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What causes OCD to get worse?

What causes OCD to get worse?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a common mental health disorder that occurs when obsessive thoughts reoccur in an unwanted or intrusive way, and is followed by a compulsive behavior to relieve the unwanted thoughts.

While many people with OCD are able to manage their symptoms and live normal lives, OCD can sometimes flare up due to increased stress or anxiety. Read more to learn about what causes OCD symptoms to intensify and how to stop it from getting worse.

Why Does OCD Suddenly Get Worse?

Often, OCD symptoms get worse when there is a flare-up of anxiety or stressors. When one is in a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation, the urge to decrease that discomfort with compulsions or rituals gets stronger and harder to control.

What Triggers OCD Episodes?

For most people, OCD episodes are triggered by stress and anxiety. OCD is a manifestation of anxiety. Intrusive thoughts, paired with compulsive behaviors, work to protect a person from experiencing fear. It’s one of the mind and body’s defense mechanisms that work together to protect a person from living in a state of fear or panic. 

However, the more that a person with OCD gives into the compulsive behavior to relieve their anxiety or fear, the stronger the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors become. This often can isolate and debilitate those with OCD from being able to live free from disruptive compulsions.

Why Is My OCD Getting Worse with Age?

Research suggests that OCD symptoms may change in severity with age, but it is not necessarily that it always gets worse over time. 

In some cases, symptoms of OCD may improve with age with the use of coping skills and therapy. However, in other cases, symptoms may become more severe or difficult to treat with age. Because of the repetitive nature of compulsions, they can create a feedback loop that could worsen with time if untreated. Changes in severity vary from person to person, and it’s always important to receive professional help if you’re experiencing symptoms that interfere with your daily life.

What Age Does OCD Peak?

OCD peaks at different times depending on the person. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), most people are diagnosed around age 19. However, 25% of cases are diagnosed by age 14. For some, their symptoms are the strongest when they’re a child; for others, it may not even show up until adulthood.

What Is the Most Severe Form of OCD?

It is hard to say what form of OCD is the most severe; however, there are several subtypes that have varied obsessions and compulsions. These include:

  • Fear of contamination/fear of germs. This type involves an obsession with contamination. Some related compulsions include frequent cleaning or hand washing. 
  • Symmetry and order. These obsessions center around order, with compulsions to put things in a certain arrangement.
  • Harm obsessions. Harming obsessions involve unwanted thoughts of violence towards oneself or others. Those with harming obsessions or intrusive thoughts do not actually wish to cause harm to anyone — in fact, they tend to be overly concerned about safety and being a threat to themselves.

What Causes OCD in the Brain?

The exact cause of OCD is still unclear, but research suggests that it may be related to differences in brain structure and functioning. It is thought to involve a combination of genetic, behavioral, environmental, and neurobiological factors that affect the way the brain processes information and regulates behavior. 

Additionally, neurotransmitters that affect mood and thought, such as serotonin and dopamine, are believed to play a role in OCD. Overall, it is a very complex mental health condition that scientists are still researching to understand more.

How Long Do OCD Flare-Ups Last?

The length of OCD flare-ups depends on the individual and their circumstances. Usually, they strike unexpectedly. If stress and anxiety can be relieved quickly, then the flare-up may be resolved faster. On the other hand, an extended period of stress or anxiety-inducing situations can prolong an OCD flare-up.

How Can I Stop My OCD from Getting Worse?

There are several strategies you can use to prevent OCD from worsening, many of which involve managing stress and anxiety. Some strategies include: 

  • Practice mindfulness skills. Practices such as deep breathing and yoga can help alleviate stress, which can lessen OCD symptoms. 
  • Make peace with your fears. With the help of OCD treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, you can address your fears to make them feel less daunting. 
  • Develop a strong support system of family and friends. Surround yourself with people who can provide emotional support and are open to learning more about what you’re going through.  
  • Learn about OCD. Read books, articles, and take in all the information you can about it. 
  • Develop coping strategies to deal with OCD symptoms. Things like positive self-talk (saying things like “I have gotten through this before” or “these thoughts do not define me”), breaking away from negative or fear-based self-talk, and challenging internal fears are helpful in treating OCD. 
  • Know your triggers. Try to identify things that trigger OCD symptoms, such as situations that cause excessive stress or anxiety, and arm yourself with positive and effective coping skills to face them.

If you’re having trouble managing your OCD symptoms on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. They can offer personalized advice and coping strategies to help you minimize your symptoms.

  • Clinical writer
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Christine Ridley, Resident in Counseling in Winston-Salem, NC

Christine Ridley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in adolescent and adult anxiety, depression, mood and thought disorders, addictive behaviors, and co-dependency issues.

Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC
Laura Harris, LCMHCLicensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
See Laura's availability

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Delaney is a Marketing Writer Intern at Thriveworks, working toward her bachelor’s degree in English and Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Delaney has experience as a copywriter for her university’s chemistry department and as a journalist for the student newspaper Cavalier Daily.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • OCD: Some facts. Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety | Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. (n.d.).,Unwanted%20or%20upsetting%20doubts

  • What is OCD?. International OCD Foundation. (n.d.).

  • Stanford Medicine. (n.d.). Understanding OCD. Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Advisory: Obsessive-compulsive disorder and substance use disorders.

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. National Institute of Mental Health.

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