Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by a cycle of unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, urges or feelings—known as obsessions—and physical or mental behaviors called compulsions.
But in addition to these core symptoms that define the disorder, OCD can cause a wide range of other experiences. If you or a loved one has OCD, you may be familiar with episodes of frustration, anger, and even rage that result from obsessions and compulsions. You’re not alone in this: one study found that 50% of people with OCD experience anger attacks.
So, is anger a central symptom of OCD? Does living with OCD always cause one to become angry? How can people with OCD learn to manage their condition and the resulting angry episodes? There are quite a few reasons why you may experience anger alongside your OCD—let’s explore the relationship between the condition and it’s lesser-known symptom.
What can cause anger in people with OCD?
While anger isn’t listed as a core symptom of OCD in diagnosis or management, 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:
- Constant stress and anxiety
- Frustration with living with OCD and its symptoms
- Feeling out of control of one’s own thoughts and behaviors
- Compulsions being interrupted or done incorrectly
- Secondary effects of OCD like sleep loss and social isolation
One of the main characteristics of OCD is a never-ending sense of uncertainty. Compulsions are often performed to gain a sense of control over one’s fears, doubts, and the potential for unwanted outcomes, but these actions only offer temporary relief. Time after time, obsessions, fear, and doubt return again, leading to the same familiar urge to engage in compulsions.
Understandably, it can be extremely frustrating to feel as if you don’t have control over your own feelings and—perhaps even more frustratingly—your own actions. But the common feeling 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 anger or rage that can be scary, both for the person with OCD and for their loved ones.
If someone is performing compulsions and is interrupted, this may also trigger an anger attack. In this case, the anger may be directed specifically at the person who caused the interruption, which may put a strain on interpersonal relationships.
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Similarly, if you are 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: for people suffering from OCD, the stakes can feel disproportionately high. Because someone with OCD often feels like something terrible will happen if they don’t perform their compulsions, they can become extremely fearful if their compulsions aren’t going as expected. This fear can quickly spiral into rage, even if it doesn’t have a specific target.
Is OCD anger manageable?
When someone with OCD experiences anger or rage, it can be scary, and may even make them or their loved ones feel unsafe. These bouts can include aggressive or worrying behavior, and may often lead to self-punishing behaviors that are particularly worrying to loved ones. It’s easy to understand why these anger attacks occur, but it’s not as easy to feel like they are manageable.
There are strategies that people with OCD can use to understand their anger, respond better when it arises, and feel more in control over time. Consider these 5 strategies if you or a loved one is struggling.
4 strategies for managing anger in OCD
1. Learn not to engage with obsessions. This may sound simple, but it’s can be a difficult, arduous process for people with OCD to develop this skill. Accepting intrusive triggers and the resulting feelings—like anxiety, distress, worry, and anger—without responding with compulsions is actually the core feature of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy (more on this below).
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 planning ahead for these situations or experiences, 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 use your emotion in a different way. Understanding that the root cause of your angry response is your OCD symptoms, try to use it as a motivating tool to fight back against OCD, 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.
Anger is a treatable symptom of OCD
The good news is that anger that coincides with OCD is absolutely manageable through the overall treatment of OCD. In most cases, once the OCD is under better control, the anger will diminish or disappear entirely. If you’re looking for treatment for your OCD—and any related anger you might be experiencing—the best option is a form of therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.
Commonly referred to as the “gold standard” of treatment for OCD, ERP therapy helps patients become more tolerant of the uncertainty they feel by being exposed to their obsessions, fears, and worries in a controlled environment. The goal of ERP therapy is to allow for feelings like worry, anxiety, distress, and—indeed—anger to occur while simultaneously resisting the urge to rely on compulsions for short-term relief.
By learning to accept these uncomfortable feelings without responding to them, people with OCD not only learn to better endure the uncertainty and anger their disorder may cause, but they tend to feel less overall frustration, anxiety, and anger when their obsessions return in the future. The process is called habituation—alongside their newfound tolerance for discomfort, it’s the process that allows people to reduce and manage OCD symptoms long-term.
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If you or a loved one is ready to learn how to manage OCD, respond to related emotions like anger, and regain greater control over your life, please schedule a free call with the NOCD Care team. Once matched with a therapist, NOCD clients can begin treatment from the comfort of their home through video sessions or phone calls. With licensed therapists who have received specialized training in OCD treatment, you can be well on your way to finding freedom from the endless cycle of obsessions and compulsions—and any anger that arises along the way—once and for all.