OCD and Mindfulness

freedigitalphotos.net by hyena reality

freedigitalphotos.net by hyena reality

For those of you not familiar with the concept of mindfulness, it is the act of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. Just noticing and accepting what is.

Anything strike you about this definition? To me, it seems as if mindfulness is the exact opposite of obsessive-compulsive disorder:

Focusing on the present moment? Those with OCD rarely do that. Instead they either find themselves immersed in the world of “what ifs,” worrying about everything that might go wrong, or agonizing over things they think might have already gone wrong.  Lots of thinking about the future and the past. Not so much about the present.

And in a nonjudgmental way? If you have OCD, you’re probably laughing right now, because chances are you judge yourself all of the time. Whether it’s blaming yourself for bad things that might happen in the future or that possibly happened in the past, or thinking of what you did wrong or will do wrong or should have done differently, those with OCD are continually assessing their thoughts and actions. And because they often deal with cognitive distortions, these assessments are typically incorrect. One type of cognitive distortion is thought-action fusion, where people believe that thinking bad thoughts is akin to performing the action associated with the thought, or the belief that thinking these same thoughts can somehow make them come true. For example, new moms sometimes have thoughts of hurting their babies. Most will acknowledge the thoughts as having no meaning and let them go. But moms dealing with thought-action fusion might be horrified and immediately consider themselves terrible people, unfit parents, and a danger to their children, because what kind of mother thinks that way? Judgment judgment judgment.

My friend Bellsie over at Obsessively Compulsively Yours has some interesting thoughts on how mindfulness might help those with OCD, in relation to both cognitive decentering and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Over the past year or so, I’ve tried to become more mindful in my own life. While I don’t have OCD, I am quite prone to “what ifs” and when I find myself heading down that road, I now easily (usually) stop myself and focus on the present moment. An act so simple, yet so powerful. And while I welcome the calm that mindfulness brings me, I am even more thankful for an additional unexpected benefit: gratitude. Focusing on the present allows me to stop and catch my breath, and when I do that I somehow become keenly aware of all the good in my life. Not in the past, and not in the future, but right now. Because right now is what really matters.

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29 Responses to OCD and Mindfulness

  1. willitbeok says:

    Great post! Mindfulness helps me a lot, too. Because of that “false alarm” feeling OCD gives, it’s the hardest thing in the world to just “step back” in your mind and casually observe the events going on in the present moment, at that time when you are just sure that “something bad is going to happen.” But if one can resist that impulse and just observe, one quickly realizes that is is just a false alarm. It takes mindfulness to get to that point. Someone else can TELL me it’s a false alarm, but until I practice mindfulness, I never truly realize it for myself.

    • I think that’s a great point, that we really need to experience mindfulness for ourselves. We can’t rely on other people to tell us everything is okay. I’m glad you find it helpful and I appreciate your comment.

  2. nrkellner says:

    As you know, I am a follower of yours who neither has OCD nor is caring for a loved one with OCD. And yet, so often your blog speaks to me. In particular, today, as you speak about mindfulness. This is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to ourselves.

    I have recently begun my daily (oh, okay, almost daily) meditation with a list of “thank you’s”. This intentional recitation of gratitudes goes a long way to focus on and stay in the “right now”. So, thank you for this, and for our friendship.

  3. sethgillihan says:

    Great post, Janet! As you know, therapists are becoming more and more aware of how mindful awareness can help with OCD. And as you’ve experienced for yourself, mindfulness is a powerful practice no matter what we’re dealing with in life. Thanks, as always.

    • Thank you for commenting, Seth. It is amazing to me how something that can be relatively simple can be so powerful. Maybe we should be teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, and mindfulness in school!

  4. You’re speaking my language, Janet! Great post. Mindfulness has been so helpful to me, even though I’m still a beginner. Last night I woke up about 3 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I was thinking of the past and of the future. I knew what I was doing. I knew it was upsetting me. It was only when I was able to hone in on the sounds around me that I was able to relax a bit. It’s a constant challenge, but so worth it.

    • Thanks for sharing, Tina. Your comment reminds me that while mindfulness is not a difficult concept, it’s not always easy to execute. It takes awareness, practice, and perseverance. But I agree with you, it’s worth it!

  5. PurplesShade says:

    YAY! I’m really glad to see you posting about this, because mindfulness, and the therapy that goes along with it DBT are in my opinion, some of the best tools to have on the roster.

    Mindfulness was actually part of the primary skill-set I learned for coping with OCD, with the primary therapy I learned; Dialectic behavioural therapy.

    For the other kids in the group, each of us was handled a little differently, but for me, DBT was the primary.
    Which was a good insight on the part of my groups therapists because I already knew CBT and it wasn’t helping with my OCD, and ERP probably would not have been as effective.
    Simply because my obsessions and compulsions alike were mostly all just thoughts.
    Exposure doesn’t work as a solution, when your compulsion isn’t avoidance, but to constantly expose yourself to those terrible anxious thoughts. It would have only fed my particular OCD.

