Recovery from OCD is possible. I know this can be hard to imagine when you’re in the midst of experiencing OCD, but it can get better—and even become very manageable. Though OCD is considered chronic, meaning there is no cure, with the right treatment, anyone can learn to manage their symptoms so that OCD causes them less distress over time, greatly improving their quality of life.
If you have OCD, you’re probably all too familiar with the incessant worry and doubt it can cause, so it may come as no surprise that people who are considering exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy for OCD as well as those in the midst of treatment often experience doubts about the recovery process. Questions like, “Am I really getting better?” “I know that most people are able to find relief and recovery through treatment, but what if I can’t?” and “I had a rough OCD episode today. Does that mean I’ll never recover?” can plague people throughout their recovery journeys and create obstacles along the way. As a therapist who specializes in treating OCD, people on the road to recovery ask me these questions frequently. Here’s how I answer them.
What if I still have intrusive thoughts?
Everyone—every single person—has intrusive thoughts from time to time. These thoughts can come in the form of images, ideas, feelings, urges, or impulses that are unwanted, even scary or disturbing. Whatever form they take, this is a normal part of the human experience—it’s simply a result of how our brains function.
It may seem hard to believe, but when you have OCD, intrusive thoughts are not the problem. The real issue is the way your brain responds to them. OCD preys upon uncertainty and can make it seem like you have to figure out or solve your obsessions, or understand why they occurred. In these moments, it may feel like you can’t rest until you feel absolutely certain. This false sense of urgency can lead you to perform actions, mentally or physically, in an effort to neutralize the anxiety you feel.
If the presence of intrusive thoughts is making you doubt your OCD recovery process, remember that response prevention is what determines the course of your recovery, not the intrusive thoughts themselves. While you can’t stop intrusive thoughts from occurring, by building the habit of resisting compulsions, you can fight back against OCD and your obsessions will cause less anxiety over time.
What if I still do safety-seeking behaviors?
Just like everyone has intrusive thoughts, most people also engage in compulsions from time to time. People without OCD have various things they do to soothe themselves or gain a sense of control in their lives. They likely recognize that these behaviors may not be helpful, but nonetheless, they give into them from time to time.
People without OCD might make sure their stove is off, double-check their car doors, or ask someone to look over an important email before they send it. They might even have superstitious beliefs that they follow, like not walking near cemeteries. The difference between these behaviors and compulsions caused by OCD is that these actions don’t have a significant negative impact on people, dictate the course of their lives or decisions, or increase their anxiety over time.
To be diagnosed with OCD, a person must, on average, spend a large portion of their day engaged in obsessions or compulsions, or experience high levels of distress when obsessions are triggered. While OCD is considered chronic, it’s common for people to recover to the point that they no longer meet this diagnostic criteria. In other words, you can still technically have OCD and build habits that allow you to manage symptoms day-to-day.
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How can I tell if I’m living in recovery?
I often tell people I work with in therapy that recovery is not a destination, but something we must practice continually. You don’t suddenly transform from living with OCD to living in recovery; it’s a journey, and there will be ups and downs. You’re learning the tools to manage OCD by changing the way you respond to your symptoms. Being consistent in your responses will create new habits and ways of thinking that allow you to live without OCD leading your life.
As a therapist and someone in recovery from OCD myself, I’m often asked what I mean when I say that I’m living in recovery. For me, this is a state of recognition and empowerment. I am aware of the role OCD plays in my life and am able to decipher what my triggers are—the situations that may lead to symptoms. I’m also aware of what I need to do when I am triggered to effectively manage OCD, rather than feed it. This is how I keep OCD at bay: I’m empowered and knowledgeable enough to stop reinforcing its cycle in my life.
Is this a perfect process? No, but it is a much more effective and fulfilling way of living my life. I am no longer just surviving, but living a life rooted in my own values, a life I can look forward to. I have good moments and bad moments and while I am not free of symptoms, I am in control of how I respond to them. OCD doesn’t take up nearly as much of my life as it used to. That is what recovery looks like: progress, not perfection.
Recovery looks different for everyone
Please know that everyone’s recovery process may look different—in fact, it will and it should. We are all different people with our own unique experiences. Your recovery may or may not look similar to mine, but one thing is certain: it is possible for anyone to reach a place where OCD is no longer in control of their life.
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If you’re ready to start your own recovery journey, we can help. At NOCD, all of our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating it with ERP therapy. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs–and that means the best care for our members. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with a therapist and get started with OCD treatment.