Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) features uncontrollable thoughts, urges, and ritualistic behaviors that create a chain reaction known as the cycle of OCD.
Intrusive thoughts make up “obsessions” in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health condition that can affect people of any age, race, or gender from all parts of the world.
Obsessions in OCD are unwelcome, distressing ideas, mental images, or impulses that are excessively recurrent, and take up a significant amount of time, often hours of your day.
Compulsions in OCD are acts of neutralization. They’re ritualistic behaviors that provide relief from the negative emotions brought on by obsessions. Compulsions are very individual, and they often have no rhyme or reason for why they provide comfort.
The pathway between an obsession and temporary relief is known as the OCD cycle, a four-part sequence of events that can quickly create a snowball effect.
The phrase “OCD cycle” is used to describe a shared, cyclic experience in OCD. It starts with an obsession and ends with temporary relief — only to start over, creating a perpetual loop of distressing thoughts and ritualistic behaviors.
The OCD cycle is especially challenging to break out of because the relief provided by compulsions is perceived as successful. When something “works” for controlling an obsession, the OCD brain assumes it will work every time, and failing to do that action could result in disaster.
“OCD is aptly labeled a ‘vicious’ cycle due to its repetitive nature,” said Kate Skurat, a licensed mental health counselor and clinical manager at Calmerry, Cody, Wyoming. “So, the longer you remain in the cycle, the more momentum and strength it gains, creating a great challenge for those seeking liberation.”
The cycle of OCD is made up of four parts:
- temporary relief
“An intrusive thought, image, or urge starts the cycle,” explained Dr. Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist from Tarrytown, New York. “These are the ‘what-if’ and ‘if-then’ doubts and obsessions that relentlessly torment [someone living with OCD].”
Obsessions aren’t controllable. They enter your mind uninvited and play over and over, even if you recognize that they’re illogical.
Obsessions in OCD are often fear-based and may be related to common themes of:
Alcee indicates specific examples of obsessions include:
- What if I accidentally ran over somebody, and that wasn’t just the noise of a pothole?
- If I don’t repeat this mantra three times, something bad will happen to my family.
- Do I really love my partner, or am I just pretending?
- I can’t stop having images of pushing someone off this cliff. Am I a terrible person?
Anxiety makes up the second part of the OCD cycle. It’s your natural response to thoughts that are distressing.
“The intensity of anxiety varies, but it is always disproportionate to the actual threat,” Skurat said. “Individuals with OCD experience a heightened state of anxiety, which compels them to engage in compulsive behaviors to alleviate the distress.”
A compulsion is something you do physically, mentally, or both to counteract the anxiety caused by an obsession. Compulsions can involve repeating phrases, counting, seeking affirmation from others, and meticulous organization, along with many other behaviors.
An example of a compulsion, according to Skurat, would be positioning items in a so-called right way to avoid bad things from happening.
Compulsions bring temporary relief in OCD, the fourth and final part of the cycle. “This temporary relief is like the instant gratification of junk food,” Alcee pointed out. “It soothes quickly but it doesn’t really bring the satisfaction of a good and nurturing meal, and so it leads to more obsessing and further compulsions.”
The cycle of OCD may feel like an endless loop, but it starts with an obsession.
Why obsessions develop in the first place is unclear. The underlying causes of OCD are thought to be multifaceted, meaning many factors may play a role, not just one.
Ultimately, obsessions are typically aligned with your personal values. That’s part of what makes them distressing. You don’t want to harm someone, for example, so any uncontrollable thoughts about violence cause overwhelming anxiety.
According to Skurat, the frequency and intensity of OCD cycles can vary from person to person and can be influenced by many factors like external stressors, major life events, and current general coping mechanisms.
If you feel as though you’ve become caught up in a continuous OCD cycle, there are ways you can help break yourself free.
Alcee recommends allowing yourself space to not immediately engage in a compulsion, which often generates a quicksand-like sink into the OCD cycle.
“It’s like the quicksand again,” he said. “As understandable as it is to panic and want to immediately get out of the anxiety, allowing some time and space first — like laying down in the quicksand —shows results with more lasting relief.”
Facing the themes of obsessions
Sometimes, facing your fears, also known as exposure therapy, is key to overcoming them, and this can be true in OCD. Rather than avoiding situations that may act as obsession triggers, Skurat suggests engaging in those moments as a way to disprove your own worries.
“Steering clear of specific triggering situations and uncomfortable environments serves to amplify the influence of your OCD-driven thoughts,” she said. “Your obsessive thinking has persuaded you that the world is fraught with danger and life itself is a source of fear.”
Seeking professional treatment
OCD treatment focuses on teaching you how to confront obsessive thoughts and manage them without compulsions. It involves the use of proven therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to restructure unhelpful thought patterns into beneficial ones.
Treating OCD can help you manage the OCD cycle in real time, while also providing you with options to escape a loop when you feel stuck in one.
The cycle of OCD is an experience loop of four components: an obsession, feelings of overwhelming anxiety, a compulsion that neutralizes distress, and temporary relief. When intrusive thoughts return, the cycle begins anew.
Confronting the themes of obsessions, allowing time to think before engaging in a compulsion, and seeking OCD treatment can all help break the cycle of OCD.