By far the most common question I get to my blog email is how did you overcome your reading OCD? I’ve written about this flavor of OCD a couple times on my blog before (For the love of books (Reflections on OCD and reading) and Progress is Possible: An Update on Reading), but I’ve never gone into detail about the process of tackling it. Another email asking about it this week inspired me to write this so hopefully others can regain their love of reading just like I did.
First, what is reading OCD? For me the obsession focused on worrying that I hadn’t fully understood or memorized something I read. This was particularly a problem when I was reading something for school. This led to repetitively rereading passages and sentences over and over. It also led to avoiding reading because the whole process of reading was so stressful.
To overcome it I used exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP, just like I did to tackle all of my other obsessions and compulsions. I did this with the help of a professional trained specifically in ERP, which I highly recommend. If you aren’t able to find a professional or cannot afford to see one there are several great books about it, such as Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: A Personalized Recovery Program for Living with Uncertainty, by Jonathan Grayson, but I still recommend doing ERP with a trained professional above all else. (For help finding a professional trained in ERP visit https://iocdf.org/find-help/.)
Long story short ERP is about gradually facing your fears and sitting with the anxiety while it comes down on its own without doing any compulsions. Sounds hard? It sure is, but it works, and the key is it gets easier the more your practice. Pretty soon you habituate to the discomfort of the anxiety and your anxiety comes down rather quickly.
So what exposures did I do for reading OCD? Here are some specific examples of things I did.
- Covering what I had read with a piece of paper, so I physically couldn’t reread
- Reading with a (gradually decreasing) time limit and stopping when time was up whether or not I finished the reading
- Speed reading and then being verbally quizzed on what I read
- Purposely skipping sentences and eventually paragraphs of what I was reading
- Doing exposures first with low stakes reading and working up to higher stakes school reading
- Reading often, rather than avoiding, so I got lots of practice and being extremely diligent about not letting myself reread
As I mentioned, ERP is incredibly tough, but it is also incredibly effective and worthwhile. I’m so grateful I have regained the ability to read normally both for pleasure and for school. Take it slow, and be proud of progress, no matter how small it might seem. Baby steps get bigger, and things can get better.