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How to Stop OCD Compulsions: 13 Effective Strategies

How to Stop OCD Compulsions 13 Effective Strategies
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Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

What are OCD Compulsions?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is often misunderstood as just an intense desire for orderliness. However, at its core, OCD involves two key elements: obsessions and compulsions. OCD compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels compelled to perform in response to an obsession or according to rigid rules. These can include actions like handwashing, checking, counting, or mental acts like praying, repeating phrases in the mind. 

The driving force behind these compulsions is an attempt to alleviate the distress or prevent some dreaded event related to their obsessions, even though these behaviors are often not realistically connected to preventing these outcomes.

How Do OCD Compulsion Form a Habit in the Brain?

OCD compulsions form a habit in the brain through a cycle of negative reinforcement. When an individual with OCD performs a compulsion, it temporarily reduces the anxiety or discomfort caused by an obsessive thought.  

This short-term relief reinforces the behavior, making it more likely to occur in the future when the obsessive thought arises again. Over time, this creates a habitual response in the brain, solidifying the compulsion as a coping mechanism, albeit an unhealthy one.

What Can You Do to Stop OCD Compulsions?

What Can You Do to Stop OCD Compulsions

Stopping OCD compulsions involves breaking the cycle of negative reinforcement and creating new, healthier patterns of coping with obsessive thoughts. This is challenging but achievable with consistent practice and the right strategies.

13 Strategies to Stop OCD Compulsions

1. Identify Triggers

Understanding what triggers your Obsessive Compulsive Disorder compulsions is the first step. It could be certain thoughts, feelings, situations, or objects. By identifying these triggers, you can better prepare to manage your response.

  • Thoughts and Emotions: Fear, uncertainty, or specific thoughts may prompt compulsions.
  • Situations: Environments like public spaces or certain social scenarios can induce compulsive behaviors.
  • Objects: Everyday items like door handles or personal belongings might trigger actions like excessive cleaning or checking.
  • Sensory Stimuli: Sounds, smells, or textures can initiate compulsive responses.
  • Internal Body Sensations: For those with somatic OCD, bodily sensations might lead to compulsions.
  • Routine Changes: Alterations in daily routines or unexpected events can trigger compulsive behaviors.

Recognizing these triggers involves mindful observation and possibly maintaining a journal to note the circumstances or feelings before the urge to perform a compulsion. The goal is to manage your response to these triggers effectively, either by avoiding them when feasible or developing coping mechanisms for the unavoidable ones, thereby lessening their impact on your behavior.

2. Delay and Distract

Delaying and distracting is a method where, upon feeling the urge to perform a compulsion, you decide to wait for a predetermined period, like 5 or 10 minutes, before acting on it. During this waiting period, engage in an activity that fully occupies your mind. 

This could be:

  • Engaging in a Hobby: Activities like drawing, playing a musical instrument, or gardening can be absorbing.
  • Physical Exercise: Going for a brisk walk, doing a quick set of exercises, or practicing yoga can shift your focus.
  • Mental Exercises: Solving puzzles, playing a strategy game, or engaging in a brain teaser can redirect your attention.

The goal is to allow the urge to pass or diminish in intensity, teaching your brain that the compulsion is not necessary for relief. This breaks the negative reinforcement cycle in the brain and teaches the brain that “the bad thing” won’t happen and reduces OCD symptoms. 

3. Resist Rituals

Begin with compulsions that are less intense or disruptive and consciously resist performing them. This might mean:

  • Avoiding the Compulsive Act: Physically walking away or engaging in another activity.
  • Using Self-Talk: Reminding yourself of the irrationality of the compulsion and your goal to resist it.
  • Seeking Immediate Engagement: Engaging in a conversation or task that requires your full attention.

The aim is to build up your resistance, gradually moving to more challenging compulsions.

4. Postpone the Ritual

This technique involves telling yourself that you can perform the compulsive behavior, but later. Often, the delay reduces the urgency and need for the compulsion. It's a way of negotiating with your Obsessive Compulsive Disorder gaining more control over the compulsive urges.

5. Change Some Aspect of The Ritual

Altering the ritual disrupts its compulsive pattern. By disrupting the ritual, you break its automatic nature and reduce its perceived necessity. This could mean:

  • Changing the Number of Repetitions: If your compulsion involves a specific number of repetitions, alter this number.
  • Modifying the Method: Change the way you perform the ritual, like washing hands with a different technique.
  • Changing the Order: If the compulsion involves a sequence, perform it in a different order.

6. Shorten the Ritual

Aim to gradually reduce the time or intensity of the compulsion. For instance, if you spend several minutes checking locks, start by reducing it to a shorter period. Over time, keep shortening this duration, aiming to eventually eliminate the compulsion.

7. Slow Down the Ritual

Performing the ritual more slowly than usual increases your awareness of the act and its irrational nature. This can involve:

  • Consciously Slowing Down: Actively slowing down each step of the compulsion.
  • Mindful Performance: Paying close attention to each movement or thought involved in the ritual.

