Can Stressful Life Events and Transitions Trigger OCD

April 4, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Transitions and change mark life. Life transitions, such as changes in living situation, career, or relationship status, are inherently accompanied by uncertainty and stress.

And while transitions are a standard part of life, for those living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), they can become intense triggers for worsening symptoms. If you’re going through a significant change in your life and find your OCD symptoms getting worse, this may be understandable.

This article delves into the complex relationship between life transitions and OCD. We’ll explore why these moments of change often intensify the challenges of OCD and offer practical tips on how to navigate transitions when you live with this condition.

What causes OCD?

Before getting into how life transitions can exacerbate OCD symptoms, it’s essential to understand the deeper causes that lead to OCD.

Researchers still don’t have a clear-cut answer regarding what exactly causes OCD. Like most other mental health conditions, experts believe the causes to be complex; in other words, multiple factors can come together to increase your chances of developing OCD. There’s no singular cause.

Some of the factors that can raise your risk of having OCD include [1]:

  • Genetics: Although researchers haven’t identified an “OCD gene,” they have found your risk for OCD is at least partly genetic.
  • Family history: OCD has also been linked to learned behavior, and you may be more likely to have it if there are others in your family who have, as well.
  • Brain differences: Researchers have found people with OCD have differences in their brain structure and function.
  • Personality traits and temperament: Some personality traits, like perfectionism, are linked with a higher likelihood of having OCD.
  • Childhood trauma and other stressful life events: Like most other mental health conditions, a history of trauma can contribute to a higher likelihood of developing OCD.

How do life transitions impact mental health?

They say, “The only constant is change” – a truth that can be tricky to navigate if you live with mental health challenges.

We’re always going through life transitions, both essential and trivial. And these transitions can impact our mental health, even when they’re “happy” occasions.

Life transitions are any period or change that causes you to reevaluate your identity, social role, or place in the world. Some of the most common transitions many of us go through include:

  • Puberty
  • Graduations
  • Moving to new cities or countries
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Having a child
  • Grown children leaving the home
  • Changing jobs or careers
  • Becoming ill or disabled
  • Reaching significant ages (like 30, 40, 65, etc.)
  • Menopause
  • Retirement

Research shows we’re more likely to feel stress and anxiety during periods of transition. Even after transitions are viewed as “happy,” such as retirement, you may experience some stress, anxiety, and even depression [2].

A significant part of these transitions, which can cause stress, is a fear of the unknown. It’s always easier to deal with a predictable future, and many of us take comfort in routines. However, during life transitions, it can seem like everything is up in the air. We can no longer find that same predictability in our environments, which can increase stress.

Do life transitions cause OCD?

Life transitions and other stressful events do not cause OCD on their own. As explained earlier, the causes of OCD are complex and, for most people, several different factors are involved.

It’s unlikely a life transition like graduation or marriage would trigger OCD in a person who wasn’t already vulnerable. However, these transitions do increase stress and anxiety for most people, and heightened stress could trigger OCD symptoms or make existing symptoms worse.

This is especially true if the transition is particularly stressful or traumatic, such as an illness or divorce. Research shows stressful and traumatic life events may play a more prominent role in the development of OCD than we previously understood. One study found over 60% of people with OCD had experienced various stressful life events before developing symptoms [3].

On top of the increased stress of life transitions, which can make all mental health conditions worse, other aspects of life transitions could be uniquely challenging for people with OCD.

Fear of unknown

OCD is often referred to as “the doubting disease” and is defined by the fear of the unknown. Almost everyone is afraid of the unknown to a certain degree, which is why transitions are so difficult across the board – but for people with OCD, this fear is even more extreme.

OCD causes you to ask, “What if?” to the most disturbing doubts and fears you have. These thoughts are called obsessions. During life transitions, when everything is even more up in the air than usual, this uncertainty can cause your OCD symptoms to flare up.

For example, someone with OCD who moves apartments may have worse obsessions about whether or not their new apartment is clean and sanitized.

Compulsions as “coping”

If you do experience more powerful obsessions during periods of transition and uncertainty, it could lead you to engage in compulsions as a way to try to cope. Compulsions are repetitive or ritualistic behaviors people with OCD do in an attempt to decrease the anxiety and fear the obsessions bring.

Compulsions may temporarily ease your anxiety, but in the end, they simply keep you locked in the never-ending cycle of OCD.

For example, a person who is obsessed with the cleanliness of their new apartment could spend hours trying to ensure it’s clean enough. Although they may feel better for a few hours after cleaning, their obsessions appear again soon after—“Did I do a good enough job at cleaning?”—and they lose hours of their time performing compulsions.

Lack of social support

Many transitions also imply a change in your social support network. You might move cities or graduate from school, meaning you must be separated from your closest friends and other support people.

For example, you might need to change therapists after changing jobs and losing employer-sponsored health insurance. You might lose some friends and family after a divorce.

A robust social support system is critical in coping with any mental health problem. The loss of your network can be very stressful and can exacerbate OCD symptoms.

Postpartum OCD

Lastly, it’s essential to mention the specific life transition of pregnancy and childbirth, which can lead to or exacerbate OCD symptoms in some people. Postpartum OCD is a rare but severe health condition that affects around 1 to 2% during pregnancy or postpartum [4].

People with postpartum OCD have obsessions and compulsions that center on their newborn. For example, you could have obsessions like, “What if I do something to hurt my baby?”. Compulsions could look like repeatedly checking on your baby, repeated prayers to protect your baby, and avoiding being around your baby for fear of hurting them.

Postpartum OCD can successfully be treated using the same treatments that are used to help people with other types of OCD.

Recommended Reading The Different Types Of OCD

How to cope with life transitions when you live with OCD

Life transitions may be more challenging when you live with OCD, but there are ways not only to survive but to thrive through them. Here are some tips.

Plan and prepare

Life transitions often involve uncertainties that can trigger OCD symptoms. To mitigate this, plan and prepare for these transitions as much as possible. Create a structured timeline for the change, including key milestones and tasks. This structured approach can help reduce the anxiety associated with the unknown.

For example, if you’re moving to a new home, plan the details of the move well in advance, create lists, and set achievable goals. Having a clear plan can provide a sense of control and lessen OCD-related obsessions and compulsions.

Lean on your support system

During life transitions, it’s essential to rely on your support network. Contact friends, family, or support groups who understand your condition and can provide emotional support. Communicate openly about your challenges and let them know how they can be there for you.

Sometimes, simply sharing your concerns and feelings with a trusted person can alleviate anxiety and reduce the urge to engage in compulsions.

If you’ve experienced changes in your social support network due to the transition, make it a priority to connect with supportive people as soon as possible. For example, look for a support group in your area or find ways to connect with old friends virtually.

Practice self-compassion

Living with OCD can be exhausting, and life transitions can amplify these challenges. It’s essential to practice self-compassion and patience during these difficult times.

Understand it’s OK to have OCD, and it’s OK to seek help when needed. Be kind to yourself and avoid self-criticism. Talk to yourself as you would a dear friend.

The road to recovery may have ups and downs, and transitions can be particularly challenging – but acknowledging your progress and celebrating small victories can boost your self-esteem and resilience.

Seek professional OCD treatment

There are very effective treatments to help you manage OCD symptoms and live a happy and fulfilling life. At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we are experts in OCD treatment. For years, we’ve successfully helped people like you recover from OCD—and we’re ready to help you. Our OCD treatment program is based on a holistic approach we call Whole Person Care. We get to know you as a human being—not as a diagnosis—and help you restore balance to your life.

Are you ready to get started? Get in touch with our admissions team today.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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