat dinner tonight,” comes into your mind. Instead of reacting to it by thinking about exactly what you’ll cook and how good it’ll taste, you’ll just practice noticing this thought. If you keep on paying attention to the breath and movements in your yoga practice, this thought will eventually fall away. More thoughts will come up, but with practice, they will come and go with relative ease, and you will find you can reliably notice them without reacting.
At times you may also experience intrusive OCD thoughts during a class. “I have to leave and go check if I left the candles on in my apartment. It’s urgent!” Instead of reacting by engaging in the compulsion, the goal is the same: to practice observing your thoughts without reacting. To learn it is possible to have these thoughts and let them go or do nothing. When you’ve had practice doing this with less meaningful thoughts, like dinner recipes, you may find it easier to do when the stakes feel higher. With practice, you may also find that it is easier to practice mindfulness outside of a yoga class as well.
It’s important to emphasize that while yoga may help reduce the stress that exacerbated OCD symptoms, OCD is a chronic mental health condition and can’t be treated with yoga alone. Further, it is not recommended to jump into yoga practice whenever you feel intrusive thoughts brewing. Despite being a possibly beneficial practice, positive and helpful practices like yoga can become compulsions when used to intentionally avoid or neutralize intrusive thoughts. When it comes to treating the condition, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the gold standard.
Observing your intrusive thoughts without reacting to them is a large part of ERP therapy. The idea is that when you continually give in to the urge to complete compulsions, it only strengthens your need to engage them. On the other hand, when you prevent yourself from engaging in your compulsions, you teach yourself a new way to respond, provide yourself with novel learning (e.g., the feared outcome possibly didn’t occur, and will very likely experience a noticeable reduction in your anxiety. ERP therapy specifically targets your obsessions and compulsions and works to help you tolerate the uncertainty around the underlying fear that’s driving these obsessive thoughts.
If you’re interested in learning more about how ERP therapy can help treat your OCD, you can sign up for a 15-minute call today. At NOCD, we can match you with a licensed ERP therapist who can help you develop a personalized strategy and plan. 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.