Meditation For OCD: Stop Obsessive Thoughts & Heal Yourself

New scientific research reveals that there are significant benefits of mindfulness and meditation for OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder]. You can use meditation to stop intrusive thoughts and to help remedy the condition.  

OCD is a mental health condition afflicting 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children according to the Anxiety And Depression Association of America [1].

That means there is an extremely high chance that either you yourself will suffer from it, or you will know someone who suffers it.

According to HelpGuide.org, 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 loved ones to see if they’re okay.

OCD often also leads to depression [READ: Meditation For Depression].

Thankfully, there are some techniques that can help. Not least, meditation and MBCT exercises.

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 difficult to relax. But the good news is that mindfulness helps OCD sufferers. Mindfulness can play a valuable role in OCD treatment.

As a meditation teacher, I have been able to help many people to control OCD with meditation. Obsessive thoughts are easier to control once you start meditating.  

Let’s take a look at the fascinating link between meditation, OCD and intrusive obsessive thoughts.

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Scientific Benefits of Meditation For OCD

Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind on one thing. For instance, focusing on the breath. Originally a Buddhist and yoga technique, meditation is now a scientific practice used in professional healthcare and psychotherapy. It is used to help with numerous conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. Leading teachers include the likes of Jon Kabat Zinn, Pema Chodron, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

There are numerous forms of meditation for OCD and obsessive thoughts. for instance, Anapanasati, Samatha, Mindfulness, and specific guided meditations for OCD.

Scientific research has shown that there are many benefits of mindfulness meditation for OCD [Jon Hershfield, MFT, & Tom Corboy, MFT, Interntional OCD Foundation].

For starters, there’s the effect that meditation has on the Frontal Lobe and the Basal Ganglia.

Research shows that, in people with OCD, an overactive basal ganglion (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”. This is a region of the brain involved in the cognitive processing of motor function). 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]

So what does that have to do with mindfulness?

Well, thankfully, meditation can help.

Research shows that meditation reduces the activity of the basal ganglia. Meanwhile, it increases activity in the frontal lobe and nucleus accumbens. This reduces the need for dopamine hits. Plus, it increases communication between the basal ganglia and frontal lobe. That is the primary way in which meditation helps with OCD. [Masahiro Fujino et. al., Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University].

effects of meditation on OCD
effects of meditation on OCD

Meditation also helps with the 4 R’s

One of the best things about using meditation for OCD and obsessive thoughts is that it helps with the popular treatment option called the “4 R’s”, created by American psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz.

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 and intrusive thoughts. 

“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. For instance, going for a walk or doing Zen-gardening.

The 4 R’s: Relabel, Reattribute, Refocus, Revalue

The 4 R's of OCD for meditation

According to Harley Therapy, Schwartz’s treatment uses four steps:  — relabel, reattribute, refocus. revalue [4] (more on this during the instructions below). 

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 revalued.

Schwartz recommended that his patients revalue obsessive thoughts as “trash … not worth the grey matter they rode in on.” Conversely, Schwartz’s patients learned to place a high value on 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 prescribed mindfulness meditation for OCD and obsessive thoughts. 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 quite easy to start.

How to use mindfulness meditation for OCD And Obsessive Thoughts

The easiest (although not the most powerful) way to start is with a guided meditation for OCD.

Guided meditations for OCD and intrusive thoughts 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. Research from Harvard Medical School [2019] reveals that guided meditations for OCD are not as effective as traditional methods.

Guided Meditation for OCD

Guided Meditation for Detachment From Over-Thinking (Anxiety / OCD / Depression)

Meditation For OCD And Impulsive Thoughts [Script]

  1. Sit somewhere quiet and relaxing. Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Roll your shoulders then let them relax. Lightly press your tongue against your hard palate. Keep your spine straight but relaxed. Slightly lower your neck to elongate your spine.
  2. Focus on the sensation of your breathing entering through your mouth. Notice how your breath flows throughout your body. 
  3. Focus on breathing as you take 108 breaths
  4. 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.
  5. Relabel: Notice when you are having obsessive thoughts and label them. For instance, “This is an obsessive thought.” 
  6. Reattribute: Tell yourself that it is your condition that is creating the obsessive thought. 
  7. Refocus: Focus on something else. 
  8. Revalue: Stop reacting to thoughts in such an extreme way. Pay them less credence.
  9. Continue for 20 minutes at a time.

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: 

  • Psychotherapy
  • Medication
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

How To Meditate With OCD

It can be challenging for people with OCD to meditate. 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 on meditating with OCD.

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 when using meditation with OCD is that it is hard 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 per cent of the time. That’s okay. All you need to do is gently return your awareness to your breath. Just notice when your mind is wandering, and return your mind to the breath when you can.  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 is normal. All you need to do is know 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 tries to bully them.

You’re sitting there focusing your mind on your breath when suddenly 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 do your best to continue focusing on your breath. If you need to perform your OCD ritual, that’s 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. Furthermore, peace is not the goal. The goal of mindfulness 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.

 

Summary

In many ways, dealing with OCD is like dealing with other negative thoughts. The problem is that we allow our thoughts to dictate our actions. Therefore, 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, giving us power over OCD.

 

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SOURCES:

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

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By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

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