Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Why Halloween Can Feel Triggering With OCD—And How To Cope

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Oct 18, 20239 minute read

Sometimes, Halloween isn’t all candy and costumes. This time of year can bring about a sense of dread and anxiety for many people, including some people who suffer from OCD. No matter what themes your OCD centers around, Halloween can be triggering.

While everyone’s experience with OCD is different, there are several common ways this can take place. If you find that you’re experiencing an increase in symptoms this time of year, understanding the potential reasons for it can help you know how to navigate it.

Halloween can present a host of potentially triggering material. Horror movies that might normally be easy to avoid can feel plentiful and hard to ignore. News stories about Halloween and dangers surrounding trick-or-treating seem to flood the airways. Decorations in yards or costume aisles in stores may provide fuel for horrifying thoughts.

I can recall hearing a news story as a young child that terrified me: another child in my city almost being kidnapped on Halloween. In that moment, I felt myself losing the sense of safety we feel so often as children. Of course, a child being kidnapped could happen at any time, and on some level, I knew that. However, the fact that it happened on Halloween night made my OCD brain tie the two together. To me, kidnappings and Halloween were now intertwined.

For people without OCD, thoughts like these can appear to be paranoia, but for those with OCD, even the mere possibility of something bad happening can feel like too much of a risk. OCD wants us to be “certain” that no one will be harmed or kidnapped and that nothing bad will happen. Whereas people who don’t experience OCD can recognize that there may be only a slight risk of something happening, individuals with OCD will often think the risk is far greater and find themselves unable to accept that the likelihood of the obsession is low.

In addition to fears like these, it is not uncommon for people with OCD to experience thoughts around taboo themes or topics that may be difficult to talk about. Sometimes these themes revolve around violence or horror. These thoughts can also take the form of images or urges but in any form, they share one important trait: individuals with OCD do not want to act on them. They are often deeply troubled and repulsed by these thoughts.

The reason these thoughts, images, or urges are so troubling and anxiety-inducing is because they are ego-dystonic, meaning they go against a person’s values or desires. This is important for anyone experiencing these thoughts to understand.

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2. Fears of contamination or poisoning

It can feel like candy is everywhere during Halloween. This abundance of sweets loses its sweetness when OCD latches onto the idea that we could be poisoned or contaminated in some way—or worse, that we could do that to someone else.

I’ve experienced this fear myself. Trick-or-treating was a fun experience for me as a little girl. We lived in a large city and would return home with an impressive stash of candy. I always looked forward to coming home late that evening, counting all of my goods, and making trades with my brother for coveted treats. One particular year, though, this activity lost its intrigue altogether.

It happened just after we arrived home. Our parents had the news on and I heard that someone had put needles and other harmful things into various candies. This had been discovered and now, they were warning parents of young children to be cautious and examine candy for possible signs of tampering. Instantly, I felt that all too familiar sense of OCD anxiety rising in my stomach. I knew I would be unable to eat any candy without feeling scared to death. I remember asking my parents repeatedly to look through my candy and ensure its safety. Halloween lost its appeal in many ways that year.

These fears of contamination or poisoning can show up in many other ways. For many who have OCD, just the idea of handing candy out to children can be anxiety-inducing. They may even opt out of doing it altogether, choosing to turn off the lights and sit inside in the dark rather than be triggered by OCD’s malicious thoughts.

Parents with OCD may have to explain to their children that they will not allow them to go out and trick-or-treat because of their fears about taking candy from strangers. They may also find themselves locked in arguments with their partner, who may disagree with their obsessions regarding safety.

Others with OCD might become consumed by the idea of having to clean candy or somehow wash away any contaminants. They may feel as though they have to frequently sanitize their hands and anything else that may have touched the candy. Obsessions may even keep them from eating any candy at all.

3. A perceived lack of control and predictability

The horror movies, haunted houses, and frightening decorations and costumes that become common around Halloween are all intended to be shocking, surprising, and unexpected—qualities that OCD hates. OCD wants control and predictability and when it feels like these things are absent, it can cause people to experience a great deal of anxiety.

