An obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) attack, such as intrusive thoughts, can be overwhelming and may feel similar to a panic attack. People may have thoughts they wish they could stop thinking or have difficulty managing urges to engage in compulsive behaviors.

An “OCD attack” is usually a mixture of obsessions and compulsions coming on suddenly, which may feel like intense physical and emotional sensations. Trying to think away the intrusive thoughts may actually worsen them. Almost by definition, someone with OCD cannot simply think away their intrusive, anxious thoughts.

However, several techniques can reduce the power of intrusive thoughts and help the person regain control of them.

Ultimately, people with OCD may wish to consider treatment to reduce their symptoms and decrease the frequency of intrusive thoughts. Also, options are available that may help manage an OCD attack as it occurs.

Read on to learn about how to stop an OCD attack.

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It may not be possible to stop an OCD attack as it occurs. Instead, a person can focus on strategies to manage the attack and reduce its effect on them.

Intrusive thoughts can function as a form of meditation. Just as meditation focuses the mind on the meditative subject, listening to intrusive thoughts can cause someone to meditate more on anxiety and distress, worsening the experience.

It can be helpful to ignore the thoughts rather than focus on them and give them more power. People may get relief from reminding themselves that intrusive thoughts do not necessarily show how someone feels or that they want the negative things they are thinking about to happen.

Accepting the thoughts as annoyances rather than dangers diminishes their power and may help slow the attack. In a 2009 study, for example, researchers found that trying to suppress the thoughts actually increased distress over the long term. Instead, accepting the thoughts and having distractions were the most useful techniques.

Specific techniques someone might try include:

  • meditating, such as through mindfulness meditation, to refocus their mind
  • distracting themselves with a challenging and intellectually stimulating task, such as doing a puzzle, talking with a friend, or doing a hobby the person enjoys
  • reminding themselves that thoughts are not dangerous and will go away
  • relaxing their body through deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation

What is OCD?

OCD is an anxiety disorder. It causes someone to have intrusive, distressing thoughts, such as fears of a loved one dying or of going to prison. The person then copes with these thoughts by engaging in compulsive behaviors.

Compulsive behaviors may temporarily reduce intrusive thoughts but become harder to manage over time.

Learn more about OCD.

People with OCD experience intrusive thoughts, usually centering on specific fears. These intrusive thoughts can feel terrifying and may feel similar to a panic attack. A person might feel overwhelmed by their thoughts. They often feel out of control, as if the thoughts come from somewhere or someone else.

Some people feel guilty about or ashamed of their intrusive thoughts. They may worry that thinking these thoughts will harm a loved one. Often, the thoughts grow in intensity, building until a person engages in compulsive behavior.

Kristin’s story: OCD attack

“I developed OCD, depression, and long grief from past traumatic events in my life. My experience with OCD means I have difficulty trying to control everything around me.

“Managing and stopping my OCD attacks often requires a lot of self-awareness, coping strategies, and sometimes, professional help. It has been a journey for me, and I try multiple things to help myself because one tool is not enough for the severity of it. Some practices I use to help my OCD include:

  • practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques, such as deep breathing or grounding exercises, to help calm down and relax my body
  • speaking to a therapist every 2 weeks or so just to get anxieties off my chest, or talking to a third party
  • opening up to family members living with me so they can provide crucial emotional support
  • joining a community of other like-minded people online and discussing topics of depression, anxiety, and OCD, which helps me to not feel alone and gain a better understanding of the condition

“If I feel an attack coming on at work, I will take a walk or simply step away and focus on something peaceful. I enjoy bird watching, or I read something light and fun, not work-related. By separating myself from my anxiety, I can come back fresh and ready to start over but in a better mental space.

“During an OCD attack, I may feel overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts, unable to turn my brain off from thinking about negative things. I usually have thoughts about what I feel is wrong with myself, and I have rising blood pressure and difficulties breathing. I get compelled to engage in repetitive behaviors in order to alleviate the anxiety.

“It can be an intensely distressing experience. However, with good coping skills and tools, I know what works to calm myself down. Thanks to this, my OCD attacks are much more manageable.”

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It is advisable for a person to contact a doctor if they have symptoms such as:

  • intense anxiety
  • panic attacks
  • compulsive behaviors and intrusive thoughts
  • OCD attacks
  • OCD that does not improve with treatment or self-management

Medication, therapy, and self-management may reduce OCD symptoms.

Antidepressant treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy and a type of therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP) can be the gold standard for treatment. ERP may help a person cope with intrusive thoughts better.

A doctor may also prescribe short-acting anxiety medications to help someone cope with panic attacks or OCD attacks.

A therapist may teach a person self-management skills such as accepting the thoughts, treating them as unimportant, and distracting oneself.

People have different types of obsessions and compulsions. Some common obsessions include fear of:

  • contamination
  • injury
  • harm to a loved one

Compulsions often relate to obsession. For example, someone who fears illness may compulsively wash their hands. Some common compulsions include:

  • counting things, such as steps
  • arranging objects
  • cleaning
  • handwashing
  • checking things, such as door locks or an alarm

The underlying cause of OCD attacks is OCD. Researchers do not fully understand what causes OCD, though the environment, genetics, and life history may play a role.

People have various causes for their attacks. Often, the cause is anxiety or a new situation.

Sometimes, the cause might be timing. People who engage in compulsions at specific intervals may become more anxious if they do not do a compulsive behavior. For example, someone who compulsively washes their hands may feel anxious until they wash their hands.

Support groups for OCD provide resources and a sense of community. Some support groups include:

An OCD attack can be frustrating and scary. A person may feel shame about their thoughts and difficulty managing their OCD. But OCD is a medical diagnosis, not a personal failing, and treatment can help.

People with OCD can consider keeping a log of their thoughts and OCD attacks. This may help with identifying causes, making it easier to uncover strategies for managing an OCD attack.