OCD triggers can cause a flare-up of your symptoms. Yours will be related to both the type of OCD you have along with your past experiences and traumas.

Obsessions are the unwanted and intrusive thoughts, urges, images, and sensations that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) experience. Compulsions are any behaviors that people with OCD engage in to reduce the anxiety or discomfort that their obsessions cause.

An OCD trigger can be any factor, like a major life event, that leads to the onset of OCD. OCD triggers can also refer to anything that makes someone’s OCD symptoms worse.

Below, we’ll discuss some of the most common OCD triggers in children and adults and share some coping mechanisms that can help reduce their effects.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, roughly 1.2% of American adults ― about 2.5 million people ― live with OCD. OCD is a mental health condition characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors ― or obsessions and compulsions.

We still aren’t entirely sure of what causes OCD, but research suggests that a large percentage of people with the condition developed it after a specific trigger. In fact, it’s suggested that around 50–60% of people with OCD reported experiencing a stressful or traumatic event before the onset of their condition.

Some of the major life events that may trigger OCD include:

  • personal illness or hospitalization
  • illness or hospitalization in a family member
  • death of a family member or loved one
  • changes at home or with family
  • difficulties at work or at school
  • change of jobs or loss of a job
  • loss of something of personal value
  • a new relationship or marriage
  • pregnancy or giving birth
  • a breakup or divorce
  • neglect, abuse, or assault

What does an OCD trigger do to your brain?

When a person with OCD experiences a trigger, it causes an increase in obsessive thoughts, urges, or sensations ― and, in turn, anxiety. Compulsions can provide relief from this anxiety and discomfort, but only temporarily, until another trigger starts the OCD cycle all over again.

Researchers believe that one of the reasons why people with OCD fall into this cycle is because of changes in the brain. According to some theories, changes in brain areas related to reward learning, emotional processing, and complex behaviors may explain the symptoms of OCD.

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Statistics suggest that approximately 50% of people with OCD can trace their symptoms back to childhood or adolescence. However, it’s often difficult for children ― and their parents ― to recognize these symptoms as OCD.

When a child or adolescent has OCD, they may experience specific triggers according to their theme or subtype. Some of these common OCD themes include:

  • Contamination OCD: This type involves obsessions related to germs and oftentimes illness.
  • Perfectionism OCD: Also called “Just Right” OCD, this involves obsessions related to perfection and organization.
  • Scrupulosity OCD: This involves obsessions that are related to religious and moral values.
  • Harm OCD: This involves obsessions related to harm or violence toward oneself or someone else.
  • Sexual OCD: This involves obsessions related to sexual themes, such as sexual orientation.

For example, a child with contamination OCD might feel triggered when they’re exposed to bodily fluids, garbage, spoiled food, and other sources of “germs.” Or a teenager with scrupulosity OCD might feel their symptoms worsen when watching a movie with religious themes.

OCD triggers for adults are similar to those for children and adolescents with OCD. However, because adulthood is often a time of significant life changes and stressful life events, these experiences can also become triggers for adults with OCD.

Some of the potential triggers that are more likely to affect adults than children with OCD may include:

  • entering a new relationship
  • becoming engaged or getting married
  • going through a breakup or divorce
  • experiencing pregnancy and childbirth
  • experiencing the loss of a pregnancy
  • starting a new job or losing employment
  • moving to a new home or a new city

Many of these triggers can even tie into specific OCD themes. For example, someone with relationship OCD might experience a flare-up of obsessive thoughts after becoming engaged to their partner.

Engaging in compulsions when you have OCD may feel like the best way to handle triggers, but it only keeps the cycle going. And over time, it becomes harder to face your triggers without engaging in compulsions.

So, here are some steps you can take to better manage your triggers and begin breaking the cycle of OCD.

Recognize triggers

OCD triggers tend to revolve around the specific theme or themes that someone has. For example, school assignments may be difficult for someone with perfectionism OCD, while being around sharp objects can feel triggering for someone with harm OCD.

Once you’re able to recognize what themes your obsessions revolve around, it can help you feel more prepared about the things that might trigger you.

Reduce stress

Stress plays a huge role in OCD, and many people with this condition find that being stressed causes their symptoms to worsen. While limiting stress is ideal, that’s not always possible ― so it can be helpful to find ways to better manage stress instead.

Some of the ways you can reduce your stress include regularly moving your body, getting enough sleep, and pacing yourself with tasks at work, school, or home.

Get help

OCD isn’t just a “quirky” personality feature ― it’s a serious mental health condition that can cause debilitating symptoms that make it hard to function. And while recognizing triggers and reducing stress can help, therapy is still the gold-standard treatment for OCD.

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed because of your OCD symptoms, consider reaching out to a therapist or other mental health professional to discuss your treatment options.

OCD triggers can describe anything that causes someone to develop OCD or makes their OCD symptoms worse. Some triggers relate more to specific OCD themes or subtypes, while others ― like stressful or traumatic events ― can affect anyone with the condition.

If you’ve found it hard to manage your OCD triggers, treatment can help you learn how to break the cycle of OCD. Consider discussing your concerns with your doctor or another mental health professional to see what treatments are available to you.