How To Manage OCD: Treatment Options That Work

Reviewed by Heather Cashell, LCSW

Published 06/24/2022

If you're reading this, then the chances are that you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Like other mental health disorders, in OCD diagnosis and the symptoms can feel overwhelming.You may be wondering how to overcome OCD, how to get rid of OCD, or if it's even possible. The good news is, many treatment options are effective for OCD.

How To Deal With OCD: First Things First

The first thing you need to do if you want to know how to deal with OCD is to understand what the disorder is and what the symptoms are. OCD used to be classified as an anxiety disorder, but it is now in its classification of mental health disorders.

People with OCD struggle with having obsessive thoughts that cause them anxiety until they engage in compulsive behavior to address it. A few common examples of this include:

  • Being worried about being contaminated by germs to the point that they obsessively wash their hands until they are dry, cracked, and bleeding.
  • Having fearful thoughts that they will burn the house down, so they check and recheck that the iron and toaster are unplugged, candles blown out, and the lights switched off so often that it makes them late for work.
  • Needing to do things in even numbers, so if they tap the table three times, they need to do it one more time before relaxing a little.
  • Being afraid to throw anything away for fear that they could need it at some point in the future to the point that their house is unsafe or unclean.
  • Having repeated thoughts of hurting a loved one over and over again even though they don’t want to.

These are just a few examples of what OCD can look like in someone’s life. There are many different ways that it can present itself. Still, the basics remain obsessive thoughts that lead to compulsive behaviors (even if the compulsive behavior is mental and not physical).

If you wonder if OCD is impacting your life, you can take this online OCD quiz to get a better idea and learn where to go from here.

How To Overcome OCD

Some of the most common types of OCD treatment include:

Exposure Therapy

Also known as exposure and response prevention, exposure therapy is a type of therapy where your therapist will work with you to expose you to your obsessions to help you learn how to not engage in compulsive behavior. It's important to know that this type of therapy is done at the level you're comfortable with. Your therapist should not be forcing you into behaviors that you are not ready for.

This form of therapy begins by simply talking with your therapist. You'll work together to create a list of obsessions and compulsions that you struggle with. Once you have your list in place, you'll rank them by the level they impact you. Once you have done this, you'll begin by addressing what causes you the least amount of fear. You'll work on exposing yourself to the obsession without doing the reactionary compulsive behavior, and then as you conquer one, you will work up to the next one.

For example, if you are afraid of contamination, you may feel that you need to thoroughly wash your hands after touching something after someone else. So, if your therapist hands you a pencil and you write with it, your compulsion maybe to need to go clean your hands or sanitize them after using it. During exposure therapy, you would expose yourself to contamination fear, such as touching a pencil someone else has touched, but you will not allow yourself to wash your hands.

The idea is that being intentional about breaking the link between obsession and compulsion. It will help you see that compulsive behavior is unnecessary. However, you don't have to jump completely in cold turkey. In the example above, your therapist may have you wait a few minutes longer than you want to before you wash your hands. It's not that they don't let you wash your hands at all. Then you gradually work on extending that amount of time. This helps your brain understand that compulsive action is not necessary to overcome fear.

Imaginal Exposure

If exposure therapy seems like it may be more intense than what you're ready for, imaginal exposure has also been found to help treat those with OCD. With imaginal exposure, instead of being physically exposed to the obsession or what causes your anxiety, you imagine the scenario. Along with this, you record your level of anxiety after you do it. The goal is to begin increasing the amount of time you can imagine that scenario while also decreasing the anxiety level you feel while doing so. This can help desensitize you to a situation that you associate with fear.

This therapy type can be a good beginning step to take and can be followed up by exposure and response prevention therapy.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy can help those with OCD learn how to reframe the negative thoughts and conclusions that they tend to jump to. A therapist can work with you to learn how to identify the instinctive thoughts you have in certain situations to learn how to address them appropriately.

Cognitive therapy helps you learn how to question the thoughts that come into your mind instead of just accepting them. It helps you to analyze the thought and reframe it with the truth. For example, if you think about hurting someone, in cognitive therapy, you can learn how to break that thought down and ask yourself additional questions such as  “is that a behavior that I've done in the past?”

Chances are good that the fearful or harmful thoughts you have due to OCD are not things that you want to do or are things that will happen. Learning how to identify that and accept it can help you move on from obsessing about the thought, which helps you avoid compulsive behavior.

Medication

Along with other forms of treatment, such as the ones listed above, medication is sometimes used to help address the symptoms and anxiety caused by OCD. This is not the best form of treatment for everyone, so you must speak with your physician or a psychiatrist to talk about your specific situation.

The examples above are a few of the types of therapy that are often used to treat OCD. There are other forms of treatment that your doctor or therapist might find helpful for you.

Other OCD Tips

Along with formal treatment options, there are some things that you can do on your own to possibly help as you work on overcoming your OCD symptoms. A few of these tips include:

Journal

Journaling your thoughts and feelings can help in a few different ways. First of all, it can provide you a place to get your thoughts out of your head. This can be helpful for some people. However, with OCD, it's likely not enough on its own to manage obsessive thoughts. But it can also be helpful to have your thoughts and feelings documented to make it easier for you to share with your therapist.

Delay responding with your ritual or compulsive behavior

Even before working with a therapist, you can begin this process on your own. If you’re able to identify the behavior that you respond to your obsessive thought with, you can begin to delay the amount of time before you engage in it. This doesn’t mean you need to start big. It could be simply waiting one minute longer than you normally would.

Learn Strategies ToHelp You With Anxiety

You may find it helpful to learn how to manage the anxiety you experience as a result of your obsessive thoughts or ideas. This could be practicing deep breathing exercises, doing yoga, meditating, or practicing mindfulness. If you can learn how to overcome anxiety, it can help you avoid compulsive behavior.

Some people also find it helpful to incorporate exercise into their daily routine. This can help give them something to shift their mind to, and it also provides stress-relieving benefits. It’s also been found that physical activity can help improve your mood. While these aren’t necessarily things that will help you overcome OCD symptoms, they can benefit your mental health.

While the tips above may help you in some ways with OCD, it’s not an equal replacement for working with a professional. There are many different ways that a therapist can help you create a treatment plan specifically for you.