Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

How to Use Mindfulness to Manage Your OCD

6 min read
Patrick McGrath, PhD

You’ve likely heard the buzz around mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness techniques have been proven to help people improve stress levels, reduce anxiety and even aid in the management of depressive episodes. But did you know that meditation and mindfulness exercises can also help those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) resist the urge to give in to compulsions? 

mindfulness and OCD

What is Mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is an innate ability all human beings possess but may not know how to access. At its core, mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware. This means that, when you’re practicing mindfulness, you know that the thoughts that pop into your head aren’t what make you you, and you know that you don’t have to act on them.

Translation? When you’re being intentionally mindful, you’re experiencing your thoughts as an observer, processing them more deeply and analyzing them critically. 

You can also be feeling or experiencing your breath and your body, giving your mind time to relax and process its surroundings. This can help many people feel less overwhelmed or reactive, and it can especially help those with OCD process thoughts around their compulsions and resist acting on them. 

How Mindfulness Can Help You to Manage OCD

In a 2013 study examining the use of mindfulness and meditation compared to the use of distraction in 30 patients with OCD, people who used mindfulness skills felt less compelled to give in to their compulsions, while those using distraction techniques saw no change.

When you have OCD, mindfulness can feel particularly challenging, because being in the present moment can include stressful intrusive thoughts, feelings and sensations. However, when you practice mindfulness—rather than attempting to stop these intrusive thoughts or feelings by acting on compulsions—you’re asked to intentionally allow those thoughts to exist. In this way, mindfulness is actually somewhat similar to exposure and response prevention (ERP).  

ERP asks those with OCD to confront their triggers and resist the urge to neutralize them with compulsions. Mindfulness requires you to be aware of intrusive thoughts or triggers, accept and possibly internally analyze any discomforts caused by such thoughts and resist the urge to respond with compulsions. In both practices, you’re taking a deeper and longer look at your first reactions or thoughts and purposefully working not to respond to them. In mindfulness, this action takes your brain out of fight-or-flight mode and gives you the time and space to fully process, relax your mind and gain more control over your compulsions. 

What Are Some Ways to Practice Mindfulness? 

There are lots of free resources you can use to help you get started with mindfulness techniques. Different techniques often work for different people—there’s not necessarily one right or wrong way to practice mindfulness, and it often takes just trying it out to figure out which method is best for you. 

Some mindfulness techniques include: 

  • Purposeful breaks or pauses taken throughout the day 
  • Meditations that take place while seated, walking or moving
  • Meditative practice combined with physical activity, such as yoga or sports

Meditation can be particularly powerful for mindfulness because it specifically requires you to connect with your breath and your body, often naturally pulling you out of your intrusive or cyclical thoughts. When you’re focused on sitting in the proper posture and breathing deeply, it can also distract your mind from wandering and bring your thoughts to focus on your mind-body connection. 

Where to Practice Mindfulness

The beauty of practicing mindfulness is that it can be employed whenever and wherever you are. If you start to feel intrusive thoughts creeping in, take a moment to sit with those thoughts and breathe. Let the thoughts be, and resist the urge to respond to compulsions that these thoughts might stir up. You can practice this whether you’re sitting in public, meditating alone in your bedroom or at the grocery store filling up your cart. It just requires a moment of stillness or a moment in which you have the ability to pause and observe those thoughts. 

The most common misconception people often have about mindfulness is that you must be sitting and meditating in silence. This isn’t the case at all, since there are so many techniques to implement mindfulness in your life! You could be practicing mindfulness as you run on the treadmill or listen to your favorite album. It’s all about taking the time to fully be in the moment, wherever you might be in that moment. 

How Can You Get Started with Mindfulness

One of the easiest ways to get started with mindfulness is by practicing guided meditation. Guided meditation allows beginners to be led through mindfulness exercises, often step-by-step. (If you want to get started, here’s a simple five-minute, guided breathing meditation you can try out!)

You can also practice mindfulness using this outline: 

  1. Find a comfortable position that allows you to relax. Whether you’re seated, standing or walking doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in a position that allows you to fully feel and notice your body. 
  2. Set a time limit for a few minutes at a time. You can gradually increase this time as you grow more comfortable meditating, but it’s okay if you’re starting with only a few minutes.
  3. Notice your body: how it feels, what position you’re in, what your arms and legs are doing, if your shoulders are tense. 
  4. Feel your breath. Follow your breath through your body as it fills your lungs. You can count slowly to four as you breathe in and out to help you focus more fully on deep breathing and relaxing. 
  5. Notice when your mind wanders. Accept it, and return your focus to your body and breath when you can.

It’s important to remember that the goal is not to clear your mind or prevent it from wandering. Your goal is to be present in the moment without judgement. Your mind may wander while you’re working on this—and that’s ok! Just be aware of those thoughts and examine them without placing more stress or judgement on yourself. 

It may sound easy, but remember: They call it practicing mindfulness for a reason. It doesn’t come effortlessly to everyone, and it’s perfectly normal to struggle with it in the beginning. Much like any muscle, it takes intentional practice to get better—and it’s definitely worth the effort. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free call today with the NOCD clinical team to learn more about how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

Patrick McGrath, PhD

Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

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.

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.

Andrew Moeller

Andrew Moeller

Licensed Therapy, LMHC

I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.

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