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How to Recover From an OCD Relapse

You have been doing so well with your OCD. Before OCD treatment, you struggled – a lot with your OCD symptoms (non-stop, intrusive obsessions, and repetitive compulsions). At one point, your OCD symptoms were so bad that you could not get to work on time, complete work tasks, maintain romantic relationships and friendships, or keep your self-esteem and self-confidence high. You were in massive debt, lonely, and depressed. 

But after OCD treatment everything changed. You started having fewer urges to clean and check that your doors were locked and your windows were closed. And, you no longer spent hours performing these tasks. You were finally on the road to recovery and doing well. Although OCD was still there, lurking in the background you had a wide range of healthy coping skills and methods in your trusty toolbox, which allowed you to effectively manage your OCD symptoms, on the rare occasions that they popped up. 

But then the unthinkable happened – the intrusive thoughts, fears, urges, doubts, mental images, and negative emotions started coming back to the point where they started to affect your work productivity, friendships, relationships, finances, self-esteem and self-confidence, and overall health and well-being. In other words, your OCD symptoms were returning at an alarming rate. The mere thought of grappling with uncontrolled OCD symptoms again caused your stress and anxiety to skyrocket, making your OCD worse. You could not believe this was happening. But it was. 

What was happening and why were your OCD symptoms returning now that you had everything under control and were finally leaving the OCD-free life you had dreamt about? Unfortunately, you are most likely suffering from an OCD relapse. The good news is OCD relapses can be successfully treated, and you can recover once again from this condition.

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What Do You Know About OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a fairly common chronic anxiety condition that afflicts millions of people around the world. OCD involves a variety of symptoms, such as non-stop, unwanted, and emotionally distressing thoughts, urges, mental images, doubts, upsetting emotions, and/or fears (obsessions), and repetitive or ritualistic behaviors (compulsions). Some people experience just obsessions, while others only experience compulsions. Most OCD sufferers struggle with both obsessions and compulsions.

But regardless of if you experience one or both, OCD is life-altering, stressful, anxiety-provoking, and sometimes, even depressing. There are many different “types” of OCD, such as harm OCD, reading OCD, meta-OCD, checking OCD, existential OCD, contamination OCD, pure-O OCD, relationship OCD (ROCD), hoarding OCD, etc. Diagnosing OCD can be challenging, in that there are no blood tests or x-rays available to definitively say a person has the condition. Rather, this condition is diagnosed using observation, self-reports of the symptoms and experiences, and psychological assessments.

The problem is if the person is not actively exhibiting OCD symptoms, the condition could be misdiagnosed or even dismissed. This can prevent an OCD sufferer from getting OCD help promptly (prolonging his or her suffering). The good news is there is a host of OCD treatments available to help you get your OCD back under control. But, understand that even once you have completed OCD treatment and are on the path to OCD recovery, your symptoms can return. In this event, the best course of action is to resume your previous OCD treatments.

How is OCD Treated?

Standard OCD treatment protocol involves various therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure-response and prevention (ERP) therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), along with individual, family, and/or couples/marriage counseling, addiction counseling, TMS and EDMR “trauma” therapies, group therapy, etc. 

Natural remedies, self-help tools, and alternative treatments are often added to prescribed treatment plans, such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, acupuncture, art therapy, music therapy, journaling, adopting a healthy diet filled with lots of vitamins and minerals, like magnesium, OCD books and workbooks, podcasts, OCD forums and support groups, healthy coping skills and mechanisms, proper sleep, plenty of exercise, CBD, and/or online OCD treatment programs, like Impulse Therapy.

If perchance, therapy alone is unsuccessful, it may be supplemented with a medication, such as an SSRI antidepressant, SNRI, tricyclic antidepressant, antipsychotic, MAOI, etc. When OCD does not respond to therapy, it is called treatment-resistant OCD. Keep in mind, however, that the #1 treatment for OCD is ERP therapy. The good news is that with the right treatment, you can achieve OCD recovery – even if you relapse.

What is an OCD Relapse?

To put it simply, an OCD relapse occurs when an OCD sufferer, who successfully completed OCD treatment, and is on the road to recovery (remission) experiences a “return” of his or her OCD symptoms. Truth be told, this “reoccurrence” in OCD symptoms can be quite unnerving – not just for the affected individual, but also for his or her loved ones, friends, and partner. 

Understand, however, if you have an OCD relapse it does not mean that your original OCD treatment was unsuccessful or that you are incapable of fully recovering from the condition. Truthfully, relapses, regardless of the condition, are common. In other words, the recovery process for most people involves both valleys and hills (ups and downs). This is normal. 

And, because OCD is a chronic condition there is always a chance of relapse. So, that means there may be times when your OCD symptoms return in some capacity. The key to bouncing back after an OCD relapse is to seek OCD help immediately. But first, you must learn how to spot the warning signs of an OCD relapse.

When Does an OCD Relapse Typically Occur?

Well, an OCD relapse can occur at any time, for instance, days, weeks, months, or years after being OCD-free.

