OCD and trauma are deeply intertwined for many individuals. Often traumatic experiences may trigger or worsen OCD symptoms. Understanding the connection between the two promotes more effective treatment, better outcomes, and relief from distress.
Whether endured during childhood or adulthood, trauma leaves profound scars. The emotional, mental, and physical impacts can ripple through a person's life. You may feel a range of emotions or reactions, from intense fear and sadness to numbness and dissociation. Trauma can shatter a sense of safety and trust, making it difficult to form healthy relationships or regulate emotions. You may relive the event through intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks, leading to anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Distressing experiences can also rewire the brain and change areas responsible for memory, emotion regulation, and stress response. It may disrupt a child's brain development affecting learning, relationships, stress-management, and decision-making. Adult survivors may find themselves in a constant state of fight-or-flight, affecting their health and ability to function.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic mental health condition involving obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive, distressing thoughts, images, or urges that repeatedly cause intense anxiety. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts used to reduce distress caused by obsessions.
You may find yourself trapped in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions that consumes your time and energy. The constant need to perform rituals or seek reassurance can be exhausting and disruptive. It likely interferes with your daily functioning, relationships, and overall quality of life.
There is not a single identified cause of OCD, but distressing experiences can play a significant role in its development. One study conducted with individuals with OCD found that 61% of participants experienced stressful life events before the onset, and nearly 57% had traumatic experiences within 1 month before the onset. Another study reported that 19% and 31% of U.S. adults with PTSD also have OCD.
For individuals predisposed to OCD, trauma may be a catalyst for its development. Consider if someone goes through a frightening event, like a car accident. Their brain might react by trying to regain control as a way to feel safe again. In some cases, this need for control can turn into obsessive thoughts or behaviors. They might excessively check that the doors are locked or count. These actions become a way to cope with the anxiety and fear stemming from the trauma. They may initially ease anxiety but can develop into OCD as they become more persistent and disruptive. In a sense, OCD might be similar to a protective strategy in response to a trauma.
OCD does not have one specific trigger. Experts believe that a combination of factors contribute to an increased risk of developing the condition including:
Symptoms of OCD may fluctuate in severity over time and be influenced by various factors including:
Not everyone with OCD has experienced trauma, and vice versa. However, understanding the link between OCD and trauma can aid in early detection and effective intervention. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is treatable, and options may include a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and coping strategies. Effective treatment can provide you with the support and tools needed to regain control over your life and reduce distressing symptoms.
Dr. David Zacharias provides compassionate OCD treatment in the greater Seattle area and virtually for all of Washington state. With over 20 years of experience, Dr. Zacharias understands that effective treatment depends on trauma-informed care. Whether it's diagnostic assessment, therapy, or medication management, you'll receive empowering, evidence-based services at Existential Psychiatry.
Ready to find relief from OCD symptoms? Reach out today to schedule a free consultation with Dr. Zacharias.
Written by Existential Psychiatry Staff
Murayama, K., et al. "Impacts of Stressful Life Events and Traumatic Experiences on Onset of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry, December 3, 2020. Accessed September 25, 2023.
Wadsworth, L., et al. "Understanding the overlap between OCD and trauma: development of the OCD trauma timeline interview (OTTI) for clinical settings." Current Psychology, July 23, 2021. Accessed September 25, 2023.