How to cope with OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be a disruptive condition to live with, but there are steps that you can take to cope with it. In this Spotlight, we take you through them.

People with OCD face daily stuggles, but there are ways to overcome it.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when a person has recurring thoughts and behaviors that they cannot control.

Individuals with OCD feel that they must repeat these thoughts and behaviors again and again.

Around 1 percent of people in the United States have experienced OCD in the past year.

The symptoms of OCD can encroach on all aspects of a person’s life — including work, education, and relationships. OCD symptoms are generally broken down into two types: obsessions and compulsions.

People with OCD usually spend at least 1 hour every day contending with their obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are defined as thoughts or urges that cause anxiety (such as fear of germs), thoughts about hurting yourself or other people, or a craving to have objects in a perfectly symmetrical order. Obsessions might also take the form of persistent and unwanted mental images.

Compulsions are specific behaviors that people with OCD feel that they have to do when they have an obsessive thought. These may include washing excessively, ordering things in a certain way, or counting compulsively.

Though a person with OCD may feel instant relief from performing the rituals associated with their obsessive thoughts, they do not experience pleasure from this. Rather, such thoughts and actions contribute to a rising sense of anxiety.

OCD symptoms can either improve or worsen over time. But, if a person who has OCD is able to recognize that they are experiencing excessive unwanted thoughts or unable to control their behavior, they may be able to take steps to help themselves.

Treatments for OCD

If you think that you might have OCD, you should speak to your doctor. OCD is usually treated with medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or a combination of the two.

Some people with OCD find CBT helpful because this type of therapy teaches the person how to think differently about their obsessions and compulsions, helping them to overcome these unwanted thoughts and behaviors.

Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study that used functional MRI to examine how the brains of people with OCD responded to a type of CBT known as exposure and response prevention (ERP).

ERP involves exposing people who have OCD to things that trigger their symptoms and works on encouraging the person to resist following their usual urges in these situations.

The team behind that study found that the brains of people with OCD who had ERP displayed a significant increase in connectivity between eight brain networks.

The authors of that study suggest that these brain changes could represent how the participants are activating different thought patterns and learning new behaviors not based on compulsions.

Around 30–60 percent of people who receive treatment for OCD find that it does not help, however. So, finding other strategies to help manage symptoms of OCD is important.

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Talking about OCD can help

Many individuals who live with OCD find that an important first step in self-help is to be open about their condition with friends and family. If you have OCD, being able to talk about it with the people that are close to you can help you to feel more comfortable about the condition, as well as less isolated.

Spending time with other people who have OCD can also be beneficial. Joining a support group or engaging with other people who have OCD online can help people to feel accepted.

It may also empower them to talk about their experiences in an environment without worrying that they may be judged.

The International OCD Foundation’s website can help you to find an OCD support group near you. They even give advice to anyone interested in starting their own support group.

Meanwhile, The Mighty is just one example of an online OCD community — based, in this instance, around real-life stories from people with OCD.

Relaxation and minimizing stress

People with OCD often find that their symptoms get worse when they are stressed, so managing stress is a really important coping strategy. We tend to feel stressed when we are in situations wherein a lot of pressure is placed upon us and we do not feel as though we are in control.

Try relaxation techniques to remove yourself from stressful situations.

What follows are some tips that, while they may not necessarily cure your OCD, could help you to understand your triggers and minimize their effects. Recognizing when stress is likely to build up can help you to catch it before it overwhelms you.

Part of managing stress is about avoiding these situations, if at all possible. Another big part of managing stress is learning how to cope with difficult situations, or “developing emotional resilience.”

Trying different relaxation techniques could help to ease stress — for instance, deep breathing techniques can be calming.

Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Count to four as you breathe in, and again as you breathe out.

Another good way to relax can be taking a break from your devices. Try going an hour without your cell phone on. Does it help? Then why not try going the whole day?

Instead of flopping down and zoning out in front of the television or losing yourself in Facebook in the evening, try reading a book, drawing a bath, or trying out a new recipe. Taking time out from our usual routines can give us a sense of space, which many people find calming.

Creative hobbies — such as painting, sewing, and crafts — can be a great source of relaxation. And, music can really help to distract us from upsetting thoughts or feelings of anxiety.

Whether it is playing an instrument, dancing, or just putting your headphones on and cranking up the volume, losing yourself in music can be very therapeutic.

Some people think that mindfulness may help people with OCD. There has not yet been much conclusive research into whether mindfulness is effective for OCD, but it can help people to manage their mental health in general.

Mindfulness techniques involve paying deep attention to your mind, body, and surroundings and working on how you respond to changes in your mental state.

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Sleep, exercise, and diet

Many mental health problems tend to flare up as a result of not getting enough sleep, and studies have shown that OCD is no exception to this. So, making an effort to stick to a regular sleeping pattern can help a lot.

Again, try avoiding cell phones, laptops, tablets, and TV for at least an hour before bed; these can stop us from getting the sleep we need. People who are physically active are more likely to get enough nourishing sleep, so a little exercise — or even just going for a walk or doing some housework — can work wonders.

Alcohol, caffeine, and foods with lots of sugar can all disrupt sleep, so be careful to moderate your intake of these if you have OCD and problems sleeping.

That familiar quick hit of energy that comes with coffee or soda may feel necessary during the day, but as well as messing with your sleep, it can also boost anxiety and depression, thus potentially worsening OCD symptoms.

Foods that release energy slowly — such as nuts, seeds, pasta, rice, and cereals — are a preferable alternative because they help to balance blood sugar levels.

Drops in blood sugar levels can bring about depression and fatigue, which may be destabilizing to people with OCD. And, ensuring that you drink lots of water — aim for 6–8 glasses per day — will improve your concentration and help to balance mood.

Although these strategies are by no means a one-size-fits-all cure, if you have OCD, you may find that some of these techniques are helpful in avoiding or minimizing the effects of your triggers.

See what works for you, and always remember to speak to your doctor about the best way to manage your symptoms.