Your Guide to Mindfulness for OCD
You’ve no doubt heard of mindfulness: talk of it is everywhere! Well, there’s a good reason for that! Mindfulness can be useful for everyone, as well as being a powerful tool in treating many physical and mental health conditions, including OCD! This guide will take you through all you need to know about mindfulness and exactly how it can be so useful for those with OCD.
What is mindfulness?
Despite hearing the term mindfulness a lot, you might be wondering what it actually means in a real sense! Mindfulness is all about being grounded and present in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or the future. The Mindful website defines mindfulness as, “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Essentially when we practice mindfulness we engage all of our senses and notice what is happening within us and around us in that moment. We don’t worry or attach emotions to what’s happening, we simply notice it and accept it. The practice of mindfulness promotes a sense of deep relaxation and calm.
Being present and mindful is something we already have within us, but need to learn to tap into. It’s a skill, and once you’ve learnt it, you can incorporate it into your daily life. Research has shown that once you begin to be mindful, over time the structure of your brain changes in accordance, making mindfulness a positive, easily accessible habit.
General benefits of mindfulness
There are so many benefits of mindfulness for everybody, whether you have a health condition or not. This is why so many people practice it. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of mindfulness.
- Stress reduction
Mindfulness is proven to reduce stress levels and enhance feelings of calm and relaxation. Since long term stress can be detrimental to both physical and mental health, this can be extremely beneficial.
- Improved sleep
Reduced stress and improved relaxation means that mindfulness can improve sleep quality, allowing you to feel more refreshed and energized during the day.
- Better physical health
Mindfulness can help to tackle physical health conditions. This article from Harvard Health explains that mindfulness can, “treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.”
- Better mental health
Mindfulness has been shown to improve general mental health, as well as to be very useful in treating a range of mental illnesses.
- Enhanced attention
The practice of mindfulness allows an individual to improve and increase their attention span, allowing them to be more focused and productive.
- Improved memory
Being present in the moment allows you to learn new things without memories from the past clouding new memories and skills. This allows you to be much more effective at picking up new skills and storing new memories.
Many studies have shown that short term memory is improved through mindfulness. A scientist called Jonathan Greenberg discovered that the brain physically changes with these improvements. He explains that, “changes in the brain correlate with actual changes in cognitive performance, so that the more your cognition improves, the more your hippocampus changes.”
- Emotional regulation
Research shows that practicing mindfulness allows you to gain greater control over your emotions and regulate them more effectively, even during stressful or distressing events. This study concluded that, “mindfulness training not only benefited emotion regulation, but also reduced the emotional interferences over cognitive functions.”
- Increased confidence
Mindfulness has been shown to increase confidence and sense of self, as well as increasing trust in oneself. This article explains that mindfulness quiets negative thoughts and therefore helps, “by removing our barriers to confidence.”
How can mindfulness help to treat OCD?
Now we know how helpful mindfulness can be in general, let’s focus on how mindfulness can help to treat OCD specifically.
The experience of living with OCD in itself causes high levels of prolonged stress. While short term stress is a helpful response to help protect us, when this response becomes prolonged it can be detrimental to both our physical and mental health. High levels of stress perpetuate the OCD cycle and increase anxiety.
Stress is a significant trigger for someone with OCD, meaning that a stressful event can worsen their obsessions and compulsions. This 2020 article states that, “People with OCD often report experiencing an increase in the number or severity of stressors just prior to their symptoms becoming worse.”
So we can see how vital it is to try to reduce stress in order to lessen OCD symptoms. As we’ve already mentioned, mindfulness has proven results in reducing stress and therefore actively helps to break the OCD cycle. The amygdala is a part of the brain which helps to control the stress response and ‘turn it on’ in response to outside threats. This article explains that mindfulness reduces activity within the amygdala meaning, “your background level of stress is reduced.”
The practice of mindfulness has been proven to reduce blood pressure and respiratory rate, and actively reduce cortisol. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because it helps the body and mind to respond to stress and get into that ‘fight or flight’ state. By reducing cortisol, the stress response is reduced.
