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Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition in which people experience unwelcome and distressing thoughts (obsessions) over and over again.

To reduce the anxiety that these thoughts cause, people with OCD often feel they have to perform particular actions (compulsions). Some people with OCD also have motor or vocal “tics,” like throat-clearing and eye blinking.

Data from a national study conducted by Harvard Medical School shows that OCD is not uncommon: Around 2.3 percent of the population experiences OCD at some point in their lifetime.

OCD is a long-term condition that can get in the way of important daily activities, like work or school, and may also affect relationships.

While there aren’t any cures yet, there are treatments that can help ease OCD symptoms. In this article, we’ll look at what these treatment options entail.

Many people who experience OCD symptoms never seek treatment, perhaps because symptoms can come and go and they can vary in severity over a lifetime.

With OCD, getting treatment early on is usually the best course of action. Outcomes tend to be more successful with early intervention and appropriate care.

Outcomes are also better when treatment is provided by an interdisciplinary healthcare team. This can include doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, and pharmacologists who work together to create a treatment plan that meets your individual needs.

For many people, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective way to treat the symptoms of OCD, with or without medication.

CBT is a type of talk therapy that focuses on identifying and changing unhealthy and unrealistic thought patterns.

If you have OCD, you’re probably familiar with this cycle: You have an intrusive thought which sparks anxiety. The more you try to control or suppress the thought, the worse the anxiety grows. You may resort to rituals or compulsive behaviors to try and neutralize the threat posed by the unwelcome thoughts.

With CBT, you and your therapist talk about the thoughts that trigger your anxiety. You may:

  • discuss how likely or realistic your assumptions are
  • restructure thoughts so they’re healthier and more realistic
  • explore any sense of exaggerated responsibility you may feel
  • disconnect thoughts you have from the actions you take
  • practice accepting thoughts instead of trying to avoid or regulate them

Newer types of CBT include acceptance and commitment therapy, which helps you view thoughts and feelings — including anxiety — as temporary experiences that don’t need to be controlled.

Learning to separate yourself from your thoughts is a key part of this therapeutic approach, as is committing to a life based on your lasting values rather than fleeting thoughts and feelings.

Researchers are finding that online CBT programs can be as effective for some people as in-person therapy sessions.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy addresses the underlying fears of both obsessions and compulsions. Early in your therapy sessions, your therapist will educate you about OCD and equip you with skills you can use to reduce anxiety.

Your therapist will also help you identify the situations and events that trigger obsessive thoughts and anxiety. They’ll help you figure out whether these events are related to people, things, places, feelings, or sensory stimuli, such as smells or sounds.

Your therapist will usually give you an opportunity to describe the actions you feel compelled to perform and how these compulsions are related to the fears you feel. Once you’ve identified your triggers, your therapist will help you rank them according to how upsetting they are.

Over time, you and your therapist will gradually confront each of your fears, starting with the least upsetting. This will allow you to practice calming yourself with the skills you’ve learned.

The goal is for you to be able to reduce your anxiety on your own which, in turn, may help lessen the need for rituals and compulsions to ease your fear.

Not everyone who starts a course of ERP sticks to it. But for those who do, research shows that ERP can be a very effective method of breaking the connection between obsessive thoughts and compulsions.

If you’re diagnosed with OCD, your doctor or healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help you manage your symptoms.

The most effective medications are a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Among the most commonly prescribed are:

It can take time for these medications to build up in your system to an effective level. Some research shows that you may get the best results if you take the medication consistently for a year or more.

The tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine has also been well studied and has shown to be effective at reducing OCD symptoms. Although it’s effective, the side effects are more extensive for some people.

If you’re taking medication to treat OCD symptoms, it’s important that you talk to your healthcare provider before you stop or reduce the amount you take. Stopping or reducing your dose too quickly can have harmful effects.

With brain stimulation therapy, doctors use either magnetic or electrical pulses to change activity in areas of the brain known to affect OCD symptoms.

Deep brain stimulation

The scientific evidence on the effectiveness of deep brain stimulation is mixed. Because of the invasive nature of this therapy, most doctors agree that it should only be considered if psychotherapy or medication can’t help reduce OCD symptoms.

With deep brain stimulation, a doctor places a very thin electrode into an area of your brain known to be involved with OCD.

Once the electrode is in place, small electrical pulses can be used to stimulate the brain. If stimulation doesn’t relieve symptoms, the electrode can be removed or re-implanted in another area in the brain.

Brain stimulation therapies have been used to treat OCD since the mid-1980s. Ongoing research is enabling doctors to more precisely target areas of the brain that are related to particular symptoms.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a noninvasive brain stimulation technique that’s shown some promise for treating OCD.

With TMS therapy, a physician sends a current of energy through a magnetic coil that’s placed on your head, usually near your forehead. The magnetic pulse that’s delivered is thought to stimulate nerve cells in your brain that are associated with OCD symptoms.

At present, TMS is considered an adjunct therapy. This means that it’s used along with medications to reduce symptoms.

More research is needed to understand how this therapy works and which areas of the brain to target for best results.

OCD can cause a lot of stress. Whatever treatment approaches you and your healthcare team decide to take, it may be helpful to also learn more about how to lower your stress levels.

The following stress management techniques are all effective ways to help calm your mind and body:

When you’re dealing with a challenging condition like OCD, taking care of your overall health is especially important. Some steps you may want to take to optimize your health include:

Self-care strategies like these may seem like a tall order when you’re grappling with a mental health issue. If you feel overwhelmed by the self-care to-do list, it’s OK to just pick one healthy habit and practice it when you can.

You don’t have to deal with OCD symptoms on your own. A good therapist can be a transformative and empowering ally.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to look for a therapist:

  • Keep your costs down by using therapists in your health insurance network.
  • See if you can find a local therapist who’s experienced in treating people with OCD.
  • Think about whether you’d feel more comfortable with a therapist who shares your race, gender, or faith. This factor may be especially important if you’ve been subjected to abuse or discrimination in healthcare settings.
  • Talk to trusted friends and colleagues about who they’d recommend.
  • Try an online search tool, like the one maintained by the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.
  • Check your state licensing board to be sure any prospective therapist is licensed in the state where you live.
  • Look for a therapist whose office is close to where you live or work.
  • Allow yourself to try more than one therapist if necessary. Don’t feel obligated to stick with a therapist if you feel that they aren’t the right fit for you.
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Though many forms of therapy can be completed in 8 to 12 weeks, treating OCD takes time. And when it comes to healthcare, time often translates into cost.

Most private health insurance plans, including those you may access through your employer, do cover some kinds of mental healthcare. Some employers also provide employee assistance programs that feature counseling for mental health conditions.

Medicare Part A, most Medicare Advantage (Medicare Part C) plans, and Medicaid all offer treatment for mental health conditions.

If you don’t have access to healthcare coverage, you may want to look for a therapist whose rates are based on your income level or who offers a sliding scale for fee payments.

Good Therapy and the Open Path Psychotherapy Collective both offer search tools that can connect you to therapists who may offer reduced rates. Many community health centers also provide free or low-cost mental health services.

OCD is a mental health condition with symptoms that can disrupt your life. The good news is that there are treatments that can help ease anxiety, reduce intrusive thoughts, and help manage compulsive behaviors.

Behavioral therapies and antidepressant medications are the tried-and-true treatment methods for OCD. There are also other options that may improve your quality of life, although more research is needed to determine how effective they are.

As you explore treatment options, it’s also important to do what you can to help lower your stress levels and to take good care of your overall health.