Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an incredibly common mental health disorder, affecting millions in the United States alone. OCD features a cycle of unwanted, intrusive thoughts known as obsessions and ritualistic behaviors referred to as compulsions.
Often, people are familiar with OCD because of stereotypes portrayed on television or in movies, such as someone constantly checking that doors are locked or being a “clean freak.” In reality, there are many subtypes of OCD, and symptoms can vary widely from individual to individual.
Each individual with OCD faces specific triggers that launch their cycle of obsessions and compulsions. While the cycle is present among all manifestations of OCD, an individual can experience obsessions on a wide range of subjects, such as contamination fears, worries of harming someone, uncertainty about their sexual orientation and more.
Similarly, compulsions can vary from person to person as the behaviors are done in an effort to bring a someone a sense of relief from their obsessions and the accompanying distress. Here are some common compulsions:
- Seeking reassurance that nothing bad will happen
- Avoiding certain people or places
- Excessively checking that the oven is off
- Counting or tapping to a certain number
What is rumination?
Rumination is the process of continuously thinking about the same thoughts and feelings, often to a much more extensive level than warranted. Since rumination centers on thoughts, this may seem like a form of obsession. However, this is not the case.
Obsessions simply occur, hence why they are often referred to as intrusive thoughts. If you have OCD, you have likely experienced the sensation of an obsession seemingly popping in your head out of nowhere. With obsessive thoughts, you don’t feel like you have a choice in thinking about them.
On the contrary, rumination is typically viewed as a choice. It’s done to try to figure out where your fears are coming from, what you should believe or what you should do to prevent something bad from happening. To this extent, rumination would then be considered a compulsion.
Rumination can often feel like a form of obsession, as you may feel like you have no choice in following the train of thought. However, this is because of the negative feelings associated with your obsessions, which often lead you to feel you must engage in a compulsion (like rumination) in order to ease your distress. In short, your obsessive thoughts occur in an instant, and any further mental engagement with them is considered to be compulsive rumination.
How do I stop ruminating?
Since rumination is a compulsive behavior, you can treat it as you would any other compulsion. One of the most effective ways to help people resist engaging in compulsions is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.
ERP therapy is known as the gold-standard treatment for all forms of OCD, as it helps people better tolerate the uncertainty caused by obsessions, which subsequently lessens the urge to enact compulsions. In ERP sessions, your therapist will work with you to expose yourself to the things that trigger your OCD cycle and work with you to allow your intrusive thoughts to simply exist — without acting on them. The more you experience your obsessions without engaging in compulsions, the more you’ll learn to endure the uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings. Over time, you’ll feel less and less inclined to ruminate or act on any of your other compulsions.
One of the most important things associated with ERP therapy is the response prevention element. If you engage in compulsions following an exposure, it undermines the learning you are trying to acquire (e.g., that nothing bad will really happen or that you can handle your discomfort). In your daily life, when you feel your obsessions begin, it’s crucial to continue resisting your compulsions to refrain from reinforcing the OCD cycle. Specifically, you will want to work on letting your intrusive thoughts pass without beginning a rumination cycle. This will likely feel very difficult — or even impossible — at first, but the more you work on it the easier it will get.
How can I begin ERP therapy?
When seeking a therapist to work alongside you in ERP therapy, it’s important to find someone who has experience in the treatment of OCD and ERP. Luckily, all NOCD therapists specialize in the treatment of OCD and have received specific training in ERP therapy.
To begin working with a NOCD therapist, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment. Our team will help match you with the right therapist and, shortly after, you can begin ERP from the comfort of your home through video sessions or phone calls.
While it may feel like you will never be able to stop ruminating on your obsessive thoughts, change is possible. ERP can help you refrain from compulsive responses allowing you to find freedom from the seemingly endless cycle of obsessions and compulsions.