What Happens if OCD Is Not Treated? Here’s What You Can Expect

4 min read
Keara Valentine
By Keara Valentine

Everyone experiences obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) differently, but leaving the condition untreated can lead to difficult and often devastating circumstances. Untreated OCD can take a toll on your mental and physical well-being. Obsessive thoughts can make it extremely difficult or even impossible to concentrate. They can cause you to spend hours engaged in unnecessary mental or physical activity and can greatly decrease your quality of life. You may spend hours ruminating on your fears instead of spending time with family or friends. Over time, you can become isolated from the people who care about you, and in an effort to cope with the isolation, you might spend even more time engaging in compulsions

Untreated OCD can get worse over time

Some people with mild OCD find themselves able to adapt to their condition, noticing that their symptoms interfere with their life in only minor ways. It’s not ideal, but they find they’re able to get by, and the circumstances aren’t pressing enough to necessitate treatment. However, OCD symptoms tend to start gradually and then, if untreated, can become more severe over time. For example, a compulsion might begin by putting your clothes in a plastic bag to be washed every time you come home from a public place. But it could escalate to needing to throw away your clothes if you were in an enclosed space. In many cases, it’s a downward spiral. The more your compulsions are driving you, the more you feel distress and try to prevent them. The more distress you feel, the more you lean on your compulsions to cope. When the obsessions and compulsions increase, either from stressful circumstances or another cause, it becomes impossible to manage without it interfering with everyday life.

When OCD compulsions get worse, you might find that you:

  • Avoid going outside
  • Avoid social gatherings
  • Prevent yourself from seeing specific family members or friends 
  • Are consumed with thoughts and cannot focus on work 
  • Isolate yourself from the people in your life
  • Stop doing hobbies or other things that matter to you to engage in compulsions instead
  • Miss work or school
Compulsions can also lead to physical symptoms. For example, a person might develop skin complications from excessive cleansing or using harsh chemicals. They might experience aches and pains from engaging in repetitive acts. All of these symptoms are part of the disorder.  

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OCD usually emerges in a person’s childhood, teenage or early adult years, and it varies in severity throughout someone’s life. While it’s difficult to predict when or how OCD can get worse, stressful life circumstances play a significant role in exacerbating the condition. The different subtypes of OCD, as well as the specific obsessions and compulsions one experiences, can also change. While one form of OCD might improve, you may find that the underlying obsessive-compulsive cycle gets transferred to a different theme with different associated thoughts and actions. 

How OCD disrupts daily life

OCD can affect someone’s life in many ways, and can lead to significant disruptions in quality of home, work and social life. Some are visible and easy to spot, while others might be impossible to notice. 

For example, a cleaning compulsion can lead to spending hundreds of dollars per week on sanitizing alcohol and other cleaning products. Someone living with pedophile OCD, a subtype of OCD where someone feels afraid that they may be or act like a pedophile, might avoid their younger family members out of fear, losing family ties and ending up more socially isolated. Someone with relationship OCD might feel an unbearable sense of anxiety over the idea that their relationship is unstable, and only reassurance can neutralize these feelings. This can lead to relationships becoming more difficult and potentially ending. The mental toll that obsessions can take on a person can also make it difficult to concentrate and perform at a job. One study found that people with OCD lost an average of 46 workdays per year due to their symptoms. 

Often, symptoms of OCD result in social isolation, where a person cuts themselves off from the world and the people in their life. This can lead to severe depression or other mental health conditions. Research shows that 90% of people with OCD meet the criteria for another mental health disorder, like anxiety or depression. 

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In an effort to deal with the emotions of OCD, many people turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Using substances to cope with OCD can create other health risks, and often makes OCD symptoms far more severe in the long run, driving people into a vicious cycle of OCD and addiction. This is a major problem, which studies show affects around 25% of people with OCD.

At its most severe, OCD can lead to suicidal ideation or action. This can happen when the symptoms of OCD have fully taken a hold on a person and their entire life revolves around responding to OCD obsessions and compulsions. The depression a person can feel from devoting their entire life to managing a disorder they do not have control over can be devastating to the point of taking their own life.

It is easy to brush off OCD as an idiosyncrasy or a personality trait, but it’s important to remember that there are often devastating consequences to this condition.

How to get treatment for OCD

The good news is that effective treatment is available for OCD. The best form of treatment is therapy, specifically exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. And for people that need additional support, there are other treatment methods: Medication is frequently used in addition to ERP, and in some severe cases, patients may require surgical procedures like deep brain stimulation. However, exploring surgery is generally a last resort.

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ERP has been found to be 80% effective for those who try it. It is a form of therapy that targets a person’s obsessions by gradually exposing them to the source of their obsessions, and then working to withhold the compulsive actions. Most people begin to see results within eight to 16 weeks. If you want to learn more about how ERP therapy can help you, set up a call with a NOCD call specialist today. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. This consultation is free and doesn’t take very long — and it could be one of the most important calls you ever make.

Keara Valentine

Keara E. Valentine, Psy.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine in the OCD and Related Disorders Track, where she specializes in the assessment and treatment of OCD and related disorders. Dr. Valentine utilizes behavioral-based therapies including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) with children, adolescents, and adults experiencing anxiety-related disorders.

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Licensed Therapist, MA

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

Licensed Therapist, LCMHC

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.

Tamara Harrison

Tamara Harrison

Licensed Therapist, MA

I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.

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