Living with OCD can be a completely debilitating experience. Even when someone is living in recovery from OCD, the scars left from years, even decades, of suffering can be difficult to deal with.
That’s why I’m often asked: “Does OCD cause trauma?” In other words, can living with this disorder constitute a traumatic experience? I think it is important to understand what we mean by the word trauma, because it can sometimes be used inaccurately, and in many cases it refers to a specific diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For the purposes of this article, we will define trauma as a deeply disturbing or upsetting experience that produces a lasting emotional response—feeling traumatized by one’s experiences with OCD doesn’t necessarily mean that one has PTSD, although people may have both conditions simultaneously.
The experience of OCD
The experience of having OCD is something that isn’t talked about enough. It’s not hard to hear what it is and what it isn’t in clinical terms, but it’s more difficult to express the raw, unedited workings of this illness.
OCD personalizes its attack to each person: it knows who they are, what they value, and what brings meaning and joy into their lives and then it gets to work. It has one goal: to cause doubt and fear. As a result, OCD can target the very core of what a person values. It finds a window of opportunity and seizes it.
This blurred line between one’s own personality and OCD can play a pivotal role in how someone identifies with themselves and the outside world. We know that many people who are later diagnosed with OCD can look back on their childhood and see long patterns of OCD behaviors and symptoms. During childhood and adolescence, we are formulating our sense of self and how we interact with the wider world. If this experience is tainted by OCD, it’s clear how trauma responses could arise.
In my own journey of having OCD as a very young child, I discuss the impact that this illness would have on my self-esteem and ultimately my self-worth. As a child, one doesn’t have insight into their mental health and can’t distinguish “normal” behaviors from maladaptive ones, leading them to internalize everything they experience as a part of who they are.
OCD, at its center, deceives individuals into believing that their intrusive thoughts are ‘real’. It bullies them into a false state of panic that they are somehow damaged or ‘bad’ because they are having these thoughts, feelings, urges, or images. It screams at them that this ‘must’ mean something. Children, in particular, are ill-equipped to handle this onslaught of emotions.
Misdiagnosis and improper treatment
As horrible as the suffering caused by OCD can be, it often only gets worse the longer it’s left without proper, effective treatment. Many sufferers will go years living with OCD and not knowing due to false information and stigma surrounding this disorder—in fact, it commonly takes up to 17 years after experiencing symptoms before a person gets effective treatment for OCD.
These are very important years. These can be years that are spent in self-loathing, feeling alone, isolated, and unaware that one even has a mental health condition. Instead, many may believe that their thoughts reflect their own intentions or values, wreaking havoc on their self-worth and identity.
Over the course of time, many people with OCD will also experience co-occurring mental health conditions, sometimes as a secondary result of OCD. Comorbidity with major depressive disorder is common, affecting more than one third of OCD sufferers. We also know that OCD increases significantly the odds of having suicidal ideation and attempts over when compared to the general population, which speaks to the immense toll that the condition can take.
Healing from the traumatic experience of OCD
Living with OCD, whether for years or months, can have a long-lasting effect on a person’s self-esteem and sense of identity. Many who have been misdiagnosed or mistreated, and those with severe comorbidities, can experience even greater suffering.
If you or someone you know has experienced OCD, please know that you are not alone. There is help. There is hope. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold standard in OCD treatment, validated by decades of clinical research proving its effectiveness.
We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs, allowing us to provide the best care for our members. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment.