Treating Sensorimotor OCD (AKA Somatic OCD)

Sensorimotor OCD (also known as Somatic OCD) refers to cases in which people become hyperaware of their bodily sensations, such as their breathing, swallowing, or heartbeat.  While this might not sound so bad to someone who hasn’t experienced it, it can be profoundly distressing.

Like with Pure O, the key to treating Sensorimotor OCD isn’t in the Exposure, but rather in the Response Prevention.

Someone with Sensorimotor OCD typically engages in three different mental processes, all of which are compulsions that perpetuate the problem, and all of which are controllable:

  • Trying not to notice the sensation
  • Checking/monitoring whether they are noticing the sensation
  • Analyzing/trying to figure out how to stop noticing the sensation

The way out of Sensorimotor OCD is to:

  • Stop checking/monitoring
  • Stop analyzing/trying to figure out how to stop noticing the sensation
  • BUT! Not try to stop yourself from noticing

Checking/monitoring and analyzing/problem-solving are both controllable types of thinking.  In other words, if you try to stop doing them, you can stop.

But noticing is not a controllable type of thinking.  You can’t stop yourself from noticing something, and if you try to stop, you’ll just end up thinking about it more.

In case you’re confused about the idea that you can’t control noticing but you can control monitoring, consider what it’s like when you see someone attractive:

Can you prevent yourself from noticing them?  No.

But can you prevent yourself from following them with your eyes?  Yes you can.

The same applies to bodily sensations: 

  • You can’t stop yourself from noticing them
  • But you can stop yourself from monitoring them and monitoring your awareness of them
  • Trying not to notice them will make you feel frustrated and will keep your attention on the sensations
  • But trying not to monitor them will allow your attention to eventually shift away from them
  • Similarly, refraining from analyzing/problem-solving will allow your attention to eventually shift away from them

Just keep in mind that as soon as someone with Sensorimotor OCD notices the sensation, they immediately launch into analyzing/trying to figure out how to stop noticing it, and it requires practice to accept noticing without launching into analyzing/problem-solving.

In summary:

Noticing is okay.  Noticing is not the issue.  Focus your efforts on refraining from monitoring and problem-solving.

If you stop fighting against the things you can’t control and start fighting against the things you can, you’ll be feeling much better very soon.