A Guide to Managing OCD During Times of Stress and Uncertainty

A Guide to Managing OCD During Times of Stress and Uncertainty

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As much as 72% of people suffering from OCD also experience a substance abuse disorder. With numbers like that, is it possible that your substance abuse is related to an underlying OCD condition?

Just like substance abuse, OCD tends to increase in severity during times of great stress. New triggers can develop, and a person suffering from the disorder may turn to their compulsions in order to feel relief from their stress and anxiety.

However, managing OCD during times of stress and uncertainty is possible! And learning to do so can help you on your whole recovery journey from OCD.

What Is OCD?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a mental health condition in which intrusive thoughts, obsessions, and compulsions become so strong that they interfere with your everyday life. While everyone experiences the occasional unwanted thought or worry resulting in action, people with OCD suffer from these constantly in an all-consuming way.

Isn't That Just Anxiety?

OCD differs from anxiety in that the fears and intrusive thoughts associated with OCD are less grounded in reality than in anxiety. It's also possible for people with OCD to engage in compulsive behaviors without consciously knowing the anxious thought attached to them.

However, people with anxiety tend to ruminate on their worries, know exactly what they're afraid of, and don't attach a compulsive action to the anxiety.

Symptoms of OCD

Are you wondering if you have OCD? Consider if you have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Frequent unwanted violent thoughts or images
  • Fear of contamination
  • Fear of losing control of yourself
  • Obsession with order and symmetry
  • Obsessive double-checking
  • Counting as a self-soothing mechanism
  • Constant rearranging
  • Repetition of words or phrases out loud or in your mind

While these symptoms are not a complete diagnosis of OCD, they're a good starting place to consider. Let's look more at the specifics of how OCD functions in the mind.

The symptoms of OCD are broken down into intrusive thoughts that become obsessions and obsessions that become compulsions. The symptoms of OCD tend to appear in a vicious cycle of thought to anxiety to compulsive behavior to negative reinforcement via temporary relief.

Relief can be misleading, while you may not feel totally calm after engaging in a compulsion you will feel as if you've "scratched an itch" even temporarily. Let's take a closer look at the symptoms.

Intrusive Thoughts

Obsessions or intrusive thoughts are thoughts, images, ideas, or impulses that enter your mind unwanted. For a person without OCD, when they experience these thoughts they can easily put them aside.

But a person with OCD will begin ruminating on them without control. They can end up disturbing and distracting the person with OCD.


Compulsions are the person with OCD's answer to intrusive thoughts. They believe that by performing an action enough times they will be able to make the compulsion go away.

In fact, they may experience temporary relief by performing the action. For example, if they obsessively worry about intruders, they may check that their door is locked over and over again.

While the compulsion offers relief at first, for a person with OCD, it will never be enough to completely eradicate the obsession. They will just want to perform the compulsion more and more.

Managing OCD During Times of Stress and Uncertainty

Many people with OCD find that their symptoms are worse in times of stress and anxiety. But if the only thing that offers relief just begins the cycle again, how do people with OCD manage their symptoms?

Managing OCD requires that you treat the mental health condition at the source. You can't just handle intrusive thoughts by performing compulsive actions, and you can't handle compulsions by just not doing them. Treating OCD involves interrogating why you feel the need to perform these actions and addressing your anxieties head-on.

Identify Triggers

The first step to self-managing your OCD is to recognize and identify your triggers. Keep a running list of the thoughts or events that result in your desire to engage in a compulsion.

Keep track of how activating these thoughts or experiences are for you on a scale of 1 to 10. The most fearful situations receive a 10 while something significantly less activating receives a 1.

Once you've identified triggers and intrusive thoughts, it's easier to tell yourself that's all they are. You can engage in the calming action once (such as locking your front door). Then when you feel the urge to go lock it again, you can remind yourself that it's just a compulsion attached to an intrusive thought.

This may not work every time, but it's more likely to if you've categorized this as an intrusive thought before the compulsion even arose.

Engage in Triggers Without Engaging in Compulsions

You may feel tempted, especially in times of stress, to avoid your triggers altogether. But this actually doesn't help treat your OCD and is often impossible to do. If you're afraid of contamination through touch, it's not as if you can simply avoid touching things for the rest of your life.

Instead, the best treatment for OCD is actually to engage with triggers in a safe way one by one. Starting with the triggers that were low on your fear scale, you can work your way up to triggers that are more intense for you. By starting with the ones that are less scary, you can show yourself that you don't need to engage in compulsions in order to feel safe and secure again.

