OCD doesn’t have to be chronic. It’s possible to recover and maintain recovery as you build better and better mental health. And just like improving and maintaining health anywhere else in your body, that takes work. I’ve been OCD-free for five years now and here are a couple of things that really help me:
- Approach mental health and fitness like physical health and fitness. If a person was in terrible physical shape but they got a trainer and started exercising and started eating healthy, and they got into great physical shape, and no longer experienced all of the symptoms that came with poor physical health and fitness, what would they need to do to prevent relapsing into the way they were before? How can you apply that same approach to your own mental health?
- Learn how to experience stress and change the things that cause the stress. If you avoid sweating, eventually everything makes you sweat. If you avoid stress, eventually everything stresses you out. OCD is all about trying to get rid of feelings we don’t like. So learning how to experience those feelings and make healthy decisions can help tremendously. Making healthier decisions will also help you change what’s causing the stress, inside of you and outside of you. That’s a far more useful approach for long-term health than trying to cover up the stress, or the anxiety, or whatever feeling it is you’re trying to avoid.
- Personally, I see OCD as anything a person does to cope with, check on, or control uncertainty and other feelings they don’t like. Many of the things I did that fit that description didn’t bother me and they seemed “normal”, but they were just a way I was practicing OCD in my everyday life. Viewing OCD as a set of behavioral patterns instead of a feeling or a specific group of symptoms helped with cutting out compulsions throughout my life that would push me back into relapse.
- Throw out unhelpful beliefs that fuel OCD. For example, some of the compulsions I struggled with related to fears about what others would think about me. From checking the stove so the apartment wouldn’t burn down and my neighbors wouldn’t hate me, to constantly checking if my teeth were clean, if my fly was zipped up, ruminating on everything I’d said the day before, questioning memories in the past to see if I’d done something horrible, etc. So I had to cut out all of those compulsions. But after doing that, I was still really anxious about what others thought about me. There was constant pressure to go back into the old compulsions. Unless I got rid of that belief that what others thought about me was what mattered most, and I learned to accept my fears related to being alone, I was always going to be under constant pressure to relapse and try to control those uncertainties.
- Switch the focus from avoiding illness to building health. There comes a point early on during the recovery journey where I think it’s useful to switch your focus away from OCD. If you only gauge success by getting rid of illness, you’ll be amazed at how that illness keeps following you around. If you want to feel good about getting rid of OCD, then your brain will keep bringing OCD back into your life so you can feel good about getting rid of it again, just like it does with every other anxiety you enjoy resolving. But OCD doesn’t need any more of your energy. What are your mental health goals? What aligns with your values and where you’re going in life? How can you take steps each day towards those goals? How can you define yourself by the healthy things you’re doing instead of the unhealthy things you’re avoiding?