I Have OCD But Want to Get a Tattoo – How Can I Keep My Anxiety at Bay?
You have always wanted a tattoo. You love the vibrant colors and designs. But you have OCD, which is making you hesitant to follow through with getting a tattoo. This will be your first tattoo so you are extremely nervous about it.
But who could blame you though? Getting that first tattoo is nerve-wracking even when you do not have OCD, so it makes perfect sense that getting one while struggling with OCD would be even more anxiety-provoking. As someone, who has a tattoo (a purple butterfly to symbolize lupus), my best advice is to “interview” a few tattoo artists before selecting one to craft a masterpiece onto your body.
Comfort is essential, in general, when you have OCD, but is especially important if you plan to get a tattoo. Thus, you need a tattoo artist that will put you at ease during the tattooing process. This is important because if you are highly stressed and anxious during the tattoo process, it will likely cause your OCD symptoms to ramp up. Keep in mind that the mere thought of getting a tattoo can trigger or worsen your OCD symptoms. In other words, it is possible to become “fixated” on the thought of getting tattooed, so much so that it causes extreme stress, anxiety, and fear.
The uncertainty and vagueness that often accompanies being “tatted,” can be enough to spark real fears. However, you can mitigate your fears, worries, and concerns by doing your research. For instance, googling the tattoo process. Knowledge is power, so if you know what will happen during and after the tattooing process, you will likely feel more secure, confident, and comfortable with imprinting designs on your body.
If you meet a tattoo artist and he or she makes you feel uncomfortable, then cross him or her off of your list. You should not be, however, an experience wrought with tears, panic attacks, and/or extreme stress, fears, or thoughts, regardless of whether or not you have OCD. If you are wondering how to keep your stress, anxiety, and OCD symptoms at bay long enough to get the tattoo you have been wanting, look no more because this article has tons of amazing tips that can provide you with peace of mind before, during, and after getting tattooed.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety condition that involves non-stop, unwanted, and involuntary thoughts, fears, urges, mental images, worries, and doubts that often compel a person to perform certain actions or engage in specific behaviors to ease his or her stress and anxiety (the emotions fueling the obsession). This creates an OCD cycle – anxiety – stress – obsessions – compulsions = temporary relief.
Once the relief has waned, the cycle begins anew with anxiety – stress – obsessions – compulsions = temporary relief. OCD can disrupt almost every area of a person’s life, damaging relationships, causing his or her self-esteem and self-confidence to decline, etc. With the right OCD treatment, however, a person with this condition can live a normal happy life.
What Happens During a Tattoo Session?
Remember, it is “normal” to feel worried, concerned, nervous, apprehensive, and a little scared to get a tattoo. However, knowing what to expect during a tattoo session can help remove the uncertainty and fear associated with getting a tattoo, especially your first tattoo. Most people experience “jitters” right before getting “tatted,” so you are, by no means, alone.
So, what happens when you first arrive at a tattoo shop? You look through catalogs or pictures of tattoos on the wall – if you do not already have a design created or picked out. The tattoo artist will tell you the total cost of the tattoo once you select the design you want. You pay the artist and walk to his or her tattoo area. Most tattoo shops have a bench for you to lie on while getting tattooed. You will lie on the bench and try to relax.
If your body is tensed, the pinpoint injections (tattooing) are likely to be more pronounced, so it is important to relax as much as possible. Take a couple of deep breaths if you feel like your anxiety, intrusive thoughts, urges, and fears are getting the best of you. The artist will sit down across from you with his or her tray full of tattoo needles, plastic gloves, masks (COVID era), a jar filled with disinfectant, and dyes.
After clarifying what you want, he or she begins to tattoo you on the designated body part. You will hear a low buzzing sound and it will feel like tiny pinpricks, similar to the ones you feel when you get acupuncture. Simple tattoos take between 15-30 minutes, while more complex ones can take an hour or more to complete. If you want an extensive tattoo, you may have to come back a few times to finish it up.
The good thing is you can stop at any time. So, if you feel your anxiety and OCD symptoms spiraling out of control, you can ask for a break or you can leave. You are in control. Once finished, the tattoo artists will cover your tattoo with plastic and instruct you to keep it on for a few hours or overnight. You will also be given an aftercare instruction sheet so you know how to care for your tattoo as it heals. Then, you are free to go.
How Long Does It Take for a Tattoo to Heal?
Most tattoos heal on the surface within 3 weeks; however, some take longer than that depending on the complexity, style, and size of the tattoo. Your overall health can also play a factor in how fast your tattoo heals. Keep in mind that to be fully healed, the tattoo must be healed on all the layers of the skin (epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue). This could take up to 4 more months.
