Before we get started, let’s just take a deep breath in through the nose, exhaling slowly through the mouth. These are some strange and daunting times we’re living in, but we’ve been here before, we know how this works, and we’re better prepared this time around to deal with this situation.
Lockdown is challenging for everyone, but for those with OCD, lockdown presents some unique challenges.
Whether you’re currently in treatment, still learning about OCD or don’t have a diagnosis, here are some tips for managing OCD triggers and symptoms in lockdown.
At Home Triggers
Most OCD sufferers will be aware of their own triggers. Common triggers experienced at home could be anything from the moment we wake up, to the moment we go to sleep. For example, thinking about our schedule for the day can be triggering, using the bathroom if we have contamination OCD, making food to eat, certain areas of the house can be triggering like the kitchen sink, even seemingly random things such as orange juice can trigger certain OCD sufferers.
We’re all different and experience different triggers, but knowing and acknowledging our triggers is an important first step to then be able to manage them.
Heading into a second lockdown, some additional triggers to be aware of could be:
- Washing hands more often
- Focussing heavily on handwashing technique
- Having to wear a mask when out in public
- Only being able to leave the house for essentials
- Re-organizing belongings at home
- New government recommendations
- Being frightened to leave the house
- Washing belongings after returning home
- Social triggers like not hearing back from family and friends for any given amount of time
And many, many more…
Specific types of OCD could be made worse through lockdown if symptoms go unmanaged, such as existential OCD, with more time alone to obsess over the ‘why’.
How to Self-Manage OCD Symptoms
There are two aspects of naturally self-managing OCD symptoms and triggers.
- How do we manage triggers instantly?
- And how can we avoid them from the get-go?
How to Self-Manage OCD Triggers when they happen
There are many relaxation techniques you can use to ease anxiety as soon as you feel triggered or catch yourself acting on compulsions.
Breathing is a really effective way of instantly easing anxiety. The act of intentionally breathing serves as a sort of meditation, taking us out of the situation that is causing us stress, and bringing all of our focus and awareness to one single action, breathing.
The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) is active when we are anxious or stressed. ‘Deep breathing’ is an easy breathing technique that calms the sympathetic nervous system, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest), easing anxiety and calming us right down.
To practice deep breathing, get comfortable, sitting, laying down or standing. Wherever you are, relax the body, bring the shoulders away from the ears. You can close the eyes if that’s comfortable for you, if not, simply relax the eyelids and relax the gaze.
Exhale all of the air out of your lungs, and then take a deep breath in through the nose until the lungs are full, and exhale slowly through the mouth. We’re trying to make the exhales longer than the inhales.
Repeat a few times, until you start to feel calmer.
Some people find counting during breathing exercises helpful, as it serves as a welcomed distraction for what we are stressing over.
For this technique, simply inhale through the nose for the count of 4, hold at the top for the count of 2, and exhale through the mouth for the count of 5 or longer. Again, we’re trying to lengthen each exhale.
Using breathing techniques to ease anxiety as soon as we encounter a trigger can be an incredibly effective way to instantly reduce stress. Better still, practising breathing techniques regularly can help to avoid symptoms all together…
How to Avoid OCD Triggers
Regularly practising breathing techniques is beneficial for OCD sufferers for many reasons.
- You have a tool in your toolbox you can pull out whenever you feel triggered
- It offers long-term stress management by training the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest)
- It can be done anywhere at any time without any special gear or equipment
- It improves lung capacity and overall health…
Speaking of overall health, that’s something that OCD sufferers should be prioritising. Things, like not getting enough sleep, or living an unhealthy lifestyle, can perpetuate symptoms and triggers.
Sleeping to avoid OCD triggers
We’re super vulnerable while we’re asleep, and if humans ultimate natural instinct is survival, then sleep must be pretty important for evolution not to have gotten rid of it after all this time.
Research continues to show us that humans require 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Athletes undergoing intensive training may require closer to 10 hours of sleep per night, and there is an incredibly rare and small number of the global population who thrive off of 5 hours of sleep or less, but please note this is incredibly rare.
For most people, 7-9 hours of sleep is what we need to thrive. Many of us get a lot less sleep than this and we ‘cope’ just fine in our day-to-day…
But just because we are coping doesn’t mean we are THRIVING. We want to be sleeping enough to allow our bodies to thrive, not just cope.
Sleep is fundamental for physical, mental and emotional growth. Neglecting to get enough sleep can cause some serious health issues later in life. Long-term sleep deprivation has been linked to:
- Weakened immunity
- Increased risk for diabetes
- Low sex drive
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Poor balance and coordination
- Weight gain
- Trouble with concentrating and thinking
- Memory issues, with some studies pointing towards an increased risk of dementia
And the list doesn’t end there.
If we’re dealing with OCD and our bodies are also trying to cope with sleep deprivation, we’re not giving ourselves a chance at managing our own symptoms.
When we’re sleep-deprived, we have very little energy. We struggle with a foggy brain, we have poor concentration and coordination. We literally have less energy to give the focus that is required to avoid triggers and manage OCD symptoms.
Avoiding an OCD trigger or managing an OCD symptom is incredibly difficult even when we’re feeling 100% in our physical health.
Let’s say you’re working on managing one particular trigger, for example, you’ve started to obsess over family and friends safety. You become triggered when someone doesn’t reply to your message. If you’re trying to manage this symptom alone, you might choose to practice a breathing exercise or sit down for some meditation. Making this choice to not act on the compulsion requires a lot of mental strength.
If you’re sleep-deprived, expecting yourself to have the mental strength required to manage this OCD trigger is a huge expectation to put on yourself. Sleep deprivation is going to make it a lot more difficult to view this situation for what it is: a manageable symptom of your disorder. Instead, we’re likely to feel overwhelmed by the stress and too tired to manage it.
