What triggers OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms are usually triggered by things like increased stress, relentless thoughts, or certain situations.

When an obsessive thought comes to mind, the person with OCD will spend a lot time engaged in a compulsive, repetitive behavior to try to quell the intrusive thoughts. Obsessive hand washing is the most common behavior associated with OCD.

When people with OCD are triggered, their head gets flooded with unwanted thoughts, and they struggle to stop thinking about their obsession until they are able to engage in the compulsive behavior that brings them relief. New research suggests that these symptoms may be caused by communication errors among different parts of the brain.

Someone obsessed with the thought of germs or disease may wash their hands or take a shower a dozen times and still not feel like they are "safe" from their obsessive thoughts.

Here are some other examples of specific obsessions and the accompanying compulsive behavior:

  • Obsession: Worried something something bad is happening; Compulsion: Repeatedly asking for reassurance or apologizing

  • Obsession: Saving/collecting items; Compulsion: Hoarding

  • Obsession: Fear of contamination through; Compulsion: Washing hands, cleaning home

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a form of talk therapy, has been effective in treating OCD.

What exactly are triggers?

A trigger is something in our environment or mind that causes us to have a specific thought, feel a specific way, or act in a specific way. Triggers frequently cause symptoms to worsen in people with OCD.

Let's imagine you're afraid of being exposed to germs and someone at the table next to you starts coughing  while you are dining out. Hearing that person cough may trigger obsessions such, "That person is sick, and now I'm going to get sick," or "I have to get out of this restaurant right now or I'll get sick because that person is spreading germs everywhere."

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