How Long Does OCD Last?

It's a chronic condition, but you can see vast improvement with proper treatment

Young woman organising stacks of shoeboxes in wardrobe in an OCD fashion
How long does obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) last?. Loungepark/Getty Images

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you may want to know how long it might take for treatment to help get the symptoms under control. 

How Long Does OCD Last?

OCD is chronic, which means that it is an illness that you will potentially be dealing with (on some level) for the rest of your life. There is no cure, unfortunately, but many people with OCD are able to get substantial control over their symptoms with proper treatment.

It's important to remember that even if your OCD is under control, symptoms can return, particularly if you don't actively employ the coping strategies that you may have learned in psychotherapy and/or if you stop taking any prescribed OCD medications. 

The sooner that you get treatment for your OCD symptoms, the sooner you are likely to feel better. There are many barriers to OCD treatment, and only about a third of people with OCD end up getting the therapy that they need to feel their best. So make sure that you advocate for yourself, take your symptoms seriously, and ask for help if you are having trouble finding the right doctor or the resources that you need. It is a health condition just like any other.

During Treatment, Symptoms May Get Worse at First

Note that your OCD symptoms may actually seem to get worse when you first start therapy. When undertaking cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), it's not unusual to initially experience greater anxiety than you did before you started therapy.

This is natural and is a result of finally confronting many of the feared thoughts, objects, or behaviors that you previously avoided.

Don't let this worry you or prevent you from following through with your treatment. You are likely to see an improvement in your symptoms as treatment continues, so don't give up.

How Long Does It Take for Therapy to Work?

It is difficult to answer this question because every person is different. Much of this variability relates to how severe your OCD symptoms are, how faithful you are in completing your treatment homework assignments, the skill of your therapist, your relationship with the therapist, your insight with respect to the effect of symptoms, and how motivated you are to get your symptoms under control. 

That said, generally speaking, most people with OCD can expect to have completed between 12 and 20 therapy sessions before they see a clinically significant decrease in their OCD symptoms.

How Often Should You Have Therapy Sessions?

The frequency of therapy sessions will vary depending on many factors, including the severity of your symptoms and how much they are negatively affecting your life. But typically, at the outset of therapy, it can be helpful to have sessions twice weekly to build momentum and then drop down to weekly sessions as time goes on.

Maintenance Therapy and Booster Sessions

More often than not, booster sessions are required to maintain gains that are made in therapy. These booster sessions may be needed on and off throughout your life.

It can be tempting to skip these follow-up sessions, especially if you are feeling well. If you struggle with this, think back to the work that you did to get to the point where you are now. A little therapy now to maintain your freedom from OCD symptoms is worth it to save yourself from more extensive therapy down the line. Continuing to manage stress in your life is also extremely beneficial.

When OCD Is Severe

If you're experiencing especially severe symptoms, including engaging in rituals most of the day or being unable to leave the house because your obsessions or compulsions are so bad, a prolonged course of treatment—sometimes for months—in an inpatient intensive treatment program may be advised.

In these cases, you would receive a lot of psychotherapy through the completion of daily exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP).

Your Own Personal Influence Over Your Recovery

The good news is that you can greatly influence how long it takes you to benefit from psychotherapy. The more consistent that you are in attending therapy sessions and the more homework assignments that you complete on your own, the faster you will see results.

Remember that getting well is only half the battle; you need to make sure that you take steps to stay well, too.

Sources:

Benatti, B., Camuri, G., Dell’Osso, B. et al. Which Factors Influence Onset and Latency to Treatment in Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?. International Clinical Psychopharmacology?. 2016. 31(6):347-52.

Ost, L., Havnen, A., Hansen, B., and G. Kvale. Cognitive Behavioral Treatments of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies Published 1993-2014. Clinical Psychology Reviews. 2015. 40:156-69.

Peselow, E., Pizano, D., and W. IsHak. Maintenance Treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Findings From a Naturalistic Setting. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry. 2015. 27():25-32.

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