Avoidance may be “the path of least resistance” when dealing with OCD — but it’s often not the most effective coping method. We look at other ways to thrive despite your symptoms.
A common way that people deal with anxiety is through avoidance. If you’re afraid to fly, then you just avoid flying. However, the more you avoid flying, the harder it will be to reach the place you’ve always wanted to visit.
When it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a common mental health disorder in which a person has reoccurring thoughts and behaviors they continually repeat, avoidance is often used as a coping mechanism.
People with OCD may try to avoid unwanted thoughts or situations that may trigger their obsessions. However, avoidance doesn’t always work, so you may want other coping strategies at your disposal.
Compulsive avoidance is when people with OCD alter their behavior to avoid places or people because of their obsessions. For example, someone who has a contamination obsession — fear of germs or bodily fluids — may avoid public restrooms.
Avoidance can function as a compulsion that strengthens the obsession and may make the condition worse, which can perpetuate what is causing the avoidance in the first place.
In fact, “prolonged avoidance actually exacerbates OCD symptoms and perpetuates the intrusive thoughts as well as rituals and compulsions,” says Dr. Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Signs and symptoms
OCD usually includes symptoms of both obsessions and compulsions. Those with avoidance OCD may avoid things depending upon their specific OCD subtype. Consider how someone may experience the various manifestations of OCD:
- Contamination OCD: may avoid public restrooms or shaking hands with someone.
- Harm OCD: may avoid places where people are vulnerable or avoid handling objects like knives.
- Religious OCD: may avoid going to church or offending God.
- Pedophilia OCD: may avoid schools or playgrounds where children may be.
- “Losing control” OCD: may avoid crowds in fear of blurting things out or stores in fear of stealing things.
Avoidance OCD is also quite common. According to a 2011 study, approximately 60% of the 124 adults studied reported having OCD-related avoidance.
Avoidance OCD is treatable. A typical OCD treatment plan may involve therapy, medication, or both.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that helps treat OCD. By working with a therapist, you’ll learn how to recognize the thoughts that are causing you distress.
Your therapist may also help you change your negative thinking and address the behaviors that are associated with these thoughts.
Exposure and response prevention
One of the most effective treatments for OCD is a form of CBT called exposure and response prevention (ERP).
This form of therapy is conducted by a trained therapist who exposes you to triggers that may cause your obsessive thoughts, then helps you resist performing your compulsions on your triggers.
In a controlled environment, a therapist will help you face your fears, so you know you’re safe and don’t have to follow a ritual. You’ll continue to do this until you break the cycle of what triggers your obsessions and compulsions.
A licensed medical professional such as your physician or psychiatrist may provide a prescription for a medication to help address your OCD symptoms.
Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are found to be the most effective treatments to help people with OCD reduce their obsessions and compulsions.
Research shows that approximately 70% of people benefit from taking both ERP and medication as a form of treatment for OCD.
“Developing healthy coping strategies for OCD can help someone manage their symptoms and bring them under control,” says Schiff.
While treatment for OCD is best under the supervision of a mental health professional, there are several self-help strategies you can use to help cope with your symptoms as you look for professional help. Here are a few suggestions:
A more adaptive response than suppressing your feelings and engaging in unhealthy behaviors is to journal, says Schiff. Journaling helps you to make sense of what you are feeling.
“Journaling is a helpful coping strategy with OCD because you can write down the intrusive thoughts in order to better process them, but also distance yourself from them,” explains Schiff.
“Sometimes just getting your thoughts down on paper and out of your head can prove therapeutic.”
Practice relaxation techniques
“Managing stress is an important coping strategy when it comes to OCD since high-stress levels tend to increase OCD symptoms,” explains Schiff. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and mindful meditation can be an effective OCD self-help strategy.
“Avoidance OCD is actually a compulsion since the individual is either avoiding certain thoughts or feelings or an actual person, place, or thing due to the anxiety it induces,” says Schiff.
Relaxation strategies are important because they may decrease anxiety, worry, and overthinking.
Another healthy coping strategy is to take care of yourself. “It’s important that you take care of both your mind and body when dealing with avoidance OCD,” says Schiff.
Try and get into a regular routine where you go to bed and wake up at the same time. It‘s also important to eat well.
Schiff says, when you feel good about yourself it’s easier to combat OCD when it presents itself. She says it’s important to be kind to yourself and not to judge yourself too harshly.
Schiff suggests trying positive self-affirmations, which can increase your self-esteem, confidence and boost your mood.
Find a healthy outlet
“Doing something physical can also be helpful – this can include exercise or something as simple as going for a walk outside in nature,” says Schiff.
Keeping yourself busy with a hobby or through fitness is a great way to keep your mind occupied and away from your obsessions and compulsions.
A common coping mechanism in OCD is to avoid what is triggering your compulsions. However, when you continually avoid what is triggering you, it may become a compulsion of its own.
For example, if you have a fear of losing control in public then you may avoid going into stores or anywhere where there is a crowd of people.
The gold standard of treatment for avoidance OCD is a form of CBT called ERP therapy. This coupled with medication benefits approximately 70% of people who have OCD.
There are a few self-care strategies that can help you cope with your OCD symptoms, they are:
- prioritizing relaxation techniques
- practicing self-care
- having self-compassion
- finding a healthy outlet
If you’re experiencing OCD, avoidance is likely not the way to manage it. While managing OCD is a process, it is treatable. With the right tools and support, you can find ways to thrive in your day-to-day life.