The Importance of Acceptance in Dealing with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

People with OCD are often plagued with a wide variety of painful thoughts. These include horrible images, worries they might harm themselves or others, or beliefs that they are condemned altogether. It’s natural why people would struggle with these, why they would try to push them away and get rid of them.

However, there’s a wide literature of research demonstrating that efforts to get rid of painful thoughts make them more intense and more intrusive. And there’s newer research that finds that acceptance of painful thoughts and feelings may be the most effective way for defusing OCD.

The study

OCD expert Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz’s lab looked at the relationship of two ways of dealing with OCD. The study found an advantage for mindful acceptance over brute endurance of obsessions.

One way of relating to inner experiences, called distress tolerance, refers to enduring painful emotions. This is akin to “gritting your teeth” and powering your way through it.

The other way is called psychological flexibility, the opposite of what is called experiential avoidance. One major process in psychological flexibility involves experiential acceptance, being “open and willing” to experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

What the researchers found was that willingness (i.e., choosing) to accept painful thoughts and feelings was associated with lower obsessions. They further suggest that this relationship may be especially true for people who struggle with mental rituals (e.g., Pure “O”).

Limitations

There are limitations to this study. It was correlational and involved college students. The study did not specifically look at the impact of treatment.

Summary

New research suggests that how people relate to OCD-related thoughts and emotions may be important in the maintenance of OCD symptoms. Specially, people who are more willing to experience discomfort without engaging in compulsions may do better than those who can resist compulsions but do so through gritting their teeth and enduring it.

For these reasons, newer acceptance-based treatments such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (act for short), which already has good research support in treating OCD, may have something unique to offer.

In working with OCD, I often start with ACT skills building to help people learn to mindfully accept unwanted thoughts and emotions before moving into ERP (exposure and response prevention). In my experience, the ACT work offers people—especially those with more mental rituals—additional tools for working with OCD symptoms, and helps prepare them to engage in the tough exposure work.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. If you would like to learn more about my approach to OCD specifically, check out my OCD website, where I described how I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help enhance exposure and response prevention

People with OCD Prefer Exposure to Alternative Treatments

Mad in America published a summary of a recent study that surveyed people with OCD about treatment preferences. I spent the last hour trying to track down a copy of the actual research article, which has not been officially published yet, but I was unable to locate a pdf and read it myself.

One of the authors is Dr. Helen Blair Simpson, whose brief information video about OCD is a good one.

The study

The researchers surveyed 216 people with OCD about their treatment preferences. Most people preferred Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) as a 1st line treatment. The 2nd most popular treatment was serotonin reuptake inhibitors (i.e., antidepressants). Based on how the abstract was worded, there may be no statistically significant difference between preference for ERP (55%) and preference for antidepressants (45%).

Interestingly, people who preferred antidepressants were more likely to have higher income, private insurance, and a longer history of OCD treatment. According to the Mad in America article:

The researchers theorized that this may be due to this group having “received high-quality psychiatric care that afforded them the time and attention to discuss and resolve concerns about medication.” That is, people without these resources may have had poor experiences with medication management in which they felt pressured or their concerns were not heard. Psychotherapy may have provided an approach tailored to their individual concerns, making it more desirable.

People with OCD didn’t want antipsychotic drugs

People with OCD already taking antidepressant medication preferred ERP as an adjunct treatment over augmenting the antidepressant medication with an antipsychotic. In a prior post, I wrote about research that suggested that antipsychotics were not a useful adjunct treatment for OCD.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based treatment that we offer, was also well received among alternatives to ERP and medications. In a prior blog I used to write for, I wrote about a study on the use of ACT for OCD without deliberate exposure, and OCD researcher Dr. Michael Twohig has a page about ACT and OCD on the IOCDF website.

One theme that stood out to me reading about the study was how well-informed the sample of people with OCD is. Their preferences are remarkably consistent with current research about OCD treatment.

You can read the Mad in America article here, and an abstract of the research study here.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. If you would like to learn more about my approach to OCD specifically, check out my OCD website, where I described how I use Acceptance and Commitment therapy to help enhance exposure and response prevention.

The Importance of Treating OCD Earlier: The Washington Post Article on Ethan’s Struggle from Childhood OCD through Adulthood

In people who develop obsessive-compulsive disorder, there are often signs in childhood. However, OCD in children can be hard to distinguish from childhood fears and age-appropriate magical thinking. For OCD Awareness Week, The Washington Post published an article by Sarah Maraniss-Vander Schaaf about the experiences of Ethan, a young man who developed OCD in childhood. It’s an effort to help people look past the stereotypes of people with OCD as being excessively clean and organized or washing their hands excessively. As the writer notes:

“…true OCD is often unspoken. It’s hard to recognize, as well, when growing up in a family where anxiety is normal, or in a school where behavior might be labeled school avoidance, or when no one else talks about the secret rituals that are too private to mention.”

