Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Can Your PTSD Trigger OCD?

4 min read
Patrick McGrath, PhD
Reviewed by Dr. Keara Valentine

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

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. Through a free call with the NOCD clinical team, you can find a therapist that’s right for you and begin treatment from the comfort of your home.

Patrick McGrath, PhD

Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."

Dr. Keara Valentine

Dr. Keara Valentine specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based treatments for anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety, panic, and depression. She is also a Clinical Assistant Professor within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, providing psychotherapy in the mood, anxiety, and OCD clinics and participating in research on novel OCD and Hoarding Disorder treatments.

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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.

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.

Andrew Moeller

Andrew Moeller

Licensed Therapy, LMHC

I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.

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