Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that can severely impair someone’s quality of life. People with OCD experience intrusive thoughts that cause stress and anxiety. To relieve the stress caused by these thoughts, they feel compelled to repeatedly perform irrational routines. OCD is a debilitating mental disorder that cause 50% of adults with OCD to experience severe impairment

OCD is a persisting condition that doesn’t go away on its own. In fact, there are a variety of factors that can cause the symptoms and impact of OCD to worsen. Someone with this condition can significantly improve their well-being by understanding what makes OCD worse and seeking the proper treatment.

Let’s take a closer look at what OCD is, how its symptoms can be made worse, and what treatments are used to help someone recover from OCD.

What Is OCD?

The two main components of OCD are obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions come from distressing thoughts that can’t be ignored. These obsessions consume someone’s thoughts and can trigger feelings of fear and anxiety. The most common OCD obsessions are:

  • Fear of contamination from dirt and germs
  • Needing things neat or symmetrical
  • Unwanted thoughts of aggression, sex, or religion
  • Doubts about the safety of themselves or loved ones

OCD can be seen as a mental disorder of cause and effect. The intrusive obsessions are the cause, and the repetitive compulsions are the effect. Compulsions are repeated behaviors that are used to soothe the anxiety that is caused by the obsessions. Although these behaviors alleviate fear and stress, they are considered irrational and disruptive to someone’s daily life.

OCD works via cause and effect: obsessions are the cause, compulsions are the effect

If your loved one suffers from OCD, read our article on helping someone with OCD.

Certain compulsive behaviors are used to address specific obsessions. For example, an individual who is obsessed with contaminants may be compelled to excessively wash their hands. Repetitive counting, checking, and organizing are also common compulsions used to alleviate the stress of obsessions. 

Irrational compulsions are used as a negative coping mechanism for someone’s obsessions, and they make OCD symptoms worse. In addition to negative coping mechanisms, there are things that exacerbate the symptoms of OCD.

What Makes OCD Symptoms Worse?

Certain triggers are known to adversely affect someone with OCD more than someone without it. These triggers can cause both obsessions and compulsions to intensify. 

Things that make OCD worse include stress, trauma, and avoidance


Although stress takes a negative toll on everybody, it's especially problematic for people with OCD. Stress is a major trigger that increases the frequency and intensity of obsessions and compulsions. Heightened stress levels will raise anxiety, which causes intrusive obsessions to amplify. Someone with OCD is also more likely to give in to their compulsions to cope with their stress.

Chronic stress gradually wears down the ability to manage OCD symptoms. It also plays a large role in worsening the comorbidities of OCD, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Stress management is an essential skill that is needed to prevent the worsening of OCD symptoms and its comorbidities. 

Read our guide on stress management to learn about healthier ways of coping with stress to minimize its impact.


Although the exact cause of OCD is unknown, scientists agree that some people are genetically predisposed to having it. Trauma doesn’t cause OCD, but it can trigger symptoms to develop in those who are predisposed to OCD. In some cases, obsessions and compulsions are formed as a way to prevent the recurrence of someone’s experienced trauma.

Even if someone’s OCD behaviors aren’t a direct response to their trauma, their symptoms can be worsened by it. Trauma victims are prone to hypervigilance and sensitivity to potential threats. This increased sensitivity to potential danger can cause obsessions to be more intense and compulsions to be more frequent. Trauma that is left unresolved will be a persistent aggravator of OCD and its symptoms.


Avoiding stressful situations that may trigger OCD symptoms will provide temporary relief from obsessive thoughts and anxiety. However, this inadvertently reinforces the belief that these thoughts are genuinely threatening or dangerous. By continually avoiding OCD triggers, someone won’t be able to face their fears and learn to respond to stress without their compulsions.

In general, avoidance behaviors are negative coping mechanisms that prevent someone from managing their OCD symptoms effectively. 

Does OCD Get Worse With Age?

With age comes many life changes that have a negative impact on OCD and its symptoms. Certain changes like a decrease in physical health and cognitive abilities, loss of loved ones, and added stressors all take a toll on the ability to cope with OCD symptoms. Treatment may also be more difficult at older ages due to age-related changes in brain structure and function. 

In addition to age, there are other major changes to the body that can make OCD symptoms worse. Some of these include:

  • Sleeplessness: Insomnia is common in individuals with OCD. Sleeplessness is disruptive to the body’s ability to manage stress and can worsen OCD symptoms.
  • Pregnancy: Increased hormones and pregnancy-related stressors can contribute to heightened stress and inability to manage OCD symptoms.
  • Severe illnesses: Battling a severe illness can shift someone’s attention away from managing their OCD symptoms. It can also cause more feelings of helplessness and lack of control, which reinforces obsessive and compulsive behaviors.

Generally, whenever there is a major change in someone’s life, there is an increased risk of worsening OCD symptoms. Although these changes can make managing someone’s OCD more difficult, there is still hope for relief with the proper treatment. 

whenever there is a major change to someone's life, there is an increased risk of worsening OCD symptoms

How Can OCD Symptoms Get Better?

OCD can have a debilitating impact on those who have it and their loved ones. Fortunately, individuals with OCD and their loved ones can experience a significant improvement in their quality of life with the proper treatment. At Inner Balance, our mental health counseling can provide the skills needed to cope with stress in a positive way and alleviate the symptoms of OCD. 

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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