Getting enough quality sleep is a way that we can set ourselves up for success. If we’re looking after our health, we’ll be putting ourselves in the best position possible for managing our symptoms. We’ll have the energy that is required to start to manage symptoms.
Nutrition to avoid OCD triggers
Similarly to sleep having an impact on our overall health, so does nutrition. The food that we eat (or don’t eat) can make managing OCD symptoms and triggers super difficult, or it can facilitate symptom-reduction and management.
We all know what it’s like to feel ‘hangry’. This is due to nutrient-deprivation.
If we can identify sleep deprivation by the foggy-brained symptom, we can identify nutrient-deprivation by the ‘hangry’ emotion.
Just like we need to get enough sleep for our bodies to recover from exercise, grow, learn, memorise, etc, we need to eat enough high nutrient-dense foods to keep our bodies and brains happy!
Nutrient-deprivation happens when we don’t eat enough food, and it happens when we don’t eat enough nutrient-dense food. We can eat a lot of food and still be nutrient-deprived. Nutrient-density varies from food to food. Low-quality, high-processed foods typically have low-nutrients, while whole foods typically are packed with nutrients.
The good news is, it’s easy to find high nutrient-dense food. All you have to do is look for food where you recognise the ingredients. For example, you know what a banana is. You can identify it. A banana grows on a tree. A banana’s packed with nutrients.
Now let’s think about pot noodles. They come with a flavour pack that we add to the noodles in the cooking process, but can we identify the ingredients in the flavour pack without looking at the ingredient list? Not really… and even then, we may struggle with knowing all of the ingredients on the list. This is because this type of food is highly processed so that it has a long shelf-life. Our pot noodles aren’t going to be very nutrient-dense, and they may even have ingredients that our bodies don’t respond very well to.
Sugar and its effects on OCD.
Let’s look at the effects of sugar on our health as an example, and how it relates to OCD…
Sugar is highly addictive. This is because of its effects on dopamine production in the body.
Dopamine is a feel-good hormone that the body produces when we do something that benefits our survival. It is released when we source and eat food and when we procreate. Dopamine is essentially the body’s tool to motivate us to survive.
When we consume sugar, feel-good dopamine is released. The more sugar we eat, the more the body gets used to it, and the lower the dopamine production. We then need to eat more sugar to get the same hit of feel-good dopamine.
Decreasing sugar consumption is not a question of ‘willpower’. It’s a question of curbing an addiction. It takes time and comes with notable side effects, such as headaches, tiredness, and even nausea in severe cases.
According to the University of Utah, OCD is linked to increased levels of dopamine. Consuming highly-processed foods containing large amounts of sugar can increase levels of dopamine, impacting the rate and severity of triggers.
If we’re feeding ourselves the wrong types of foods with OCD, we’re simply fighting against our bodies instead of working with them.
Similarly to sleep, if we can ensure we’re consuming enough high-quality, nutrient-dense foods that have been proven to accommodate OCD management, we’ll be setting ourselves up for success when it comes to symptom management.
Exercise to avoid OCD triggers
Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve OCD symptoms, in a study conducted in 2017 by Gen Hosp Psychiatry where participants were asked to continue their regular treatment, adding moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for 12 weeks. The results show that the frequency and severity of the participants’ OCD symptoms were reduced immediately following the exercise, and the overall severity and frequency of OCD symptoms generally decreased over the examined 12 weeks. Some participants even felt the benefits of the experiment for up to 6 months after it had ended.
Aerobic exercise is movement that increases the heart rate that you can do consistently, such as speed walking, jogging, running, swimming and cycling. Aerobic exercise improves the body’s utilization of oxygen by stimulating and strengthening the heart and lungs.
Exercise is frequently recommended as an accompaniment to formal OCD treatment, as a way to naturally manage triggers and symptoms.
We all like different things, so we need to try to find a movement routine that fits with our lifestyle that we enjoy. If the idea of jogging everyday bores or intimidates you, don’t force it! If you’re able to find a movement routine that you enjoy, you’ll be much more motivated to actually do it. Try different activities until you find something that works for you.
Give yourself some grace. Lockdown is tough, especially if you’re trying to overcome a mental health disorder such as OCD. You’re allowed to have bad days, it’s completely normal and is a part of recovery. If you have a support system, stay in touch with them throughout the lockdown. Share your successes and slip-ups! Be open and honest with those around you who are there to support you.
Remember that your doctors, therapists and GPs are still available to you, just in a different way now. Never hesitate to get in touch with your healthcare professionals if you are struggling or need some help. Online treatment plans for OCD are available and studies have shown that they can be just as successful as in-person treatment.
These tips are natural ways to accommodate formal OCD treatment. If you think you may have OCD, speak with your doctor to get a diagnosis to then be able to find the right treatment plan for you. These tips should be practised alongside formal treatment.
Overall physical and mental health should not be overlooked throughout the treatment of OCD.
If we’re not…
- Getting enough quality sleep
- Eating enough nutrient-dense food
- Moving our bodies enough
- Managing stress in some kind of way
…we will be making it harder for us to recover from OCD.
Building new habits take time. Don’t feel like you need to fix all of these things at once, because that will be really challenging. Instead, identify one area from this list that you know you can work on. Once you feel confident you’re nailing it, you can pick another item from the list to work on, adding small, incremental improvements to your lifestyle.
Offer yourself time to heal and recover. Offer yourself the same compassion and empathy as you would a friend. Remember, you’ve got this, and you’re never alone.
Author Bio: Gabie Lazareff is a certified health coach, yoga teacher and freelance nutrition & wellness writer. After years of navigating the messy waters of mental health, her mission is to share her experiences and advice with others.