Mental illness affects 1 in 5 adults in the US alone, which equates to nearly 53 million people. Mental health disorders vary in severity and the degree to which they impact your life. If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), you know how difficult it can be to find relief and peace of mind. In most cases, therapy and medication are required to help ease symptoms and promote a happy, healthy, and productive life.
Lifestyle changes are also a powerful tool when facing a mental health diagnosis. One such resource is exercise. Physical activity provides numerous benefits outside of just weight management. Regular exercise promotes higher energy levels, fewer mood swings, and reduced stress. It can also enhance cognitive function and productivity.
In this article, we’ll focus on the effects of exercise on OCD symptoms. Nearly 3 million adults battle with OCD in varying degrees. Obsessive thoughts trigger compulsive behaviors that can stifle your ability to function in daily life. Exercise can help. Keep reading to learn how.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder often referred to as OCD, is characterized by unreasonable and realistic thoughts or fears (obsessions), which lead to ritualistic or compulsive behaviors. For example, some people with OCD fear germs, getting sick, or contamination (irrational thoughts) and therefore wash their hands repeatedly, take numerous showers a day or avoid certain situations and places (compulsive behaviors).
There are many different forms of OCD and symptoms express themselves differently. In most cases, these thoughts and behaviors start out mild and gradually worsen over time, having a greater negative impact on daily life, including both professional and personal or romantic relationships. Patients often require a combination of therapy and medication to help ease symptoms and reduce these thoughts and behaviors.
Symptoms of OCD
Because there are several different types of OCD, symptoms vary and present themselves differently. Here are some of the most common types of OCD and their associated symptoms.
One of the most common types of OCD, contamination involves the extreme fear of being dirty or contaminated by germs or illness. People with this type of OCD believe that contamination can harm themselves or a loved one. The most common symptoms include:
- Obsessively washing hands or cleaning surfaces
- Fear of shaking hands or physical contact with others
- Worry over contamination from public places (bathrooms, door handles, etc.)
Another common type of OCD, checking involves an unrealistic fear of danger and preventing damage or harm to oneself or loved ones. Some common symptoms include:
- Repeatedly checking door locks, windows, and house alarms
- Fear of a house fire due to candles, electrical appliances, etc.
- Checking vehicles for potential hazards or taking alternate driving routes
- Checking to make sure you haven’t lost valuable items like a purse, wallet, or jewelry
Symmetry and Ordering
People with symmetry and ordering OCD need things to be “just right”. They believe everything has a place and by ensuring symmetry and order, they can prevent harm. This is known as magical thinking. If things are out of order, they experience extreme discomfort. Other symptoms include:
- An obsessive need to put things in a specific order
- Excessive neatness and organization
- Needing things to be spotless
Although most people with OCD experience obsessive thoughts, intrusive thoughts are often more disturbing and violent or sexual in nature. Symptoms include intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts about the following things:
- Violent thoughts (harmful behavior toward self or others)
- Magical thinking (the ability to prevent harm)
- Body-focused obsessions
Using Exercise to Ease OCD Symptoms
As you can probably see, all forms of OCD can greatly impact a person’s life, causing unhealthy patterns of behavior and disturbing thoughts. Through therapy (and sometimes medication) people with OCD can get a better handle on these symptoms and take the necessary steps to reduce the impact they have.
Exercise and physical activity bring their own benefits to those with OCD including mental clarity and stress relief. Here are a few specific ways that exercise can ease OCD symptoms.
Studies show that aerobic exercise can help ease and improve moderate symptoms of depression. It’s also proven to reduce anxiety levels in most people and overall signs of stress. Because many of these same symptoms are expressed by individuals with OCD, research suggests that incorporating aerobic exercise into your daily routine can help improve your overall quality of life. One study showed that patients with OCD experienced an immediate reduction in symptoms following exercise. Over a 12-week period, patients noticed a significant reduction in the frequency and severity of symptoms.
Chemical Changes in the Brain
Exercise can also have a direct impact on your brain and how it functions. Studies show that during exercise, the brain may experience new connections between neurons. One theory is that this occurs because physical activity triggers the brain to release “growth factors” that aid in neuron connections. The belief is that these connections can help reduce OCD symptoms. Additionally, exercise triggers the brain to release “feel good” endorphins like dopamine and serotonin which help reduce stress, promote happiness, and improve your overall mood.
Increased Confidence and Self-Awareness
Mental illness can take a toll on your self-esteem and overall sense of self. An OCD diagnosis may leave you feeling ashamed, depressed, and defeated. A boost in confidence can help you feel more prepared to tackle your condition and make the positive lifestyle changes you need to ease symptoms and live a productive life. Exercise can provide that much-needed confidence boost plus, help you become more self-aware.
When you’re in tune with your thoughts and feelings, you’re much more likely to notice negative or intrusive thoughts and address them before they get out of control. By incorporating physical activity into your daily routine, you’ll notice positive changes both physically and mentally. Increased confidence can help reduce stress, which is a major trigger of OCD behaviors. The best part is that you exercise in the comfort of your own home.
Sometimes, you just need a distraction from the overwhelming flood of thoughts crowding your mind. Intrusive and unwanted thoughts are a common symptom of all types of OCD and, most times, feel uncontrollable. As you work to get a better handle on these thoughts and fears, you can use exercise as a much-needed mental distraction.
Try performing a vigorous physical activity at least twice a week. This form of exercise usually takes your full attention, making it difficult to focus on other things – including the intrusive thoughts threatening to consume your mind. Exercise can offer a much-needed mental break from the unwelcome obsessions and compulsions you may be experiencing. It also provides you with a sense of control over your symptoms and your life, which is extremely empowering and another way to elevate your self-esteem
Using Exercise as a Tool for Improved Mental Health
Exercise has long been praised as a way to help reduce stress, increase confidence, and maintain a healthy weight. But exercise offers benefits far beyond a chiseled body and attractive appearance. It can help improve your mental health and overall sense of wellbeing. It can also offer relief from OCD symptoms that are controlling your life.
Choose a physical activity that’s both pleasurable and challenging. The mere act of taking control of your life will increase your confidence and reduce anxiety levels. It can also help ward off the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors associated with all forms of OCD.