By slowing down, you interrupt the automatic flow of the compulsion, making it easier to eventually stop it.

8. Challenge Obsessive Intrusive Thoughts

It's essential to actively confront and question the irrational beliefs that drive your compulsions. This process of challenging thoughts can lead to a significant shift in how you perceive and react to these intrusive thoughts. 

Challenging obsessive thoughts involves critically examining the beliefs that fuel your compulsions. Steps include:

  • Rational Evaluation: Assess the realistic probability of the feared outcome actually happening.
  • Fact-Checking: Compare your fears with factual information or statistical data.
  • Pros and Cons Analysis: Consider the actual effectiveness of the compulsion in preventing feared events versus its impact on your life.
  • Thought Replacement: Replace irrational thoughts with more balanced, realistic ones.
  • Mindfulness Practices: Observe these thoughts non-judgmentally, recognizing them as just thoughts, not truths.

9. Make Lifestyle Changes

Adopting a healthier lifestyle can have a profound impact on your ability to manage OCD symptoms. Incorporate routines and habits that promote physical and mental well-being. These non-medication approaches can build healthy habits that calm the brain.

  • Regular Exercise: Activities like walking, jogging, or swimming can reduce anxiety.
  • Balanced Diet: A diet rich in nutrients supports brain health and mood regulation.
  • Quality Sleep: Establish a regular sleep schedule to improve mood and cognitive function.
  • Social Connection: Maintain social interactions and hobbies that bring joy and relaxation.

10. Practice Daily Stress Management

Managing your daily stress levels is a crucial component of reducing OCD compulsions. 

Techniques that calm the mind and body can be very effective in lowering the overall stress:

  • PEMF: This technology calms the brain and body and is easy to use. 
  • Supplements: Using supplements such as magnesium and inositol can help calm the brain.
  • Mindfulness Meditation: Practice staying present and mindful to reduce rumination.
  • Yoga or Tai Chi: These practices combine physical movement with mental focus.
  • Deep Breathing Exercises: Techniques like diaphragmatic breathing can calm the nervous system.
  • Regular Relaxation Time: Allocate time daily for activities that relax you, like reading or listening to music.

11. Don’t Give Into Avoidance

Don’t Give Into Avoidance

Facing your fears instead of avoiding them is a powerful strategy against OCD. Gradually confronting situations that trigger your OCD can help you learn to manage the anxiety they cause. 

  • Gradual Exposure: Face triggering situations in small, manageable steps.
  • Stay in the Moment: Resist the urge to leave or distract yourself in triggering situations.
  • Self-Support: Remind yourself of your progress and strength in facing these challenges.

12. Stop Seeking Reassurance

Reducing the tendency to seek reassurance from others is an important step in breaking the OCD cycle. This involves developing independence in managing OCD-related anxiety. Breaking the cycle of reassurance-seeking involves:

  • Self-Soothing Techniques: Develop ways to reassure and calm yourself.
  • Limiting Reassurance: Set boundaries with others about not providing constant reassurance.
  • Trust Building: Build trust in your own judgment and coping abilities.

13. Build Stress Tolerance

Enhancing your ability to handle stress and anxiety is key to reducing OCD compulsions. This involves exposure to stressful situations in a controlled manner to build tolerance. Increasing stress tolerance can be achieved through:

  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP): Gradually expose yourself to anxiety-inducing thoughts or situations while resisting compulsions.
  • Resilience Training: Engage in activities that build emotional and psychological resilience.
  • Anxiety Management Skills: Learn techniques to manage anxiety, such as cognitive restructuring or acceptance and commitment therapy.

By applying these strategies consistently and with patience and of course with the guidance of licensed mental health therapist, you can make significant progress in managing and reducing OCD compulsions. Remember, the journey toward overcoming OCD is a marathon, not a sprint, and every small step forward is a victory.


Abramowitz, J. S., Whiteside, S., Kalsy, S. A., & Tolin, D. F. (2003). Thought control strategies in obsessive-compulsive disorder: a replication and extension. Behaviour research and therapy, 41(5), 529–540.

Huey, E. D., Zahn, R., Krueger, F., Moll, J., Kapogiannis, D., Wassermann, E. M., & Grafman, J. (2008). A psychological and neuroanatomical model of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Journal of neuropsychiatry and clinical neurosciences, 20(4), 390–408.

Marcks, B. A., & Woods, D. W. (2007). Role of thought-related beliefs and coping strategies in the escalation of intrusive thoughts: an analog to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behaviour research and therapy, 45(11), 2640–2651.

Rosa-Alcázar, Á., García-Hernández, M. D., Parada-Navas, J. L., Olivares-Olivares, P. J., Martínez-Murillo, S., & Rosa-Alcázar, A. I. (2021). Coping strategies in obsessive-compulsive patients during Covid-19 lockdown. International journal of clinical and health psychology : IJCHP, 21(2), 100223.

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