New scientific research reveals that there are significant benefits of mindfulness and meditation for OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder]. These two exercises can help to reduce the symptoms.
OCD is a mental health condition afflicting 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children . That means there is a very high chance that either you yourself will suffer from it, or you will know someone who suffers it. Most people with the condition fall into one of several categories: Washers, Checkers, Doubters, Counters and Arrangers, and Hoarders. The signs include double-checking everything, obsessive cleaning, routines, and constantly checking with loves ones to see if they’re okay.
My experience with meditation and OCD comes mostly because my girlfriend of 12 years suffers from the condition. I have witnessed how it can impact a life and make it very difficult to relax. But the good news is that mindfulness helps OCD sufferers and can play a valuable role in OCD treatment.
And as a meditation teacher I have been able to help many people overcome OCD with meditation. And I have some unique strategies to make meditation more accessible for OCD sufferers. This is important because many people with OCD struggle to meditate.
Let’s take a look at the fascinating link between meditation and OCD.
Link Between Meditation And OCD
Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind on one thing, such as the breath. Originally a Buddhist and yoga technique, meditation is now a scientific practice used in professional healthcare and psychotherapy to help with numerous conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder.
There are numerous forms of meditation for OCD, including: Anapanasati, Samatha, Mindfulness, and specific guided meditations for OCD.
Here’s what you need to know about meditation, OCD, and the brain.
Scientific research has shown that there are many benefits of mindfulness meditation for OCD .
For starters, there’s the effect that meditation has on the Frontal Lobe and the Basal Ganglia.
Research shows that an overactive “basal ganglia” (a group of structures found deep within the cerebral hemispheres) stops communicating with the frontal lobe (orbitofrontal cortex & anterior cingulate gyrus). OCD also causes an underactive “nucleus accumbens” (a region in the basal forebrain rostral to the preoptic area of the hypothalamus.) according to researchers (Figee et al) from Amsterdam’s Academic Medical Center. This leads to a continual need for dopamine. [citation: National Institute of Health]
Thankfully, meditation can help. Research shows that meditation reduces activity of the basal ganglia while increasing activity in the frontal lobe and nucleus accumbens. This reduces the need for dopamine hits and increases communication between the basal ganglia and frontal lobe, which is how meditation helps with OCD.
Meditation also helps with the 4 R’s
American psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz is renowned for his work with people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Dr Schwartz has been treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for decades. And his number one method has remained the same. He uses the Buddhist practice known as mindfulness meditation for OCD.
“One evening, while out of the office, Schwartz realized his patients needed more to do, something to focus on besides the intrusive thoughts,” says Steve Volk, writing for Discover Magazine.
“He thought back over the practice of mindfulness and found an analogy he liked. In meditation, if he became emotionally invested in a particular train of thought, he sought to refocus himself by drawing his attention back to his breathing.”
Using that same concept, he recommended that his patients replace monitoring their breath with monitoring whatever behaviour they found most compelling. He instructed his patients to replace their OCD behaviour with one healthy alternative. Each time a patient had an episode, they would replace it with an alternative, such as going for a walk or doing Zen-gardening.
The 4 R’s: Relabel, Reattribute, Refocus, Revalue
Schwartz’s treatment uses four steps: — relabel, reattribute, refocus. revalue .
These steps mean:
Relabel: Notice when you are having obsessive thoughts and label them. For instance, “This is an obsessive thought.”
Reattribute: Tell yourself that it is your condition that is creating the obsessive thought.
Refocus: Focus on something else.
Revalue: Stop reacting to thoughts in such an extreme way. Pay them less credence.
The fourth step is crucial and can take time to learn. Schwartz called this step Revaluing. The obsessive thoughts that patients once considered so necessary were to be systematically deconstructed, understood and finally revalued. Schwartz’s recommended people to revalue obsessive thoughts as “trash … not worth the grey matter they rode in on.” Conversely, Schwartz’s patients learned to place high value on the performing different actions that were not based on their OCD.
Schwartz’s four steps worked, but it wasn’t easy. It took what Schwartz described as “a tremendous force of will.”
It was hard for people with OCD to follow the 4Rs.
To help, Schwartz started to prescribe mindfulness meditation for OCD, and subsequently, more scientific research has confirmed that there are indeed big benefits of this practice.
With mindfulness, patients are given a healthy, empowering and natural way of treating obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can be self-taught and is very easy to start. [READ: Meditation For Depression].
