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What causes OCD to get worse?

Found your OCD getting worse? Once you understand your triggers, you’ll be much better placed to keep symptoms at bay.

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August 18, 2022
6 min read

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that can cause people to have unwanted, uncontrollable thoughts and feelings. These thoughts are called obsessions, and the feelings are called compulsions. OCD can get worse at times for some people with the condition, but there are ways you can help prevent that from happening.

Read on to learn more about what causes OCD to get worse—and what you can do about it.

Article breakdown

What causes OCD to get worse?

1. Going through stressful events

There are circumstances under which stress can cause OCD symptoms to get worse. For example, if you have a new baby or move to a new house, this may be stressful for you and make your symptoms worse. If you think that stress or anxiety may be a trigger for you, check out our guide to the 5 best vitamins for anxiety, stress and mental health, as well as our full guide to how to improve your mental health.

On the other hand, sometimes stress can help OCD get better. For example, if you take on a new job or promotion at work that requires more responsibility and attention than the last one, your symptoms might improve as well.

2. Menstruating

Your menstrual cycle can trigger and impact OCD:

  • When you are ovulating, the level of oestrogen and progesterone rises. This may cause your symptoms to worsen because of a change in the way your brain functions.

  • Menstruation is another time when OCD can get worse. For some people, it's just a few days before or after their period begins that they notice their symptoms getting worse; for others, it's a few days before their period starts that they notice an increase in symptoms (this is known as premenstrual syndrome).

  • OCD symptoms can also get worse during perimenopause and postpartum (after giving birth).

3. Taking certain medications

The following types of medications can worsen OCD:

  • Antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).

  • Antipsychotics.

  • Antihistamines that are used to treat allergies.

  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines (eg Ativan) or buspirone (eg BuSpar). These drugs can be helpful for those with anxiety disorders but may make OCD symptoms worse in some people.

In addition to these medications, blood pressure medications can also worsen OCD symptoms if taken long term or at high doses. This includes beta blockers such as propranolol (Inderal) and calcium channel blockers like verapamil (Calan).

4. A history of abuse

If you have OCD, you might have memories of abuse in your past. If that's the case, and if you're currently reliving those memories through your obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, then it's possible that your OCD is worsening because it's a reaction to these traumatic experiences.

5. You're not getting enough sleep

Sleep deprivation can make you more likely to develop OCD, and it can make your existing symptoms worse. In fact, it's believed that while a lack of sleep doesn't directly cause OCD, it does contribute to the severity of symptoms and their duration since sleep deprivation has been linked with overactivity in certain parts of the brain.

How can I stop my OCD from getting worse?

So what can you do to combat OCD and keep it from worsening? First, try to be aware of the times and situations when your symptoms are more likely to act up. If you have an idea of what triggers your obsessions, try to avoid these triggers whenever possible.

Second, if you think that something has changed since the onset of your OCD, for example if one symptom has gotten worse, seek out a mental health professional who can help guide you through treatment options.

How bad can OCD get?

OCD can take a toll on your mental and physical health, and if left untreated can result in devastating circumstances. If you are noticing your OCD getting worse, it is important you seek help from a professional to help manage your symptoms.

Does OCD get progressively worse?

Some research suggests that how severe your OCD symptoms are and how much they affect your life might increase over time. For example, one study found that adults who had OCD symptoms when they were younger (under 12 years old) were more likely than those who'd had OCD later in life (between 13 and 17 years old) to develop other anxiety disorders as adults. 

Other research has found that people who developed OCD during adolescence were more likely than those whose symptoms started later to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as adults, particularly social phobia or generalized anxiety disorder

Does OCD get worse before it gets better?

Embarking on treatment such as therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may initially cause your OCD to flare up as you may experience more anxiety. But, left untreated, the symptoms could become a lot worse.

Treatment should help you learn to recognise your triggers and how to avoid or prepare for these triggers in the future, ultimately helping you to manage your symptoms.

What causes OCD to get worse?

You can control your OCD by understanding what you're experiencing. You don't have to accept it as part of who you are—or let it define your life. If you have noticed your OCD getting worse, you may be able to take steps to reverse the process, and one of the best things you can do to avoid OCD getting worse is to be proactive and seek help as soon as possible. There are two main ways to get help: 

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