Sensorimotor symptoms in OCD involve a preoccupation with bodily sensations or processes — such as breathing, blinking, or focusing on your heartbeat.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that involves repetitive thoughts and behaviors that cause distress. While there is only one type of OCD, the symptoms can show up in many ways.
When you think of this condition, you may picture someone who washes their hands frequently, checks locks repeatedly or counts to prevent something terrible from happening.
Unlike some obsessions and compulsions, sensorimotor symptoms don’t usually involve a fear of harm coming to you or others.
Instead, they involve the fear that once you start being aware of a body sensation, you’ll not be able to return to a previous state of “unawareness.” These fears may cause intense distress.
While sensorimotor symptoms are a less common manifestation of OCD, treatments are still available.
Sensorimotor OCD symptoms are also called somatic, bodily, or body-focused symptoms. These symptoms involve a fixation on bodily sensations, which then causes anxiety.
These obsessions with physical sensations or bodily processes often become very distressing. You may fear that you will not be able to return to the state your body was previously in before these sensations or urges occurred.
Some sensorimotor symptoms of OCD include focusing on:
- Breathing: the intensity of your breathing or other people’s breathing
- Swallowing: the number of times you swallow, how much saliva is produced, or hyperfixation on the physical act of swallowing
- Blinking: how often you or other people blink, or the urge to blink
- Pulse rate: pulse rate or heartbeat
- Eye contact: hyperawareness of eye contact when making eye contact with another person
- Movement of the mouth of tongue: usually occurs while speaking
- Visual distractions: focusing on “floaters” or other visual matter
- A specific body part: such as hands or feet
People who have sensorimotor OCD symptoms can also have illness anxiety disorder because they fear that their bodily sensations are signs of an illness.
Often, if you experience obsessions related to bodily processes, this involves “selective attention.” With selective attention, you become more aware of your body’s physical functions and therefore attend to them.
If you cannot divert your attention from these bodily processes, it may increase anxiety and stress related to the obsessions.
In addition, you might find it challenging to focus on other things due to the obsessions with what is going on in your body.
For example, let’s say you become aware of how many times you blink in 1 minute. In this period of time, you may become anxious that you will never focus on anything other than your blinking. This, in turn, causes more anxiety about the obsession.
If you are seeking treatment for OCD, there are a variety of options. You may benefit from therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Everyone responds to treatment in different ways.
If you are dealing with sensorimotor obsessions, much of the treatment will involve recognizing the anxiety caused by the sensory input and effectively experiencing the sensation without the resulting worry.
There are several types of mental health professionals who can provide treatment for OCD. Different types of mental health professionals you may look for include:
- professional counselor
- marriage and family therapist
- clinical social worker
Exposure response prevention
Exposure response prevention (ERP) is a type of therapy treatment that helps reduce OCD symptoms. It involves psychoeducation, exposure to the trigger causing the obsessions or compulsions, and finally, a prevention response.
With this type of treatment, you learn how to choose not to engage in obsessive or compulsive behavior.
Research has suggested that
Other options include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, and trauma-focused therapy, especially if the person has a history of childhood trauma.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat OCD in
TMS is a type of brain stimulation therapy that uses electromagnetic pulses in the brain to reduce symptoms of OCD. This works by stimulating nerve cells in the brain. TMS is a non-invasive type of therapy.
Usually, TMS is used as a treatment when other treatments aren’t effective.
Some individuals may find relief for OCD symptoms by taking medications. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are usually prescribed for depression and help treat OCD.
FDA-approved SSRIs for OCD include:
Other SSRIs may also be used off-label, including citalopram (Celexa) and escitalopram (Lexapro).
Medications aren’t suitable for everyone. However, if you are considering medication to treat OCD symptoms, it is important that you speak with your doctor.
Mental health professionals often prescribed higher doses of SSRIs for OCD than depression. These medications can have side effects, so speaking with a doctor may be beneficial to determine if the medication is right for you.
You may feel overwhelmed and distressed by sensorimotor obsessions. However, there are many things you can do at home to help manage your symptoms.
Some strategies that can help manage symptoms include:
- practicing mindfulness
- regular exercise
- finding a support group
Mindfulness is about present awareness in the here and now. You practice mindfulness by attending to your thoughts and feelings in the present moment. Mindfulness is about awareness of your thoughts and learning to accept them rather than avoid them.
Exercise may help with OCD symptoms when used with other treatments. One pilot study examined a 12-week exercise program conducted with participants who have OCD.
The participants were prescribed an exercise program alongside CBT. They found significant differences in the effects of the participant’s symptoms rated by an OCD scale when CBT was combined with exercise.
Finally, finding a support group for OCD may help you feel less isolated. In addition, reaching out to others for support may help you gain additional strategies for managing symptoms effectively.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or distressed due to sensorimotor obsessions, you may consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help. If you need help finding a therapist, there are many options available.
You can read more about finding the right therapist or mental health professional using Psych Central’s Find Help resource.
Mental health professionals are skilled at diagnosing and assessing OCD and can help you learn to manage symptoms.
Some helpful organizations with resources for OCD are listed below:
- The International OCD Foundation
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness
- The Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- The Peace of Mind Foundation
To learn more about sensorimotor symptoms of OCD, you can check out the FearCast Podcast with Kevin Foss, MFT, who has an episode about sensorimotor obsessions.
Finally, “Breathe In, Breathe Out: How I Overcame Sensorimotor OCD,” by Alexander Culafi, can offer some insights.
Remember, treatment is available. You don’t have to deal with obsessions or compulsions alone.