Mindfulness replaces stress with a relaxed mindset within which tension falls away. This inhibits the stress response and allows you to think more clearly. Practicing mindfulness also gives you the ability to look at stress differently: rather than reacting to it, you can accept it and release it.
By nature, living with OCD involves regularly being in a state of high anxiety. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts which an individual with OCD attaches great significance to. These obsessions cause a great deal of distress and anxiety. Compulsions are then carried out to try to reduce the anxiety and negative emotions around obsessions.
However, while compulsions may ease the anxiety at first, it will come back (and is usually much stronger). This leads to the individual feeling the need to carry out more and more compulsions to try to gain relief from their anxiety. You can see how anxiety is pivotal in the cycle of OCD.
Therefore, reducing anxiety can actively help to reduce OCD symptoms. Mindfulness is a highly effective way to do this. Just as the relaxed state that is gained through mindfulness can ease stress, so it can ease anxiety. By being present in the moment, we stop our mind from wandering to ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, directly reducing anxiety.
We mentioned that one of the benefits of mindfulness is improved emotional control. Enhanced emotional regulation gives those with OCD the ability to better control negative emotions, therefore giving you more control over your OCD symptoms. This enables you to calm heightened emotions which so often come along with OCD symptoms, and instead replace them with a sense of calm and over time, even positivity.
Improved sleep quality
When you have so much going on in your mind and stress levels are high, it can be really tough to get a restful sleep. Often if someone with OCD wakes up during the night, they may have an obsession. They will then need to get up and carry out compulsions to ‘deal’ with their obsession. Of course, this activity wakes you up fully, increases anxiety, and can make it really tough to get back to sleep.
Since mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety, it can help those with OCD drift off to sleep more easily. Mindfulness practices can even be done in bed to promote complete relaxation before sleep. If you wake up during the night and find that your OCD is triggered, you can use mindfulness to help you cope with that anxiety and instead, fall back asleep. Mindfulness even helps to improve the quality of your sleep, allowing you to feel more refreshed in the morning.
During mindfulness practice, if your thoughts wander to worries about the past or present, you learn to redirect them and bring them back to the present. This allows those with OCD to redirect their thoughts away from anxiety and obsessions. It also provides a sense of relief and distraction from the otherwise all encompassing OCD cycle.
Letting intrusive thoughts go
We’ve mentioned that mindfulness focuses on accepting what is happening in the present without attaching emotions to it: this includes thoughts. During mindfulness someone with OCD will learn that when an intrusive thought comes into their mind, they can accept the thought and understand that it’s there, but not attach any emotion or action to it. They can then learn to let the thought go.
The mental health charity Made of Millions explains that, “When an intrusive thought pops up, you let it exist in your mind without providing it any weight. You experience the thought, but don’t judge it, change it or try to make it go away.” This takes time and practice, but is a valuable, powerful skill in tackling OCD.
This skill can empower those with OCD to acknowledge and experience their intrusive thoughts, without responding with a compulsion. Instead of automatically turning to a compulsion as soon as an obsession enters your head, you can stop and calm your anxiety. OCD Ireland explains that, “Rather than just responding to a thought or emotion and automatically engaging in a ritual, you can notice what is happening.”
Learning to accept the unknown
Those with OCD hold a great deal of fear anxiety around the unknown. The thought of not having control or not knowing definitively that nothing bad is going to happen, can be very tough to cope with and can activate obsessions and compulsions.
Instead of panicking at the thought of the unknown, through mindfulness you can learn to stay grounded in the present and release the need to know what will happen in the future. This article explains that, “You can ’embrace’ the feeling of anxiety or fear, allow it to occur, without getting panicked about it.”
When you live with OCD, your obsessions tend to make you feel incredibly bad about yourself. It’s common to feel that you are a terrible person, especially if the themes of your obsessions are around harming others or doing something terrible. Even though obsessions do not reflect your true thoughts or personality, it can leave you feeling ashamed and truly feeling that you are a horrible person. This can lead to you being very hard on yourself and a reduction in confidence.
