Mental Health

When OCD Comes Home for the Holidays


It’s that time of year again! If you live anywhere near me, the days are shorter, the, weather is colder, and the OCD is counting the ways it can get to you. It’s the most… (jingle jingle) obsessive tiiiime… (jingle jingle) of the yeeearrrrr…

The several weeks of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, or what some people call “Christmas,” can be especially challenging when you have OCD. Triggers you might normally avoid become inevitable, pressures to behave a certain way, to be joyful even, become intensified this time of year and can be overwhelming. Staying on top of your OCD-fighting skills and maximizing your ERP efforts can function as a preemptive strike that helps prevent relapse and backsliding as the year comes to a close. But it isn’t always so easy when the season ramps obsessions and anxiety up.

Any type of OCD can be exacerbated by the holiday season. Here are a few examples I’ve heard in clinical practice.

Contamination obsessions:

  • The holidays often involve cooking, spending long hours in closed quarters with raw meat, grease, and other things OCD likes to make an issue of.
  • Buying and wrapping presents, not knowing who touched them before you and exactly who will touch them after you and when – this can be low hanging fruitcake for OCD.
  • Being around family members and friends in your home or in theirs means not everyone knows where to put their jacket, where to sit, or whether to take off their shoes. The holidays can mean letting go of a lot of control.

Harm obsessions:

  • Being around knives and cookie cutters when you deal with intrusive violent thoughts can be extra challenging this time of year, especially when children and grandparents are around.
  • Being around lit candles, electric lights on trees, using ovens, overnight slow cookers, and other things that could have killed Jack Pearson on This Is Us means sitting with a variety of catastrophic hyper-responsibility thoughts and greater urges to check.
  • If you drink alcohol, you may be drinking more than usual, which comes with the OCD hangover and intrusive thoughts of what you “might have done” when you weren’t yourself.

Sexual obsessions:

  • If you struggle with intrusive sexual thoughts, exposure to nieces, nephews, and other children you might not usually be around can be extra triggering
  • Memorable calendar events can come with additional pressure to focus on your sexual or gender identity and seek certainty about who your OCD says you are

Religious obsessions:

  • If you’re not Christian, living in a predominantly Christian society this time of year means being constantly reminded of another religion. The lights sure are pretty, but OCD may make you wonder, does your religion allow you to recognize this fact or is that blasphemous?
  • If you don’t subscribe to a religion, the holidays can still stir up existential quandaries that suddenly seem important to solve.
  • If you are Christian, worshipping the almighty sale at Target can be a lot of fun, but your OCD may tell you that you’re sinfully disregarding the religious aspect of the holiday.

Moral and emotional obsessions:

  • Gift-giving and receiving can be hard for those with moral scrupulosity who may get stuck on whether the quality or sentiment of each gift they give correlates perfectly to what they receive.
  • Holiday OCD can sometimes generate excessive concern about not having the right emotions or memories, as if your mind’s job is to create the perfect holiday postcard each year in thought, feelings, and sensations.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and part of getting mastery over OCD is learning to marvel at its creativity with each new trigger. Here are a few tips on making the most of the weeks ahead:

Don’t let “Obsessive Christmas Disorder” get under your skin

Something about the holidays brings out the best and worst in people, and the worst in people can manifest as a store selling a sweater that says Obsessive Christmas Disorder or as jokes about being “sooo OCD” about holiday decorations. But if you actually have OCD, your cute little Christmas disorder probably looks more like you holding back tears at dinner because you think you did something sexually inappropriate by allowing yourself to finish wrapping your nephew’s present even though you had an intrusive thought half way into it. You absolutely can speak up and let the purveyors of this nonsense know how insulting they are being, but only do so if this empowers you and feels like a skillful use of your attention. You are no less cool if you just shrug it off and tend to other things you value.

