A common struggle OCD clients discuss is the difficulty of letting go of the obsessive thoughts. Often, the internal struggle with these thoughts is more difficult in the beginning of treatment, because clients are not doing their usual mental routines. Trying something new is always going to create more stress in the beginning. After these “new” approaches become more familiar, their effectiveness begins to show.
Below are some skills to help with letting go of OCD thoughts. Many of these skills are referenced in Stop Obsessing by Edna Foa, Ph.D. and Reid Wilson, Ph.D.
The First Necessary Step: Accept or Not Accept
Any time an OCD thought appears, we have a choice: Do I want to resist the thought? Or do I accept the thought?
If we resist and fight the thought, we increase our distress and obsess even more.
If we accept the thought, we decrease our distress in the moment and give ourselves the best chance of reducing OCD thoughts in the future.
It is easier to accept a thought if you remind yourself that OCD thoughts are involuntary. You cannot control if they appear, only how to respond to them.
After accepting the OCD thought, there are 3 skills to try
Skill 1: Postpone Obsessing
OCD thoughts are more distressing when we tell ourselves they need to be gone right now and never come back. If this approach worked, people would not have OCD thoughts.
A way of gaining control is to decide when you will obsess or worry.
You are choosing to postpone them, not ignore them.
This provides control by breaking the original pattern of being consumed with the OCD thought.
At first try postponing for 30 seconds to a minute. Gradually expand the window over time.
Skill 2: Change the Way You Obsess
Mentally step back and note to yourself that you are starting to obsess.
Check in with yourself and try to identify the emotions you are experiencing in this moment (Sad, Anxious, Anger, Shame)
Remind yourself in the past there have been thoughts you’ve been able to let go. It’s okay to have a momentary obsession right now.
If you know it is an OCD thought, then you know it is irrational. Do your best to not analyze the OCD thought.
Do your best to change your emotions in the moment by doing something: Writing down the thought, thinking the thought in a funny voice, visualizing the thought as a picture, etc..)
Skill 3: Use Supportive Statements
OCD thoughts are always exaggerated and unhelpful. Try shifting your mind to a more realistic, helpful thought.
The supportive statement has to be something you can emotionally buy into. Don’t choose to say something that you do not believe in.
Some examples include:
This OCD thought isn’t helpful right now
Now is not the time to think about it. I can think about it later.
I won’t argue with an irrational thought
I don’t have to be perfect to be okay
I have to take risks to feel better. I’m willing to take risks.
The OCD thought does not mean anything. I don’t have to pay attention to it.
It’s good practice to let go of this. I want to practice.
A Final Word
Try to remember that OCD thoughts are involuntary. Once clients are able to accept this, then these skills are helpful ways to reduce the frequency of the OCD thoughts over time.
For more help with OCD and other anxiety disorders, reach out to Good Therapy SF.