Given that stress is a major trigger of OCD symptoms one of the best ways to boost your OCD self help skills is to learn and practice a number of relaxation techniques. Let’s explore a number of easy techniques that you can practice on your own.
Deep diaphragmatic or “belly breathing” sends a very strong relaxation signal to the brain that effectively turns down physiological arousal, and in turn, stress levels. During belly breathing we experience reduced heart rate, lowered blood pressure and more efficient breathing, each of which promotes a state of calm and relaxation.
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 breath 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 5, 10 or even 20 minutes for maximum benefit.
Once you have mastered the deep breathing technique outlined above, 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 as well as become better at detaching ourselves from these thoughts and being more “arms 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 ingredient 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 for people to experience greater levels of anxiety when starting to learn mindfulness meditation as it puts us in touch with troubling thoughts, fear, worries etc. However, overtime you will grow more comfortable simply sitting with these thoughts without taking action.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation or PMR can also be used with the deep breathing described above. Progressive muscle relaxation can be very helpful in identifying hidden tension throughout our 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, buttock, legs, calves – repeating this pattern of inhalation/tensing and exhalation/relaxing.