Note: Body parts can have different sensitivities and be covered in different types of skin (hard, softer, or a mixture of both), which can influence how well your body absorbs the dye. This can play a factor in how fast your tattoo heals. The healing process also depends on your immune system, and how well you care for your tattoo once you get it (i.e., cleaning, moisturizing, and protecting it from the sun and other elements). The goal is to lower your risk of infection.
Will Getting a Tattoo Flare My OCD Symptoms?
It is possible, however, there are ways to minimize or prevent that from happening.
The risk of experiencing OCD symptoms is highest before getting tattooed, and while you are getting “tatted.” Anxiety, fears, and OCD symptoms tend to lessen or go away once the tattooing process is completed. However, if you are still anxious and “obsessing” over getting tattooed after you have gotten one, then it is time to start “de-stressing.” How? Well, first take a few deep breaths, then, call a friend or loved one, if you are alone.
During the tattoo session, you may experience intrusive thoughts, mental images, fears, and doubts (obsessions) about what the tattoo will look like, whether or not it will be infected, what other people will think or say about the tattoo, and/or how it will affect other parts of your life. These thoughts, fears, worries, and concerns may trigger your OCD symptoms or cause them to worsen.
Note: Ask a person to go with you to the tattooing event for support, encouragement, advice, and a shoulder to cry on if need be. Use this friend as a compass to keep you grounded if you start to feel lost to out of control. So, if possible, take someone that you trust with you to your tattoo appointment. A close confidant can also help you gauge what other people will think or say about your new tattoo and help you craft a response to these people.
What Are Some Ways to Keep My OCD Symptoms at Bay While Getting “Tatted?”
Remaining calm before and during a tattoo session is imperative to keeping your OCD symptoms at bay. Because that is easier said than done, I have included some ways to reduce your stress and angst before and during a tattoo session.
The tips listed below are ways to manage your OCD symptoms before and while getting “tatted” so you have an amazing experience:
Why Do You Want a Tattoo?
People tend to feel stressed and anxious about getting a tattoo for a variety of reasons. This is especially true if you suffer from OCD.
For instance, you may become “fixated” on the cost of the tattoo, or you may be unable to get the image of needles piercing your skin out of your mind. Perhaps, you are deathly afraid of contracting an illness, like hepatitis, a flesh-eating bacterium, or even HIV from the needles. Or, maybe you are extremely worried about experiencing pain during the tattooing session.
One way to ease the stress and anxiety, so your OCD does not make a surprise and unwanted visit is to determine why you want the tattoo. Once you have figured out why you want to get “tatted,” you feel more in control of what happens to you – i.e., what you want and do not want. You will also be able to focus on the prize at hand (in a positive way) – your beautiful tattoo. Focus on the positive. In other words, look at the experience like a ½ cup of water.
Instead of looking at the ½ of a cup of water as “half-empty,” look at it as “half-full.” Think of how awesome the tattoo will be and how many compliments you will receive on it. Think about how it will make you feel to finally get the tattoo you have been wanting. Lastly, think about what the tattoo means to you and why you are getting it.
What Are Some Possible Stressors?
Once you figure out why you want the tattoo, think about possible stressors – so you can avoid them.
What is making you fearful, worried, or concerned about getting a tattoo? Are you afraid of what other people think about your tattoo? If so, run your idea by your friends and loved ones to get their takes on the tattoo. Are you worried that the tattoo shop will not be clean, causing you to become ill or your tattoo to become infected? If so, meet with the tattoo artist in advance and ask him or her about his or her sanitation practices.
While at the tattoo shop look around. Check out the bathroom, the bench where you will be lying, the tray that contains the needles, dye, jar of sanitizer, etc. If you are afraid that you will be stuck with a tattoo that you will eventually hate, try a temporary tattoo with your chosen design first. Keep renewing the temporary tattoo for a few months to a year to ensure that it is really what you want and will continue to want for many years to come.
Lastly, if you are worried about the cost, schedule a consultation with the tattoo artist, pick out a design or show him or her your design, and ask for an estimate. Once you know how much the tattoo will cost, save up until you have the money for it.
Are You Afraid of the Pain?
If you are afraid that the tattoo will be painful, you are certainly not alone. While there may be some discomfort, most tattoos are not painful. Understand, however, that there are different types and levels of discomfort and pain. Plus, the tolerance levels of people with or without OCD, can vary. So, what may be triggering and painful for one person with OCD, may have little effect on another person with OCD. First, understand that your fear of pain is valid. However, it may also be worsening your stress, anxiety, and pain, and as a result, exacerbating your OCD symptoms (i.e., excessive worry, doubt, fears, thoughts, etc.).
In other words, your mind may be convincing you that it will hurt or is hurting more than it actually will or does. The human body can do wonderful things – even provide pain relief. Understand that getting a tattoo can cause your endorphins, the happiness, and mood-boosting hormone, to ramp up. Endorphins can also calm the mind and relieve pain. If you feel as if your body’s natural pain-relieving prosperities will be insufficient for easing your pain, you can always ask the tattoo artist if he or she has a numbing spray on hand to prevent you from feeling anything.
