Because many people have a hard time jumping into Exposure and Response Prevention treatment in addressing their OCD symptoms, I have developed a way of working that often precedes, sometimes bypasses and/ or modifies the need for exposure treatment and I have had a lot of success working in this way. My approach is integrative and holistic with a particular focus on embodiment and somatics which means that I focus on helping people learn to live more experientially in their bodies rather than just in their heads.
This way of working prepares people for the more difficult work of exposure which we may do later on. At other times, OCD becomes much less of an issue in people’s lives because as they learn to expand their experience of themselves, a natural consequence is that their sense of life expands which narrows the impact OCD has and gives less power to it to rule their lives.
When you have OCD, you are often mostly consumed with your head and what goes on up there EXCLUSIVELY. Over time, many of my OCD clients will begin to say things like : “I feel like all I am is a “head” . I notice that I THINK all the time” or “I barely see anything around me because I’m so consumed with my fear thoughts”.
It can take some time to recognize that your primary way of orienting in the world is through your thoughts. Just beginning to becoming more mindfully aware of HOW you orient in the world ie do you notice what else you’re experiencing in a given moment or are you barely present to anything but your mind’s chatter? Do you notice feelings and sensations beyond your fear of your OCD ? What are you NOT noticing when you are so busy with your thoughts of how to solve your uncertainty (which cannot be solved)? Noticing how you relate to your experience (a tenet of Gestalt therapy) is the beginning of a major change for you.
So what if there was another way? What if when your head feels like it’s exploding you could drop into your body and find another place to be? You could notice the flowers outside even for 30 seconds. Maybe you would come right back to your fear after that brief shift but you at least would be creating some space for something new to happen. Even if just for a moment. This is what a somatic approach can offer you. Another place to live other than your OCD mind.
I usually begin by orienting my clients to the fact that in any given moment there is way more going on than just their persistent troubling thoughts. And if you can learn to widen your awareness of the world around you, you can begin to feel less victimized or consumed by your thoughts.
In Buddhist psychology and in Gestalt therapy– both of which I incorporate- there is a way of noticing what ELSE is going on. You learn to expand your lens of observation so that for example, if you feel compelled to go back and check if you locked the door, you might instead SENSE the feeling of the pull to go and check and notice what that experience FEELS like in your body rather than getting stuck on the content of your thoughts “I have to check!”.
Initially, your mind might comment and say “so what? So I notice that I’m still feeling pulled?!” But what happens over time when you keep noticing WHAT YOU DO is that your mind learns to create a bit of space around your habitual pattern. Meditation can support and accelerate this process for you as well. And when you see what you do time after time, something loosens up and another option opens up for you to make a different choice.
Go with the process rather than the content of what’s going on. Staying with the process would mean noticing “wow I’m feeling so pulled to go to that thought.. to check…it feels like this (what is the felt experience? heavy? Pressure? Suctioning?) in my body … it feels like I have no choice.. “ In meditation practice or mindfulness based therapies- this is called naming or labeling what’s happening where you just narrate “feeling pulled.. pulling is happening..” or some people prefer to say “that’s not me, it’s my ocd”. These methods can help you detach a bit from the compulsions and relate to them in a different way than your habitual one.
Just that awareness of what you feel, can point you to a few things: 1) a deeper level of noticing yourself and your tendencies. Sometimes people describe it as if they’re “in a trance” and suddenly noticing this help them realize they have choice. They can pull back just a bit and take stock of their intense habit 2) The fact that YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS (see the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy workbook “Get out of your mind and into your life” for some excellent exercises to address this).
You begin to see “wait a second.. WHO is it who is seeing this and saying these thoughts?” It’s something, some part of you beyond that thought. This can be immensely transformative to notice. When you recognize that there is a witness behind and larger than your river of thoughts, you may get free in that moment because hallelujah..! you are not your mind and if you are NOT your thoughts, well you get to decide whether or not to follow them!.
You are the witness who- with practice, can see the pull of your mind just as a dog pulls its owner on a leash but you HAVE choice even if often it doesn’t feel that way. You don’t have to listen to that thoughts. Sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t- but the more you play with this process of awareness the more your brain will create new pathways for this new way of responding to the moment.
Besides learning to sense how things feel, meditation can be a huge source of help. If you have OCD, I encourage you to learn more ways to engage beyond your mind. Take up some kind of physical practice to connect with and learn to sense your body. Consider working with someone who works somatically and holistically.
There are many ways to treat OCD- not just one and for some people trying a natural way before trying medication -whether than involves doing CBT , working with someone more integrative/ holistic who is also an OCD specialist (harder to find) or joining a meditation or mindfulness group- can be effective.
And know that healing is possible even if ERP did not work for you or if didn’t work right away.
May you find ease in your struggle,