Mindfulness can help you to learn to love yourself again. Since mindfulness focuses on being non-judgemental, you can learn to be more compassionate towards yourself. This is often known as ‘loving kindness’. OCD Ireland explains that, “Being critical of yourself, your OCD symptoms, causes suffering. Being accepting of yourself and your OCD symptoms means that you suffer less distress.”
Types of mindfulness for OCD
Mindfulness can come in many forms, which is fantastic because it means that you find something that works for you! We’ll go through the basics of some of the most successful forms of mindfulness in treating OCD.
Meditation is one of the more commonly known forms of mindfulness. This involves sitting in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. You don’t have to sit in the stereotypical cross legged position (although you can if that feels comfortable for you). You can sit in any position that feels comfortable, or even lie down if you prefer. You will close your eyes, or relax them so that your eyes are not focused on anything in particular.
If you are carrying out a solo meditation, from there you will ease yourself into fully relaxing. You’ll focus on the moment, allowing thoughts to come and go, and float past you. If your mind wanders from the present, you’ll bring your attention back to the here and now.
If you are carrying out a guided meditation, you will be guided step by step through reaching a relaxed, meditative state. You’ll be asked to engage your senses and focus on the moment. If you find thoughts passing through your mind, that’s completely fine. You’ll let them pass you. If your mind wanders to worries, the past, or the future, you’ll be asked to bring your focus back to the present.
Some meditations will ask you to imagine specific things, to direct your focus to something specific, or to focus on your breathing. Meditations can vary in length, theme, and sometimes purpose, although the general aim is always to reach a state of relaxation and mindfulness.
Visualization is most often guided: you’ll hear it referred to as guided imagery or guided visualization. This involves being in a meditative state, and being guided through imagining specific scenes. You will use all of your senses to imagine the scene as vividly as possible.
This visualization can be focused primarily on relaxation, or it can be used with specific goals in mind. For OCD, these goals might be to tackle fears; to imagine being free of OCD symptoms; to prepare yourself for a triggering situation; to imagine anxiety floating away; or to visualize taking your power back.
Visualization itself is a powerful tool and has been proven to be useful in treating physical health conditions and to enhance athletic performance, as well as to treat mental illness. This 2020 article states that, “it can also be useful in disrupting patterns of rumination and can help you to build resources in your life that increase your resilience toward stress by engaging an upward spiral of positivity.”
As it sounds, breathing exercises involve focusing on your breathing and often slowing your breathing to promote relaxation. You can focus on breathing exercises anytime you need them throughout your day, which allows you to calm anxiety and reduce stress in the moment as soon as you feel it rising.
These can be used as part of meditation or visualization. For example, you might focus on taking a deep breath in and visualizing yourself inhaling a deep sense of calm. When you take a deep breath out, you might imagine all of the stress leaving your body and floating away from you.
There are a range of types of breathing exercises which can be used. You might choose to carry out breathing exercises on your own, or be guided through them as with other types of mindfulness.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
PMR is a relaxation technique which focuses on you tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. Often this will be guided, so a voice will talk you through tensing and then relaxing each individual area of your body in a specific order, to reach a deep state of calm. You’ll often be asked to breath in as you tense, and breathe out as you relax your muscles. PMR is sometimes combined with visualization, such as imagining tension leaving your body as you relax your muscles, or imagining yourself sinking into your bed as you relax.
Research has proven that PMR is especially useful in easing anxiety, as well as the muscle tension which often comes along with it. PMR is a great exercise to do at night in bed to help you fall asleep. This article from Michigan Medicine explains that, “When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious.”
Mindful movement entails using slow, flowing movements, accompanied by focusing on the present and often focusing on your breathing. Yoga, tai chi, and pilates are types of mindful movement. However, any exercise you do can be made mindful by focusing on the movement of your body and how it feels while you’re doing it.
For example, you could go on a mindful walk. While you’re walking, you would focus on how your feet feel as they meet the floor. You’d notice any sounds or smells around you. You’d focus on how you are breathing, in and out, as you stride forward. You’d notice how you feel emotionally, and any sights you can see.
