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What Causes OCD to Get Worse & What to do if It Does

What Causes OCD to Get Worse & What to do if It Does

photo of a young man looking reflectively at something off to his side

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is more common than one might believe. Furthermore, it is also a serious mental health condition that can dramatically impact a person’s quality of life. While the term OCD has become a word that is used in jest or, in popular culture, to describe someone as excessively orderly and germ focused, this is not an accurate representation of OCD or those who suffer with it. 

Managing OCD is not impossible; however, it can be challenging. OCD causes an individual to have obsessive thoughts, which often result in an urge to engage in a compulsion such as ritualized behaviors, rumination, and mental review. OCD symptoms may appear slowly and at the onset may be more of an inconvenience to the person than debilitating. However, when left untreated, symptoms can worsen. The obsessive thoughts and subsequent compulsions can impact one’s overall mental health and daily functioning.

Here are a few factors that can exacerbate OCD and tips on how to handle it when it does.

What Makes OCD Worse?

One of the main causes of OCD worsening is the existence of other mental health conditions such as:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • ADHD
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Social anxiety
  • Substance abuse disorder
  • Health anxiety
  • Tic disorder
  • Impulse issues

The existence of other mental health disorders can complicate and interact with the cycle of OCD. The experience of symptoms of another mental health disorder can also cause increase impairment and worsen quality of life. Oftentimes, when someone is struggling with another mental health condition the increased anxiety can further lower their distress tolerance and increase the likelihood of engaging in compulsions for short-term relief.

What Does This Mean?

When OCD symptoms worsen, it increases the chances of other symptoms becoming more severe. One might experience:

  • Panic attacks
  • Difficulties with school or work
  • Poor concentration
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of despair and hopelessness
  • Depression

How To Manage OCD

Regardless of what causes OCD symptoms to worsen, it’s important to know how to manage obsessive thoughts and compulsions.

When you feel triggered by something, try to distract yourself by doing a completely different activity. For instance, say you have obsessive thoughts about cleanliness or germs. Your compulsion might be to wash your hands frequently. If you are excessively thinking about catching something, do a different type of hands-on activity. Play with a fidget cube or spinner, or walk briskly outside.

Manage Stress Levels

Keeping stress levels to a bare minimum is essential for managing all mental health disorders, especially OCD. Even if the external factors stressing you out have nothing to do with your obsessive thoughts, they can still impact OCD. How each individual person learns to relax will be different, so it might be a trial-and-error process to find what is effective for you. In general, great relaxation techniques are:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Spending time with a favorite activity or hobby

Know Your Triggers

The first step to managing OCD is to recognize what triggers the compulsions. What thoughts or fears do you have before you feel compelled to perform a specific ritual?

Once you understand what triggers your symptoms, the next tip will become easier to implement.

photo of a young man looking reflectively at something off to his side

Avoid Avoiding! 

Once we are aware of the situational triggers of OCD, then we can start to cope. Individuals struggling with OCD often engage in compulsions and reassurance to avoid the distress that obsessive thoughts cause. However, when we engage in compulsions and reassurance, we only strengthen the cycle of OCD and increase symptom severity in the long term. Instead of avoiding situational triggers approach them! With Contamination OCD maybe that means drinking a coffee from a local shop without engaging in cleaning rituals. With Harm OCD that may mean watching a scary movie that has been avoided due to fear of experiencing intrusive thoughts.

Don’t Try To Prevent Obsessive Thoughts

This might sound counterintuitive but hear us out. The harder you try to prevent thoughts from happening, the more they can impact you. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” does not apply to mental health. Pushing thoughts away can increase obsessive thoughts as well as worsen OCD symptoms.

Seek Support

OCD is a complex disorder. Because of this, treating it will need to be a multi-faceted approach. Learning to manage OCD so it doesn’t worsen over time takes patience and practice; unfortunately, it won’t be an overnight transformation.

The best combination of treatment methods will often include the ones we listed above, medication (if applicable), and Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERP), the evidenced based therapy for OCD.

The clinicians at the OCD and Anxiety Center are trained in ERP and specialize in OCD. Don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more about OCD treatment.

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2805 Butterfield Road suite 120
Oak Brook, IL 60523

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