April 23, 2024
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Treating OCD and Anxiety … With Color War and Summer Camp?

(Courtesy of Riding the Wave) For kids who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and for their families, there’s nothing fun about the diagnosis. OCD is a chronic, time-consuming mental health condition that can affect someone all hours of the day and in all areas of their life, turning activities that are simple for others into hours-long internal battles against paralyzing, all-consuming fears. When the person suffering is a child, it impacts everyone in the family, with parents especially affected and often at a loss for how to help their child.

OCD is named for the unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that an individual experiences and the repetitive behaviors or mental acts the person feels compelled to do (compulsions) to combat the thoughts. This cycle of obsessions and compulsions is distressing to the person having them, and impairs their daily functioning—in fact, both of those are criteria that need to be met for the individual to receive the diagnosis.

So how do therapists help people with OCD? The answer might surprise you.

The gold standard treatment for OCD is called exposure and response prevention (ERP), a type of therapy in which clients are encouraged to face the very things of which they are so afraid. To use a fictional example, let’s say Chaya is petrified of getting herself and others sick. Her OCD has convinced her that if she avoids touching doorknobs, she will be safe. The “exposure” piece of ERP means that Chaya’s therapist will gradually expose Chaya to doorknobs and to the possibility of getting sick. The “response prevention” part means that the therapist helps Chaya touch the doorknob without engaging in any compulsive behaviors, like scrutinizing the doorknob to see if there are any fingerprints there.

Sound simple? It’s not. ERP is an incredibly difficult treatment method—but it’s also incredibly effective.

So how do therapists, who have a hard enough time convincing adults to face their fears, get children with OCD to stick with ERP? That’s a question for Dr. Devora Scher, a psychologist who specializes in treating pediatric OCD and anxiety.

“ERP is all about working hard and playing hard,” she said. “My school psychology background provides me with an understanding of the lives of children and has taught me how to make therapy as engaging (and fun!) as possible. Sure, the work can be challenging—and it can also be incredibly engaging. We spend a lot of time practicing our skills in day-to-day life. A pediatric ERP session often involves games, crafts and related activities to promote brave behavior.”

Dr. Scher decided to take this combination of therapy and fun one step further: Instead of being limited by the typical structure of weekly, 45-minute sessions of therapy, a format that often interferes with school or extracurricular activities, why not condense the work into one weeklong therapy camp?

This brilliant idea has resulted in the creation of Riding the Wave Summer Camp, a camp being run this summer for the first time by Dr. Scher and Dr. Jeremy Lichtman, himself a psychologist specializing in OCD and anxiety disorders for the past decade. The camp will be run August 26-30, when summer camps have ended and school hasn’t yet started.

Dr. Lichtman shared his passion for the camp: “As a lifelong camp-goer myself, I know camp can be an incredible opportunity to meet and hang out with other kids without the stress of school. However, for a kid with OCD, that fun time can be marred by their symptoms, or they can feel alienated or distanced from their peers. This camp is an opportunity for kids with OCD to meet other kids who struggle like they do; have fun in an environment that is understanding of their struggles, while also learning from expertly trained staff how to face their OCD fears and see just how much stronger they are than their OCD symptoms might lead them to believe.”

So how exactly does summer camp help treat OCD? The name of the camp, Riding the Wave, comes from the metaphor ERP therapists use for learning how to sit with the discomfort of facing your fear, and of riding the wave of the anxiety to its peak through to the natural drop that follows. Every activity, from arts and crafts to pizza outings, has been designed to help campers target specific fears, obsessions and anxieties. If, for example, one camper struggles with a fear of eating in a public restaurant, and another has social anxiety around meals, one trip to the local pizza shop will help these campers face their respective fears.

And they won’t be doing it alone: Each camper at Riding the Wave will be paired with a therapist or graduate student with direct training in ERP.

Dr. Scher emphasized the importance of one-on-one attention: “With a 1:1 therapist camper ratio, and loads of warmth and support, our campers will be encouraged to courageously get comfortable with the uncomfortable, learning to ride waves of discomfort.”


Riding the Wave will be held in northern New Jersey from August 26-30. To learn more or sign up, visit www.centraltherapynj.com/camp or email [email protected].

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