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  • Writer's pictureJenna Matisz

What is the OCD Cycle?

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can feel like a relentless cycle, trapping you in a never-ending loop of intrusive thoughts and ritualistic behaviors. This loop can feel exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and frustrating to be stuck in.

The first step in breaking out of the cycle? Understanding it.

The OCD cycle

Step 1: Obsessive thoughts, images, or urges

The cycle begins with obsessive thoughts, images, or urges that are intrusive, distressing, and often irrational. These thoughts seemingly appear out of nowhere and can revolve around literally anything: a sudden image of stabbing your partner, a thought like "What if I contract a disease from this burger I'm eating right now?", or an urge to feel 'evened out'. These obsessions trigger intense anxiety and discomfort.

Step 2: A spike in anxiety

Obsessive thoughts give rise to intense anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear are sometimes accompanied by feelings of guilt, disgust, shame, or confusion, too. Regardless of the specific emotion - there is a spike in distress that feels overwhelming and leads you to feel like you must do something to alleviate it.

Step 3: Compulsion

To relieve the distress and anxiety you're feeling, you engage in some kind of compulsive ritual or behaviour. These rituals are repetitive, time-consuming, and aimed at neutralizing the obsessive thoughts. For instance, someone with contamination obsessions may repeatedly wash their hands, while those with obsessions about harming others may mentally review what they did that day over and over in their head.

Step 4: Temporary relief

Initially, compulsions provide a temporary sense of relief from the anxiety. This relief reinforces the belief that the compulsions are necessary to prevent harm or discomfort.

However, compulsions do not actually prevent more obsessive thoughts from happening again. So when those thoughts do inevitably pop into your head again, you jump right into performing a compulsion again.

It makes sense; if we find something that gives us relief, we keep doing it - right? However, continuing to do compulsions when you feel anxious about an obsessive thought just strengthens the cycle and reinforces the belief that you need to repeat the compulsions to feel relieved.

Breaking out of the OCD cycle

The real long-term relief, however, comes from facing your fears (otherwise known as those obsessive thoughts). Learning to respond to obsessive thoughts differently without engaging in compulsions will help you see that you are capable of tolerating anxiety and that nothing terrible happens as a result. It's hard work but this is what truly helps you break out of the never-ending OCD cycle and will give you that real relief that you're looking for and deserve.

If you want one-on-one specialized support to help you break out of your OCD cycle, reach out. There is so much relief to be had on the other side.

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