In our society, steady routines tend to be seen as a virtue. Routines keep people on a healthy regimen and promote results. We see dozens of videos chronicling morning routines and makeup routines. However, having routines and rituals can be detrimental for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD might experience uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions). Then, in an effort to relieve the anxiety that comes from these thoughts, the person may perform specific behaviors (compulsions). It can become an endless cycle. Due to OCD that’s how I felt about many of my daily routines, skin care included.
A skin-care routine can be triggering for someone with OCD for a variety of reasons
“Our brains are not all wired the same,” says New York psychotherapist and OCD specialist Aliza Shapiro. For example, if someone is prone to depression, seeing a really sad movie may trigger a depressive episode. In someone else who saw the same movie, sad emotions may arise for a few hours but then gently pass, she explains. For those diagnosed with OCD, engaging in activities that require “precision, order or detail can be challenging because those are often core features of untreated OCD.” A skin-care routine is simple and mindless for many but “can become reminiscent of unhealthy habits, checking patterns, and hour-long rituals for someone who struggles with this diagnosis.”
Since OCD has a handful of subtypes, the exact reason someone might struggle with a skin-care routine could vary. “Those with OCD may experience ‘just right’ obsessions, looming thoughts and feelings of something not ‘feeling right or complete,’ followed by re-doing compulsions such as doing that same thing over and over again until the internal sense of ‘rightness’ is achieved,” explains New York therapist and OCD specialist Alegra Kastens. “If a step of the skin-care routine doesn’t feel right, a person might restart the entire routine over until it does feel right. This might happen repeatedly, leading a person to avoid skin care altogether because of how time-consuming and difficult it is.”
Those who struggle with emotional contamination might re-do a skin-care step if an unwanted thought arose during the step, says Kastens. To that person, the step might be seen as “contaminated” by the thought. This can lead them to redo it compulsively to ensure a “clean, pure” experience during the skin-care routine, she explains.
Another way OCD can interfere with skin care is through magical thinking, which can plague those with the condition. It’s “the belief that thoughts or actions have the power to influence the world and make something happen when they are not related to the world in a realistic way,” says Kastens. This can show up with skin care in the form of routines. “If I don’t do skin care in this order, something bad will happen,” she explains. Doing something out of order, even one step if they don’t have time for the full routine, can be triggering. This could lead them to skip it altogether. These are just a few of the ways OCD can impact a skin-care routine. Because everyone’s brain works differently, there are many more possible situations.
For a while, I could only manage to wash my face in the shower and throw on a quick moisturizer. The idea of creating more room for compulsions to crop up was unsettling. It could make me late for work and even be vomit-inducing. Many people love regimented daily routines; they find them comforting and effective. However, for me and others with OCD, they can easily trigger symptoms.
Working towards a healthy skin-care routine with OCD
It can seem easiest to just skip the routine altogether, but that’s not healthy for our skin or minds. Shapiro says we shouldn’t necessarily avoid practices that trigger struggles with mental health. “On the contrary, if we’re aware of how our personal brain chemistry works and how our own neural pathways are wired (or need to be rewired), we can be smart about how we engage in all aspects of health and wellness so that they work to our advantage and not against,” she explains. This advice can be helpful for any routine a person with OCD is struggling with, from cooking to work processes.
The first step for me was mixing up my routine, which was stress-inducing at first. The skin-cycling trend is actually very applicable here, as it encourages you to swap products on different days. I was only able to finally have a skin-care “routine” by not necessarily doing the same routine each day, making it less likely for me to get caught up in the ritualistic nature of it. A brightening serum one night, retinol the next. I switch up my cleansers a few days a week, which offer different benefits. Skin care is easier without the entrapment of a routine and triggers are less common.
If you have OCD, the best way to come to a place of peace with your routine is through treatment. “Specialized OCD treatment, like Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), can help a person work through the OCD and re-engage with what is meaningful,” says Kastens.
While this technique is challenging, as it gradually exposes a person to the exact things making them anxious, it’s the gold standard in OCD treatment. Regular talk therapy can actually exacerbate symptoms. When “treating OCD (especially for those struggling with subtypes like ‘just right OCD,’ perfectionism or order/symmetry OCD), individuals learn how to get comfortable deviating from routine, and accepting imperfections instead of fixating on them,” explains Shapiro.
Additionally, Kastens says, “Values-based living, letting our values guide us and not our fear, can also be helpful. If a skin-care routine is valuable, can we move toward that without letting anxiety call the shots?” If you struggle with routines or have OCD tendencies, seeing a professional that specializes in OCD can be beneficial.