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What Can Cause an OCD Relapse?

 An OCD relapse can be triggered by a variety of factors, such as chronic stress, an OCD trigger, a change in your schedule, diet, routine, not getting enough sleep, not taking your medication, and/or not attending follow-up OCD therapy sessions. Truthfully, pretty much anything can cause an OCD relapse, like a song on the radio, a scene in a sitcom or movie, a restaurant, old friends, a particular food, a traumatic experience, a breakup or divorce, a wedding, the birth of a child, an illness, like the flu, a new chronic condition, etc. 

Because anything can trigger an OCD relapse, it is also important to continue going to your OCD therapy periodically – to help keep you on track. If you fall off from therapy, you run the risk of having a reoccurrence of your obsessions and compulsions. Your OCD therapist will also be able to spot if something is amiss or if you are on the verge of relapse and help you take the appropriate steps to ward it off. 

Lastly, it is always important to get proper sleep and exercise and eat a healthy diet. This is true regardless of the condition, but especially when it comes to stress-prone mental health conditions, like OCD. Healthy foods (especially fresh fruits and veggies, lean meats, low-fat dairy, legumes, whole grains, and water) and quality sleep can help your mind and body repair themselves, so you feel stronger and reenergized when you awaken each morning. 

Regular exercise is also beneficial if you suffer from OCD. Exercise not only acts like a distraction (taking your mind off of the intrusive thoughts, fears, doubts, etc., but also causes your body to release extra serotonin (“the happy hormone”) and endorphins (the body’s natural stress-reliever and painkiller). These hormones are especially beneficial for people with OCD, who struggle with stress, anxiety, and depression (at times).

Are There Different OCD Relapse Levels?

Yes, there are. 

Some OCD sufferers experience a full-blown OCD relapse (a complete return of symptoms), while others may only experience a partial OCD relapse (OCD symptoms that are not as severe or frequent as before). Yet, some OCD sufferers may experience a “lapse” (temporary OCD symptom, such as a brief intrusive thought, urge, fear, doubt, mental image, and/or negative emotion that does not lead to a full-blown relapse).

What Are the Early Warning Signs of an OCD Relapse?

Although experiencing an OCD relapse can be distressing, the good news is there are early warning signs that can alert you that the train is going off of the tracks, so to speak. The earlier you can spot the signs of an OCD relapse, the sooner you can seek treatment for it. 

Listed below are the early warning signs of an OCD relapse:

  • An inability to gain control over your OCD symptoms
  • Worsening OCD symptoms
  • More intrusive, violent, or upsetting thoughts, urges, doubts, fears, etc. than usual
  • More frequently occurring compulsions (rituals or routines) 
  • Prolonged compulsions (compulsions that are lasting longer than before) 
  • OCD-induced anxiety or depression
  • Avoidance behaviors (avoiding situations or people that trigger your OCD)
  • Self-Isolating (hiding from or staying away from your partner, friends, and/or family)
  • Transitions (experiencing life changes or added stressors like a new baby, the loss of a loved one, etc.)

Early OCD relapse warning signs can vary from person to person. If you think you are on the cusp of an OCD relapse, the best thing you can do for your mental health is to seek OCD help. 

But understand that conquering your OCD habit a second, third, fourth, and so time will likely be hard to do on your own, and as such, may once again require professional OCD treatment. Keep in mind that early OCD relapse signs may be vague or subtle, so it is important that you know how to detect an impending “OCD flare (relapse).” 

Note: It is normal to experience one or more relapses during the recovery process. Just because you “fall off of the wagon” does not mean you have failed, or are incapable of recovering from this condition. With the proper OCD treatment, the right stress-management tools, and a strong support system, you can get your obsessions and/or compulsion back under control. The end goal? Becoming (and staying) OCD-free again!

Besides Seeking Formal OCD Treatment, What Else Can I Do to Recover from an OCD Relapse?

Fortunately, there are several things you can do, in conjunction with formal OCD treatment, to cause your OCD to go into remission, such as:

  • Develop a Strong Support System 

    OCD relapses can be prevented or stopped by developing a strong support system (i.e., friends, a partner, family members, an OCD therapist, support groups, forums, etc.) to help you weather the storm again. Most OCD sufferers are prone to self-isolating, and socially withdrawing from others. Don’t do that. If you are experiencing an OCD relapse, you will need support – lots of support. 

    More specifically, you will need a shoulder to cry on, someone to hold your hand when you become anxious, a hug when you are stressed and/or overwhelmed, and people, who can and will celebrate you when you accomplish milestones, like experiencing fewer obsessions and/or compulsions or becoming OCD-free again. A strong support group can keep you going while you battle OCD again. This group can also help you feel less alone while offering good advice, and holding you accountable.

  • Take Your Prescribed Medications

    Sometimes, the only way to get better from a condition is to take your meds. OCD is no exception. Medications can play a major role in the treatment of OCD and can be even more important when it comes to preventing or stopping OCD relapses. Medications, like SSRI antidepressants (the go-to medication for OCD), SNRIs, tricyclic antidepressants, MAOIs, antipsychotics, etc., are often prescribed when CBT, ERP therapy (the go-to therapy for OCD), and/or ACT, along with other therapies, such as addiction counseling, grief counseling, trauma therapies, etc., are ineffective.

