Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, affects 2% to 3% of the U.S. population—that’s around 4 to 9 million people. If you’re one of them, or think you might be, you may wonder how long it will take for it to find relief from your symptoms. As a trained therapist, I can tell you that everyone’s OCD journey is different, but with the help of a trained provider, treatment for OCD can begin to take effect relatively quickly. Curious to learn more?
How is OCD treated, and is it effective?
If you have OCD, you have options when it comes to treatment. But the most successful is a form of behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention, or ERP. Unlike traditional talk therapy, which can actually backfire in cases of OCD and make symptoms worse, ERP—which was developed specifically to treat OCD—is clinically proven to be highly effective in the majority of people.
How does ERP work? A trained therapist who specializes in OCD will take the time to understand your symptoms and create a custom ERP therapy plan specifically for you. Starting with something least likely to elicit anxiety—for example, your therapist may simply show you a photo of things out of order, if you have an obsession with symmetry—you’ll have the support and encouragement you need to resist a compulsive response. You’ll be given tools to engage in “self-talk” that eventually quiets the irrational thoughts going through your mind—such as the fear that something bad will happen if everything around you isn’t arranged in perfect symmetry—until your anxiety level declines. Only when you’re comfortable with the initial experiment will your therapy progress so you can conquer bigger fears.
Ultimately, ERP with a trained therapist will help you live the life you would choose to live if OCD did not exist. You won’t be riddled with distress from intrusive thoughts, like “What if I dropped my baby right out of my arms?” You’ll no longer spend hours each day performing compulsions [such as constantly asking your partner for reassurance that you didn’t “mess up” your child. And the things that matter the most to you won’t be at risk of slipping away. For instance, instead of constantly ruminating about whether you’re a bad mother who wants to harm her child, you’ll be able to live free of these thoughts and feel joy in parenting.
By beginning ERP on your own without a therapist, you risk starting on an exposure exercise that you’re not ready for, which is like lifting weights that are too heavy for you instead of starting with the right load for you. With an ERP therapist guiding you the whole time, you’ll practice confronting your fears in very small doses and in the controlled setting of therapy. When you’re ready, you’ll then bring these lessons that you work on with your therapist back into your everyday life. The result is that something amazing happens: Your fearful thoughts lose their power over you and your need to engage in compulsions goes away.
Working with an OCD specialist in the areas that cause you distress is more accessible than ever thanks to virtual ERP therapy—which is as effective as in-person therapy. In fact, peer reviewed studies have suggested ERP delivered in live teletherapy sessions can bring results in under half the time of outpatient ERP therapy.
In fact, the success rate for ERP is approximately 65% to 80%. For comparison, using medication alone is about 40% to 60% effective. (Although ERP in combination with medications can also be a highly effective treatment plan for some).
As someone who has worked with countless people who were struggling, I know that one of the biggest hurdles to getting started is finding a therapist who is an expert in treating OCD. But we’ve made it easy, with our network of expertly-trained ERP specialists. Help is available, and you can reach out for it today.
When should I get treatment for OCD?
If you think you may have OCD—for example, if your ritualistic behavior, anxiety, depression, fear become unmanageable and start interfering with your functioning, take up excessive amounts of time, and cause a great deal of distress—it’s important to not only seek help, but to advocate for yourself. That’s because getting diagnosed with the disorder can often take time if you don’t. In fact, research shows that the average person goes 14 to 17 years before receiving an OCD diagnosis. And that delay in diagnosis is the biggest barrier to finding the relief you deserve. Studies show that only about 200,000 people with OCD actually seek effective therapy.
So how long does ERP treatment for OCD take?
The answer is: It depends on the severity of symptoms. But on average, people receiving ERP virtually require around 2 months of treatment to achieve clinically significant results. However, many people feel better even more quickly — and may even notice immediate results. And some may need a little longer to achieve significant results.
In online therapy for OCD, your therapist can do exposure exercises with you in the places that trigger your symptoms, so you can confront your fears in the appropriate environment. This can help your sessions lead to better, faster outcomes.
With ERP, the goal is for you to gain skills so you can rely less on your therapist over time. You’ll become better equipped to handle the things OCD throws your way without them.
People with severe OCD might need elevated care before returning to individual therapy. That could look like an initial residential or partial hospitalization program, or perhaps an intensive outpatient program lasting four to six weeks, and then beginning sessions of ERP.
The bottom line is that it takes as long as it takes. And that’s okay! Treatment can be life changing even if it doesn’t produce overnight results.
Is OCD curable, or do I need to do ERP forever?
OCD is a chronic condition, so there is no guaranteed cure. There are, of course, effective interventions and treatments that can make managing the symptoms of OCD easier over time, even becoming an afterthought. Intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors may still arise, but you will learn to resist them and move on with your day.
The goal of OCD treatment isn’t to lean on your therapist for life — it’s to eventually become your own therapist, where you’re so skilled at doing ERP that you can manage OCD episodes that pop up. After the severity of your OCD lessens, your therapist should help you find strategies for sustaining your results, while slowly reducing how often they see you. For some people, this might take a few months. For others, it may be a few years.
With your therapist, you will learn practices to bring into your day-to-day life and hopefully decrease the impact of your compulsions. The intrusive thoughts or compulsions may still arise every now and then, but people who have gone through — or are still going through — ERP therapy tend to be able to control their reactions to triggers by ignoring this kind of background noise. So while you may always practice ERP to manage OCD, that doesn’t mean that OCD therapy is forever.