Mindfulness can be beneficial for people living with OCD. Mindful thinking techniques, such as limiting distractions, can help you cope.
Obsessive thoughts can cause stress and discomfort, potentially leading to a cycle of actions. Intended to neutralize an intense emotion, minimize perceived risk, or prevent an outcome, compulsions
Research suggests mindfulness, as a tool and when paired with therapy, may be a promising practice for people living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD involves an obsessive, intrusive thought and the compulsion intended to make that thought or feeling disappear.
“We all have intrusive thoughts, and most of us have even had obsessive intrusive thoughts, like a song that gets stuck in your head,” according to Dawn Friedman, a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor (LPCC-S) in Columbus, Ohio.
“In OCD, that obsessive intrusive thought is so upsetting that we want to stop thinking it. The more we try not to think about it, the more we think about it,” she added. The compulsion aims to counteract the thought.
“Count to twenty, take twelve deep breaths, go check to see if the thought is true….” Friedman explained, “The compulsion — the act I do to try to make the thought go away — only works temporarily.”
Mindfulness is a practice. It’s a skill that can be cultivated, according to Dr. Marla Deibler, a doctor of psychology and licensed clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Deibler describes mindfulness as a state of present awareness. It’s a process of paying attention to all of your senses — becoming an observer of your experience, moment by moment, without judgment.
Obsessive intrusive thoughts may be repetitive and persistent, “drawing the mind into the past or the future, with worry about what has happened or what may happen,” Deibler explained.
Obsessive thoughts can drive compulsions, which aim to reduce feelings of fear, anxiety, or overwhelm. Mindfulness practices can help with discomfort by shifting our attention from the past to the present, Deibler added and allowing intrusive thoughts to come and go.
Mindfulness-based interventions, according to a 2022 literature review, may be useful for people living with OCD as an alternative option or complementary treatment to traditional therapies.
Another 2022 literature review suggests mindfulness may be a promising secondary treatment for patients with OCD.
Over time, regular mindfulness practice can aid in cultivating trait mindfulness, also known as dispositional mindfulness.
Jessica Frick, a licensed professional counselor in Erie, Pennsylvania, said, “you can be mindful while doing pretty much anything — eating, going for a walk, talking with a friend.”
“Getting started with mindfulness is simplest when you work it into your routine,” Frick explained. A few examples of how to develop mindfulness while living with OCD include:
- limit distraction
- focus on the five senses
- practice non-judgment
- try body scanning
- use urge surfing
- sit with discomfort
- don’t react
“Paying attention to our thoughts or our behaviors — like fully tuning into our lunch instead of eating while scrolling through Twitter — can help us stay in the present moment,” Friedman said. “Our impulse is to ‘fix’ an obsessive intrusive thought by doing something, when really, we can learn to tolerate the discomfort until it goes away.”
One 2020 survey found mindful attention to inner experiences, specifically non-reactivity and non-judgment, were particularly relevant.
But Friedman said certain mindfulness teachings are more appropriate for OCD than others. Some mindfulness techniques can become compulsions, like repeating the mantra at least 20 times when the thought occurs.
“Working with a therapist trained in OCD treatment is important,” she added. “This is hard work, and having a safe container to do that hard work can make it a lot easier.”
Mindful thinking is a skill that can be developed over time, with ties to therapies shown to be effective for OCD. It may be utilized in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), subsets of CBT.
“If you’re able to, seek out a therapist who specializes in OCD, ideally exposure and response prevention (ERP), which has shown to be the most effective form of treatment for OCD,” Frick said. “ACT is a close second and goes very well with ERP.”
Though mindfulness isn’t a component of traditional ERP, Dr. Diebler said, it may be applied by practitioners using ACT-informed ERP in treating OCD.
“It’s perfectly fine not to be good at it when you start,” Friedman said. “You can’t really be ‘bad’ at mindfulness because you can learn.”