Also, keep in mind that any discomfort that you may feel will only be temporary. Emotional distress can make physical discomfort worse. Accepting that you may experience discomfort, and embracing this discomfort as a temporary situation and a natural part of life can make getting a tattoo a lot less painful. Once the tattoo is finished, any discomfort that you experienced during that tattooing will suddenly disappear. Thoughts of pain or discomfort will be replaced with happiness, joy, and excitement.
Are You Worried About the Needles?
If you cannot stop worrying about tattoo needles, that is understandable. Even people with OCD worry about tattoo needles. One way to ease your stress and anxiety and keep your OCD symptoms at bay is to schedule a consultation or meeting with the tattoo artist before you commit to getting a tattoo. In other words, sit down with the artist and share your concerns, questions, fears, worries, doubts, and thoughts with him.
You may also want to explain to him or her that you suffer from OCD, so he or she can make the necessary accommodations for you. Although this may be scary, be honest with the person who will be tattooing your body. Ask the tattoo artist if you can see the actual needles that he or she will be using during the tattooing. If the artist has time, ask if he or she can show you how it feels to get tattooed, by injecting the tiny needles (without the dye) into your skin so you will know what to expect when the time comes to get the real tattoo. The good news is tattoo needles are tiny.
Tattoo needles feel like a session of pinpoint pricks. Still, obsessing over the tattoo needles? Why not ask someone you trust to go with you to the tattooing session? A friend or loved one can distract you by making you laugh or engrossing you in the latest gossip so you do not have time to fixate on the needles or discomfort. Keep in mind that a medical needle (ones that are used to collect blood) is different than tattoo needles. A tattoo needle only penetrates the surface of the skin. A medical needle, on the other hand, goes much deeper into the vein.
Worried That You Will Not Like the Tattoo After a While?
It is reasonable to worry that you will grow tired of your tattoo. It is a concern most of us have, OCD or not. But as you know, people with OCD are unable to stop worrying about things, so this takes worrying about the permanency of the tattoo to another level. Although, the general thought is that tattoos are forever. But guess what? That is not true. Tattoos do not have to be permanent. In other words, you can get a tattoo removed. Or, you can get another design imprinted over your current one.
You can have a tattoo removed in a couple of visits with laser technology, and little-to-no pain – for an affordable price. If you are worried about being saddled with a tattoo that you may not like or love after a few days, weeks, months, or years, try out some temporary ones for a while or pick a design that is timeless, meaningful, and that will never go out of style. Take time to think about your chosen design. Sit with it until you are sure that it is the right one for you. If not, keep looking for one that you feel you can live with.
Are You Afraid of What Your Family and Friends Will Say?
We all want to feel accepted by the people in our orbits. That is a normal desire. So, if you are worried or afraid of what your family and friends will say about your new “that,” you are not alone. So, what should you cannot stop worrying about how other people will take your new tattoo? Talk to your family and friends about your plan to get a tattoo.
Maybe, they will have suggestions on how to make the experience more enjoyable. Perhaps, one or more of them will want to accompany you to the tattoo shop – for support, encouragement, etc. The key to relieving your stress and anxiety and keeping your OCD symptoms is getting the perspective of your friends and loved ones and alerting these individuals before you get the tattoo.
Is There Anything Else I Can Do to Cope with My OCD?
Yes, there are other things you can do to cope with OCD while getting a tattoo.
If you feel like your OCD symptoms are out of control or will be if you decide to get a tattoo, before or after the tattooing, you may want to schedule an appointment with your OCD therapist.
If you are not receiving OCD help for your OCD fears, thoughts, doubts, worries, etc., you may want to seek cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and/or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to help with your tattoo worries and fears. OCD support groups are available to help you cope with your fear of getting a tattoo. Natural remedies, like CBD, mindfulness mediation, vitamin and mineral supplements, yoga, deep breathing exercises, hypnosis, OCD books and apps, journaling, etc.
Self-help tools, like Impulse Therapy, an online OCD program, are designed to help desensitize you to your OCD triggers and fear (i.e., your fear of getting a tattoo), so you can participate and enjoy things like getting a tattoo.
Note: In some cases, medications (i.e., SSRIs, SNRIs, tricyclic antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs, MAOIs, etc.) may be needed to help you overcome your fear of getting a tattoo. But medications are usually only prescribed when OCD therapies have failed.
- Thoughtful Tattoo. (n.d.). Tattoo process explained: Step by step. Retrieved from https://thoughtfultattoos.com/tattoo-process-explained-step-by-step
- Betts, J. L. (n.d.). The tattooing process. Love to Know. Retrieved from https://tattoos.lovetoknow.com/The_Tattooing_Process