Stay One Step Ahead of Your OCD During the Holiday Season
I think it’s fair to say that many can relate to the holidays being both a time of joy—and stress.
We pin so much on this multi-week period of merry-making that things are almost bound to go awry from time to time. There are just so many unknowns! It’s bound to make even the most stoic among us think about the possibility of thrills and spills.
What if a special dish we’ve prepared doesn’t turn out as we’d hoped?
What if a fraught political discussion erupts around the dinner table?
What if a well-intentioned gift isn’t received in the way we’d planned?
These kinds of worries are universal. But if you’re also living with OCD, facing these unknowns can feel that much more complicated. In addition to the usual stressors, you could find yourself stuck in a vicious cycle where you’re facing taboo intrusive thoughts and urges to do rituals and compulsions.
The good news? There are things you can do in the lead-up and during the festive season to better manage your OCD and enjoy being around the people you love and who love you back!
OCD Feeds on the Anticipation of Uncertainty
As mentioned above, the lead-up to the holidays tends to cause many people’s anxiety and thought frequency spike. The body knows a lot of stuff is about to happen and, with that, a fair amount of uncertainty. That’s because as humans, we try to anticipate exactly what may or may not occur at any given moment. Our brains are primed to seek out what could go wrong more times in ten minutes than right, no matter what is happening in life.
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Earlier in human history, that sort of fretting played a role in keeping our forebears alive. Nowadays, being incredibly good at imagining all kinds of plausible and not-so-plausible possibilities means that we’re not that great at predicting future events.
The upshot? Recognizing how your anticipatory thoughts are evolving can be a crucial part of remaining ahead of your OCD and its manipulative tactics. So how do you do that exactly?
Well, there are a variety of ways to keep a couple of steps ahead of your OCD at a potentially stressful time. One of the simplest is using self-monitoring tools in the days or weeks leading up to the holidays.
Take a few moments throughout your day to pause and reflect on where your thinking got a little sticky. Ask yourself what mood it caused you to fall into and what kind of distorted future was anticipated in the midst of it? Self-monitoring like this can help build awareness. With greater awareness, you can gain perspective about what’s sticking and when.
From here, you can use this awareness to better employ your skills such as talking back to OCD:
“Hey, that thought is an OCD fear—my attention isn’t needed there.”
This self-monitoring technique can also help you recognize when you are catastrophizing about a future moment. In this case, you set your focus back on the present moment and the tasks that genuinely need your attention.
When it comes to anticipation, an OCD best practice is to try your very best to remain present. OCD wants your focus to be on the fear ahead rather than the peace in the now.
Knowing your limits and strengths
Something else to remain thoughtful about is how much more new or unfamiliar stimulus you may face during the holidays. What do I mean by stimulus? The amount of energy you’re expending, interactions, sounds, smells, later bedtimes—anything that isn’t a part of your typical routine or what you’re accustomed to.
If you’re more familiar with early bedtimes and peaceful evenings and then find yourself at holiday parties three days in a row, eating food you don’t normally eat, staying up late, and talking with more people than you’ve spoken to in a month, your body and brain are facing more stimulation than they’re familiar with.
This stimulation isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It’s good for us as human beings to have variety in our lives; it helps us not become rigid and guarded against new experiences. But as you may already know, OCD loves when we’re a bit off-kilter. It seizes this opportunity to seek attention and grasp your focus. So, how do we manage these unfamiliar territories? By knowing our limits and our strengths.
If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that you know about the gold standard treatment for OCD: exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP.
At its core, ERP is gaining awareness that that distress can be reimagined as a tool to learn from versus something to fear. You’re going to use that to your advantage during the often-stressful holiday season.
For instance, let’s say you’ve had a long day at work and now you’re off to spend time with friends at a party, and you can tell your stress level is somewhat elevated. Acknowledge that signal your body is giving you and reflect on what that means for your limits so you can employ your strengths.
Maybe you’re at a stress level of two on a scale of ten. But you know you can handle a stress level of seven out of ten. This means you have plenty of runway and are not up against a threat!
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Yes, you’re feeling some stress, but with the use of your coping skills and communicating your needs to your support system, you may find that you can either maintain that stress level, decrease it, or, at minimum, remain aware of it if it escalates and make appropriate choices for yourself.
Setting boundaries that challenge you to try new things and knowing when to rest and reset is a massive asset in times of stress and change. By recognizing your stress as a barometer and not a threat, you give yourself room to be creative and flexible in the ways that you respond to OCD. OCD hates when we take the driver’s seat in how we react to or view our stress, so why not give that a go this holiday season.
Lastly, trying your best to be present to the moments occurring around you is an excellent mindfulness skill. When we live in our minds, we live in a world colored by our thoughts at that moment. When we choose to acquaint ourselves with the world around us, we get the opportunity to learn, feel moved by, and allow for beautiful moments to occur. Remaining attached to the narration in your mind won’t get you any closer to knowing with certainty if the holidays will be perfect or not.
Leaning into the uncertainty of each moment is also the equivalent of being present to each moment. Notice how your loved ones laugh, what smells bring you joy, get curious about a conversation going on nearby you. There’s so much more to give our attention to. Allow yourself to be curious about it all. You could come away from this holiday season with some beautiful memories.
With all these tips and thoughts, it’s important to remember that perfection is not an option. Just keep up the efforts and willingness to keep on trying. And be kind to yourself as you do. Every moment is a new moment to get better at these skills. With warmth, we hope you have an enjoyable and kind holiday season.
If you’re thinking about how the holiday season may impact your OCD, book a free 15-minute call with our team to learn more about working with a NOCD therapist.
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."
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Licensed Therapist, MA
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.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
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.
Licensed Therapist, MA
I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.