6 Proven Ways to Cope with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Knowing how to manage your OCD could stop the disorder taking over your life.

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What is OCD?

Millions of people struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—check out the signs of OCD here. According to support website Understanding OCD, approximately 2.3 percent of the population has OCD, more than other mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder. OCD is a psychological condition that is defined by the presence of obsessions, or compulsions, or a combination of these two symptoms, explains Jessica Pryor, PhD, clinical lecturer, department of psychology, Northwestern University.

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The difference between obsessions and compulsions

Obsessions are intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that cause significant anxiety because they feel uncontrollable and unstoppable, says Dr. Pryor. Although they take many forms, common obsessions can include fears of being unclean or unsafe, or of harming another person. Sufferers will develop compulsions—an overreaction, or a rigid mental act or behavior—often as a means of managing their obsessions. If they feel unsafe, they can start counting to a number that has significance—from seven to 11 over and over again, for example—for comfort. If cleanliness is an issue for someone with OCD, they can start to obsessively wash their hands. If you begin to feel overwhelmed by worry, check out these 14 magic phrases that can relieve anxiety.

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Several studies suggest that a type of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, says Dr. Pryor. CBT was first introduced in the 1960s when a University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist discovered that many of his patients with depression felt better when they identified and challenged their negative thought patterns. CBT is also used to treat and manage anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even procrastination.

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Exposure and response prevention (ERP)

Mental health professionals often recommend this cognitive behavioral technique to help people manage their obsessive-compulsive disorder. “In ERP, the individual purposely ‘exposes’ themselves to the compulsion and then initiates the correction behaviors,” explains practicing clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD. “For example, if your compulsion is to repeatedly check the door when you leave your home, then you purposely leave home and check the door only once and walk away. This sounds simple, but it helps to change the cognitive connection of ‘needing’ to repeat this behavior.” Here’s what happens to your brain when you have OCD.

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Dr. Mayer also asks patients to fact-check their compulsions. “An effective technique for lessening our fears (and thus lessening OCD behaviors) is understanding or making known the causes of our fears—’fact-checking,'” says Dr. Mayer. By trying to understand their fears and looking into why particular compulsions exist, people with OCD can help remove the compulsive component of the disorder. For example, if someone with OCD has an irrational fear of germs, they may wash their hands repeatedly. Learning that over-washing actually increases vulnerability to germs and disease can help reduce the compulsion. People who struggle with anxiety may want to add these calming foods to their diet.

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OCD-proof the world

Modern technology provides many tools to that can help people with OCD reassure themselves, such as video monitors (to make sure the stove is off, for example) and remote locking systems (to prevent worrying about whether you locked the door). Provided checking those devices doesn’t become a compulsive behavior in itself, these tools can help prevent repetitive behaviors, says Dr. Mayer. Check out these technology trends you’ll see in 2018.

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“Surrounding” technique

By sharing their struggles with others, people with OCD can get the help they need to overcome their compulsions. Dr. Mayer suggests to his patients that they share their struggles with as many people as they feel comfortable and safe with—and then ask for their help in preventing OCD behaviors. “So, it goes something like this,” says Dr. Mayer: “‘If you see me checking the front door lock more than once, tell me to stop and reassure me that the door is locked and I can move on,’ or ‘If you see me count the ceiling tiles before I walk into a room, tell me to stop.'”

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Psychopharmacological treatment

Many therapists will recommend prescription drugs to treat OCD, says Dr. Pryor. According to a 2010 article published in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, serotonergic antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and clomipramine, are the established pharmacologic first-line treatment of OCD. Drugs in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy may be the most effective treatment plan for OCD. By the way, science seems to be on the road to making antidepressants work faster.

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Seek professional help

While you may be able to use many of these techniques at home, Dr. Pryor strongly recommends an evaluation with a mental health practitioner. “You do not have to suffer in silence—it can get better,” she says. “Effective treatment has been shown to significantly decrease or even eliminate OCD symptoms.” And make sure you take care of this one crucial behavior—it can leave you vulnerable to OCD and anxiety.