Anyone who’s dealt with the distress and anxiety of OCD knows how overwhelming it can be. In those moments of distress, it’s natural to turn to coping skills as a way of self-soothing. While the intention behind any coping skill is good, their effects can vary—and when you’re struggling with OCD, coping mechanisms that seem useful in other instances can end up having an adverse effect.
You might wonder how this could be possible. After all, how could something that helps you feel better be harmful? OCD can be characterized by the brain’s alarm system working in overdrive, causing individuals to feel extreme anxiety and discomfort when there is no actual threat or danger. In this situation, certain coping skills, while they may provide short-term relief, ultimately reinforce the distressing thoughts a person is experiencing. There are several ways this can happen.
When does a coping mechanism become a problem?
People in distress often turn to self-soothing behaviors, or coping mechanisms, to feel better. This self-soothing can take many forms, some more helpful than others. Whether a person has OCD or not, calming down by engaging in a behavior with negative consequences does them more harm than good. Examples of this include excessively drinking alcohol or using unprescribed substances to dull or numb emotions. This behavior can also take the form of compulsive eating or shopping. While these forms of self-soothing may dull a person’s emotional pain in the moment, they often cause far more negative consequences in the long run.
Virtually anything can become problematic in excess. An example of this can be seen in many people who are experiencing depression. While the common behavior of staying inside or sleeping all day can feel good to them in the moment, eventually, it often leads to increased depression and a worsening of their distress.
The real root of these negative coping mechanisms lies in escapism, the idea that one cannot tolerate emotional pain and must avoid it. In OCD treatment, we call this distress intolerance. For people struggling with OCD, it can feel impossible to tolerate the anxiety or emotions brought on by obsessions, leading them to avoid these emotions entirely. But by learning to experience these emotions and coping with them, no matter how hard it feels, you can retrain your brain to understand that you are capable of getting through the discomfort.
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The gray area of coping skills
Certain behaviors enter a gray area when applied to OCD, not because they are not helpful in general, but rather, because they are more likely to be used as a means for someone with OCD to avoid feeling tough emotions. When a person is experiencing anxiety and distress associated with OCD symptoms, utilizing the following coping skills is typically not suggested, as they can end up not providing long-term assistance with obsessions and the feelings these bring:
- Breathing and relaxation techniques: This commonly recommended coping skill involves focusing your attention on your breaths or sensations in your body. While helpful in other situations, these techniques can go against the principles of exposure and response (ERP) therapy, the gold-standard treatment for OCD, because they involve trying to “do something” when you feel panicky. ERP teaches us that we don’t need to “do anything” We can tolerate these feelings. The more you do something when uncomfortable feelings arise, the more you’re telling your brain that something really is wrong and you need to solve it. Again, these techniques are not “bad” tools for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Issues only arise when they are used in a compulsive way to combat OCD.
- Thought replacement or self-reassurance: For the person with OCD, this can be a compulsion that will ultimately continue the OCD loop. We don’t need to “do” anything with intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, or urges. Giving them meaning and importance, or responding to them at all only serves to increase their presence. The best way to handle an intrusive thought when you have OCD is to passively acknowledge it, and then continue on with whatever you were previously doing. I always say, “It can hang out if it wants to, and I will not pay attention to it.” Remaining non-judgemental and not labeling thoughts as “good” or “bad” is important. A thought is neutral, even if it goes against what you value. In OCD, we know that intrusive thoughts are often ego-dystonic. This means that they go against the person’s true desires and goals. That is why these particular thoughts get “stuck” and others don’t. We also know that reassurance ultimately makes a person feel less assured when they are experiencing OCD symptoms.
- Avoidance or distraction: Distracting yourself or avoiding triggers will ultimately increase OCD symptoms in the long run. As difficult as it can feel in the moment, the more you sit with hard emotions, the more your brain and body learn that they can get through them. You can tolerate difficult emotions and you don’t need to “do” anything to get rid of them. They will pass on their own. This important lesson is learned through practice and experience.
Self-care can be self-soothing, when it’s not a compulsion
Whether or not you have OCD, there are certain things you can do to impact how you feel mentally and physically. But while these activities can be helpful, it’s important to note that even if you do all or most of them, you can still struggle with severe and persistent mental issues. This doesn’t mean that what you’re going through is your fault. Mental health issues are complex, and you shouldn’t blame yourself for experiencing them.
With that said, here are some practices that can support your mental health:
- Getting enough sleep: The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. Sleep impacts so many areas of your life, and not getting enough of it can leave you unable to cope with life’s day-to-day demands. Sleep deprivation can also lead to increased anxiety and depression.
- Exercising: Getting active—whatever you choose to do—can have a huge impact on your mood. Physical activity helps manage stress, and something as simple as walking for 15 minutes a day can have a lasting impact on your overall health and wellness.
- Being mindful: We all experience thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges inherently as human beings, and practicing mindfulness helps us learn to observe them without judging them. Being mindful means recognizing that we cannot always control what we are thinking and feeling, but we do get to control what we focus our attention on. OCD can make us get stuck on these thoughts and feelings, following them down rabbit holes of rumination. Mindfulness challenges these tendencies, encouraging us to stay present in the here and now and lead lives based on our values.
- Eating well and limiting caffeine intake: Nutrition’s impact on overall mental health and feelings of wellness is just one of the many reasons it’s important. While the verdict of how caffeine directly impacts OCD seems to still be out, caffeine is generally considered to increase feelings of anxiety, making it worthwhile to consider limiting your intake.
- Staying busy, but not in a distracting way: The idea is to engage in activities that are meaningful to you, not as a way to avoid uncomfortable emotions, but as a way to bring yourself joy. People who take time for themselves to read, journal, or do other things that bring them peace often experience lower levels of stress. Spiritual practices can also bring a sense of comfort.
- Getting support from those around you: Connecting with people who care for you can be a powerful source of comfort and support. Socialize, even if you don’t necessarily feel like it. Joining a support group or finding online support and resources for OCD are great places to start.
Treatment for OCD will teach you the difference between self-soothing practices and compulsive coping skills
Coping skills and self-soothing practices are not wrong or bad in and of themselves. These skills can be beneficial in many areas of life, and should be used regularly if they are helpful to you. But when you have OCD, certain coping skills, while helpful in the moment, are not ideal for long-term symptom management.
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If you want to learn how to interrupt the OCD cycle and change your responses to difficult emotions, NOCD can help. Our licensed therapists specialize in ERP therapy, the most effective OCD treatment, and are all trained by the top OCD experts and researchers who’ve designed some of the world’s leading treatment programs. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with one and get started with OCD treatment.