How Long Does OCD Last?

How Long Does OCD Treatment Take Before Feeling Better?

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 wonder how long it will last and how long treatment might take until you can get your 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 it on some level for the rest of your life, just like someone with asthma or diabetes.

There is no cure, but many people are able to get excellent control over their OCD symptoms and perhaps even recover completely with treatment. Unfortunately, OCD can start up again at any time, particularly if you don't actively employ the coping strategies you may have learned in psychotherapy and/or if you stop your prescribed medications. 

Keep in mind that how long you have to cope with your OCD symptoms is at least partially determined by when you begin treatment. Putting off treatment for any number of reasons means that it will be longer before you feel like you are getting your life back and learning to cope with the doubts and fears that underlie much of the behavior associated with OCD. Once you begin treatment, you are on your way, even if it feels slow or even worse at first. Unfortunately there are many barriers to OCD treatment, and only about a third of people end up getting the therapy need to feel their best.

OCD Symptoms May at First Get Worse During Treatment

It's important to know that your OCD symptoms may actually at first seem to get worse when you 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.

How Long Does it Take OCD Therapy to Work?

It is difficult to answer the question about how long OCD therapy takes to work, because everyone is different. There is a great deal of variability from person to person with respect to how quickly they experience a decrease in their OCD symptoms once engaging in psychological therapy.

Much of this variability relates to how severe your OCD symptoms are, how faithful you are in completing the homework assignments, the skill of your therapist, your relationship with the therapist, and your insight with respect to the impact of symptoms, as well as your motivation to get symptoms under control. You may wish to check out these ideas on how to find the right OCD therapist if you are not sure you are on the right track.

Many people report a significant drop in symptoms early in therapy, with slower and steadier gains as therapy progresses.

However, this is certainly not always the case and there are many ways to progress “normally” through therapy.

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

How Often Should You Have Therapy Sessions for the Fastest Control of OCD?

The frequency of therapy sessions will vary depending on many factors, including the severity of your symptoms and how much they are impacting your life. At the outset of therapy, it can be helpful to have sessions twice weekly to build momentum, and drop down to weekly sessions as time goes on. Of course, this varies with severity of your symptoms and many other factors.

OCD as a Chronic Condition - Maintenance Therapy and Booster Sessions

More often than not, booster sessions are required to maintain gains made in therapy, and being a chronic condition, these booster sessions may be needed on and off throughout your life. As with anyone with a chronic condition, it can be tempting to skip these follow-up sessions, especially if you are feeling quite well. If you struggle with this, think back to the work you did to get to the point where you are now. A "little" therapy to maintain your freedom from OCD symptoms is very worth saving yourself more extensive therapy down the line. Continuing efforts to manage stress in your life are 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 massive dose of psychotherapy through the completion of daily exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) for months at a time.

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 you are in attending therapy sessions and the more homework assignments you complete on your own, the faster you will see results.

Remember 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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