I've Been Diagnosed with OCD... Now What?
Your story probably began with an intrusive thought, or an uncomfortable urge that needed satisfying. You tried to push it away, or perhaps engaged in a behavior to help bring some relief. This may have continued for several days, weeks, or months, and while initially you might have attributed it all to a stressful week, or having a lot on your mind, you began to realize that simply allowing time to pass, and hoping tomorrow would be better, was not working. In fact, you began feeling worse, were engaging in more and more of those unwanted behaviors, and becoming more and more invested in your thoughts, trying to figure out what they all mean, and how to make them go away. You desperately began to wonder, "will I ever get a break?!" Feeling distraught, you started searching for answers, thinking "I can't keep living like this!"
Your first step may have been online research, followed by a visit to your primary care doctor, or a therapist, and after hesitantly describing your struggles, you hear the words, "OCD." You may have found relief that there was a name to describe your symptoms, or perhaps this news confirmed what you had been suspecting all along. Others of you may have felt confused, thinking, "I thought OCD describes someone who is extremely neat. My house is a mess!"
After receiving an OCD diagnosis, many thoughts and questions can arise, including, "How did this happen?" "What do I do now?" "Can I ever get better?" "Will I have to leave school? Quit my job?" "Do I tell my friends? My parents?" "I'm so overwhelmed!"
Whether you have been newly diagnosed, or have been experiencing OCD for years, here is a checklist of items to help ensure you are on the right path to success.
Learn About OCD. Equip yourself with knowledge about your category of symptoms, the meaning of obsessions vs. compulsions, and the recommended treatment option called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). Learn about what this form of treatment entails, and why you, friends, and family, are not to blame. One reliable source of information is the International OCD Foundation, as well as a podcast called The OCD Stories, where you will hear valuable interviews from experts in the field, as well as recovery stories from individuals just like you, who were able to find relief.
Word of Caution: Do not research your specific obsessions in a way that seeks reassurance. Sample problematic searches include, "Can I get HIV from someone coughing next to me?" "Is it normal to have intrusive images of my family being harmed?" "Am I a bad person for having (insert specific thought)?" "Do other people question their sexuality?" "How can I tell if I truly love my spouse?" Seeking reassurance provides only a temporary relief from discomfort, and will actually fuel and intensify OCD symptoms long-term. Read about OCD for educational purposes only, and not for reassurance related to specific symptoms.
Talk About It. The stigma around mental illness has caused individuals of all ages to suffer in silence. While sharing your personal struggles is an individual decision, I encourage you to tell at least one person closest to you. You do not need to broadcast your struggles to everyone, but having someone close to you who knows what you are going through can provide a much-needed sense of support. Remember, your closest friends and family are close to you for a reason. The only difference between today and yesterday, is that they now know about a treatable, personal struggle you are facing. You are still the same you.
Seek Out Individual Therapy, specifically with a therapist who is well-trained in Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). This is the gold-standard treatment for OCD, and yes, it requires hard work. There are no short cuts, and there is no easy way out. ERP involves approaching, rather than avoiding, your feared thoughts and situations, while removing all rituals, both physical and mental. It is an active form of treatment, and is what will provide you with the much-needed relief you've been searching for, and deserve.
Word of Caution: If you find yourself talking at length about your childhood, or discussing coping skills in the form of relaxation, deep breathing, thought stopping, taking a walk, etc..., this is not proper OCD treatment. Finding the right therapist can take time, but is well worth the effort.
Commit to Doing Your Therapy Homework. This is essential, and consistent compliance shows you are committed to treatment and doing what it takes to feel better. OCD is not something that can be treated only one hour per week in your therapist's office. The real work takes place between sessions, and while it will not be easy, remember - neither is living with symptoms. You and your therapist will collaboratively assign homework each week to help you practice the skills learned in session. This is unlike the homework you get in school, and is probably the most important component of your treatment. If your homework feels too overwhelming, have an open conversation with your therapist so modifications can be made. Remember, the more you invest in your treatment, the better (and faster) the results.
Have Your Closest Family Member(s) Attend a Therapy Session With You. Your therapist can provide valuable education, so that your family has a better understanding of what you are experiencing. Having OCD is a (new) journey for you, as well as for your family, so it is important that they are equipped with knowledge and skills to best support you, especially if you are living with them, or see them on a regular basis. Your therapist can also suggest reading material for them, as well as for you, to supplement in-session discussions. Having a close family member to support you through exposure exercises can also be helpful, and your therapist can best explain the do's and don'ts of providing support. While family cannot do your homework for you, having someone to sit with you for support can go a long way.
Seek Out a Psychiatrist. The addition of medication can be highly valuable, although is not 100% essential. Medication will not take away your unwanted thoughts, urges, and rituals, but it can help make ERP exercises feel more manageable; and remember, engaging in ERP is your ticket to freedom.
Join a Support Group. I know these are not widely available, but if there is one in your area, take advantage of it. Support groups allow you to feel less isolated in your struggles. They send the message you are not alone, and that others are going through the same treatment and experiences that you are.
Always Remain Hopeful. The recovery process for OCD is a bumpy ride. Trust your treatment providers, and put more effort into fighting OCD than you do giving in to it. With hard work and determination, you can lead a meaningful, rewarding life. I have seen this time and time again, and when I ask clients to reflect on the process that lead them to that point, the most common words I hear are, "It was hard, but it was so worth it!"
DISCLAIMER: The blog posts shared on www.StacySmithCounseling.com contain the opinions of Stacy Smith, MS, LPC, and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations or affiliates. While Stacy is a licensed mental health professional, all blog posts on her site are for informational purposes only, and are never a substitute for professional advice catered to your individual needs. Stacy Smith is not liable for any diagnosis, treatment plans, or decisions made based on the information presented on this website.