Note: All parts of the guide have been updated as of Sep 2022 after much discussion from those suffering from SOCD and my own experience. In particular I have considerably adjusted the ERP approach, as I now believe that is better to simply avoid doing any explicit rituals, rather than trying to literally do nothing, which seems to have been causing some issues for people.
There was a time in my life where I was utterly miserable, completely consumed by anxiety and dread. Each day was a struggle, yet no one else could see or even knew what I was facing. I felt like I was in a bubble, suffering alone silently, while others went about their lives seemingly without any troubles.
The problem was that I just couldn’t stop thinking about bodily processes like breathing, blinking and swallowing. I didn’t want to be conscious of them. I wanted them to happen automatically so I could get on with my life. But the more I tried to avoid thinking about them, the more they followed me and the more anxious I got, until every waking moment I was thinking about them. It wasn’t just anxiety though, it was dread and a constant pain I felt deep inside. I remember I kept thinking “Am I going to be haunted by this for the rest of my life?”. There was only thing I wanted, and that was somehow to be free of this affliction.
I can now say that I am. My darkest period was many years ago now, way back in 2012. It took several months initially, and it wasn’t always smooth, but I eventually got back to living a normal life.
What is sensorimotor OCD?
I didn’t know it then, but what I was suffering from something known as sensorimotor OCD (SOCD for short). Essentially you become aware or conscious in some way of some bodily sensation; it could be breathing, blinking, swallowing, or a whole host of other things. But you don’t want to have this consciousness of it. Perhaps you think it means you can’t enjoy life, do things normally, or maybe you’re worried about health effects from not doing them properly. Whatever the reason, you want it gone.
The problem is, each time you think about the thought, the awareness is there. You try to stop thinking about the thought; but that doesn’t work; all that you can think about IS the thought, and so the awareness is constantly there; exactly what you don’t want. And you feel terrible anxiety and pain every moment you remember it. You might try other rituals (mental or physical) such as trying to ‘do it properly’ or distracting yourself, but these don’t really help either. It’s easy to get negative and think that this will ruin the rest of your life, and this makes you feel even worse.
It may not seem like it, but this is actually a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Although quite different from classical forms of OCD like hand-washing, the fundamental principles are the same. There’s some faulty beliefs involved and anxiety, and you feel like doing behaviours/compulsions to mitigate it. However, these only make the anxiety worse.
But what makes SOCD worse than your usual kinds of OCD is that you can’t escape from it. There’s no respite. You can’t run away from your thoughts. And the more you’re worried about, the more you remember it, and it can make every waking moment a living hell. Unfortunately, often suicidal thoughts aren’t far away. There’s also often a constant gnawing feeling of pain, dread and discomfort, which is not the case for other forms of OCD or anxiety.
Note: Throughout this guide, when I use the word ‘obsession‘ or ‘sensation‘, I’m referring to becoming obsessively aware or conscious of some bodily sensation that you can’t stop thinking about, such as breathing, blinking, swallowing, eye floaters, your nose (there’s a never ending list of these!).
A Step by Step Guide to Overcoming Sensorimotor OCD
Having been through this and been blessed to be on the other side, I want to help people overcome this rare, difficult to diagnose, yet very debilitating condition. I’ve written a step by step guide based on principles used by psychologists as well as my own experience. I’m also here to help with any questions or issues you might be facing personally.
My guide is structured as follows (see all units listed here):
Module 1 – Getting Your Mind Straight (CBT): This is all about understanding what’s going on in your mind with sensorimotor OCD. We’ll explore the right way to think about SOCD, consider problematic beliefs causing your anxiety and how these can be challenged, and then finally how to develop the right attitude to overcome this. This is the foundation to change, and can be completed relatively quickly.
Module 2 – Exposure and Response Therapy (ERP): This is where we actually start taking action and begin facing the OCD head on. Essentially we ‘expose’ ourselves to what we’ve been afraid of, and eventually our brains will habituate to the sensation and anxiety will diminish. We’ll first look at what your existing triggers and compulsions are, then the different kinds of exposures you can do, and finally discuss your mindset and putting this into practice. This can be quite difficult, but this is where with consistent effort, the anxiety will really begin to decrease. This stage usually will take a month or two, after which the anxiety should be significantly reduced.
Module 3 – Moving Beyond Sensorimotor OCD: This is where we look beyond to a life free of body-focused obsessions. Generally, people find it can return, months or even years later. Sometimes, some anxiety lingers as well. This is about dealing with these kinds of things so you can be anxiety free in the long run. We want 100% recovery, not 80% or that it comes back again and again.
I wish you all the best in your recovery. A normal life, completely free of this, is possible for you 🙂 . I’d love to hear your stories in the comments, and feel free to leave a comment or ask a question!