Relaxation Techniques for OCD

Woman meditating in nature
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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) manifests in many ways and is caused by many triggers. One of those triggers is stress. The best way to improve your OCD self-help skills is to learn and regularly practice relaxation techniques. Here are three easy techniques you can practice on your own.

Deep Breathing

Deep diaphragmatic breathing, or "belly breathing," sends a very strong relaxation signal to the brain that effectively turns down physiological arousal, and in turn, stress levels.

The first step in belly breathing is to sit or lie in a quiet room in a comfortable position with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Some people feel more comfortable closing their eyes, but this is not essential. Begin by breathing in through your nose. When you breathe in, you should only feel your stomach expand. You will know that you are doing this correctly if the hand on your chest is almost motionless while the hand on your stomach moves outward.

Once you have taken a deep breath in, blow the air out slowly through pursed lips—similar to the face you would make blowing up a balloon—and feel your stomach fall back towards your spine. Again, only the hand on your stomach should be moving. Exhaling should take two to three times as long as inhalation. The relaxation that comes with deep breathing will kick in after a minute or two, but keep going for five, 10 or even 20 minutes for maximum benefits.

During belly breathing, we experience a reduced heart rate, lowered blood pressure and more efficient breathing, each of which promotes a state of calm and relaxation.

Mindfulness Meditation

Once you have mastered the deep breathing technique, you may want to try mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of noticing thoughts without judging them or pushing them away.

By practicing mindfulness meditation we become more aware of the thoughts we are having and become better at detaching ourselves from these thoughts and being more "arm's length" to them. By practicing this technique we are less likely to be affected by troubling thoughts, including the obsessions that are part of OCD. In fact, mindfulness is a key component of acceptance and commitment therapy.

To practice mindfulness meditation, begin with the deep breathing exercise described above. As you are breathing, try to pay attention to the thoughts, sensations, fears, anxiety, and worries that are passing through your mind. Simply notice these thoughts without trying to push them away. Notice what happens to these thoughts when you simply leave them alone and let them pass. Use deep breathing as your anchor throughout this exercise.

It is not uncommon experience greater levels of anxiety when starting to learn mindfulness meditation, as it puts you in touch with troubling thoughts, fears, and worries. However, over time you will grow more comfortable simply sitting with these thoughts without taking action.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) can also be used with the deep breathing described above. Progressive muscle relaxation can be very helpful in identifying hidden tension throughout the body.

To practice PMR, lie or sit in a comfortable position in a quiet room and begin the breathing exercise above. As in your inhale, clench all of the muscles in your face. Hold this for 10 to 20 seconds and then release the tension while slowly exhaling. Repeat this a couple of times and then gradually move down your body—shoulders, arms, stomach, buttocks, legs, calves—repeating this pattern of inhalation/tensing and exhalation/relaxing.

1 Source
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  1. Adams TG, Kelmendi B, Brake CA, Gruner P, Badour CL, Pittenger C. The role of stress in the pathogenesis and maintenance of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). 2018;2.  doi:10.1177/2470547018758043

By Owen Kelly, PhD
Owen Kelly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professor, and author in Ontario, ON, who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders.