Treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) typically involves a therapist directing the patient to progressively give up “safety behaviors”—things he or she does compulsively to relieve anxiety—during repeated exposure to things the patient fears.
However, many patients refuse this type of treatment, or quit before they finish. A recent study in an April 2016 issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders suggested that letting the patient, and not the therapist, decide when it is time to give up safety behaviors may be a more effective approach.
Researchers evaluated 100 college students, 90 percent of whom were female. The students were asked to repeatedly handle one of six “contaminants,” such as rubbing the bottom of their shoes, handling used money, or rummaging through a garbage can.
During these exposures, they were allowed to pick something to use as a safety behavior, such as hand sanitizer or gloves, but were told they would need to give up the safety behavior as the study progressed.
Some students were instructed to decide when they wanted to stop using the safety behavior, while others were told they could not give up the safety behavior until the researchers said they could do so.
Students who were able to decide when they could stop the safety behaviors had greater reductions in obsession and fear than those who were told when they could stop.
Jeff Bauer is a healthcare journalist with expertise in psychiatry. He has served as editor of Current Psychiatry, a leading peer-reviewed clinical journal for psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners, and as educational content director for the U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress, the nation’s leading independent mental health continuing education conference.