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Can OCD make you angry? An expert’s view

7 min read
Dr. Keara Valentine
Can OCD make you angry

Anger is complicated. Everyone gets mad or upset from time to time, but it’s an emotion that doesn’t feel good, and can easily swallow you up and get out of hand. You might worry if your anger is normal—especially if you have a mental health issue like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

There are many reasons why you may experience anger along with your OCD. First, however, let’s back up and take a quick look at what OCD is. The condition is characterized by unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, urges or feelings, called obsessions, and physical or mental behaviors that are done to try to alleviate them, which are compulsions.

In addition to these core symptoms, OCD can cause a wide range of other problems, including episodes of frustration, anger, and even rage that result from your obsessions and compulsions. A study published in the Industrial Psychology Journal, for example, found that 50% of people with OCD experience anger attacks—defined as a sudden surge of rage that may also cause symptoms like a rapid heartbeat, sweating, flushing, or feeling out of control.

So, does living with OCD always mean you’re extra prone to anger? And how can you manage the condition and get a handle on your temper? Read on for the answers to these questions and more. 

Reasons you could be angry if you have OCD

It’s worth repeating that while anger isn’t a core symptom of OCD, it can be closely related to many people’s experiences with the condition. Some of the most common reasons for anger occurring in people with OCD may include:

The never-ending sense of uncertainty, stress, and frustration that these feelings can evoke when you have OCD can lead to compulsions that are often performed to gain a sense of control over your fears, doubts, and the potential for unwanted outcomes. But they only offer temporary relief. Time after time, the obsessions and worries return, leading to the same urge to engage in compulsions to get rid of them.

It can be extremely frustrating to feel like you don’t have control over your own feelings —or perhaps even your own actions. But with OCD, the fear that something terrible is lurking around the corner makes safety-seeking compulsions feel unavoidable, even when you try hard to resist them. This can lead to bouts of rage. Getting interrupted when performing compulsions may cause an anger attack specifically directed at the interruption, which can put a strain on your relationships. 

Similarly, if you’re performing compulsions for relief from your obsessions and it feels like they are never “quite right,” this can lead to bouts of intense anger. Remember: If you have OCD, the stakes can feel disproportionately high—like something terrible will happen if you don’t perform your compulsions. You can become extremely fearful if your compulsions don’t go as expected, and that worry can quickly spiral into rage, even if it doesn’t have a specific target.

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What’s the best way to manage my anger if I have OCD?

When someone with OCD experiences anger or rage, it can be scary, and may even make you or your loved ones feel unsafe. These feelings may include aggressive or worrying behavior, and often lead to self-punishing behaviors that are particularly worrying to the people who care about you. It’s easy to understand why these anger attacks occur, but it’s not as easy to feel like they are manageable. 

But they are. Here are four strategies that you can use to understand your anger, respond better when it arises, and feel more in control of your OCD over time.

4 strategies for managing anger in OCD

1. Learn not to engage with your obsessions.

This may sound impossible, but it’s a real skill that’s important to develop. The most successful treatment for OCD is a form of behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP)

With ERP, a trained therapist who specializes in OCD will take the time to understand your symptoms and create a custom plan for you. Then, you’ll work together to rank your fears or triggers based on how stressful they seem. To begin with, your therapist may ask you to face a fear that brings on only a mild amount of distress. The point is to slowly expose you to the things that cause you anxiety, and then help you learn to ride that roller coaster of emotion over the top and down the other side without engaging in compulsions. By making this conscious choice and seeing that nothing bad occurs, or realizing that you handled the discomfort better than you thought you could, your brain gets the message that there was nothing to fear in the first place.

As your therapy progresses, you’ll tackle triggers that elicit a bit more distress, to conquer bigger fears. This therapy can be transformative. In many cases, you won’t be riddled with distress from intrusive thoughts, images, or urges. Your need to engage in compulsions goes away. And the things that matter the most to you won’t feel like they’re at risk of slipping away.  For instance, when you spend time with a loved one, you’ll be able to focus on the connection between the two of you—rather than on whether the salt and pepper shakers on the table are in a perfectly straight line. In essence, you’ll get to live a life that’s free from the grip of OCD.Working with an OCD specialist to address the thoughts and situations that cause you distress is more accessible than ever thanks to virtual ERP therapy. In fact, peer reviewed research shows live teletherapy sessions of ERP can be more effective, delivering results in less time than traditional outpatient ERP therapy, often in as little as 12 weeks.

2. Gain awareness of your anger.

Try to notice which situations tend to trigger anger, whether they’re specific intrusive thoughts, certain environments in your life, or particularly bothersome compulsions. By recognizing the situations that upset you, you and your loved ones can work together to come up with strategies to manage them.

3. Turn your frustration towards OCD, not yourself or others.

It’s never possible to be in perfect control of your emotions. Instead of trying to never feel angry, you may be able to channel your feelings in a different way. For example, by understanding that the root cause of your angry response is your OCD symptoms, you can use it as a motivating tool to fight back against the condition, and refuse to give it the satisfaction it demands through compulsions.

4. Do what you want to do.

You don’t want to feel angry—and you don’t actually want to be caught up in a vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions, either. Obsessions are what psychologists call ego dystonic, meaning that they oppose your values and intentions. By instead focusing on what your own values and intentions are and choosing to act based on what you truly want to do, you can keep anger from dominating your decisions and behaviors.

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Gary Vandalfsen

Gary Vandalfsen

Licensed Therapist, Psychologist

I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist for over twenty five years. My main area of focus is OCD with specialized training in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I use ERP to treat people with all types of OCD themes, including aggressive, taboo, and a range of other unique types.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

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