Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Can Your PTSD Trigger OCD?

By Patrick McGrath, PhD

Feb 25, 20214 minute read

Reviewed byDr. Keara Valentine

can PTSD trigger OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are two commonly known anxiety disorders that can often co-occur in people with a history of trauma. While OCD is thought to affect millions of people, studies have found that nearly 30% of people with PTSD also experience OCD. 

Researchers aren’t exactly sure to what extent the two disorders are linked yet, but it’s likely that someone with OCD may have experienced trauma, which can trigger OCD symptoms. Furthermore, some PTSD symptoms may manifest as OCD symptoms. Let’s take a closer look at these two conditions and break down how to treat each of them.

What is PTSD?

A traumatic event can be anything that causes physical, emotional or psychological distress to a person. PTSD occurs in people who have experienced or witnessed such an event. Common examples may include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Car accident
  • Death of a loved one
  • Natural disaster
  • Divorce
  • Abuse
  • Past relationships 

Someone with PTSD may experience flashbacks, severe anxiety, nightmares and more — all centered on the event. Uncontrollable and intrusive thoughts about the event may also be a symptom. For some people, these symptoms may begin within a month of the event, while for others it could take years for symptoms to show up.

What is OCD?

OCD is categorized as a pattern of recurrent unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that trigger repetitive behavior (compulsions). Many people have repetitive thoughts, but someone with OCD experiences these thoughts in a way that is disruptive to their daily functioning.

Often, OCD centers on a certain theme, which could be one of many OCD subtypes. Someone with contamination OCD, for example, may have an intense fear of public restrooms and try to ease the fear by compulsively washing their hands. Typically, someone with OCD experiences both obsessions and compulsions in a vicious cycle.

Obsession symptoms

OCD obsessions are persistent and uncontrollable thoughts that cause distress. These obsessions are intrusive and unwanted and may appear when you are thinking about other things, and you may try to suppress these obsessions or alleviate them through rituals.

Some examples of obsessions include:

  • Contamination fears
  • Intense anxiety about objects being out of place or disorderly 
  • Unpleasant sexual thoughts
  • Excessive concern about doors being locked or the stove being off
  • Violent thoughts
  • Religious and/or existential thoughts

Do these experiences sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

Here at NOCD, we know how overwhelming OCD symptoms can be—and how hard it is to open up about your experience. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist who has experience treating OCD.

Learn more

Compulsion symptoms

OCD compulsions are the repetitive behaviors or mental acts that you may feel urged to do in response to your obsessions. These compulsions are done to reduce stress or anxiety, but rarely have such an effect. You may begin to develop rules or rituals as you seek out much-needed relief, which can lead to excessive compulsions that often aren’t realistically related to the obsession.

Some examples of compulsions include:

  • Counting in certain patterns
  • Repetitively checking that the door is locked or that stove is off
  • Arranging pantry items to face the same way
  • Excessive hand washing
  • Googling
  • Reassurance seeking
  • Mental compulsions 

Are OCD and PTSD linked?

With both PTSD and OCD, you may have intrusive thoughts and engage in neutralizing behaviors. Someone with PTSD may try to suppress these thoughts and avoid trauma related triggers, while compulsions are the neutralizing behavior for someone with OCD. It’s understandable that someone who has experienced a traumatic event may constantly feel anxious — and in response, use compulsive behaviors to feel more comfortable.

If you have experienced a traumatic event, ask yourself if you have any new, repetitive behaviors. Do you obsessively check your doors now in an attempt to feel safer? Are you suddenly counting in certain patterns to suppress thoughts about your trauma? You may be experiencing both PTSD and OCD, and it’s important to seek treatment.

Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is typically referred to as the gold standard treatment for OCD. ERP is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that works by exposing patients to potential triggers in a safe and controlled environment, to practice the prevention of compulsions. It has been proven to effectively treat OCD of almost all kinds.

However, if you think you have both PTSD and OCD, you may need a combination of various types of therapy. It’s important to seek out a therapist who is specialized in treating OCD and PTSD. NOCD offers a nationwide network of therapists specializing in the treatment of OCD using ERP. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment.

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