What is OCD?
OCD, otherwise known as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, is a disorder that affects about 1 in 100 adults in the United States. It can affect anyone, but it’s often either diagnosed in childhood or in the late teen/early adult years.
You’ve probably heard of OCD before – it is mentioned offhand in lots of tv shows and movies, but not always in an accurate or flattering way. You might see a character on TV straightening out their living space while explaining, “Oh, I’m a little OCD, I have to have things just so.” Or they might flick a lightswitch on and off a certain number of times (usually played for a laugh). These can both be ways that obsessive-compulsive disorder manifests, but there are a lot of others as well. The common assumptions people make about OCD are actually pretty far from the truth in many cases.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder can involve fears of harm or doubt, unwanted sexual thoughts, fear of contamination, urges for completeness or symmetry, or other unacceptable thoughts. Though it’s often portrayed as a disorder that makes you super organized or clean, that’s not always how it works in real life. Many people don’t like to talk about OCD because they feel shame for experiencing a disorder that people don’t understand. It can be hard to live in a world that doesn’t understand what you’re going through.
As you might guess from the name, OCD involves both obsessions and compulsions.
The hallmark of obsessive-compulsive disorder is intrusive, distressing unwelcome thoughts. These are called obsessions. These intrusive thoughts can become obsessive and repetitive, and they make it tough to get on with day to day life.
To help ease the distress caused by those intrusive thoughts, many people with OCD develop repetitive behaviors that they act on compulsively, or seemingly without their control. These are called compulsions. Coping by using compulsions can also make it tough to get on with everyday life, which can be distressing in itself.
It’s important to remember that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder don’t want to act on their compulsions a lot of the time, and they don’t always even think the way they act is rational. Folks with OCD act compulsively to relieve the unpleasant emotions that their intrusive thoughts bring up.
Talk therapy, while helpful for so many mental health disorders, can sometimes not be helpful with OCD. In some cases, it can even exacerbate the symptoms of OCD to fixate on their obsessions and compulsions over and over. OCD, like other mental health conditions like anxiety, isn’t always rational. People with OCD often know that their compulsions aren’t rational and aren’t actually doing anything to make them feel better. That can cause it’s own kind of distress. Fortunately, there are ways to treat OCD that have been proven to work. ERP
What is ERP?
ERP, or Exposure and Response Prevention, is a type of therapy that is commonly used to treat OCD. ERP has actually been shown to be an incredibly effective treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with medication. ERP is related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If you’ve ever heard of exposure therapy, you probably have an idea of what ERP is like.
Exposure and Response Prevention therapy involves triggering whatever the person with OCD fears and then, with the help of a therapist, not using compulsions or rituals to deal with the distress that their fear brings up. Remember, compulsions and rituals come from wanting to decrease the level of distress, not because the person wants to be doing what they’re doing.
The idea behind ERP is to reduce the intensity of the distress of intrusive thoughts by desensitization. In ERP treatment, the person with OCD and their therapist will purposefully trigger their intrusive thoughts. The next step is the most important – the person with OCD will work on not responding to those thoughts with a compulsion. This helps to break the association in the brain between the thought and the compulsion, showing the person that they can experience distress without something terrible happening.
It’s important to have a guide through a treatment like ERP. A therapist will help prepare you for the experience of facing your fear and purposefully triggering your anxiety. They will help you to have resources to decrease your level of distress, until your level of anxiety goes down.
How does ERP help OCD?
ERP helps with OCD in a few ways. When you’re repeatedly exposed to the same thing, even if you’re afraid of it, your nervous system will eventually learn that it doesn’t have to get quite so activated each time. ERP also helps your brain make new connections, and learn that your new associations with your fears prevent your old ones from coming up. Exposure and response prevention therapy is also empowering! When you learn from experience that you can handle distress when it comes up, you’ll feel more confident that you can handle it moving forward. You’ll trust in your coping skills because you’ve seen them work before. The more you practice, the better you get.
Where can I get ERP treatment for OCD?
If you’re interested in using ERP to treat OCD, our clinicians at Andover Family Counseling can help. Get in touch with us today to learn more about your options for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder.