There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but many people find relief through meditation.
If you haven’t tried meditating to help manage your obsessive thoughts and actions, now’s a great time to get acquainted with the basic technique. Although meditation has been around for thousands of years, it’s recently enjoying renewed mainstream attention thanks to popular apps such as Headspace and Calm.
The holistic treatment is recommended by medical professionals, touted by meditation experts, and praised by people with OCD.
Dorothy Grice, MD, director of the Tics, OCD and Related Disorders Program in the department of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, believes meditation (along with other therapies and/or medication) can be an effective way to manage OCD thoughts or urges and the distress that comes with them.
Indeed, meditation is said to help you relax and ease stress, among other benefits.
Adam Delfiner began having OCD symptoms when he was a teen. He says Transcendental Meditation (TM) has helped him overcome what he calls the “What Ifs.” He even wrote his dissertation on the topic.
This unique type of meditation involves a twice-daily practice where you repeat mantras. The mantras are meaningless words. They exist to channel a “silent, stable, quiet realm,” says Kelly McKay, a certified Transcendental Meditation instructor based in Brooklyn, NY.
As the meditator in TM, you have permission not to concentrate on anything. McKay says the practice moves your brain from stressed into a state of relaxation.
Unlike Transcendental Meditation, a mindfulness meditation practice doesn’t require mantras, though you can use them if you want. You can meditate in a seated position, lying flat, or on foot, either standing still or walking.
Carla Stangenberg has been meditating and bringing students to the meditation mat for over 20 years at Jaya Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. She describes meditation as “mind training.”
It’s about anchoring your attention onto something, she says. By focusing on breathing and using it as an anchor, you can put your attention on the present.
Although Stangenberg mostly practices Buddhist-rooted mindful meditation, she’s tried other types and believes they can all help. Mindful meditation’s focus on breathing works to calm you down and slow your busy mind. This appeals to Stangenberg, who turns to breathing via meditation when she’s feeling stressed or anxious.
Meditation’s calming or centering effect works for Laura Fortune. Diagnosed with OCD at 12, Fortune says she experiences OCD “as something that exists in a disconnect or gap.”
The gap separates her from her “ground, center, body, breath, self, inner witness,” she says, but meditation centers her once again.
This is known as anchoring. It means taking your mind from what it’s fixated on, whether you’re always worrying about a friend or family member or feeling the urge to count things repeatedly. It brings attention to your breath, a mantra, or imagery via guided meditation. When you focus on something else, you may be able to push out obsessive thoughts and compulsive tendencies.
Instead of worrying if you locked the door, you might turn your attention to your breath. Where do you feel it? In your belly? Chest? Your throat?
Marriage and family therapist Jon Hershfield, who specializes in treating OCD and related disorders, explains the process like this: Being able to recognize when you’re lost in thought and return to the present without having to engage can help you break the cycle of obsession and compulsion.
Hershfield, who’s co-authored two books on mindfulness -- The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD and Everyday Mindfulness for OCD, says the practice can help ease OCD symptoms.
He also stresses the importance of the anchor. Pay attention to your breathing and notice when your mind shifts, he says. Then go back to the anchor -- to the sensation of breathing.
Over time, he says, you’ll get better at noticing when you’re triggered so you can reset your attention.
One Part of a Treatment Plan
Meditation and other activities that promote well-being and a sense of calmness can help manage your OCD symptoms. But doctors and therapists say they’re just one part of treating the condition.
Hershfield likes meditation’s ability to reel in fearful narratives and bring your attention back to the present. It can bolster the effects of other treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you recognize, and change, bad thinking patterns, or exposure and response therapy (ERP), where you acknowledge thoughts that upset you without responding to them.
Likewise, Grice believes in using CBT and ERP along with other activities that can promote health, relaxation, and a positive sense of well-being. The key is finding “a positive sense of engagement.”
Meditation is one such activity. And anyone can do it.