Why There’s No Cure for OCD
But you can have an amazing, joyful life anyway.
Posted April 13, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Every once in awhile, I see something published in the media about someone curing their OCD, knocking it completely out of their lives.
Shortly after a piece like this goes online, I start receiving emails from subscribers to my newsletter that sound something like this: “Now wait a minute. I’ve been told that there’s no cure for OCD, that it’s a lifelong condition. So which is it? Is it curable or not?”
The short answer is, unfortunately, that OCD is not curable. But Jeff Bell, my co-author for the Beyond the Doubt blog, and I can tell you for certain — and there’s not much we’re certain about, as people with OCD — that you can still live a great life, even with the disorder.
Why There’s No Cure
I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there who may have vanquished their OCD. Perhaps there are, and to them, I say, “That’s awesome!” But obliterating OCD from your life is the exception to the rule.
The rule is that with our current medical knowledge, OCD is not curable. And there’s a simple reason why.
You know all those intrusive thoughts that you have? People without OCD have them, too. They just don’t notice them, or they notice them and think, “Wow, that was weird. Wonder what I could have for lunch today?” and go on with their life.
People with untreated OCD, however, will have an intrusive thought and think, “Wait! Why did I have that thought? That’s a horrible thought! I don’t want that! I wouldn’t do that! I wish these thoughts would go away!”
And therein lies the difference. There are no OCD thoughts. There are instead OCD reactions to intrusive thoughts.
If we could label thoughts as “OCD” thoughts, then everyone would have OCD because everyone sometimes has intrusive thoughts. And as all of us with OCD know, everyone does not have “a touch of OCD” (for more on my thoughts on “I’m so OCD…” please see this Aha! Moment.)
What causes OCD is our reaction to those intrusive thoughts. Our reaction of shock, fear, horror, disgust, etc. tells our brains, “Oh! That thought is important! We need to do something about it (i.e. a compulsion).”
Then we do rituals, which reinforces in our brains that the only way we survived having those thoughts was to do compulsions. So we’re going to be more motivated to do them again, which gets us stuck in the OCD cycle of hell.
With our current medical knowledge, we cannot get rid of intrusive thoughts. Therefore, we can’t get rid of OCD, because if those intrusive thoughts are there, then every once in a while, your OCD will react to them.
Chronic, Not Terminal
Jon Hershfield and I have a section in our book Everyday Mindfulness for OCD titled “Chronic, Not Terminal." I’m repeating it here because I think it’s the best way to think about OCD.
Yes, it’s chronic. For the majority of people, once you have OCD, you’ll probably always have it, and you’re likely to experience an OCD reaction to an intrusive thought occasionally, even when you’re in recovery.
But it’s not terminal. We are fortunate to have exceptionally good treatment for OCD in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and it works for the majority of people who do it. Both Jeff and I have gone through ERP, and we’re here to tell you that it opens the gateway for being able to have an amazing life, even with OCD.
In fact, once you’ve gone through ERP therapy, you’re what Jonathan Grayson describes in a recent The OCD Stories podcast as “better than normal,” because you have a black belt in managing uncertainty. With that black belt, you can manage the everyday uncertainties of life even better than people who don’t have OCD and who haven’t been through exposure therapy. You’re actually more prepared to live in our world of uncertainty and be happy anyway than “normal people” (if there even is such a thing).
Someday, there probably will be a cure for OCD. They will give us a pill to take and those OCD reactions to intrusive thoughts will just melt away. But that’s unlikely to happen in our lifetime, so the current goal is to let your OCD tag along,* do your exposure therapy to minimize its reaction to intrusive thoughts, and go live your life joyfully.
Edit July 7, 2019: A year after I posted this, I wrote a follow-up post called The Unintended Consequences of Saying OCD Can Be Cured. A few days later, Jon Hershfield, MFT wrote a brilliant piece entitled How Having No Cure is the Cure. If you found the above post helpful, I hope you'll check out these additional posts.
For notifications of new blog posts as well as OCD-taming tips & resources, sign up for my Shoulders Back! newsletter.
*For example, as I’ve written about in previous blog posts, my OCD sometimes just can’t control itself and will give me some dire warning about death, doom, and destruction. It currently is slightly upset that I’m about to board flight 4 to Washington, DC. Four is its favorite number, but it also thinks that the universe will eventually play some sort of cosmic joke on me involving 4 that will result in my death. If you’re reading this blog post, it didn’t happen (not today, anyway…), but I’m just throwing my shoulders back, acting as if I’m perfectly excited to be taking this flight to DC (and really, I am), and just letting my OCD be there, doing its thing while I enjoy my day.