The article traces the development of Ethan’s OCD from early childhood, though college, and the following decade of adulthood. It documents how OCD obsessions and rituals can escalate when left untreated and unchecked, and it provides a sober illustration of how the accommodation by the loved ones of someone with OCD’s obsessions/rituals—however well-meaning—can have disastrous consequences over time.

I’ve written in other posts about how some people with OCD have difficulty accessing appropriate treatments. Ethan was eventually accurately diagnosed and offered effective treatment, but it took several attempts before he was fully willing and able to engage treatment. He was even kicked out of OCD Institute at McLean Hospital, one of the leading residential treatment programs for people with OCD. Ethan didn’t recover from OCD until he was willing to commit to proper treatment—particularly exposure and response prevention. Ms. Maraniss-Vander Schaaf writes:

His improvement came when he accepted CBT and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). He was taught to develop a new relationship with his thoughts. He learned to live with the uncertainties of life and not push away anxiety with obsessive-compulsive thoughts and actions.

Ethan’s story is inspiring as, even after 2 decades of struggling with severe OCD, he is currently enjoying a productive and independent life. As I work with adults, I don’t often have a full view of how OCD progresses across the lifespan in the clients I see. I found this article of Ethan’s personal journey into OCD illuminating in how it presents a narrative of someone’s struggles with OCD across more than 2 decades, and the way OCD symptoms can change, transform, and evolve over time.

You can read the full article here.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. If you would like to learn more about my approach to OCD specifically, check out my OCD website.

If you want to learn about OCD, here’s post about a great introductory book, Tompkins’ OCD: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed.

The Difficulties of Accessing Effective Treatment: OCD as an Example

I resonated with a recent article in Psychology Today about the difficulties people have in finding therapists who offer effective treatment. The authors Dean McKay and Scott Lilienfeld—especially Dr. Lilienfeld—have been extremely active in promoting science-based psychotherapies.

As an example, they offer the experience of “Jerry” (a pseudonym). Jerry struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Having educated himself on OCD, Jerry knew that exposure and response (or ritual) prevention (ERP, for short) was the most researched and effective treatment for OCD. ERP involve systematically helping people with OCD learn to confront obsessions while resisting the urge to engage in compulsions or rituals.

Despite living in a major city, it took Jerry 3 years to find a therapist who offered and was proficient in ERP for OCD. Jerry’s experiences are similar to those of a Yale graduate student with OCD.

Many clients I’ve seen have similarly struggled. Some were misdiagnosed by prior therapists and did not even realize they had OCD until they did their own research. Some therapists correctly identified them as having OCD but when it came to treatment, they “just talked.”

Most people with OCD with whom I’ve worked have seen at least 1 or 2 therapists who have not been particularly helpful. Hair pulling (trichotillomania) and skin picking (excoriation) are two other problems that people with whom I’ve worked have struggled to find effective treatment.

The article by Drs. McKay and Lilienfeld provides a sober reminder that there are a number of people who would benefit from effective treatments such as ERP but cannot find therapists who practice it or are aware enough of their competency to refer out to a specialist. Unlike Jerry, many people with problems such as OCD, trichotillomania, and excoriation don’t even realize there’s a name for their struggles, let alone effective treatment, and they may drift in and out of therapists’ offices being misdiagnosed and receiving substandard treatment.

Drs. McKay and Lilienfeld recommend that:

The adoption of the new clinical practice guidelines is probably our field’s best hope for placing long overdue pressure on therapists to incorporate scientifically based approaches into their clinical practices. Practice guidelines would also assist mental health consumers with the daunting task of selecting more effective treatments.   


Sadly, there are many licensed therapists who do not believe in science-based approaches. For people with mild to moderate depression/anxiety, generic talk therapy and nonscientific approaches can offer some relief. For people like Jerry with OCD, these unscientific approaches are unlikely to be of much help.

I’m inspired that psychologists such as Drs. McKay and Lilienfeld take time from their busy schedules as full-time professors and respected researchers to promote scientific approaches. You can read their blog post here. I encourage readers to carefully research the therapists you or your loved ones see, and not to stay in therapy with someone who doesn’t seem to be very helpful.

A Brief Video about OCD

I ran across this excellent 5 minute video on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) by Helen Blair Simpson, MD, PhD through the Mental Health Channel. Dr. Simpson is a professor at Columbia University and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic. She is one of the leading experts on anxiety and OCD and related disorders.

In this brief video, Dr. Simpson walks through different types of OCD and describes the range of severity with which people may struggle. She provides specific examples of some of the people with whom she has worked. At the very end, Dr. Simpson gives provides a summation of our current understanding of OCD and the brain in plain language.

If you or someone you know struggle with OCD, I highly recommend you check it out. It’s very concise and yet covers a range of different OCD-related symptoms. You can watch the video here.

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