The link between trauma and mental health disorders is one of the more intuitive associations within the world of mental health. It seems understandable that living through a traumatic experience might affect an individual’s emotional landscape, outlook on life, sense of security, or thought process—all issues relating to mental health.
Within the trauma-mental health relationship, a possible connection between trauma and obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is now being given greater attention. So what has been discovered about the association of trauma and OCD, and can you develop OCD from trauma? Read on to find out.
Our reactions to certain events can reflect how deeply they have affected us, the way we have processed them, and how they continue to reverberate in our lives. The effects of traumatic events—experiences so threateningly destabilizing as to likely cause a subsistent, high level of distress—can manifest through any number of symptoms, and in more extreme cases, entire mental health disorders.
The group of disorders most commonly associated with trauma is the stress-related disorders family. The disorders included in it, such as adjustment disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are not defined according to a single, shared theme, the way depressive disorders are. Instead, they are conditions whose stress-related symptoms are believed to have risen from experiencing a traumatic event.
However, while stress-related disorders are directly linked to trauma, other types of mental health conditions can also stem from undergoing a terrible event. This includes OCD-related disorders, whose unifying features are an obsessive thought process, and an obsessive pattern of behavior meant to stave off such unpleasant, obsessive thoughts. The two disorder families are linked not only through their relation to trauma, but through their shared history with one another.
Originally, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had classified both trauma and stressor-related disorders, and OCD-related disorders, under the larger, anxiety disorders family. The common thread among all the mental health disorders to fall under this umbrella category was the belief that all of them stemmed from anxiety – an overactive survival mechanism that kept those afflicted with it under prolonged states of hyperarousal, so that they found themselves unnecessarily tense even in the presence of innocuous, non-threatening elements in their environment.
Over time, certain subgroups within the anxiety disorders family were found to hold their own, unique sets of characteristics, warranting their separation into distinct groups of their own. In 2013, the APA did just that, publishing the fifth edition of its diagnostics manual (DSM-V), which introduced two new distinct categories: the trauma and stressor-related disorders family, and the OCD-related disorders family.
This separation allowed mental health researchers, practitioners, and patients to focus on what attributes tend to define each of these two families, and how they may relate to the existence of trauma within individual patient histories.
Research into the connection between OCD and trauma has found that OCD can arise not only from the events that are broadly considered to be traumatic, but also from such events that are experienced as traumatic, within the context of the individual’s own perspective.
The APA only classifies three types of experiences as traumatic:
Living through one or more of the above types of events, sometimes in conjunction with other influential variables, such as a genetic predisposition or comorbidity with certain personality disorders, can induce a myriad of mental health disorders, including OCD. However, an individual with a predilection can also experience more benign occurrences as so stressful that they would instigate a set of OCD-related obsessions, or compulsions. An example of this would be unexpected exposure to a potential form of contamination, which could register as traumatic enough to warrant an OCD-related reaction.
Research on the subject of trauma and OCD has found a difference in the type of OCD-related disorders that tend to arise following a stress-inducing event. Specifically, some 60% of patients with OCD developed this disorder after experiencing a stressful life event (such as the above-mentioned contamination setting). These patients were found to more likely develop symptoms of contamination OCD, which include hand-washing or repeatedly sanitizing an object or area suspected of holding germs, dirt, or other forms of contaminants.
Around 50% of patients with OCD were found to have previously experienced a traumatic event. Such patients are more likely to develop another OCD-related disorder—hoarding. This disorder is defined by experiencing psychological extreme difficulty at the thought of throwing away a physical item, regardless of its actual value, for fear that it might be needed in the future.
Hoarding has been recognized as a mental health disorder due to the accumulating clutter, and in some cases dysentery, it creates in the patient’s life, which has a detrimental effect on their overall well-being. An additional, related finding was that almost half of married women patients developed OCD during pregnancy. Acute OCD onset and physical-related obsessions were also found at higher rates among women.
Trauma and OCD can be linked through different routes. The wish to feel in control, after going through a significantly destabilizing event, can act as a prompt for the appearance of OCD-related symptoms. As such, it is important to be aware of the need for mental health support geared toward alleviating OCD symptoms. It is recommended that those who may be experiencing OCD-related concerns speak with their family doctor and discuss what OCD treatment options can offer them a safe and effective path toward recovery.