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06-17 Safety behaviors may help with OCD treatment

Safety behaviors may help with OCD treatment

You know you locked the door before you left. You’re positive.

But you check again…and again. Maybe a few more times. Or a dozen.

This likely sounds strange to someone who’s never dealt with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but for patients with the disease, these behaviors – often called “safety behaviors” – act as coping mechanisms for patients to manage the fears and anxieties that drive OCD. These behaviors can range from the example above to the need to tap on a desk a number of times in order to stop something horrible from happening.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that teaches patients new ways of understanding and dealing with their problems, has been used to treat OCD. According to the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation (IOCDF), a type of CBT called exposure and response prevention (ERP) has been used as a tool in OCD therapy. Put simply, ERP exposes patients to the kinds of thoughts, situations and objects that can trigger OCD behavior and obsessions while the patient works to not give in to the compulsive behaviors OCD causes.

However, some researchers think safety behaviors might play a beneficial role in treatment for some OCD patients.

Patients finding their own way may have benefits

Researchers from Montreal’s Concordia University studied over 150 participants who had some form of mental illness – including some who had been diagnosed with OCD – as they underwent ERP therapy. Many of the participants developed new habits during therapy that helped them avoid anxiety as they were exposed to the situations and things that triggered their disorders.

The researchers’ findings, published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, showed the new safety behaviors were slightly more helpful than their previous behaviors. Additionally, the researchers also learned the patient was the best decider of when they were ready to move beyond their old safety behaviors.

“Traditionally, psychologists thought that fading out or eliminating these behaviors entirely should be the primary focus of the therapy used to combat anxiety disorders,” said study senior author Adam Radomsky, Ph.D. in a Concordia press release. “But we found that changing those behaviors and giving patients greater agency is much more effective.”

OCD and adolescents

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states OCD usually manifests in childhood, affecting one in 200 children and adolescents. Although young children tend to have certain routines at meals and bedtimes, the IOCDF says these routines tend to go away as children age. For an OCD child, however, the routines stay, interfering with the child’s daily life.

Children often manifest OCD in different ways from adults, according to the IOCDF. Children may have no idea their obsessions are unusual and illogical, and may even insist other family members join in rituals based around hand washing and other common obsessions. Also, adolescents and teenagers may worry their compulsions mean they’re going crazy, causing them to hide their OCD from friends and parents.

How does OCD develop?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the exact causes of OCD are unknown. However, NIMH lists three possible factors for the disorder:

  • Brain structure – Various studies have shown differences in the brain structure of people with OCD. One study published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry in 2012 found smaller amounts of grey matter in the brains of people with OCD.
  • Genetics – NIMH cites studies showing people who are closely related to people with OCD have a high chance of developing the syndrome.
  • Environmental – NIMH reports abuse and trauma experienced in childhood can lead to OCD. Also, some children develop OCD or related symptoms after a streptococcal infection.

Getting treatment

OCD is a treatable mental condition; left untreated, it can destroy lives. It’s also a disorder that manifests early on. Sovereign Health’s Rancho San Diego residential facility offers 24/7 care for adolescents aged 12 to 17. Our staff helps their patients reach their full potential in a peaceful, rural setting. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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