When left unchecked or untreated, OCD rituals may consume your thoughts and time. But there are plenty of ways to manage these often unpleasant patterns.
Most people have little habits that they engage in, especially when they’re feeling nervous.
Perhaps you have to double-check the front door is locked before going to bed or repeat a mantra before heading into a meeting or event to clear your mind.
“For the most part, these types of thoughts don’t cause us too many problems,” explains Dr. Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist, founder of Good Thinking Psychological Services and host of the Aspiring Psychologist Podcast.
“However, the difficulty arises when we take or attach certain meaning to these automatic thoughts,” she says. This can lead to the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Consider the wide spectrum of coping mechanisms, obsessions, and compulsions. Not every automatic response you have needs to be treated as a problem.
But if you feel like your invasive thoughts or compulsive rituals are taking a toll on you, professional resources are available to help you manage these obsessions and compulsions.
Some people speak of OCD as a disorder characterized by clusters of rituals, which are behaviors or actions that occur repeatedly. These rituals present themselves in many shapes and formats.
They may often take the form of mental responses without any physical symptoms, like counting over and over in your head.
Physical manifestations of OCD may present themselves as behaviors like excessive handwashing, home cleaning, or hoarding everyday objects, though hoarding disorder is a separate condition from OCD.
While there are no official sub-types of OCD, actions and behaviors usually vary between people.
So-called “Pure O,” for example, sees someone only experience mental rituals, while “Just Right” OCD sees more of a focus on physical behaviors, with individuals feeling the need to align or organize items in a certain way to momentarily relieve anxiety.
Consider these different types of rituals present in OCD that people may do to temporarily calm anxiety or potentially prevent negative consequences from occurring:
- Cleaning. OCD related to contamination occurs when you feel dirty or marked, so you may repeatedly wash to ensure everything is clean and germ-free.
- Arranging and organizing. This is when items are repeatedly re-arranged and organized because you need them to be a certain way.
- Repetition. This involves repeating an action or thought a specific number of times.
- Checking. With this type of OCD, you may take actions like repeatedly checking that your car is locked.
- Hoarding. This involved holding on to all kinds of possessions in the belief they will be needed at some point, though hoarding disorder is a separate condition.
While the lines between compulsions and obsessions can sometimes seem blurry, there are differences.
Obsessions are thoughts and beliefs that constantly play in someone’s mind, like “I’m covered in germs” or “my partner will die if I visit this park.”
On the other hand, compulsions are behaviors people carry out to help deal with uncertainty or anxious thoughts, like handwashing or avoiding certain places.
In short, you can consider obsessions to be unpleasant and invasive thoughts that may cause compulsive behaviors.
Some different types of obsessions present in OCD include:
- contamination obsessions (germs or dirt)
- organization and symmetry obsessions
- unwanted “bad” thoughts or images
- concerns around harming yourself or others
- bodily obsessions
- fears of getting rid of an item you’ll later need
- strong urges to confess thoughts or actions
Combining ERP with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is also a common and effective form of therapy for OCD, with
CBT usually involves changing a person’s thinking patterns and giving them the techniques to tackle different behaviors and situations.
Medication may be prescribed alongside these treatments to help reduce OCD symptoms.
Human psyches are incredibly powerful, so going cold turkey on rituals may be difficult. But there are steps you can take to encourage changes if negative thought patterns are dominating your days.
Reframe your thoughts
Detaching yourself from OCD can help you approach thoughts and rituals differently. “It can be helpful to think about the condition as something separate to you, like a gremlin or a fungus — something you can fight against,” suggests Trent. “This process is called externalization.”
Trent says “magical thinking” can help provide perspective on your thought patterns. “If you believe you can keepbad situations from happening with thoughts or behaviors, does that mean you can also cause them to happen through similar behaviors?”
Trent asks important, and perhaps helpful, questions on dealing with OCD. “When we begin to wobble the all or nothing thinking styles, it can give us breathing space to exert further control.”
Make things shorter
Sometimes, managing how much time you spend on something can help you get to the point where you don’t engage in any compulsions, even if you’re experiencing obsessions.
If you have to wash your hands for 5 minutes when you get home or count to 50 every time you enter a room, consider trying to make your usual rituals shorter. Baby steps are fine, so you could start by washing your hands for 10 or fewer seconds.
By slowly reducing your routine, you’ll attain a level of control, and your mind may learn to cope and adjust to variations.
Some people’s rituals are strengthened by asking others for reassurance: “Did I do that correctly?” or “Did I do that 20 times?”
But as much as it may seem like a helpful measure, rationalization may be very unlikely in preventing the rituals of OCD.
As Trent explains, “the reassurance gained from initial protective behaviors is soon extinguished, and the person goes on to engage in bigger and bolder behaviors to reduce and diminish their distress levels.”
Because of this, not asking for reassurance can be an important step in preventing rituals from spiraling.
Rituals occur because of obsessions that evolve into compulsive behaviors. These compulsions can be both mental and physical, taking a variety of shapes and formats.
Treatment for OCD and its rituals typically comes in the form of CBT alongside medication and self-care. There are steps you can take yourself to start addressing them.
Wherever you are in your OCD journey, Trent notes that it’s important to “stay kind to yourself and know that you are doing your best to get through each day.”
Patience, professional therapy, and persistence may all help guide you to more relaxing and peaceful days ahead as you deal with OCD symptoms.