Sensorimotor OCD

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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

There are so many different types of obsessions and compulsions when it comes to OCD. Perhaps one of the less talked about are sensorimotor, or body-focused, obsessions which involve a heightened awareness and focus on involuntary bodily activities and processes. Hyperawareness of swallowing, breathing, or blinking are common examples of these types of obsessions. Additionally, over attention to bladder and digestive processes, indeed any unhealthy focus on a specific body part or organ, might also fall into the category of sensorimotor obsessions.

I think these types of obsessions seem particularly brutal because they involve necessary, ongoing processes in our bodies. There truly is no escape, and this fact often plays into the obsessions of the sufferer. The fear of never being able to stop thinking or focusing on their swallowing, or beating heart, can cause intense anxiety in OCD sufferers. Those who are consumed with worry about swallowing might actually be afraid of choking, or they might just be tormented by the thought that they will never be able to stop thinking about swallowing. Not surprisingly, compulsions that help distract the OCD sufferer follow. Counting, for example, might briefly help sufferers focus away from their swallowing. Avoidance behaviors such as avoiding certain foods might also be a compulsion in this case.


However, performing compulsions never helps for long, and will make the OCD stronger in the long run. Those with OCD who suffer from sensorimotor obsessions often find their lives greatly affected. They have trouble concentrating on anything other than their obsession(s), and might have difficulties socializing and sleeping as well.

So what is the treatment for this particularly torturous type of OCD? The same as for all types of OCD: Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. OCD sufferers dealing with sensorimotor obsessions need to face their fears and voluntarily pay attention to whatever bodily activity they are agonizing over. Whether it is awareness of breathing, swallowing, salivating, or something else, the OCD sufferer needs to stop trying to refrain from thinking about their source of anxiety. Indeed, they need to feel the anxiety that ensues, and over time it will diminish. In other words, they need to do the opposite of what their OCD dictates.

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Mindfulness can also be a helpful tool for those suffering from sensorimotor obsessions. In fact, ERP therapy and mindfulness are often closely intertwined when dealing with sensorimotor issues, as they both involve learning to pay close attention to our bodies and just accepting what is. For example, focusing on breathing, which is a mainstay of mindfulness, might involve noticing the rise and fall of the chest, or the sensation in the nostrils. No judgment, just awareness. The OCD sufferer is practicing mindfulness and ERP therapy at the same time.

Sensorimotor OCD, like many other types of OCD, can be complicated, confusing, and debilitating. That’s why it is crucial that those suffering from sensorimotor obsessions work with a therapist who specializes in treating OCD. With the right treatment, those who suffer from this type of OCD will soon be able to breathe easy…literally.

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