How to Use Mindfulness Exercises for OCD Symptoms? BrainsWay

Mindfulness and OCD

Cultures worldwide have practiced some form of meditative mindfulness for centuries, and more recently, it has been adapted as a therapeutic intervention for stress reduction. Research findings on mindfulness exercises for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have been promising, particularly in combination with evidence-based therapy. Since OCD was once thought to be an untreatable disorder, this approach gives hope for the development of more innovative and effective treatments.

Read on to understand what mindfulness is and how it is commonly practiced. Then review several ways mindfulness can help when combined with OCD treatments. Finally, learn specific exercises that can benefit individuals contending with OCD symptoms.

Mindfulness and OCD

An Introduction to Mindfulness

Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. Without judgment, individuals observe, acknowledge, and accept the present moment as it unfolds. It is sometimes described as standing at a distance from a flowing river, watching calmly as the water moves along. Being mindful can range from a few brief moments of observation to a regular meditative practice.

Mindfulness can be experienced in multiple ways, individually and with others:

Individual Informal Practice

  • Carefully observing objects in nature with an intentional focus on detail.
  • Being aware of sensations during repetitive activities such as dishwashing or walking.
  • Doing 60 seconds of breathing exercises during a break at work.

Individual Formal Practice

  • Doing mindful meditation for 10 minutes every day before work.
  • Doing mindful meditation more than once a day on a consistent schedule.
  • Being mindful during a regular yoga session at home.

Group Formal Practice

  • Doing mindfulness exercises through a weekly yoga class.
  • Participating in spiritual mindfulness with others at a place of worship.

While many practice mindfulness to achieve relaxation, it is not always comfortable or easy to do. It often takes just a few moments of mindfulness for individuals to realize how many distractions they face, both internally and from their surroundings. Individuals new to the practice of mindfulness can become discouraged, believing they are to achieve a perfectly quiet mind.

Rather than trying to control thoughts and feelings, individuals are encouraged to observe, acknowledge, and let them go. Individuals may feel temporarily distressed as uncomfortable emotions arise. But when individuals learn to remain more detached from passing thoughts and feelings, individuals become less distressed by them.

Mindfulness itself is not a therapeutic treatment but being more aware of the present moment can enhance mental well-being. And when combined with psychological therapies, mindfulness can have a positive impact on mental disorders such as OCD.

Does Mindfulness Help OCD?

A study from 2020 revealed several positive outcomes of mindfulness exercises for OCD when integrated with structured therapeutic approaches: cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). CBT addresses unhelpful behaviors and thoughts that contribute to symptoms of several mental disorders, such as OCD, depression, and anxiety. And ERP attempts to break the cycle that perpetuates OCD symptoms by teaching individuals to tolerate distress without performing compulsive behaviors.

While this study has many interesting findings, two positive results stand out along with two concerns.

Positive Outcome: Responding to OCD Symptoms Differently

After doing mindfulness exercises for several weeks, participants learned many ways to respond to OCD symptoms differently. They experienced mental shifts that helped them view their behaviors, emotions, and thoughts within the context of their condition. These new perspectives helped participants to:

  • Be kinder to themselves by letting go of perfectionism and self-critical thoughts.
  • Observe and allow their thoughts and emotional reactions, helping them assign less meaning to such intrusions.
  • Come back to the present more often, which reduces anxiety about the mental intrusions focused on the past and the future. This anxiety reduction led to more thoughtful responses to OCD symptoms.
  • Become aware of how they were engaging with their OCD symptoms. Participants became more detached from their experiences and regulated their emotions more effectively.

Positive Outcome: Flexible Adaptation

Research participants sometimes reported not wanting to do mindfulness exercises, because doing so might make them sleepy or a long formal practice seemed time-consuming. Nevertheless, many still found ways to overcome these obstacles, such as doing mindful walking, mindfully doing activities around the house, or doing shorter practices more consistently.

These individuals saw benefits from their practice and learned to adapt positively instead of resisting or rejecting it altogether. This positive adaptation aids mental flexibility, which may counter the inherent rigidity of OCD.

Concern: Not a Standalone Intervention

Despite largely enjoying their mindfulness exercises, participants doubted that mindfulness alone (to achieve calm detachment) would do enough to trigger the necessary mental and emotional challenges to prompt change. CBT challenges unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, while ERP focuses on facing things that evoke fear. Simple mindfulness may not push those boundaries enough to be therapeutic, which is why pairing it with a therapeutic approach may be necessary.

Concern: Obstacles to Formal Practice

Symptom improvement is associated with a formal mindfulness practice done in a consistent and sustained manner. Though some individuals can successfully adopt this new habit, reaching this standard is challenging for many. Research may be needed to explore solutions for making formal mindfulness more achievable.

does mindfulness help ocd

How to Practice Mindfulness for OCD

While learning to observe without judgment can be challenging, mindfulness exercises themselves are flexible and easy for beginners to learn. Because individuals with OCD cope with many intrusive thoughts and behaviors throughout the day, this low barrier is helpful for getting started.

Mindfulness exercises typically encourage individuals to become familiar with their bodies, noticing how they feel during relaxation and when tension develops. Increased awareness also helps individuals identify thoughts and emotions that trigger OCD symptoms. With the increased familiarity of bodily sensations, individuals may begin to sense early opportunities to reduce stress and remain calm.

Here are some of the most commonly used and recommended mindfulness exercises and how they are helpful for individuals with OCD.

Walking and Sitting Meditations

Most individuals imagine sitting meditation when imagining mindfulness or meditation at large. During such exercises, the individual will sit in a quiet space, their eyes closed or slightly open, with no other goal other than observing and acknowledging what is happening at the present moment. The simplicity of this practice makes it beginner-friendly, though coping with distractions can be frustrating when starting out. Individuals may first try shorter times until they get used to maintaining ongoing present-moment awareness.

Walking meditation is a popular form of mindfulness practice, as it can be easily incorporated into daily activities. Individuals apply specific attention to physical sensations, noticing the rhythm of their body movements and other internal responses as they walk. This moving mindfulness technique may benefit individuals with OCD who have little body awareness or tend to feel restless and fidgety.

Three-Minute Breathing Space

The three-minute breathing space exercise is a brief mindfulness meditation for OCD used to break away from a dysfunctional symptom cycle. For three minutes, individuals zero in on these steps:

  • Attend to what is happening now.
  • Focus on the breath.
  • Notice sensations in the body.

This exercise helps individuals briefly interrupt escalating OCD symptoms during difficult moments. Individuals can quickly shift from auto-pilot mode to an experiencing or “being” mode by focusing on their body. Over time, individuals may have moments of insight as they observe their symptom patterns and consider other ways to respond.

Mindful Body Scan

A body scan is another foundational mindfulness exercise, with brief versions as short as three minutes long and more formal exercises lasting up to 45 minutes. Individuals sit or lie down comfortably with a minimum of distractions, mentally scanning their body from one end to the other for signs of tension or discomfort. Individuals with OCD may notice areas where they hold tension, or emotions may surface when focusing on specific body parts. Unlike progressive relaxation exercises, body scans do not involve specific actions aimed at reducing muscle tension or discomfort.

Learning More About Mindfulness and OCD Treatment

Mindfulness-based therapy is part of a newer wave of psychological treatments for OCD and other disorders. Through observation and acceptance, individuals learn to change the relationship they have with their inner experiences instead of changing the content. While these new treatment approaches for OCD symptoms are certainly promising, more studies are needed to gain a clearer perspective regarding their efficacy, and determine the benefits behind the mechanisms of mindfulness.