How to use mindfulness meditation for OCD
The easiest (although not the most powerful) way to start is with a guided meditation for OCD.
Guided meditations for OCD are simple and relaxing. They can help us to enter a quieter state of mind. However, once you have begun to relax it is best to start using more formal meditation techniques.
Guided Meditation for OCD
Meditation Script For OCD Using the 4 R’s
- Sit somewhere quiet and relaxing
- Focus on the sensation of your breathing entering through your mouth and notice
- Notice how your breath flow throughout your body
- Focus on breathing as you take 108 breaths
- During this process, if obsessive thoughts arise, remember Dr Schwartz’ advice. Use the 4 R’s: Relabel, Reattribute, Refocus, and Revalue. Remind yourself that your condition causes your obsessive thoughts. Continue to focus on your breathing. Remind yourself that your thoughts are unimportant.
Other methods of meditation for OCD sufferers:
- Anapanasati (for relaxation)
- Vipassana (for self awareness)
- Mindfulness (for self awareness)
- Guided meditation for OCD (for relaxation)
- Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (for changing thoughts and behaviours).
Other treatment options:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
How To Meditate With OCD
Meditation is a unique challenge for people with OCD. For starters, many people have a negative view of the practice, many do not believe it can help with OCD, and it can be hard to focus with OCD when meditating.
Here on some tips on how to meditate with OCD and for clinicians working with OCD sufferers.
1: Just gently return the mind to the breath
One of the many problems with meditation and OCD is that OCD sufferers struggle to focus the mind on the breath. In fact, this isn’t just people with obsessive compulsive disorder, it’s beginner meditators in general.
It’s important to remember that you don’t need to be perfect. It is natural for your mind to wander. It’s normal to experience thoughts and feelings during meditation. You can’t be mindful one-hundred percent of the time. And that’s okay. All you need to do is gently return your awareness to your breath. Just notice where your mind is, and when you are being aware, return your focus to your breath. Perfection is not important.
2: Thoughts aren’t failures
One of the many problems that people with OCD have when meditating is that they think thoughts are failures. In fact lots of my students come to me with this belief. They think that when they meditate the mind should be completely quiet. This simply is not the nature of the mind. Mental activity like thoughts are normal. All you need to do it be aware of the fact that you are experiencing thoughts. Simply label your thoughts, which is a method used in Buddhist Vipassana, and then return to focusing on the breath. Do not be self-critical
3: When meditating with OCD, accept that obsessive thoughts will arise
We all have an ideal state that we want to get into when we meditate. We want the mind to be quiet so that we can feel tranquil. But this is usually not what happens when a person with OCD meditates. Usually, their OCD tried to bully them. You’re sitting there focusing your mind on your breath when all of a sudden your OCD tells you that you need to get up and perform your ritual. That’s fine. Just notice it. Accept it. Observe the nature of OCD, and ty your best to continue focusing on your breath. If you need to perform your OCD ritual, that’s also fine. It’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Just be mindful of what is happening.
4: Peace is not the objective
Everyone thinks that when they meditate they are automatically going to feel peaceful. However, this oftentimes is not the case, and in many ways peace is not important. The goal of mindfulness is not to be peaceful, it is to simply observe the mind. If you’re meditating and you feel anxious, that’s okay. Just label the emotion and return to the breath.
5: There are no grades in meditation
One of the biggest problems when meditating with OCD is that you feel like you want the meditation to go well. You have an idea of what a good and a bad meditation look like in your mind. But there really is no good or bad in meditation. The entire nature of mindfulness is acceptance. Don’t judge your practice and do not be self critical. Simply observe your mind.
In many ways, dealing with OCD is similar to dealing with other negative thoughts. The problem, as with regular thoughts, is that we allow our thoughts to dictate our actions. This is why when someone experiences an OCD thought, they soon act on it. By using a combination of mindfulness and the 4Rs, we can learn to change the way we process those thoughts, and in so doing we can prevent them from directing our actions, ultimately giving us power over OCD-thoughts.
Leave a comment and remember to subscribe to our newsletter.
1: Anxiety And Depression Association of America, https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd
2: Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for OCD, Jon Hershfield, MFT, & Tom Corboy, MFT, Interntional OCD Foundation, https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/mindfulness-and-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-for-ocd/
3: OCD UK, Howard Hughes, https://www.ocduk.org/ocd/history-of-ocd/howard-hughes/
4: Self-Help: Managing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – Schwartz’ Four Step Method, https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/managing-obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd.htm