If you’ve ever felt like you have trauma* from having untreated OCD, you’re not alone. That’s certainly how I felt before I did exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold-standard treatment for OCD.
OCD causes tremendous suffering. However, sometimes it’s not only the scary content the disorder throws at you that’s the problem. How the disorder treats you and how challenging it can be to get the right treatment can create additional layers of suffering.
In this post, I share an example from my own life of how the experience of OCD can be traumatic. I then discuss several reasons why OCD can feel like a trauma, and offer several ideas for how you can fight back as part of your own OCD recovery journey.
*For clarity, in this article “trauma” refers to an extremely disturbing or upsetting experience, as opposed to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. A diagnosis of PTSD, according to the DSM-5, requires “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” as well as meeting other criteria. It’s possible to have both OCD and PTSD, but if you feel traumatized by OCD, that doesn’t mean you also have PTSD.
OCD as a trauma: being held hostage at gunpoint
When I was a teenager, I didn’t yet know I had OCD. What I did know was that I had a mind that could be an abusive tyrant, especially if I threatened to break OCD’s Rule #1 … which is exactly what happened in the following excerpt from Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life about my very first psychiatrist appointment at age 16:
As I sat on Dr. Prasad’s couch, I could feel my mind stirring. I could tell it was angry. I heard it utter swear words as it readied its most deadly equipment, the weapon it brandished in emergencies. Then I heard a telltale metallic clicking and felt the cold hard barrel of a pistol pressed into my temple.
I tensed. My mind was going to hold me hostage again.
Fear coursed through my veins, rose like molten lava in my chest. I could taste its hot malevolence at the back of my throat.
Certain that it now had my undivided attention, my mind thrust forward its manifesto—words scribed in a Satanic-like font reminiscent of a heavy-metal album cover—and screamed, READ IT!
I knew the words by heart. I silently recited them in my head:
You cannot get caught doing these things or thinking these thoughts.
Because if you do, you will have to explain yourself.
And you don’t tell what you see in your mind.
Because if you do, all those bad things you see … you will make them happen.
I nodded assent, telegraphing to my mind that I understood. That I would not break Rule #1. Now. Or ever.
My mind relaxed a little, but it kept the gun’s cool, polished barrel kissing my temple. Lest I forget, or let this nice man sweet-talk me into revealing too much.
Untreated OCD can be traumatic
If you live with untreated OCD long enough, you can begin to feel traumatized by the experience of having the disorder. OCD can be a ruthless voice: it yells at you, degrades you, shames you, slams a mental gun into your temple.
It also screams that you’re not good enough so often and so loudly that eventually you can start to believe it.
These abusive tactics are (as odd as this is going to sound) a strategically smart move on OCD’s part. If its taunts make you feel weak and disempowered and unable to do your ERP, then it gets to maintain control of your life, which it desperately wants to do.
But the trauma that is untreated OCD doesn’t stop with its abusiveness, because there are other aspects of the disorder that can be equally traumatizing:
Moving from victim to survivor
If any of this resonates with you, what can you do? I unfortunately don’t know of any evidence-based answers to this question, but I will share what I have done personally as part of my own OCD recovery and how I help my clients with OCD as a trauma.
Stand up to OCD!
OCD therapists often have kids with OCD talk back to their OCD monsters to help the children feel empowered, and this technique has been one of the most important skills of my own recovery. Except … I don’t just “talk back.” I yell. Loudly. Powerfully. And with my Shoulders Back. It might sound something like this:
OCD, you think you’re gonna keep ruining my life, you [insert favorite swear word combination here]? Well, you got another thing coming, because I’m not letting you call the shots anymore! I’m in charge, I make the decisions. You have made my life a living hell, and it’s payback time. I’m doing exposures, I’m making myself anxious, I’m bringing it on, you [more favorite swearwords here], and I’m going to win. You hear me? You hear what I’m saying? I’m not going to be bullied by you any longer! I’m stronger than you are, and I’m taking my life back. Starting right here, right now, my life is my own. You can yell at me, you can make me anxious, but I’m not doing what you say anymore. I’m going to use everything you throw at me to do exposures, you [final fun swear words 😊] because I am NOT your victim, OCD. I am strong, I am a survivor, and I AM GOING TO WIN!
When I’ve had clients who’ve felt traumatized by their OCD stand up, put their hands on their hips and their Shoulders Back and yell words like this at OCD, it often turns out to be one of the most empowering exercises of their recovery journeys. Many of us with the disorder don’t even know it’s possible to yell at OCD, but it is. You can put OCD in its place. You can claim out loud that you’re not going to stand for the abuse any longer, that things are changing, and that you CAN do this.
If your OCD is yelling at you, what would it be like for you to yell back at it?
Self-compassion is treating yourself like you’d treat a good friend, and it’s the opposite of how OCD treats you. Deploying self-compassion is a great way to fight back against the abuse that OCD can hurl at you. It also builds a strong foundation for your recovery. To learn more, I’ll refer to you Kimberley Quinlan’s book, The Self-Compassion Workbook for OCD: Lean into Your Fear, Manage Difficult Emotions, and Focus On Recovery, and posts I’ve written about the topic, including:
You do not deserve abuse, from OCD or anyone. If OCD is abusing you, you can try the two step process of 1) giving it a piece of your mind (see above) and 2) being extra kind to yourself, a combination that strengthens you while weakening OCD.
Get professional help
I recommend that everyone with OCD work with a trained ERP therapist if possible, especially if you feel traumatized by your OCD. A therapist can assess your situation, including whether you have a history of trauma or diagnosable PTSD that might make you especially susceptible to feeling traumatized by OCD, and identify any additional treatment approaches that might be beneficial for you—so that you can go from feeling like a traumatized victim to becoming an empowered survivor.
Make your voice heard
I often wonder if:
Share your thoughts
If this article resonates with you, please scroll all the way to the bottom to where it says Leave A Comment and share your thoughts to help all of us better understand and address OCD as a trauma. You can do so anonymously by using initials or a pseudonym if you don’t want to share your name. The email address that’s required is only used by my website to weed out spam, is not displayed publicly, and will not add you to any mailing lists.
Participate in an ongoing research study
And as an exciting update, coincidentally Dr. Caitlin Pinciotti, Assistant Professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, is running a research study right now about OCD and trauma that you can participate in! She hopes that findings from this study will help us finally start to understand how and why OCD and trauma sometimes mix, and how we might be able to better diagnose and treat individuals with these experiences.
Learn more about taming OCD
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My blogs are not a replacement for therapy, and I encourage all readers who have obsessive compulsive disorder to find a competent ERP therapist. See the IOCDF treatment provider database for a provider near you. And never give up hope, because you can tame OCD and reclaim your life!
Picture credits: Traumatized woman © Can Stock Photo / Tinnakorn; No bullying © Can Stock Photo / rmarmion; Comments box © Can Stock Photo / iqoncept