Sensorimotor Obsessions: A less well-known type of OCD
You might want to think twice before calling someone “so OCD” in jest, as it’s an insult to people with an actual mental disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The prevailing stereotype is that people with OCD are perfectionists or hyper-hygienic because they are constantly checking to see if the oven is turned off, meticulously organizing objects in closets and on desks, and washing hands numerous times a day. It undermines what’s really going through someone’s head, and not all people with OCD manifest these particular symptoms.
Individuals with OCD have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions with contamination, for example) that make them feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions like hand washing).
Imagine you’re waiting in your car at an intersection, watching someone cross the street and thinking to yourself you could actually hit them in your car. You would never actually do it but you replay the scenario in your mind repeatedly. You even check your fenders throughout the day to make sure you didn’t actually run someone over. You know for a fact that you didn’t hit anyone, but the fear of the possibility of killing or hurting another is so disturbing and intense you have to keep checking because it seems like the only option.
This is what’s it’s like for some people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The obsessive-compulsive mind is performing rituals to temporarily ease anxiety on a specific obsession. They are worried about causing harm to themselves, family members, and strangers. Some people experience violent imagery and intrusive sexual thoughts, concerns about right and wrong, urges to tap, or line-up objects.
While mainstream literature talks about “classic” OCD, there’s a subset and less talked about type of OCD called sensorimotor obsession where sufferers are preoccupied with bodily functions and sensations.
Sensorimotor obsession is characterized by intrusive thoughts or hyper-awareness of bodily functions including blinking, swallowing, breathing, digestive processes, pulse rate, etc.
“The fear of never being able to stop thinking about or focusing on their swallowing, or beating heart, can cause intense anxiety in OCD sufferers,” writes Psych Central author Janet Singer. “Those who are consumed with worry about swallowing might actually be afraid of choking, or they might just be tormented by the thought that they will never be able to stop thinking about swallowing.
It’s especially stressful because we all have to blink, breath and swallow to live, yet there’s no escape from the obsessions.There is hope and those who get treatment can benefit greatly and thrive again.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy
This type of cognitive behavioral therapy is one form of treatment for sensory obsessions as well as most types of OCD. It may seem counterintuitive because participants are encouraged to face their fears head on, not pretend they don’t exist.
ERP is a type of therapy where you “expose” yourself to your thoughts, images, and situations that make you go into a tailspin and start obsessing. You willingly pay attention to whatever bodily function you are agonizing over. The “response” aspect refers to consciously making a choice not to engage in the compulsive behavior. With the help of a therapist who has experience in treating OCD, you’ll learn how to manage your symptoms with ERP, so that eventually you’ll be able to guide yourself.
You may be encouraged to verbalize your fears, such as “My life will be ruined,” I’ll never live a normal life,” and “This obsession will never end,” as part of the exposure process.
“Additionally, patients may be asked to invite in the sensations and accompanying fears throughout the day,” according to an article in Beyond OCD. “This is accomplished by having patients place reminders (such as Post-It notes or stickers) at home, in the car, and at work. These reminders help to cue patients to engage in repeated exposures throughout the day, thus increasing the likelihood of successful habituation.”
The idea is that over time, the anxiety will diminish by doing the opposite of what OCD is compelling you to do.
Mindfulness and meditation go hand-in-hand with ERP therapy. They both involve paying attention to our bodies in the present moment, acknowledging whatever it is we’re feeling and accepting what is. Part of your routine at night should be to give yourself permission to leave all your worries behind and get yourself prepared for sleep. Some suggestions include listening to soothing music, praying, meditating, and writing a to-do list to get nagging tasks off your mind.
Authors of a book called The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD say mindfulness-based approaches are proven to be effective in treating OCD and anxiety. The book offers tools for “managing the unwanted thoughts and compulsive urges that are associated with OCD. The thought is one can learn to challenge their own “distorted thinking and stop treating thoughts as threats and feelings as facts.”
It seems scary for people with these disorders because they involve developing awareness and acceptance of the very things that are at the heart of OCD.
Aerobic exercise is a major stress reliever for a wide variety of mental disorders, and pretty much everything else in life. The physical benefits include a lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes, reduced cholesterol levels, and a better night’s sleep, among other things. There’s also evidence that OCD sufferers may get an additional benefit of reduced symptoms if they exercise.
One study found that when moderate aerobic exercise was added to participants’ regular treatment program for 12 weeks, severity and frequency of symptoms of OCD were reduced immediately after exercise. Part of this can be chalked up to the body’s release of endorphins – the feel good chemical – during exercise.
If you’re not sure where to begin with an exercise program, many medical practices host wellness classes and organize exercise groups. Some of the world’s premier private practices and hospitals will share information about classes on their blogs and social media. Be sure to go to your doctor’s or medical practice’s website to see if they offer such auxiliary services. Don’t be afraid to contact them directly.
Sensorimotor OCD can be extremely debilitating, complicated and scary, which is why sufferers need to do everything they can to help themselves by exercising, practicing mindfulness, seeing a qualified counselor, and employing CBT techniques like exposure and response prevention therapy.