7 Habits that Make OCD Worse & How to Cope

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7 Habits that Make OCD Worse (and What To Do Instead) | If you or someone you love suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, this post is a great resource. We're sharing an overview of this mental health disorder - signs, symptoms, and causes, common obsessions and compulsions, etc. - and we dive into daily habits that can make obsessions, compulsions, and intrusive thoughts worse instead of better. Click to learn which of your habits are negatively reinforcing your fears and phobias.

Imagine worrying whether or not you locked your door when you left home. While we all experience this concern from time to time, imagine feeling so anxious that you experience an immediate urge to count objects in a specified order to stop the anxiety. Although this scenario may sound difficult to understand, it’s a common reality for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder; a chronic mental health disorder that affects around 1 to 2% of the world population. But thankfully, there are ways to cope and avoid a few habits that make OCD worse.

What Is OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an ongoing mental health disorder that involves repeated intrusive fears or thoughts (obsessions) that cause repeated behaviors (compulsions). 

For example, if someone fears dirt or germs, they may repeatedly wash their hands until they are raw to relieve the stress associated with germs. While compulsions are driven to relieve anxiety, they may only temporarily reduce these feelings until the fears or obsessions return – this is the vicious cycle of OCD. And the stress may become so severe that it can ultimately disrupt functioning in relationships, work, school, and other areas.

15 Common Symptoms of OCD

OCD involves two main symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. When an obsession occurs, the person feels compelled to perform a behavior to relieve the distress caused by the unwanted thought or image or prevent what they’re experiencing from coming true. Let’s discuss the common themes associated with both to better understand OCD.

Common obsession themes

  1. Fears of contamination, dirt, or germs
  2. Worries about throwing things away
  3. Explicit sexual and or violent thoughts
  4. Needing everything organized and orderly
  5. Fears of losing control and harming yourself or others
  6. Unwanted thoughts, images, words, or sounds
  7. Concerns about the health and safety of yourself or others

Common compulsions

  1. Repeatedly washing your hands, objects, or body
  2. Checking doors repeatedly to ensure they’re locked
  3. Touching something a specific number of times
  4. Hiding objects that you could use to hurt yourself or others
  5. Checking a stove a specific number of times to ensure it’s off
  6. Silently repeating a prayer or phrase a set number of times
  7. Organizing or aligning objects in a certain way
  8. Analyzing past actions to ensure you haven’t harmed someone

What causes OCD

While experts are unsure exactly what causes OCD, various theories may potentially cause or exacerbate the condition.

  1. Family history. If someone in your family has OCD, you can develop obsessive fears and compulsions by observing theirs over time.
  2. Biology. Some studies believe there is a connection between OCD symptoms and abnormalities in certain parts of the brain. However, more research is needed. 
  3. Genetics. A genetic component may be involved, but research has yet to determine whether this is true.

7 Habits that Make OCD Worse & How to Cope  

1. Avoid trying to prevent your thoughts
Many people with OCD try to stop their thoughts and beliefs from occurring. Yet, instead of trying to ignore or stop them, which will only lead to more obsessive thoughts, acknowledge that they’re there and try to question them. For example, ask if the worst will happen, if it’s possible it’s happening right now, or has it already happened. Asking these questions may provide a much-needed stress release and is a great way to practice coping with one of the habits that make OCD worse.

2. Try to destress
For anyone, internalized anger and stress can severely disrupt your life, leading to depression, anxiety, and even worsening OCD symptoms. Therefore, during stressful periods engage in ways that might help you feel more relaxed. For example, vent to a loved one you trust, talk to a therapist, practice deep breathing, or complete any activity that brings you joy.

3. Try to let go of perfectionism
While everyone aims to do their best in life, perfectionism is often a key symptom of OCD. For example, if you obsess over whether you did well on a test at school or presentation at work, you become more vulnerable to the obsession to transform into a compulsion. Therefore, if it becomes an intrusive thought, remember that those thoughts don’t say anything about your character (you’re trying your best). And secondly, accept their presence instead of trying to get rid of them – acceptance is key to slowly removing their power. You could also practice a few more tips to help your perfectionistic tendencies.

4. Practice forgiving guilt
It’s common to experience guilt with OCD. For example, you may self-criticize for believing you hurt someone or punish yourself for having an unwanted thought or image. Yet, instead of trying to suppress your thoughts (they will come and go with time), redirect to self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion will briefly stop the rumination and give yourself a moment of kindness. You can practice it by creating a visual reminder that says, “I deserve love”, or “I forgive myself”. 

 5. Don’t isolate yourself
During your OCD flareups, it might be tempting to shut yourself off from the world, especially if your fears are in overdrive. For example, if you fear bacteria, you may think everything outside your door is dangerous. However, isolating yourself can lead to increased stress and internalized frustration and guilt. When this happens, be kind to yourself. Then when you feel a bit better, try to go for a walk, reach out to your therapist, or journal how you’re feeling. The more relaxed you feel, the better your symptoms will be.

6. Your sleeping routine
The effects of sleep deprivation are no laughing matter; it disrupts your decision-making, ability to ignore cravings and makes it harder to perform daily tasks, among other things. Unfortunately, how many hours you receive each night can make it more challenging to control or resist obsessive thoughts. To ensure you’re getting restful sleep, stay off your phone at least one hour before bed, aim for the recommended eight hours of sleep, and prioritize a calming sleep routine involving meditation, yoga, or reading before bed. 

7. Seeking reassurance
If we’re upset about a problem or situation, it may feel calming to seek outside help for reassurance or self-reassure. But unfortunately, reassurance-seeking is another compulsion of OCD and can make you feel worse. It may look like repeatedly asking a friend if they’re mad at you or reviewing every detail of a past situation. When this happens, try to avoid judging or shaming yourself. Instead, identify when you’re doing it and the situations you feel this compulsion either helped you or not. When you have a clearer understanding of your reassurance-seeking behaviors, it will be easier to avoid thought traps that caused them.

Above all, OCD is a treatable disorder, and with therapy and or medication, what you’re feeling right now can get better. Even if you feel overwhelmed or isolated by your condition, you can speak with a therapist who will work with you to tailor a treatment plan specialized to your symptoms, including the habits that make OCD worse and difficult to manage.

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