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The Connection Between OCD and Trauma

Nearly 30% of those with PTSD develop OCD within a year, and between 4 % and 22% of those with PTSD also have OCD. More study is needed to determine the cause of this co-occurrence, but there are some theories that deserve consideration. It is interesting that the causes and symptoms of these two disorders are strikingly similar.

What Is OCD?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as, “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” A shorter definition of OCD is, “a disorder of unwanted thoughts that trigger repetitive behaviors.” Some common OCD behaviors are:

  • Extreme handwashing

  • Repetitive checking of locks

  • Recurring counting to a certain number

  • Compulsion to organize or clean

  • Pulling or playing with hair, picking at skin, nail biting

With OCD, these behaviors are uncontrollable and obsessive. They can take hours a day to perform, sometimes even the entire day. Performing these rituals, however, bring a sense of relief and calm. Not doing the ritual, on the other hand, creates anxiety and distress.

These compulsions and rituals produce a variety of symptoms, depending on the person’s obsession. Some of the more common symptoms of OCD behaviors are:

  • Mysophobia, an extreme fear of germs, dirt, or contamination

  • Intrusive thoughts of a sexual or violent nature

  • Driving need for things to be neat or in order

  • Perfectionism

  • Hypochondriasis, or health-anxiety, unrealistic worries over having a serious health issue

  • Hoarding compulsion/aversion to throwing things away

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

What Is PTSD?

The American Psychiatrist Association defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances.” Some of the typical causes of PTSD are things like abuse (physical, mental, verbal, or sexual), natural disasters, combat or living in a war zone, car/train/plane crashes, major medical illnesses, or horrific accidents.

It is typical with PTSD for a person to have strong anxiety and flashbacks of their trauma as well as nightmares themed around it. These symptoms can come soon after the trauma or years later. People with PTSD will go to extreme measures to avoid people, places, or things that remind them of their trauma. This explains why often veterans refuse to speak about their time in the military and get angry when pressed to talk about it. Often, people with PTSD experience intrusive thoughts of their trauma that get in the way or normal daily functioning.

Some of the common symptoms of PTSD are:

  • Easily startled

  • Irritability, agitation

  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much

  • Lessened interest in activities that were once enjoyed

  • Hard to concentrate

  • Stuck in negative thoughts/negative thinking patterns

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

Similarities in OCD and PTSD

In both OCD and PTSD there are recurring, intrusive thoughts. PTSD sufferers have intrusive thoughts about their trauma and OCD sufferers have intrusive thoughts about whatever it is that triggers their compulsions and rituals. The difference is in how they respond to their intrusive thoughts. People with PTSD try to get rid of their thoughts by avoiding while people with OCD perform rituals to ease the anxiety their thoughts create.

People suffering from PTSD sometimes develop OCD as a coping mechanism. When their efforts to suppress the traumatic thoughts doesn’t work, they might try various OCD-type rituals to lessen their anxiety. And some people might never develop PTSD, but rather they unconsciously develop OCD as their coping mechanism.

Again, more studies are needed to explain the link between OCD and PTSD, but they are related and often occur together. What we do know is that OCD therapy where a person is gradually exposed to anxiety-producing situations, images, or thoughts is effective. Over time with this therapy, clients learn that they can handle the situation they thought they couldn’t handle, and even if their fears come to pass, they can tolerate it.

If you are struggling with trauma, I urge you to read more about trauma therapy and reach out to us at Christian Counseling Associates for a free consultation. There is help. There is hope.

Sydney Spradlin is a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate in a dual track master's program in counseling and marriage and family therapy. She is supervised by Jack D. Dickerson, LPC-S. She belongs to the American Counseling Association (ACA), Christian Counselors of North Texas (CCT) and EMDRIA (a professional association for EMDR trained and certified counselors). She works with individuals, couples, teenagers, and families. Sydney is taking new clients.

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