Coping With OCD

Dealing Successfully with OCD Means Knowing How to Cope

obsessive compulsive woman cutting grass with a scissors
How can you best cope with your diagnosis of OCD?. Photo©Berc

We all experience stress from time to time. Life stress can range from daily annoyances to traumatic events that can turn our lives upside down in an instant. Under the right conditions, both minor and major stressful events can exacerbate illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression, cardiovascular disease, and type II diabetes.

However, not everyone who experiences a stressful event (even a traumatic one) will become ill or experience an increase in OCD symptoms.

Even under extreme circumstances such as war or violent physical assault, the majority of people will not go on to develop a serious mental or physical illness. Why is this? Part of the reason why some people are resilient in the face of stressful circumstances appears to be the way they cope.

How Is Coping Related to Stress?

Coping refers to the thoughts and actions we use to deal with stress. In large part, feeling stressed or not depends on whether we believe we have the coping resources to deal with the challenges facing us.

For example, imagine that your boss has come to you with a large project that needs to be completed by the end of the month. If you believe that you have the required knowledge, resources and time to complete the project, it will seem a lot less stressful than if you believe that you don’t have these things going for you. As long as you believe that you can cope successfully with a given challenge, even the most daunting of circumstances are not likely to seem that stressful.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the perception of whether you have the ability or resources to cope with stress is subjective. Two people who on paper have identical skills and resources may look at the same problem and come to different conclusions. One person may believe that dealing with the challenge will be a piece of cake (or even fun), while the other may be left feeling hopeless and depressed about his situation.

Your perceived ability to cope with stress depends on many factors including your:

  • Current mood
  • Stress levels
  • Self-esteem
  • Past experiences
  • Available resources (such as money, time, social support)

The worse your mood, the higher your stress, the lower your self-esteem, the worse your past experiences and the less resources you have, the more difficulty you will have coping with stress. Any or all of these factors will raise the odds that you will feel unable to cope with a given situation. In other words, the more you perceive your situation as difficult, the less resilient you will become.

Coping Strategies

Most coping strategies fall into one of two broad categories:

  • Problem-focused coping strategies are used to tackle the problem directly. For example, if you were experiencing an unusual pain or symptom, you might make an appointment with your doctor or therapist instead of letting things get worse. If you had a conflict with a friend, you might call him up and ask him to meet you for coffee to talk through your differences rather ignoring him for the next week. In both cases, you would be taking steps to deal with the actual source of your stress.
  • Emotion-focused coping strategies are used to handle feelings of distress, rather than the actual problem. For example, if you had an upcoming exam in a difficult class, you might lie in bed blaming yourself or others for your misfortune instead of studying for the exam. If you received criticism from a co-worker, you might call in sick for the rest of the week rather than calmly discussing the issue with him. In each case, you would be acting to minimize your emotional distress, but not impacting the actual problem.

    In general, people do best both psychologically and physically when they deal directly with the source of their stress rather than sweeping their problems under the rug. Although it can be difficult and requires courage, the more you use problem-focused coping strategies, the better you’ll feel in the long run.

    Do’s and Don’ts of Coping With OCD

    Living with OCD presents a number of challenges that require good coping strategies to be in place. As with other forms of stress, successfully coping with OCD requires that you are proactive about dealing with various aspects of your illness. For example:

    • If you notice symptoms are getting worse, do consult with your doctor or therapist. Don’t wait until your symptoms are so severe that you are unable to leave the house or take care of things at work.
    • If you feel that your medication isn’t working properly or causing you side effects, do be proactive about letting your doctor know. Don’t stop taking your medication in hopes that issues will improve on their own. Other medications are often available which may be a better match for you.
    • If you are unsure about how to manage your illness, learn as much as you can about your illness from reputable sources. Don’t rely on others to manage your illness.
    • If you feel uncomfortable with a treatment you are receiving, do let your doctor or therapist know your concerns. Don’t pretend that everything is fine. You are much more likely stick with a treatment that you are comfortable with.
    • If family or friends don’t understand your symptoms, do ask them how you can help them to understand what you are going through. If your family or friends are not comfortable discussing your illness, do find a support group where you can get help and share your feelings. Don’t isolate yourself from the vital social support that you need.

    Bottom Line

    Dealing with OCD is much easier when you take a problem solving approach to life's trials rather than reacting emotionally. As you read through this article, you may feel discouraged. It's a huge step and frightening to take charge of your illness. Studies, however, tell us that doing so can work. If life is going well for you right now, this may be the perfect time to work at building your resilience for tough times. At times even this will seem difficult, and you will wonder how you can really change something that feels more like your personality than the way you cope with stress. The best time to begin is today. Perhaps you can start with these 10 ways to become more resilient.


    Hjemdal, O., Vogel, P., Solem, S., Hagen, K., and T. Stiles. The Relationship Between Resilience and Levels of Anxiety, Depression, and Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in Adolescents. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 2011. 18(4):314-21.

    Moritz, S., Jahns, A., Schroder, J. et al. More Adaptive Versus Less Maladaptive Coping: What is More Predictive of Symptom Severity? Development of a New Scale to Investigate Coping Profiles Across Different Psychopathological Syndromes. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2016. 191:300-7.

    Zhao, H., Wang, C., Gao, Z. et al. Effectiveness of Cognitive-Coping Therapy and Alteration of Resting-State Brain Function in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2016. 208:184-190.

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