Not only is mindful movement great for relaxation, you’re also getting all the health benefits of exercise at the same time! Mindful movement can be particularly useful for those who struggle to practice mindfulness while sitting or lying still, while still providing all of the same benefits of mindfulness.
Mindfulness used in other therapies
Mindfulness is often used in conjunction with other psychological therapies to bring the best results for OCD patients. There are 2 primary therapies which have been shown to bring optimal results in treating OCD.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychological therapy which works to replace negative thoughts and behaviour patterns with more positive ones. When this is combined with mindfulness, it can bring great results for OCD patients.
The Mental Health Foundation explains that, “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) combines mindfulness techniques like meditation, breathing exercises and stretching with elements from cognitive behaviour therapy to help break the negative thought patterns.”
MBCT typically begins with psychoeducation, which simply means teaching about how OCD works. This enables you to gain a deeper insight into how the OCD cycle has formed, and how the therapy is going to help to break it.
You’ll then be guided through looking at intrusive thoughts and changing how you react to them. You’ll see that obsessions are distorted thoughts, rather than based in reality. Since this can be quite stressful for those with OCD, using mindfulness to reduce stress and help you to stay focused in the moment can enhance the effectiveness of the therapy.
Often exposure and response prevention (ERP), which is a form of CBT, is used to help patients face their obsessions in a gradual way, without reacting with compulsions. Over time, as you see that nothing bad happened when you didn’t carry out a compulsion, you’ll find your anxiety falling. This actively breaks the OCD cycle.
Since mindfulness focuses on acknowledging feelings without attaching significance to them, this can be very helpful when combined with ERP. The International OCD Foundation explains that, “Mindfulness strengthens ERP by encouraging acceptance of one’s uncomfortable reactions to exposures, thus reducing the powerful draw of compulsive behaviors.”
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR combines yoga and meditation to encourage relaxation and reduce stress. We’ve already discussed how significantly stress can impact those with OCD, so MBSR can be very effective. This article says that MBSR, “aims to address the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors thought to increase stress and undermine your health.”
The sessions involve a variety of mindfulness exercises over a number of weeks. MBSR has more recently been adapted to treat OCD, but is showing great promise so far in reducing OCD symptoms. The aim is to provide patients with the skills to continue reducing stress even after the sessions have ended.
Ways to practicing mindfulness
There are different ways that you can practice mindfulness, depending on what works for you and your personal preference. Some people may use a mix of these as it suits them. Whatever works best for you is what is most important.
Guided mindfulness involves being guided through mindfulness practices. This is often in a face to face setting either by a teacher or mindfulness instructor, or sometimes by a therapist if mindfulness is used in conjunction with therapy. This is often common when it comes to treating OCD.
Another way you can engage in guided mindfulness is to find resources online or to use an app or an online therapy programme. For example, our online OCD treatment programme focuses on using a range of therapy techniques, including mindfulness, to help patients gain relief from their OCD symptoms. Mindfulness sessions will entail listening to an audio session which will guide you through each step of mindfulness. The voice will be soothing which adds to the sense of relaxation, and often calming music or sounds are used in the background to enhance the experience.
You can practice mindfulness on your own without being guided. This can be in your own home, outdoors, or any place you find peaceful. You can also involve mindfulness in your daily tasks. Often solo mindfulness is used once you have picked up the skills of mindfulness and gotten the hang of it through guided mindfulness.
Sometimes people practice mindfulness in groups. This could be done in groups of like minded friends. It could also be part of guided mindfulness when done in a face to face mindfulness class or group mindfulness therapy. Some people find it more difficult to reach that state of deep relaxation with other people around, and so prefer to do mindfulness alone. However, others find the other people in a relaxed state around them comforting and encouraging.
Where to access guided mindfulness
If you want to access face to face guided mindfulness, you may be able to find local mindfulness classes. These tend to be group sessions and are courses of mindfulness which you attend once a week for a number of weeks. You can also find private one on one guided mindfulness through a mindfulness practitioner.
