The Connection between Trauma and OCD

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This is the third post in a series about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Is there a connection between post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)? I believe there is, and wrote about a study where a Dutch man recovering from a childhood rape was successfully treated for both PTSD and OCD at the same time. 

This study from 2014 draws a strong link between the two disorders:

…[T]he evidence suggesting the impact of trauma on OCD is irrefutable…Recent research has suggested that OCD and PTSD are, in fact, two disorders on the same continuum…Both are characterized by recurrent and intrusive thoughts that are experienced as anxiety/fear inducing.

It seems to act as a see-saw in some people: as their PTSD symptoms fade, OCD symptoms increase, and when OCD symptoms diminish, PTSD symptoms take over. 

Here is the issue: when sufferers of PTSD and OCD are faced with flashbacks or memories of distressing events or behaviors, they may engage in certain ritualistic behaviors, such as:

  • Avoidance. People will do whatever they can to avoid anything that reminds them of past trauma, which can dredge up distressing memories. They may swear off certain experiences, stop contacting certain people, give up books or movies that may trigger memories, or avoid even going to the place where the trauma occurred. 
  • Repeating routine tasks for no logical reason, such as washing your hands over and over.
  • Extreme need for control, order or symmetry. This could be constant cleaning, organizing, etc.
  • Constantly checking surroundings for safety, even if no threat is apparent.

Treating people with OCD is one of my specialties. When I have clients with OCD–whether or not it’s related to PTSD–I use Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) treatment because it typically can treat symptoms for both disorders.

In a nutshell, ERP treatment is when a therapist creates a safe environment for you, then gradually introduces you to the thoughts, images, objects, etc. that make you anxious. They help you then make the choice not to do the compulsive behavior until the feeling passes. Over time, patients will eventually learn to do ERP exercises on their own to manage their symptoms as they arise.

If any of these descriptions remind you of yourself or a loved one, I would like to work with you to learn to manage intrusive thoughts and respond to them differently. 

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. If you would like to discuss the information in this blog further with her, please call 208-918-0958. She sees adolescents and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

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