This increased stress can lead people with OCD to engage in compulsions, believing that these behaviors will neutralize their uncomfortable feelings. Knowing this ahead of time can be helpful. It’s important to understand that while thoughts caused by OCD can feel overwhelming, you can learn how to respond to them in a way that moves you towards your goals, instead of avoiding discomfort or getting caught up in compulsions.

It’s also good to remember that while exposing yourself to distress and seeing that you can tolerate it is an important part of learning to manage OCD symptoms, not everything has to be an exposure. Maybe you genuinely don’t like spooky things. Maybe haunted houses aren’t for you. That’s okay. You can decide for yourself if an exposure is appropriate for what you’re facing.

4. Superstitious or scrupulosity concerns

Halloween can also be associated with the occult, spirits, and the unknown. These aspects of the holiday may intensify intrusive thoughts around ideas of sin, morality, and divine retribution. OCD can grab onto the symbolism of Halloween, which may lead people to experience obsessions of a religious or superstitious nature.

Those experiencing scrupulosity OCD, an OCD subtype involving religious, moral, or ethical obsessions, may feel worry or guilt around thoughts or actions related to Halloween. They may worry that participating in or enjoying the holiday is a sin, or that they’re acting in a way that conflicts with their religious or moral doctrine. Thoughts like this can become anxiety-inducing and may lead people to perform compulsions, such as excessive prayer, excessive confession, or reassurance seeking, in an effort to alleviate the distress they’re feeling.

How you can respond to scary thoughts

The good news is that you’re not alone. As isolating as these experiences may seem, they’re shared by many others in the OCD community, and there are things you can do to navigate what you’re experiencing. You can learn how to respond to thoughts caused by OCD in a way that moves you towards your goals, instead of avoiding discomfort or getting caught up in compulsions.

If you find yourself feeling triggered around Halloween, the first step you can take to fight back against OCD is shifting your perspective. Anytime we encounter an aspect of Halloween that makes us feel uncomfortable, it’s an opportunity for an exposure. Facing a fear can feel daunting, but asking yourself the following questions can help you find a way to approach it that works for you:

  • “Is there a way I can turn this into an exposure?” Let’s say you’re dealing with fears of passing out contaminated candy. How could you turn that experience into an exposure? If handing candy out to trick-or-treaters feels overwhelming, maybe you can set a bowl of candy out for your coworkers.
  • “If I don’t feel I can face all of it, can I face some of it?” Maybe you struggle with horror movies, but sitting through a whole movie feels too overwhelming right now. Ask yourself if there’s a way you can break your fear down into smaller parts, like watching a scene or two of a scary movie. You can make the experience more manageable and still get the benefit of having done the exposure.
  • “How would I want to respond to this trigger in recovery? Can I still practice that now, even if it’s scary?” Consider how you would want to respond to a distressing experience in recovery from OCD. By imagining how you would navigate this situation in that scenario, you can gain insight into helpful ways to respond to it right now. Viewing this as practice is key. Changing behaviors is a process that will require time and patience. Progress won’t be linear, and that’s okay. Celebrate the effort and any small wins along the way.

It’s also good to remember that while exposing yourself to distress and seeing that you can tolerate it is an important part of learning to manage OCD symptoms, not everything has to be an exposure. Maybe you genuinely don’t like spooky things. Maybe haunted houses aren’t for you. That’s okay. You can decide for yourself if an exposure is appropriate for what you’re facing.

ERP can help make OCD less haunting

If trying to use Halloween as an opportunity to practice exposures feels too difficult right now, or if you don’t know where to start for your specific fears or triggers, there is help available. You can learn how to fight back against the fear, stress, and anxiety that OCD causes in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.

In ERP, a specialist will help you with creating challenging but manageable exposures that will work for you. Specialty-trained, qualified, and licensed OCD specialists will never ask you to do things that go against your values or that will cause you or others harm, nor will they force you to do anything that you are unwilling to do. Instead, a successful ERP therapist will guide, support, and motivate you to gradually face the fears that are holding you back from living the life that you want to live.

If you have any questions about starting ERP therapy or need more information, please don’t hesitate to book a free 15-minute call with our care team. On the call, we’ll assist you in either getting started with a licensed therapist at NOCD who has specialty training in OCD and ERP, or connect you to other resources that might be helpful.

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