Caryn Gill, LPC

What is Inhibitory Learning?

If OCD is a teacher, it’s a really controlling one that has taught you a distorted set of rules and beliefs.

Don’t do this! Do it this way! Watch out for that! Beware! If you don’t do this ritual, then this terrible thing will happen! If you don’t watch out, then that shows me the kind of person you are!

Having that shape your experiences day in and day out can be so tiring. Thankfully, treatments like Exposure and Response Prevention can help you break free and bust out of the box that OCD has kept you in.

In the past, we thought that experiencing habituation, or a reduction in anxiety and distress over time, was the only way to get over OCD. The Habituation Model of ERP sees change as building a whole new blueprint in your brain– fear associations are fully replaced with new associations through habituation and extinction (where the obsessional fear goes away when you’re exposed to the fear over and over again, without rituals.) The Inhibitory Learning model differs from this in a few ways. Instead of replacing the OCD associations, ERP provides new associations that are stronger and more easily recalled than OCD. The lessons that OCD has taught you are inhibited by the new lessons you experience through ERP. In Inhibitory Learning, you don’t absolutely need to experience a reduction in anxiety to get better because the symptom reduction is actually attributed to the development of associations that overpower the OCD associations.

dirt path left by car tires on forest edge
Photo by Emmanuel Codden on

The Keys to Inhibitory Learning:

  1. Roll with the Anxiety: Instead of trying to make anxiety disappear (which can be tough), we learn how to ride the wave. It’s like being a cool surfer on the anxiety ocean, dude! The more we practice handling anxiety, the less it controls us. Instead of OCD being our master, you learn that you are its master.
  2. Expect the Unexpected: ERP throws a curveball at OCD by setting up experiments to test your OCD hypotheses. ERP teaches you through sheer experience that what you expected is actually not as likely or as costly to experience. It takes those beliefs and assumptions and turns them on their heads. It’s like a surprise party for our brain! This is what we refer to as expectancy violation— quite literally, it’s a violation of what is expected according to OCD.
  3. Dare to Be Bold: You know that voice that says, “Don’t do it! It’s too scary!” Well, ERP challenges that voice. It encourages us to face our fears a little more intensely and for a bit longer than we think we can handle. This important ingredient is what we refer to as desirable difficulties because it makes those experiences more memorable and more easily recalled the next time you come face to face with an obsessional trigger. When you go beyond what seems reasonable, then you become more ready to face life’s ups and downs without spiraling into compulsions.
  4. Mix It Up: By trying out different situations and places, we show OCD that we can handle it anywhere, anytime. Variety is a helpful way to learn those ERP lessons in many different ways, which helps that learning stick around longer than if you only learned that everything is okay in one or two instances.


Know that there’s hope! You can totally throw OCD into the backseat and reclaim the wheel of your life.

Want to know more? Check out my course Creating Your OCD Recovery Roadmap to learn about Inhibitory Learning and ERP in greater detail and practice these skills for yourself!

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