    I wasn’t just past and future stuck, either but also ‘inside my brain’ stuck, no, even the present was filled with unpleasant and distorted thoughts of what was happening around me and what I was doing at that very moment.
    My internal monologue was filled with OCD chatter.

    I don’t know if you know much about how mindfulness is used in Dialectic behavioural therapy, so I’ll explain quickly:
    The first thing I learned was to let my thoughts ‘drift’, acknowledging what I was thinking, but just as ‘a thought’, and then put them into words.
    So if I thought about a plate breaking in my hands I would say that as: “I am thinking about this plate and how awful it would be if it broke while I’m holding it”
    Then I had to learn to stop ‘interacting’ with the thoughts, aka believing them.
    Knowing that I didn’t have to engage, or accept as truth any of the things that wandered through my mind, was a relief.
    Once I managed that, I had to examine those thoughts in a new way, and challenge them, using critical thinking skills.
    (Another skill set I think everyone should have)
    Sometimes a thought would have no truth or validity behind is, and then when I knew that, I could remind myself of that every time it came up, giving me the extra emotional ‘oumph’ to convince myself that if it wasn’t true, I didn’t need to keep thinking about it…

    So: Yay for critical thinking. Yay for DBT! & Yay for mindfulness. 🙂

  6. Hi there. Nice post. My therapist has struggled with me to try and get me to stay in the moment when all the what if’s start through the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The mind can just be so stubborn sometimes can’t it. The exposure therapy seems to have been more helpful so far in relation to obsessions with previous incidents repeating themselves than the trying to cut off the cycle type of stuff in CBT. Best wishes

  7. skwerl58 says:

    I’ve just recently discovered a book on mindfullness and OCD. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but here’s the info:

    The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD: A Guide to Overcoming Obsessions and Compulsions Using Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbooks)
    Hershfield, Jon, Corboy, Tom

  8. skwerl58 says:

    By the way, not meant to be an advertisement, but it is available for Amazon Kindle for those that are so inclined.

  9. Lynn says:

    I am glad to see the mention of DBT therapy here. It was recommended for my son, and when I looked it up, I was a bit freaked out by the fact that it was begun for people with borderline personality disorder. I shouldn’t have been, though, because it’s for everybody–it is sort of multi-faceted, with several tools, and was developed by a therapist who herself suffered from mental illness. I don’t think it is probably as powerful as ERP, but I think it helps, and at least in my area, there are several practitioners.

  10. 71 & Sunny says:

    Love this, Janet! When things were really rough with the OCD, mindfulness seemed to be one of the few things I could do. I remember driving into Boston one day to see my psychologist. The hit and run OCD was raging (as was usual back then) and I was a mess. But it was a beautiful day, and as I walked the few blocks to my doctor’s office, I forced myself to become aware of the sun and it’s warmth on my face, and the feel of the pavement under my feet and the sounds of the city all around me. It helped some at the time, but the more I do this the more effective it has become. It is a gift to be able to slow down and savor the beauty all around. It’s always been there, but I was in too much pain to notice before.

  11. Elizabeth Spevack, Personal Development Coach says:

    Such a timely post! Not being mindful feeds OCD and anxiety so much! That’s why sometimes it’s important to just breathe deeply and focus, as much as possible, on the breath to slow the mind down. I know for people with OCD, the mind can just race and race and get carried away. Breathing deeply and focusing on the breathing can often help in regaining some perspective.

  12. bethwindler says:

    So glad you’re talking about thought action fusion, which for me has been the most prevalent part of OCD. As you’ve talked about here before, I believe, the idea that OCD is just hand washing or touching a light switch is so narrow in scope. Those obsessive, guilt-ridden thoughts are so detrimental, too, even though they aren’t outwardly noticeable the way the physical symptoms of OCD can present.

    • Thank you for sharing, Beth. You are so right. There is so much more to OCD than typically meets the eye. That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s so important to educate people as to what OCD really is, and is not. Most people don’t realize how totally devastating it can be.

  13. Mindfulness is also hard for those with a tendency toward hyperactivity. I found breath counting helped and eventually developed what I call the OMM (One Minute Meditation) as a path toward mindfulness. Your readers can get a free poster coach detailing how to OMM at http://eftistore.com/downloads/one-minute-meditation-omm/. Hope this is not see as just promoting EFTI.

  14. ocdisntme says:

    This is invaluable! I love what you’ve written here. It’s true, those of us with OCD are constantly judging ourselves. We are our worst critics!

    I find that mindfulness is effective to master and practice hand-in-hand with CBT therapy.

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