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Stop Trauma From Becoming OCD

3 ways to prevent trauma from doing further damage.

Gerd Altman / Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altman / Pixabay

Between 4% and 22% of people with PTSD are also diagnosed with OCD, according to the charity PTSD UK. Why would PTSD trigger a person to perform compulsive behaviors?

Why Might PTSD Become OCD?

OCD is a disorder in which a person performs behaviors to protect themselves or others from perceived danger and risk. It makes sense that if a person has lived through a traumatic event, they would begin to do all sorts of behaviors to ensure that they never have to encounter trauma again.

For instance, I once treated a client who — out of nowhere — had a severe allergic reaction. He was a seemingly healthy man in his 20s with no underlying medical conditions or previous history of allergic reactions. One day, he was sitting in his kitchen with his family eating breakfast. His throat closed and he could not breathe — he fell to the floor and lost consciousness. His family called 911 and they administered first aid and brought him to the hospital, where he recovered.

Immediately following this event, my client refused to wear the clothes he was wearing on the day of the reaction. He was only willing to eat chicken, rice, and broccoli — at home with an EpiPen, and only using one particular set of plates and utensils. He stopped going to restaurants and avoided most places outside of his house, for fear that he would have another reaction.

As a result, his social and occupational functioning fell apart. When he started receiving OCD treatment with RIP-R, (see "Can This New OCD Treatment Help Where Others Fall Short"), it became clear that he was terrified to let go of his "protective" behaviors. Much like everyone who has lived through a traumatic event, not only did he never want to have another allergic reaction, but he also did not want to experience the underlying terrifying emotions that one experiences in a traumatic event, such as feelings of helplessness, terror, and vulnerability.

The compulsions, on a deeper level, were performed as a way to "protect" him from ever experiencing those horrible feelings.

3 Ways to Stop PTSD From Becoming OCD

  • Seek treatment immediately after the traumatic event. Seeking help from a licensed professional who specializes in crisis intervention can help an individual navigate through intense and disturbing emotions. Hopefully, if the emotions are dealt with healthily, they will not manifest in the form of compulsive behaviors.
  • Before OCD reaches a clinical level, attempt to resist as much avoidance behavior as possible. Indeed, it will be extremely difficult to put the clothes back on that one was wearing during the trauma, it will be a hardship to go back to the location, and it will be extremely tempting to run and avoid these triggers. While these are natural and instinctual protective mechanisms within all of us, they can also become a fast track to OCD. The behavior of "not running" will send messages to the trauma survivors' brains of bravery. The act of facing the trauma and the fear will also allow the brain to see that while there is risk in life, the risk does not become catastrophized to an unrealistic level.
  • Get back into your daily life routine as quickly as possible. As human beings, our routines — the gym, church, lunch with friends — create a consistent and reliable sense of control in life. There is much that is out of our control in the world and there is much that is within our control. A person who has experienced a serious trauma must have as much control (in a healthy way) as they can. Our familiar routines are more important than we may think.


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