Can You Treat OCD Without Medication? Alternative Treatments

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an often debilitating condition that can harm a person’s quality of life. According to diagnostic interview data from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, an estimated 1.2 percent of adults in the United States had OCD. In the past year, the prevalence rate for females was higher at 1.8 percent, whereas men were 0.5 percent. The lifetime prevalence of the condition among adults in the United States was 2.3 percent.

Of those adults surveyed in the past year, the degree of impairment ranged from mild to severe. Among those with OCD, about 50.6 percent had a severe impairment, while another 34.8 percent of adults had moderate impairment, and 14.6 reported a mild impairment.

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a common, chronic, and long-lasting condition where a person has recurring and uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) or behaviors (compulsions) they feel the urge to repeat over and over. It’s an anxiety disorder that physicians routinely treat with benzodiazepine drugs. However, due to their strength and potential for addiction, many people opt against these medications in fear of their side effects or how they make them feel.

If left untreated, OCD dramatically affects people’s lives by filling them with irrational, relentless, intrusive thoughts and images and time-consuming repetitive or elaborate, compulsive behaviors. Despite how debilitating it can be, OCD responds to non-medical behavioral therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). For most people, CBT must be considered as the first-line treatment for the condition. CBT for OCD has been shown to change brain activity the same way as medication, but it is more effective, has no risk like drugs, and has a much lower relapse rate.

The most common signs and symptoms of OCD include the following:


These are repeated urges, thoughts, or mental images that cause anxiety. The common symptoms include:

  • Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts that involve religion, harm, or sex
  • Aggressive thoughts toward self or others
  • Fear of contamination or germs
  • Having things in a perfect order


These are repetitive behaviors that someone with OCD feels the need to do in response to an obsessive thought. The common symptoms include:

  • Arranging and ordering things in a specific, precise way
  • Excessive hand washing or cleaning
  • Compulsive counting
  • Repeatedly checking on things, such as repeatedly checking to see if the oven is off or the door is locked.

Not all habits or rituals are compulsions. Everyone double checks things from time to time. However, someone with OCD does the following:

  • They can’t control their behaviors or thoughts, even when these behaviors or thoughts are recognized as excessive.
  • They experience significant issues in their daily lives because of these behaviors or thoughts.
  • They spend an hour or more stuck on these behaviors or thoughts.
  • They do not experience pleasure or relief when performing these rituals or behaviors but may feel brief relief from the anxiety.


How to Beat OCD Without Drugs

Chemical relief isn’t always a sought-out option, and those who feel that way will seek alternatives. As was mentioned above, cognitive-behavioral therapy is a solid option as a means to avoid medication. The foundation of CBT for OCD involves exposure and response (or ritual) prevention (ERP).

Despite its simplicity, ERP is not easy. It’s not complicated, per se, but it requires a great deal of psychological effort. This is why motivation for change is the primary predictor of success. ERP requires absolute determination and grit.

At its core, OCD behaviors are counterproductive efforts to maintain or increase a sense of safety when someone feels at risk, threatened, or in danger. However, the safety-seeking actions actually lead to worsening anxiety because of something called negative reinforcement, which isn’t to be confused with punishment. In the simplest terms, the maladaptive safety-seeking behavior of OCD is escape, avoidance, and reassurance seeking.

  • Escape: Escape is considered doing a ritual. This is a behavior or action that’s done in response to anxiety to try and neutralize it. These behaviors can be observable or overt and include checking, washing, arranging, cleaning, repeating, or moving a specific way. Rituals might also be covert or private, such as changing certain images or thoughts into less threatening ones or thinking particular thoughts.
  • Avoidance: Efforts that are aimed at not experiencing or not facing an anxiety-triggering stimulus, such as an event, thing, or situation that causes anxiety.
  • Reassurance-seeking: Reassurance-seeking is when someone asks questions to have others provide comfort and confirm nothing is happening and that everything is fine. In some cases, it might involve seeking reassurance from social media and internet searches or phone calls to the hospital or police.

The safety-seeking behaviors mentioned above associated with OCD actually strengthen anxiety and move people toward feeling more insecure or worried. OCD is referred to as “the doubting disease” because, at its core, are deep feelings of doubting crucial aspects of safety. An OCD sufferer is compelled to increase feelings of things that are safe and reduce doubt. Unfortunately, this worsens the illness by engaging in maladaptive rituals that adversely reinforce it.

Lifestyle and Home Remedies

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is chronic in nature, meaning it will always be a part of your life in one way or another. Although OCD warrants treatment by a medical professional, you can always try some things for yourself and build upon the treatment. You should never give up and always be working toward getting better.

Although it may feel like things won’t ever get better, with the proper support and effort, you can lead a normal life with this condition.

  • Practice what you learn: Work alongside your mental health professionals to identify skills and techniques that will further manage your symptoms. Once you find a plan or something that works, continue practicing these regularly. Remember the saying—practice makes perfect.
  • Take medication as directed: For some, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes will be enough to manage their symptoms. However, others may need medication to treat their symptoms. While it’s possible to manage OCD without a prescription, it may be necessary. If that’s the case, you should follow the instructions and resist temptations to skip your medication. If you stop, symptoms are likely to return even if you’re feeling well.
  • Pay attention to warning signs: Pay attention to what triggers your OCD symptoms. Always have a plan in place to know what to do if your symptoms return.
  • Join a support group: Reach out to others who are struggling with these challenges – they might have answers you hadn’t heard of before.
  • Find healthy outlets: Explore healthy routes to channel your energy, like exercising and other recreational activities. Eating a healthy diet and sleeping well can also help.
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