As discussed in previous blogs, college can be a very demanding time. In addition to being away from friends and family, it’s the first time you must learn to live with people you don’t know (or don’t care to know), find some semblance of structure in an environment that is seemingly devoid of it, take on a plethora of new responsibilities, and cope with immense academic pressure. Consequently, this can worsen existing mental health symptoms. If you or someone that you love is living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it’s important to have a supportive plan for when it’s time to move away to college.  

OCD Defined

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, OCD is a neurobiological disorder in which a person has recurring, pervasive thoughts (obsessions) that drive them to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). For example, a student living with OCD may have fears, feelings, or urges related to having an assignment perfectly written (obsession). As a result, the student erases and rewrites his words repeatedly until it looks perfect (compulsion). 

Students living with OCD may also have obsessions about:

  • Relationships
  • Appearance
  • Contamination
  • Morality
  • Religion
  • Illness and Injury
  • Locations 

If you are experiencing OCD or are the parent of a student with OCD, it is crucial to have a plan for the transition to college. Here are some proactive steps to take for a successful transition into college living: 

Find OCD resources/treatment plans before classes begin

Many colleges offer on-campus mental health resources in the form of counseling centers or student health services that provide a variety of free and low-cost services. Additionally, if campus support doesn’t end up being the right fit for you, a local therapist, focused on exposure and response prevention (ERP), a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help. In ERP therapy sessions, a therapist guides you through a systematic exposure to your obsessions. Throughout this process, the therapist gives you concrete tools to face compulsions as they arise. Having a therapist before the start of college can be exceedingly beneficial as it allows you to anticipate some triggers and manage any triggers that may arise throughout the school year. 

Avoid alcohol and drug use

It is no secret that alcohol and drugs appeal to many people for several reasons, most notably the sense of euphoria and relaxation. If you are living with OCD, the euphoric sensation or relaxed mood may seem like a much-needed escape from your symptoms. However, alcohol and drug use can culminate in a worsening of OCD symptoms (e.g., reduced ability to resist compulsive behaviors, impaired ability to stop obsessive thoughts, etc.). Given the prevalence of alcohol and drug use in college, it is important for students with OCD to treat these substances with caution and consult with their therapist and/or primary healthcare provider beforehand. 

Manage stress appropriately 

Although stress does not cause OCD, it can definitely trigger or worsen symptoms, especially during transitional periods of life such as college. Manage your stress by consuming a nutritious diet, establishing and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, exercising, practicing mindfulness, and scheduling leisure time. 

College can be a very exciting yet demanding time for everyone, especially if you are living with OCD. Many students will face an array of stressful situations that may trigger their OCD symptoms and worsen them to the point of academic failure. It is crucial for students with OCD to be informed about local OCD resources and treatment plans while avoiding substance use and managing their stress appropriately. By taking these proactive steps, students living with OCD can have an excellent experience in college. If you are currently a student living with OCD and need further help in managing your symptoms, our specially-trained therapists at Pacific CBT are here for you. Contact us today to schedule a free, 15-minute video consultation. 




About the Author: Christian Wertman currently works as a behavior therapist in the field of applied behavior analysis. Christian received his Bachelor’s degree in psychology from San Francisco State University and has aspirations for a career in clinical psychology.

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