Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

How to Embrace Joy while Managing OCD This Holiday Season

8 min read
Stacy Quick, LPC

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” or so the song goes. And while it’s true that the holidays can be a time of anticipation and excitement, it’s equally true that they can also be a time of stress and overwhelm—especially for those struggling with OCD. Whether you’re immersed in holiday festivities or not, there are many reasons that this time of the year can be challenging.

The new variables that the holidays often introduce can provoke a cascade of emotions, along with potentially ramping up the obsessions and anxiety of OCD. Developing your understanding of these possible triggers can help you embrace the joy and warmth of the holidays, regardless of the challenges OCD may present.

Family, friends, and social gatherings

Even if we love our family and friends and look forward to seeing them over the holidays, we can probably all agree that there can still be stressful moments with our loved ones. Our relationships with friends and family might bring up uncomfortable emotions and baggage. Maybe your loved ones have different viewpoints than your own. Maybe they don’t know that you have OCD, or don’t fully understand it.

Additionally, if you spend the holidays around family and friends, you might be visiting other people’s homes or having them come into yours. This can cause a sense of lacking control, which may generate feelings of anxiety or distress. Take the following examples:

  • Nina is staying with her parents over the holidays. She hasn’t told them—or anyone, for that matter—that she was diagnosed with OCD. She feels ashamed of the intrusive thoughts she’s having and thinks that her parents won’t understand. How can she tell them that she’s been struggling with thoughts about suicide, even though she doesn’t want to hurt herself? How can she hide the intense emotions that she feels when images of violence pop into her head?
  • It’s Rhett’s turn to host the family get-together this season. Rhett suffers from intense bouts of OCD where he has difficulty preparing food for himself, let alone other people. The mere idea of having to touch so many people’s foods causes him to break out in a sweat. Intrusive worries flood his head about whether he may poison them all, causing them to get very sick and blame him.
  • Moriah has an extreme fear of saying inappropriate things in front of people. Her every waking moment is consumed by these thoughts. She envisions being at a family dinner and blurting out something very hurtful, and feels as though she needs to “make up” for having this thought. To do this, she will focus carefully on every word she says and speak slowly. This behavior is so time-consuming that she rarely speaks.

These are just a few ways that OCD can impact time with loved ones during the holiday season. For those who experience symptoms of OCD that affect social interactions, trying to manage them without proper support can become exhausting or lead to feelings of burnout. Trying to mask their struggles, they can end up exerting a great deal of energy, leaving them feeling emotionally tired or numb. Altogether, it can make interacting with others feel like a chore rather than a fun experience.

Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that the opposite can also be true. For some, the holidays can be a time of loneliness. Whether it’s due to past falling-outs, the grief of losing a loved one, not having close relationships with friends and family, or other factors, isolation can present its own challenges for those struggling with OCD. Being alone can make some people dread the holidays, as it means they’ll have more time to think about things that they may normally try to avoid, which can lead to an uptick in OCD symptoms.

The possibility of unplanned exposures

The holidays can introduce many changes in our routines, of which travel, social gatherings, new people, religious practices, and traditions are just a few. This change and unpredictability may cause people to feel more anxious—because whether it’s perfectionism, contamination-related fears, or thoughts of harming others, no matter what someone’s OCD latches onto, the holidays may also bring about unplanned exposures to that particular fear.

From a treatment perspective, this may be favorable. From the perspective of the person with OCD who is dealing with these fears, however, it can feel like it’s the opposite. The most common concerns that I’ve heard from people with OCD regarding unintentional holiday exposures have been the following:

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. There are so many exposures that can happen on a daily basis, let alone during the holidays.

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We know how overwhelming OCD can feel—especially during the holiday season. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist who has experience treating OCD.

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Seasonal mood changes

The changing of seasons is another factor that can affect people with OCD during the holidays. For some, the arrival of the holidays is accompanied by the arrival of winter. The colder weather, shorter days, and lack of sunshine that the winter months can bring may impact people with mental health conditions, causing a significant decline in mood

As mentioned previously, issues of grief and loss can also become prominent during this time of year. The holidays are often thought of as a time of togetherness and being with our loved ones. For those who’ve experienced death and separation, this can lead to painful emotions and memories that may intensify their mental health struggles.

What can I do if I’m struggling this holiday season?

There are many things you can do to embrace joy while managing OCD over the holidays, and you’ve already done one of them by becoming aware of how this time of year might impact your mental health. Here’s what you can do next:

1. Remember that you’re not alone.

You’re not the only one struggling with OCD. You don’t have to fight it alone, either. There is hope and help out there. Please reach out when you need it—it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. Along with effective OCD treatment, support groups, peer communities, and talking with loved ones can all be powerful sources of comfort during difficult times.

2. Set healthy boundaries.

As you communicate with loved ones, keep in mind that making the choice to prioritize your well-being is not something to feel guilty about. Setting boundaries can be an important part of taking care of yourself.

3. ​​Let your values guide you.

Shift your focus from trying to control every thought that crosses your mind or the behavior of the people around you. Instead, focus on what you do have power over: how you respond to OCD. Reflect on what’s important to you, and practice making choices based on your values.

4. Aim for presence, not perfection.

Try to be present in each moment, even the difficult-to-feel ones. Allow yourself to feel whatever you need to. You are allowed to be sad even if everyone else seems happy. Give yourself compassion. You deserve the same understanding and kindness you show others.

5. Practice accepting uncertainty.

The distress intolerance of OCD, or difficulty coping with uncomfortable emotions, can create an intense craving for certainty. OCD can use the false promise of certainty to keep you in its cycle. Learning what it really means to accept uncertainty can help you manage anxiety more effectively, which can have the added benefit of helping you feel present.

6. Know your limitations and your strengths.

You can pick and choose what you want to work on without overloading yourself with stress. You don’t have to make every single moment an exposure and whatever happens, it’s important to not judge yourself. You are on your own journey—don’t compare it to anyone else’s. If something feels overwhelming, don’t be afraid to hit pause, regroup, and then return.

7. Seek treatment that can help you through the holidays and beyond.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy can have life-changing benefits, helping you manage OCD during not only this time of year, but year-round. At NOCD, all of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive specific training in ERP. Many have dealt with OCD themselves, so they understand both what it’s like and how crucial ERP therapy is. They’ll use their expertise to design a personalized treatment plan based on your unique needs, helping you develop tools to achieve your goals and cheering you on at every step of the way.

We know how unpredictable OCD can be, and how it can strike at the most inconvenient times. That’s why it’s so important for us to be available for the OCD community whenever we can. The NOCD team is here for you over the holidays, and we’re ready to help if you’re in need of care. Our goal is to help you have the best holiday season possible and spend meaningful time with your loved ones, rather than struggling with OCD. Book a free 15-minute call to learn more about how we can help you learn to manage OCD.

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NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCD

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Gary Vandalfsen

Gary Vandalfsen

Licensed Therapist, Psychologist

I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist for over twenty five years. My main area of focus is OCD with specialized training in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I use ERP to treat people with all types of OCD themes, including aggressive, taboo, and a range of other unique types.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

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