OCD and PTSD – and the relationship between the two
Studies have shown that it’s really common for patients to suffer from both Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) simultaneously. It’s thought that in some circumstances, obsessive behaviors such as repetitive washing or checking may be a way of coping with post-traumatic stress – infact studies have shown that the severity of a person’s OCD symptoms is connected to the number of traumatic events they have experienced in their lifetime.
It’s estimated that between 4% and 22% of people with PTSD also have a diagnosis of OCD. This frequency of the combination of conditions has even led to the term “post traumatic obsessive compulsive disorder” being used – but treatment for the OCD is likely to hinge on targeting the coexisting PTSD.
It’s not yet clear how these conditions are linked, but a it’s thought that a significant number of OCD sufferers have experienced some kind of trauma in their past – and some PTSD symptoms such as hypervigilance can manifest themselves very similarly to OCD symptoms.
Hypervigilance with PTSD can lead to behaviors that defy logic as the individual constantly performs repetitive actions (checking doors are locked, looking for danger, etc) in an attempt to lessen their fears, and these actions may reach the level where a doctor would diagnose the person with OCD.
It’s quite understandable that a person who has been through a fire may become obsessed with the thought of leaving the oven on and causing another fire, or someone who’s house has been burgled may repeatedly check that the doors and windows are locked – but it’s important to know when symptoms become more than that – and when it could be PTSD or OCD.
The symptoms of both PTSD and OCD are remarkably similar, with OCD symptoms said to be (amongst others): ‘recurring and persistent thoughts, impulses, and/or images that are viewed as intrusive and inappropriate. The experience of these thoughts, impulses, and/or images also cause considerable distress and anxiety’; ‘repetitive behaviors (for example, excessive hand washing, checking, hoarding, or constantly trying to put things around you in order) or mental rituals (for example, frequently praying, counting in your head, or repeating phrases constantly in your mind) that someone feels like they have to do in response to the experience of obsessive thoughts’; and ‘focus on trying to reduce or eliminate anxiety or prevent the likelihood of some kind of dreaded event or situation’ – this all sounds familiar right?!
So why are PTSD and OCD connected?
It’s understandable that for people who have experienced a traumatic event, they may constantly feel anxious and have concerns about their safety – the compulsive behaviors may make a person feel more in control, safe, and reduce anxiety in the short-term.
Any trauma that would be severe enough to potentially cause the symptoms of OCD might also have a chance to cause PTSD in the same individual, and this may be the reason that PTSD and OCD are so commonly found together.
Getting Help for Your PTSD and OCD
It’s clear that there is a relationship between PTSD and OCD, ‘but sometimes the obsessive-compulsive behaviors sneak up on you and so it’s not so obvious. Have you noticed, since your trauma, that you have new, idiosyncratic behaviors, even ones that don’t make sense? Do you clean (yourself or your home) obsessively? Does everything suddenly have to be perfect?’
If you have PTSD and OCD, it is very important to seek out treatment. There are a number of effective treatments available for both PTSD and OCD.
You can learn more about the treatment of OCD from OCD-UK, the leading national charity, independently working with and for almost one million children and adults whose lives are affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
SOURCES: About Health, The relationship between obsessive– compulsive and posttraumatic stress symptoms in clinical and non-clinical samples J.D. Huppert et al. / Anxiety Disorders 19 (2005) 127–136, Healthy Place, Scientific American, Wise Geek, OCD-UK,
IMAGE: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by Benjamin Watson
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