Some local mental health charities may offer mindfulness courses. You can find out what’s available by searching online. You could also ask your doctor or mental health professional if there are any local mindfulness resources you can use. If you want formal face to face mindfulness therapy, talk to your doctor about getting a referral or finding out where you can self-refer.
If you prefer to access mindfulness at home in your own time, you could read books or listen to audiobooks to guide you. You can also find lots of resources online, from articles to videos. You can access mindfulness therapy and guided mindfulness through therapy apps and online mental health therapy.
Incorporating mindfulness into your daily life
Setting aside 10 to 15 minutes each day to carry out a formal mindfulness session (meaning a meditation or breathing exercise for example), can help you to keep developing your mindfulness skills and feel ongoing benefits of your practice.
Once you’ve learnt the skills of mindfulness you also can begin to make your daily life more mindful. Any daily task can be done mindfully. For example when you’re cooking a meal, paying attention to the smells, sounds, and sights of the kitchen allows you to be mindful. When you’re eating your meal, paying attention to the textures and taste of your food, as well as how it smells and looks on the plate, allows you to be mindful. Really pay attention when you are going about your day, and you’ll find that being mindful becomes a positive habit.
There are a few other ways that you can live more mindfully:
- Try something new
Expand your horizons by trying new things. You can start small, such as changing the route of your walk or trying a new food. You could also try taking up a new hobby or finding new ways to meet people. When we experience new things, it helps us to be more engaged and alert. By doing this mindfully and really taking notice of what’s happening around us, it helps us to hone our mindfulness practice and learn new things about the world around us.
- Put a name to your thoughts
If you have an intrusive thought or experience anxiety, acknowledge it and put a name to it. Think to yourself ‘this is anxiety, and that’s ok’. You can then work on letting it pass without reacting.
- Practice self-compassion
If you find yourself being harsh with yourself or using negative talk, try to stop yourself and replace it with a more positive alternative. For example if you think, “I did that compulsion, I’m failing at therapy,” you could instead replace this with, “I am doing my best and this is just a bump in the road”.
Encourage yourself. Be kind with yourself. Treat yourself with the same compassion that you would treat a friend or family member. It’s also positive to start setting aside some time for yourself to do things which bring you joy.
- Spread kindness
Surround yourself with positive people who support you and build you up. Remember to spread kindness and be mindful of how you treat others. This enhances your awareness and allows you to strengthen social connections.
- Stop your thoughts spiralling
If you find your thoughts getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future, actively bring your mind back to the present. Engage your senses and focus on what is happening around you. This helps to stop negative thoughts in their tracks.
Things to bear in mind when getting started with mindfulness
Anyone can practice mindfulness
Anybody can learn the skills of mindfulness. We already have the ability to be mindful within us, we just need to learn to tap into it. You don’t need to follow any specific religion or change your belief system. Everyone can find benefits from mindfulness.
This article explains that, “We already have the capacity to be present, and it doesn’t require us to change who we are. But we can cultivate these innate qualities with simple practices.”
It’s a skill and takes time to learn
Remember that mindfulness is a skill and it will take time to get the hang of, so try not to get too frustrated with yourself when you’re just starting out. You will get there with practice. It’s a good idea to start out with guided mindfulness so you can get the hang of things.
You don’t have to have specialized equipment
There’s no special equipment you need to buy to take part in mindfulness. You can do it anywhere you like, anytime you like.
You can figure out what type of mindfulness works for you
There are different types of mindfulness and various exercises you can try. If one type doesn’t feel right for you, don’t worry: it doesn’t mean mindfulness isn’t for you. You can take your time to figure out what works for you.
It’s best to practice regularly
Practicing mindfulness regularly will help you to be more mindful in your everyday life. It will also allow you to hone your skills and get the most out of mindfulness.
You can use mindfulness skills for ongoing OCD management
Once you get the hang of mindfulness, you can use these techniques to manage your OCD for the long term. You’ll be better equipped to deal with stress and anxiety when they crop up, and have greater control over your emotions.
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