When my son Dan was first diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he did not receive proper treatment. This is actually not uncommon for those with OCD. Wrong therapy, wrong drugs. His OCD spiraled out of control and less than a year later it was so severe he could not even eat.
So when he entered a top OCD residential treatment program, my husband and I finally breathed a sigh of relief. Dan was on his way! The therapy used in this program was exposure and response prevention (ERP), the recommended psychological treatment for OCD.
By all accounts from his social worker, Dan settled in quickly at the program and was already working hard: facing his fears (exposures) and refraining from engaging in his compulsions (response prevention). And from what we were told, he was making good progress.
We were so pleased and excited! We couldn’t wait to see Dan and almost ran into the clinic for our first weekly meeting. How wonderful it would be to see him not so tormented by this horrible disorder!
Well, what we found was not what we imagined. Dan had lost more weight off his already tall, much-too-thin frame and had black circles under his eyes. He was noticeably nervous, anxious, and jittery, and appeared to be in even worse condition than when he first entered the program.
What went wrong?
What my husband and I didn’t realize at the time is that ERP therapy, by its very nature, raises anxiety. Our son was being asked not only to face his greatest fears, but to refrain from engaging in the thoughts or actions that he believed (at least on some level) kept him, or those he cared about, safe.