Understanding the Link Between Trauma and OCD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are types of anxiety disorders that often happen together in people who have experienced traumatic events. Studies indicate that there is a 30% chance that a person who has been diagnosed with PTSD will develop OCD within a year.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD can happen to people who have gone through or witnessed a traumatic event that causes them physical, emotional, or psychological distress. Some examples of such events are abusive relationships, car accidents, the loss of a loved one, natural disasters, and relationship issues like divorce.

People with PTSD experience ongoing and distressing thoughts about the traumatic event. It may keep replaying in their minds through flashbacks or nightmares.

For a person to be diagnosed with PTSD, they must have been subjected to a traumatic event and exhibit symptoms for a minimum of one month. These symptoms can include avoiding any reminders of the traumatic experience, being easily startled or having outbursts of anger, experiencing repetitive and intense memories of the event, and having negative thoughts. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessions are recurring and involuntary thoughts, images, or impulses that persist in a person’s mind. These things are not desired by the person, but they are unable to prevent them from occurring. Unfortunately, these obsessive thoughts are usually disruptive and unsettling.

On the other hand, compulsions are repetitive behaviors or rituals that a person feels compelled to engage in repeatedly. These actions are often performed in an attempt to alleviate obsessions. 

For instance, someone who is afraid of contamination may develop extensive cleaning rituals. Nonetheless, the relief obtained is usually temporary, as the obsessive thoughts tend to resurface with increased intensity. Moreover, the compulsive behaviors and rituals may themselves lead to anxiety since they become more demanding and time-consuming over time.

Relationship between Trauma and OCD

One report suggests that although OCD and PTSD are expressed differently, there are similarities between the two disorders. In some instances, a person may experience both conditions concurrently, which may manifest as developing obsessive habits over time to prevent future traumatic triggers.

People living with both OCD and PTSD may exhibit similar symptoms, such as:

Behavior Patterns

People living with PTSD and OCD may adopt specific behavior patterns to reduce unwanted anxiety, worry, or other negative emotions caused by their conditions. However, the aim and emphasis of these behaviors vary between the two disorders.

Behavioral patterns in people with PTSD are often centered around the goal of avoiding traumatic triggers. This may involve engaging in perfectionist behaviors or rituals that offer a feeling of relief, indicating that they have effectively decreased the possibility of trauma resurfacing.

Avoidance Behavior

People with PTSD or OCD may intentionally take steps to avoid situations or events that can trigger their symptoms. For instance, someone with PTSD may avoid visiting a particular location associated with a traumatic event. An example of an OCD-related avoidance behavior could be not cooking because the person always becomes preoccupied with keeping everything clean. 

Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts associated with PTSD are frequently tied to past events, whereas those with OCD tend to obsess about potential negative outcomes that have not yet happened. This may lead them to repeat certain actions, such as continually checking the oven because of a fear of a house fire. To alleviate these anxieties, they may return to the oven and press the “off” button repeatedly to ensure that it is indeed off.


The behaviors associated with both PTSD and OCD are mainly driven by the desire to avoid unwanted negative emotional responses. However, a person with PTSD may seek to avoid reliving memories that evoke their traumatic past experiences. Meanwhile, someone with OCD may engage in specific behaviors to prevent an anticipated future event that they believe is inevitable.

Ways to Prevent PTSD from Becoming OCD

If you are afraid that your trauma will develop into OCD, you may take the following steps. 

  • Try to resist avoidance behavior as much as possible before OCD becomes clinically significant. Although avoidance behavior is a natural protective mechanism in everyone, it can also quickly escalate to OCD. By not avoiding situations, trauma survivors can send messages of courage to their brains. Facing trauma and instilling bravery can also help the brain understand that although there is risk in life, it does not need to be exaggerated to an unrealistic level. 
  • Continue with your daily routine as soon as possible. Your routines, such as going to work or having lunch with friends, provide you with a consistent and dependable sense of control in life. While there are many things beyond your control, there are also many things that you have power over. When someone experiences a significant trauma, it is important for them to have as much healthy control as possible. 
  • Seek treatment right after experiencing a traumatic event. Consulting with a licensed crisis intervention specialist can assist you in managing intense and unsettling emotions. By addressing these emotions in a healthy way, it is possible to prevent them from developing into compulsive behaviors.

At Mindshift Psychological Services, we emphasize the importance of tailoring treatment methods to meet the unique needs of each patient. We are committed to exploring new and innovative ways to treat OCD triggered by trauma or anxiety. We hope that our patients get to live more fulfilling and productive lives. Visit our website to learn more about our treatment programs. You may also contact us at (714) 684-9700 to schedule an appointment. 

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