Obsessive, intrusive thoughts can cause significant distress and anxiety in a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Mindfulness is a tool that may help a person to manage these thoughts and the distress they can cause.

People with OCD often have unwanted, uncontrollable, and recurring thoughts, known as intrusive thoughts, that cause distress and urge them to engage in repetitive behaviors, known as compulsions. These thoughts and behaviors can be persistent and severe enough to interfere with daily life.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that requires a person to focus on the present moment. In a person with OCD, mindfulness may allow them to observe their thoughts and accept their presence rather than dwelling on them.

This focus may help them attach less meaning and power to their thoughts, which may decrease their need to engage in compulsions and reduce the distress they may experience.

In this article, we will discuss mindfulness and how it may help with OCD.

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Mindfulness is a state of awareness that urges practitioners to remain aware and present in the moment. Rather than dwelling on the past or dreading the future, mindfulness encourages awareness of an individual’s present surroundings.

This heightened awareness allows a person to have more control over their reactions. It also helps them see habitual thought patterns that they automatically react negatively to, which can lead to stress and anxiety.

As such, mindfulness requires a person to accept thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they are without the need to explore them further or react to them, which can be beneficial for mental wellbeing.

People with OCD experience obsessions, or unwanted and persistent intrusive thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. They may fight with or get rid of them by suppressing or resisting through actions that alleviate their anxiety. However, resisting or trying to control these obsessions can cause them to intensify.

There is strong evidence of the effectiveness of mindfulness in a wide range of mental health conditions because of how it changes a person’s relationship with their unhelpful thoughts and emotions. Experts often add mindfulness to supplement standard treatments for OCD, including exposure and response prevention (ERP) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Practicing mindfulness alongside existing treatments for OCD may also help increase engagement and successful treatment completion. In addition, it may also improve the quality and maintenance of the success of these treatments.

A small 2016 study found that using mindfulness meditation techniques can help treat residual symptoms in people who underwent mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for OCD. A similar study found that an 8 week MBCT program led to improvements in the following:

  • OCD symptoms
  • depression symptoms
  • anxiety symptoms
  • obsessive beliefs
  • mindfulness skills
  • self-compassion

While often used in conjunction with CBT, mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) can also be effective as a standalone treatment. A 2020 study suggests that MBIs could be beneficial for OCD, whether on their own or in addition to CBT.

Similarly, a 2018 study involving 37 people with OCD found that MBCT demonstrated significant effects on OCD symptoms, whether as a standalone treatment, a treatment alongside CBT, or as a treatment before receiving CBT.

However, mindfulness cannot cure OCD. OCD is a lifelong condition that currently has no cure. Despite this, treatment and support can help a person to manage symptoms.

Numerous studies support the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions in the management of OCD.

For example, a 2019 study notes that teaching mindfulness and self-compassion skills may have some benefit for adults with OCD. A 2021 review suggests that MBCT is effective in treating individuals diagnosed with OCD.

A 2020 study involving 38 participants found that MBCT led to better insight, which may have improved the ability to detach from OCD symptoms when they occurred. Another study also indicates that MBCT is an effective treatment for mild to moderate symptoms in people with OCD who do not take medications.

Mindfulness can also augment the effects of medication in people with OCD. A 2022 review found that the combined treatment of a meditation-based intervention and medication was more effective in treating OCD than medication alone.

The effectiveness of mindfulness may also go beyond traditional mindfulness practices. A 2021 study found that technology-based mindfulness training improved mindfulness, OCD symptoms, and decreased mind wandering for people with an OCD diagnosis.

Mindfulness is a skill that requires practice. Several disciplines can help cultivate mindfulness, including:

Most of the studies on mindfulness focus on two specific types of interventions: mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and MBCT. The former is a flexible and customizable approach to stress reduction that uses exercises to improve mindfulness. MBCT combines the elements of MBSR and CBT

Aside from these two, many other therapy options also incorporate mindfulness in their practice, including:

A person can practice mindfulness anytime, but it is a skill that requires practice and consistency. Important tips to help a person practice mindfulness can include:

  • Paying attention: A person can try to focus on what they can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.
  • Taking notice: When the mind wanders, take notice of where the thoughts have drifted. Some people may find it beneficial to name and acknowledge these thoughts.
  • Awareness and acceptance: A person does not need to rid themselves of thoughts and feelings. Instead, they can try to observe and accept these feelings with curiosity and without judgement.
  • Choosing to return: A person can choose to bring their attention back to the present moment by focusing on something in their surroundings.
  • Being kind to oneself: Mindfulness can be difficult and requires practice. A person should try not to be critical of themselves when practicing exercises.

Learn more about mindfulness strategies here.

The standard treatment of OCD includes certain types of psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

CBT and ERP are the two specific types of psychotherapy a healthcare professional may use to treat OCD. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the common medications a doctor may give to people with OCD.

In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation in the treatment of OCD.

A person who does not know where to get help may begin with a healthcare provider who can refer them to a mental health professional with experience treating OCD.

They may also visit the National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) for more information on finding help and a healthcare provider who can evaluate and treat OCD.

The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) also has a research directory of clinics, support groups, and therapists specializing in OCD and related disorders.

A person who has or knows someone with uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts or unreasonable compulsions that impact daily life should consult a healthcare professional. They may ask questions and perform tests to identify the probable cause of the person’s symptoms.

The doctor may refer them to a mental health provider for further evaluation and treatment. It is essential not to delay. The sooner treatment starts, the sooner symptoms may improve. With treatment, a person with OCD can live a more fulfilling life.

Some common questions about OCD and mindfulness may include:

Can you heal OCD naturally?

OCD does not go away on its own. There may be periods when symptoms increase or decrease in their severity, but OCD does not entirely go away.

Does mindfulness work for intrusive thoughts?

Mindfulness can help a person with intrusive thoughts observe their thoughts without judgment and accept them. This allows them to not attach importance to them and break unhealthy habitual thought patterns.

Mindfulness can be a helpful tool for people who have OCD. It encourages them to observe their thoughts without judgment, focus on the present moment, practice self-compassion and acceptance, and improve their overall well-being.

A person can practice mindfulness alone or in combination with medications, CBT, and other treatments, as recommended by their doctor.