Published On: June 7, 2022
Reviewed On: June 7, 2022
Updated On: July 17, 2023
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a relatively common, prolonged mental health condition in which a person experiences uncontrollable, repetitive thoughts known as obsessions. These thoughts generally lead to an urge toward acting out (compulsions) with negative behaviors in hopes of stopping the thoughts.
An estimated 1.2% of adults living in the United States had OCD within the last year. Although obsessive compulsive disorder can be challenging to deal with, OCD treatments are available and can be highly effective. Some OCD treatments that can help improve your mental health and quality of life include:
Continue reading to learn about how to treat OCD via medication and therapy. We’re also touching on how holistic techniques for treating OCD can be practiced at home.
Let’s start with psychotherapy, as it’s a first-line chemical-free OCD treatment that works for many people, especially when combined with medication, to alleviate long-term symptoms.
For many people, psychotherapy is the most effective of the available OCD treatments. It’s not uncommon for people to be weary of prescription drugs because they’re associated with so many possible adverse side effects. However, talk therapy sessions are non-invasive, drug-free, and not associated with negative side effects.
As with most other mental health conditions, OCD treatment is personalized and may start with either psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.
How is OCD treated with therapy? Understanding how to treat OCD first and foremost involves learning about this tricky but treatable condition. Like any mental health condition, symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder can improve or worsen over time. Therapy treatments for OCD can help you change your mindset, avoid intrusive thoughts and sensations, and learn to replace negative responses and urges with positive, healthier acts.
There are several effective types of therapy for OCD that a therapist might use to help you experience fewer or less-intense OCD symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely respected and proved to be effective treatment of OCD. With a therapist’s guidance, CBT focuses on thoughts, sensations, emotions, and behaviors affected by OCD.
Cognitive behavior therapy aims to familiarize you with the nuances of your symptoms, training you to remain aware of triggering thoughts and emotions as they develop. Then, you can avoid repeating negative compulsive behavior you typically might have engaged in.
Exposure and response therapy (ERP therapy) is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that’s been found to reduce OCD symptoms by progressively exposing you to symptom-triggering stimuli in a safe and guided environment.
With exposure therapy for OCD, you’ll be encouraged to avoid compulsory reactions you generally would be tempted engage in. Over time, you’ll learn how to anticipate and recognize the triggers of what causes OCD thoughts to shift. Ultimately, ERP therapy can allow you to gain better control over the behaviors you engage in after being triggered.
According to multi-university research, “ERP is the first-line evidence-based psychotherapeutic treatment for OCD and that concurrent administration of cognitive therapy that targets specific symptom-related difficulties characteristic of OCD may improve tolerance of distress, symptom-related dysfunctional beliefs, adherence to treatment, and reduce drop out.”
Psychodynamic therapy for OCD explores your interpersonal relationships, sense of self, subjective experiences, and worldview in relation to negative OCD symptoms you may be experiencing.
The goal of psychodynamic therapy is to identify core reasons for your obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors. This, over time, will allow you to gradually move away from automatic reactions to your obsessions.
“Externalizing your OCD is a technique you can learn in therapy to treat your OCD symptoms. Seeing your OCD as either a bully, or a voice in your brain telling you what to do, can help someone who’s struggling with OCD symptoms to fight them. Be sure to consult your therapist if you’re curious about incorporating this externalization technique into your treatment.”
Treatment for OCD often involves prescription medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It’s also not typically used on its own, but rather in combination with therapy.
There are dozens of medications to treat OCD. They work by slightly modifying brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate.
While some prescription drugs produce positive effects in some people with OCD and other mental health conditions, it’s not well, or even fully, understood how or why they work. In many cases, you’ll have to experiment with different OCD medications before finding one that works and doesn’t produce intolerable or severe side effects.
Common medication treatments for OCD can include use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or possibly a tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) like clomipramine.
Common SSRIs prescribed for OCD include:
Note: These are the only prescription drugs to treat OCD that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
SSRIs aren’t always effective for everyone who takes them. If symptoms don’t improve or worsen, other off-label medications — such as benzodiazepines — might be suggested.
Whole body, mind, and spirit treatment of OCD can be amazingly effective for improving symptom management.
Holistic self-care most often includes psychoeducation about OCD so you understand the nuances of what’s happening in your brain that’s causing urges and compulsions. During sessions with a skilled therapist, your therapy will teach you coping skills and various self-care techniques that you can practice on your own.
Eventually, it’s you who must live with you every day. Of course, you want to live your best life, and the reality is, your therapist won’t always be there. This is why it’s so imperative to understand your body and brain and stay in touch with yourself.
There are several benefits to taking a holistic approach to treating your OCD.
Treating OCD holistically can:
Examples of holistic self-care techniques you can begin employing in your life today include:
“If you’re a parent of a child or young adult with OCD, ask their therapist what you can do to help, and what you might be doing that’s interfering in your child’s treatment. Having this education, and being involved in treatment, is the best way to work as a team to fight this.”
According to NIMH, TMS can help improve symptoms of some mental health conditions by either activating or inhibiting certain areas of the brain via controlled electricity. The electricity is either delivered directly into the brain via implanted electrodes, or through surface electrodes that are attached with sticky pads to the scalp.
Researchers have discovered that deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS) can be used as an effective way to treat both major depression as well as OCD.
“OCD can sometimes be misdiagnosed as ADHD, or depression, or suicidal ideation. Working with a therapist who specializes in OCD is crucial. Know that if you or a loved one is struggling with OCD, there is help out there for you, and you deserve support.”
If you think or know that you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional for assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Without treatment and learning about new coping skills, your symptoms of OCD will likely progress and worsen in the future. Reach out to a doctor or a mental health professional who specializes in OCD treatments.
If you’re looking for convenient and flexible therapy, but don’t have hours to spend getting to and from appointments, you might want to consider Talkspace. Learn more about how Talkspace provides online therapy with experienced, accessible, licensed therapists who are ready and willing to help you manage and overcome symptoms of OCD.
Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC, was the Senior Clinical Manager at Talkspace until 2022, and is a clinical therapist licensed in CT and NY. A member of the American Psychological Association (APA), Kate completed her Master's degree in Counseling Psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She has over 10 years of experience working with adults on a variety of issues, specializing in eating disorders and working with people going through life stressors such as finding your purpose, career changes, and connecting with your intuition.