Coping With Stress When You Have OCD

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Life stresses can range from mere daily annoyances to severe, traumatic events.

Under the right conditions, both minor and major stressful events can exacerbate illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), 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.

Part of the reason why some people are resilient in the face of stressful circumstances appears to be the way that they cope.

What Is Coping?

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

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 is not likely to seem overwhelmingly 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 the situation. Your ​perceived ability to cope with stress depends on many factors including your:

The worse your mood, the higher your stress, the lower your self-esteem, the worse your past experiences, and the fewer resources that you have, the more difficulty you will have coping with stress. 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: These 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: These 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 or her. In each case, you would be acting to minimize your emotional distress, not affect the underlying 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 it requires courage, the more that you use problem-focused coping strategies, the better you’ll feel in the long run.

Progressing With a Plan

When trying out coping strategies, make note of how you feel with each attempt. It's helpful to view your progress as a journey rather than demanding unrealistic results of yourself—which, in turn, can put you under more stress.

Having an open and honest discussion with your therapist or mental health professional is also key. Together, you can notice what works, what doesn't, and what strategies to try in the future.

OCD Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide to help you ask the right questions at your next doctor's appointment.

Mind Doc Guide

The Importance of Being Proactive

Living with OCD presents a number of challenges that require good coping strategies to be in place. It's important to be proactive. For example:

  • If you notice that symptoms are getting worse, consult 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 that it's causing you side effects, let your doctor know. Don’t stop taking your medication in the hopes that the issues will improve on their own. Other medications are often available and they may be better matches for you.
  • If you are unsure about how to manage your illness, learn as much as you can about your illness from reputable sources.
  • If you feel uncomfortable with a treatment that you are receiving, 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 like.
  • If your family or friends are not comfortable discussing your illness, 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 react emotionally. Sure, it's frightening to take charge of your illness, but studies show 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.

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