Stressful Life Events and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a serious anxiety condition that can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Individuals with OCD often experience unnecessary worry – Did I turn the stove off before I left the house? Are my hands clean? Will my family be okay?

You know you checked the stove; but strongly feel you should check it again. You haven’t touched anything dirty but still feel the need to wash your hands. You have no real reason to worry about your family but you do.

It is very difficult to control or stop these types of worried, intrusive thoughts. They add unnecessary stress on top of everyday normal stressors.

Did a stressful life event trigger your OCD?

There is a known association between stressful life events and OCD. However, it is also clear that stressful life events by themselves, do not cause OCD. It is believed that stressful life events can trigger OCD, but only in people who are genetically vulnerable.

If one person in a family has OCD, close relatives are more vulnerable to develop the disorder if they are exposed to stressful life events. Researchers have found many people with OCD reported they experienced a greater number of stressful events the year before they began to develop OCD symptoms (Dhuri & Parker, 2014)

Not all types of stressful events are known to trigger OCD. It is thought that interpersonal trauma such as family violence, emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse or dysfunctional parenting styles (over protection, neglect, rejection) are associated with OCD. Non-interpersonal trauma such as exposure to a natural disaster or witnessing a crime are not known triggers for OCD (Vidal-Ribas et al., 2014).

Stressful life events can make OCD more severe

If you have OCD you are likely to notice that your symptoms get worse when you are experiencing more stress than normal. All of a sudden, your compulsive intrusive thoughts become stronger and more difficult to deal with. You may find it more difficult to leave the house than usual because you need to continually check if everything is in order.  When you are already in a heightened state of anxiety, you have less strength to ignore your OCD thoughts.

OCD calls for effective coping strategies, including strategies that work during times of increased stress. Unfortunately, many people with OCD have not fully developed their skills to cope with stress. As a result, OCD sufferers often face great difficulty just functioning over the course of the day at home, at work, and at school.

Coping strategies to reduce stress and OCD symptoms

Working with a therapist to increase your coping skills and manage your OCD symptoms can substantially improve your quality of life.

Spikes in everyday stress levels tend to trigger more acute OCD symptoms. Learning to cope with, and thereby reduce your experience of stress, is an effective way to gain control over your OCD symptoms.

If you are experiencing stress and OCD, you do not have to deal with it alone or let yourself spin out of control even more. Help is available, and a better quality of life is attainable. Seek a therapist who has experience treating OCD and helping clients manage OCD and stress.


Fabiana Franco, PhD

Fabiana Franco, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and former clinical professor at The George Washington University. She is president of the Trauma SIG of NY State Psychological Association and co-chair of the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma and Resilience SIG at ISTSS.
National Register Credentialed since 2010