Don’t get better for the calendar’s sake

The holidays also come with a lot of internal pressure to “get better” before the year ends so you’re not starting another year with your unwanted thoughts and rituals. This pressure only exacerbates your symptoms and makes you feel more like a failure. Nothing actually happens between December 31st and January 1st. The Earth just completes another revolution around the sun. But it sure feels like an opportunity you’re destined to miss somehow. Stay the course with your ERP and treatment in general. Fight as hard as you always do against the disorder, but don’t go on some sort of OCD diet you’ll end up rebounding from. The calendar doesn’t care about your story.

Give yourself the gift of support

If you have friends or family who know about your OCD, this would be a good time to let them know December may be especially challenging for you. Knowing that there is a safe, non-judgmental person to confide in can make a huge difference. Therapists are good for this too, I am told. Now is not the time to take a break from therapy if you don’t have to. If you can, keep your distance from that family member or friend who puts you down or uses your OCD to shame you, and lean harder on the people who get it and can help you navigate the challenges that come up. To be clear, this doesn’t mean asking for more reassurance. Quite the opposite, it looks more like letting those you normally seek reassurance from to remind you of your treatment goals and empower you to stick to them.

Don’t overprotect memories

The most common pitfall I see in clients with OCD around the holidays is trying too hard to make sure the memory of the event is pure and clean. Maybe your OCD is the most memorable part of some holiday years ago and you desperately don’t want to relive that again. Or maybe your mind is telling you that you have to hoard each memory of the holiday because you’ll want to look back on it like a mental scrapbook and know it was a great season. Like any form of OCD, trying to control the thoughts we have simply opens the gates to the thoughts we don’t want to have. So if this Hanukkah is the one where you thought about burning the house down with the menorah, or this Christmas you thought about feeding contaminated cookies to your children, know that these thoughts only have as much power as you give them. If you want good memories of the holidays, create good strategies for responding to OCD.

Stay on top of your meditation game

It all goes by so fast. 2018 is almost over and one day someone will read this blog and say, “2018? I remember back then. We still had wires to plug things in back then. What a joke! Alexa, make me a sandwich!” It all goes by so fast, in part, because we are distracted. We simply aren’t there for some significant part of the adventure because we’re lost in thought, lost in stories, lost in ritualistic strategies to get rid of anxiety and uncertainty. Being mindful means being present for the whole show, acknowledging your five senses and your stories as objects of attention in the present. The best way to strengthen your ability to recognize when you’re lost in distraction is to meditate. Don’t let all the shopping, cooking, and visiting relatives keep you from practicing this skill. Take your time to step out and at least get a quick session in every day. When you come back, you’ll get more out of your experience.

Let self-compassion be your ugly sweater

When stress goes up, OCD goes up, and if the holidays and your OCD leave you out in the cold, wrap yourself in self-compassion. Corny, I know, but ‘tis the season. All of this pressure to be joyous and grateful and jolly can make you feel like a real piece of garbage sometimes. But if you remember that it’s actually ok to treat yourself like you might treat your best friend, you’ll fare a lot better. What about all the compulsions you’re not giving into right now? Who’s going to give you credit for that if not you? Instead of beating yourself up, you can take a beat to acknowledge that sometimes it really is just this hard to battle OCD. The reason isn’t because you’re a failure. It’s this hard because you’re actually trying to break free of OCD’s “danger programming” and trying to show up for the occasion when the disorder wants you all to itself. Invite yourself to do something helpful when you’re feeling stuck, whatever that means to you. Whether it’s reaching out for additional support, letting up on self-criticism when you’re feeling triggered, or taking the opportunity to dive into exposures to your fears, self-compassion offers more than simply “getting through” the holidays.

So may the days between now and a month from now be characterized by empowerment, self-kindness, and good fortune on the journey to overcome OCD! Also, stay out of chimneys. That looks dangerous.

  • Jon Hershfield, MFT

    Director, The Center for OCD and Anxiety
    Anxiety Disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)