    When therapy alone does not yield acceptable results, this is referred to as treatment-resistant OCD. Perhaps, you took medication along with therapy your first go-around with OCD. Perhaps, you did not. Regardless, medication may be needed this go-around to get your OCD symptoms back under control. If you are prescribed a combo of therapy and medication, follow your treatment plan, attend all counseling/therapy sessions and take your medication, as prescribed. The medication is designed to keep intrusive, violent, and/or upsetting thoughts from invading your mind. It is also designed to keep you feeling urges to perform certain rituals or routines to ease your stress and angst.

  • Practice Stress-Management Techniques

    Practicing stress-management techniques can help relax your mind and body, which can help combat those intrusive thoughts, urges, fears, mental images, negative emotions, and/or doubts. If you are going through an OCD relapse, you must find a technique that works for you and practice it daily – or even multiple times a day.

    The best way to be fully equipped for life’s roadblocks (i.e., stressful and/or anxiety-provoking situations and people) and avoid an OCD relapse is to regularly practice stress-management techniques (i.e., progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, acupuncture, hypnosis, mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, journaling, visualization, etc.).

  • Pay Attention 

    One way to prevent or get a “jump” on your OCD relapse is to pay attention. In other words, be more self-aware of what is happening in your mind and body. If something feels “off,” after being OCD-free for a while, go with your gut. There actually may be something wrong this time. Maybe, your OCD symptoms are coming back and you need OCD help asap (before your symptoms get out of control). Contact your OCD therapist and explain to him or her what is going on with you.

    Your therapist will likely have you schedule an appointment, so he or she can determine if you are having a temporary OCD lapse or a full-blown OCD relapse. If you are in the middle of an OCD relapse, you will need to revisit your old treatment protocol (i.e., therapy, medication, natural remedies, and/or self-help tools to gain control over it. However, you will be unable to do anything if you are not paying attention to your internal cues. 

  • Forgive Yourself

    If you are experiencing an OCD relapse, the worst thing you can do is beat yourself up. It is easy to experience shame and guilt over having OCD once – let alone more than once. But, guess what? Having a relapse is normal. Many people, regardless of the condition have relapses. It happens more frequently than you may believe. 

    The key to success is “keeping your eyes on the prize” and getting back up. Honestly, you do not have time for a pity party, you still have work to do if you want to become OCD-free again. You did it once, you can do it again. You did not ask to develop OCD. In fact, there is a good chance you inherited the condition, so it was literally out of your control. But, just remember, none of this is your fault, so forgive yourself.

  • Focus on One Day at a Time

    In other words, do not get too far ahead of yourself. Focus on one day at a time. What does that mean? It means that if you are experiencing an OCD relapse, take each day as it comes. You will likely have a combination of good days and bad ones. Just try to stay present, and focus on moving forward – not backward. Follow your treatment plan – i.e., go to your therapy sessions and/or take your medication, and allow your OCD treatment to work its magic. Take baby steps until your mind is no longer plagued with intrusive thoughts, fears, worries, doubts, urges, etc. 

  • Try to Keep Things as “Normal” as Possible

    In other words, try to adhere to your “normal” OCD-free routines, such as getting up each morning, taking a shower, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and going to work. If you normally wash clothes on Saturdays – wash clothes on Saturdays. If you normally go out for drinks with friends on Friday nights – go out with your friends on Friday nights. Try to keep things as “normal” as possible.

    Why? Because it could help ward off or stop an OCD relapse. More specifically, it could distract you so you are not constantly having those thoughts, urges, fears, mental images, and/or engaging in non-stop rituals or routines. It will also help you feel as if you have some control over your life.

  • Be Patient

    Be patient? Yes, be patient with yourself and even your friends, partner, and loved ones. Do not rush the recovery process. Remember, becoming OCD-free again is not a sprint – it’s a marathon, which means it could take time. You may also have to try a new OCD treatment approach or technique. Regardless of what your OCD treatment program looks like now, it is important that you take your time and put in the necessary work, even if it takes a while.

    Also, be patient with your friends, partner, and loved ones because they may be trying to figure this condition out too! Perhaps, they are trying to learn more about it so they can help you. Maybe, they don’t understand or know OCD terminology. Could it be that your friends, partner, and loved ones simply do not understand, but love you unconditionally anyways? So, be patient with these individuals, as well. 

References

  • Simpson, H. B., Franklin, M. E., Cheng, J., Foa, E. B., & Liebowitz, M. R. (2005). Standard criteria for relapse are needed in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Depression and Anxiety, 21(1), 1–8. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20052

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Author

DR. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham has a B.A. in English, an M.M.F.T in Marriage and Family Therapy (Psychology), and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She is currently a medical, health & wellness contributor, copywriter, and psychological consultant

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