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OCD and Mindfulness

Janet Singer's son Dan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe he could not even eat. What followed was a journey from seven therapists to ...Read More

We hear a lot about the concept of mindfulness these days. Simply put, mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. Just noticing and accepting what is.

If you or a loved one suffer from OCD, I’m wondering if you have the same thoughts about this definition of mindfulness as I do. To me, it seems as if it 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 obsessive-compulsive disorder 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. Thought-action fusion might also involve the belief that thinking certain 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.

Getting back to mindfulness. In spite of the fact (or maybe because of it) that it is, in many ways, the opposite of OCD, most OCD sufferers I know who practice mindfulness find it very helpful in fighting their disorder. To be able to focus on what is really happening in any given moment, as opposed to dwelling on the past or anticipating the future, takes away the power of OCD. So while exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy remains the front line treatment for OCD, mindfulness is also a great tool to use; it can help with ERP as well as with the anxiety and fear that come along with OCD.

While the concept of mindfulness is simple, it is not always easy to put into practice. It takes discipline, awareness, practice and perseverance, but it is so worth it. I myself, over the past year or so, have been working on becoming 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, for all of us, right now is what really matters.

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