Trauma, PTSD, and OCD

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PTSD and OCD or obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as other anxiety disorders, often co-occur. PTSD has been found to commonly co-occur with other anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Studies have found that anywhere between 4% and 22% of people with PTSD also have a diagnosis of OCD. In addition, people with OCD also show a high likelihood of having experienced traumatic events.

For example, one study found that 54% of people with a diagnosis of OCD report having experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. The experience of traumatic events has also been connected to compulsive behaviors often seen in OCD, such as hoarding (for example, constantly acquiring and not getting rid of a lot of possessions).

What Is OCD?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, OCD is characterized by the experience of recurring excessive obsessive activities and mental rituals, as well as repetitive behaviors or thoughts (also called compulsions), such as hand washing, counting, or checking. Obsessions and compulsions can be defined as:

  • Obsessions
    Obsessions are defined as recurring and persistent thoughts, impulses, and/or images that are viewed as intrusive and inappropriate. The experience of these thoughts, impulses, and/or images also cause considerable distress and anxiety.

    The obsessions in OCD are not just worries about real-life problems, and people will try (often unsuccessfully) to ignore or "push away" these recurrent thoughts, impulses or images. Finally, in OCD, people recognize that these obsessions are from their own mind (and not delusions like what might be seen in someone with a psychotic disorder).
  • Compulsions
    Compulsions are defined as repetitive behaviors (for example, excessive hand washing, checking, hoarding, or constantly trying to put things around you in order) or mental rituals (for example, frequently praying, counting in your head, or repeating phrases constantly in your mind) that someone feels like they have to do in response to the experience of obsessive thoughts. Compulsions are focused on trying to reduce or eliminate anxiety or prevent the likelihood of some kind of dreaded event or situation. To have a diagnosis of OCD, a person must experience obsessions and/or compulsions, view the obsessions and compulsions as being excessive and unreasonable and experience considerable distress as a result of having these obsessions and compulsions.

    How Are PTSD and OCD Connected?

    In addition to PTSD, people who have experienced a traumatic life event may also be more likely to develop symptoms of OCD. In fact, it has been shown that the severity of a person's OCD symptoms is connected to the number of traumatic events they have experienced in their lifetime.

    After experiencing a traumatic event, a person may constantly feel anxious and have concerns about their safety. Compulsive behaviors (like checking, ordering, or hoarding) may make a person feel more in control, safe, and reduce anxiety in the short-run. However, in the long-run, compulsive behaviors do not adequately address the source of the anxiety and can even increase the amount of anxiety someone experiences.

    Getting Help for Your PTSD and OCD

    If you have PTSD and OCD, it is very important to seek treatment. You can learn more about the treatment of OCD at the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation (or OCF) which also provides information on how to find a therapist for your OCD and support groups in your area.


    American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed. Washington, DC: Author.

    Cromer, K.R., Schmidt, N.B., & Murphy, D.L. (2007). An investigation of traumatic life events and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 1683-1691.

    Cromer, K.R., Schmidt, N.B., & Murphy, D.L. (2007). Do traumatic events influence the clinical expression of compulsive hoarding? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 2581-2592.

    Hubbert, J.D., Moser, J.S., Gershuny, B.S., Riggs, D.S., Spokas, M., Filip, J. et al. (2005). The relationship between obsessive-compulsive and posttraumatic stress symptoms in clinical and non-clinical samples. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 19, 127-136.

    Kessler, R.C., Sonnega, A., Bromet, E., Hughes, M., & Nelson, C.B. (1995). Posttraumatic stress disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, 52, 1048-1060.

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