Identify the Source of Your Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts often have a deeper meaning than they originally appear to have. There may be something extra distressing about your fear that you haven't been ready to engage with. With the help of a licensed therapist, you can explore the root cause of your intrusive thoughts or the deeper fear attached to them.

When you understand your deeper fear, it can be easier to let go of your compulsions cause you'll realize that they were hardly related to the actual fear all along.

Challenge Your Obsessive Thoughts

In a time that feels safe and secure for you, take a moment to challenge your own obsessive thoughts. Right them down and then ask yourself the following questions about them:

  • Is this thought true? Have I confused an emotion with a fact?
  • Is there a more realistic or even positive way to view this situation?
  • What are the most likely outcomes of this situation? Is my fear most likely?
  • Is this thought helpful or hurtful to me?
  • How would I talk to a friend about this thought?

If you challenge the thoughts while you aren't triggered, it will be easier to cast them aside. Then when you are triggered, you can return to the conclusions that you've already drawn via these questions and know that it is a symptom of your OCD.

Manage Stress in Healthy Ways

As mentioned above, stress can increase your OCD symptoms. While in treatment for OCD, you can also proactively manage stress in your life so that the stress doesn't aggravate the symptoms that you're trying to treat.

There are plenty of healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety that don't include your OCD compulsions. Try to find soothing activities that won't become compulsions for you by engaging one of your five senses. Listen to your favorite song, smell your favorite perfume, or pet your favorite animal.

Deep breathing and yoga techniques can also provide stress relief in a calm, non-compulsive way.

Make Changes to Your Lifestyle

You can also manage your overall stress and OCD symptoms by making lifestyle changes that benefit your overall well-being.

Getting plenty of exercise is a natural anxiety treatment and has been shown to reduce OCD symptoms. An active body is a healthy body, and a healthy body promotes a healthy mind.

Lack of sleep can increase feelings of anxiety and stress. Situations that aren't a big deal suddenly feel impossible to handle when we haven't gotten enough sleep. Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule in order to keep anxious feelings at bay.

Just like exercise and sleep promote a healthy body which in turn promotes a healthy mind, eating a healthy diet can also help symptoms of stress. Make sure that your body is getting all the nutrients it needs. It's also worth noting if you're getting the right amount of calories per day.

Many people with OCD tend to overeat or undereat as a compulsion. Eating the right amount at the right times can balance your metabolism and give you the energy you need to fight off stress.

Avoiding alcohol and nicotine (particularly if you struggle with addiction) is key to reducing anxiety. While both of these substances may curb anxiety at first, your reliance on them to treat anxiety will add much more stress to your life. It's better to stay away from them altogether if you struggle with anxiety or OCD.

Get Support From Loved Ones and Professionals

You don't have to handle OCD by yourself, and in fact, it's easier to treat if you don't!

Reach out to family members and friends and explain to them what's going on. They may be able to help distract you from your compulsions and obsessions or talk you through moments of extreme fear and anxiety. At the very least, they will have an ear to listen to your worries and your successes as you go through OCD treatment.

The help of professional intervention cannot be stressed enough. A professional counselor or therapist can guide you through many strategies and activities that make identifying and challenging your compulsions easier. They can also help guide you to other treatment methods if one is not serving your needs.

Consider Medication

Another thing that a professional may be able to offer during your OCD treatment is medication. While the prospect of medication can be daunting (especially for anyone who has suffered from addiction) it's important to note that it is not a crutch in this case but a tool.

Medication can help curb the desire to engage in compulsions while you treat the underlying fears and anxieties. It's much easier to learn to avoid your compulsions while you feel the urge less thanks to medication.

Address Trauma

While OCD is not always the result of trauma, some of your intrusive thoughts and compulsions may be related to your trauma. Many OCD sufferers find it helpful to engage in trauma therapy at the same time as their OCD treatment.

Here, they may learn the source of their intrusive thoughts which they can then take to their OCD treatment to make it stronger. You may even find that by solving your underlying traumatic issues, some of your OCD compulsions may go away on their own.

However, make sure your trauma therapist knows that you suffer from OCD. Some forms of trauma therapy can accidentally encourage compulsive behaviors by trying to offer grounding techniques that the patient begins to use as new compulsions.

Coping With OCD

OCD is a complex disorder with many layers and facets which make it difficult to treat. But treatment is possible and so is managing OCD during times of stress and uncertainty. As you embark on your journey of healing from substance abuse and OCD or just OCD, know that with these tips it's possible to get through even the most stressful times by learning to challenge your intrusive thoughts and disengage from your compulsions.

Are you ready to start your journey toward mental wellness? Begin treatment here!

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