How to manage OCD triggers

Samir Kadri
Author: Samir Kadri Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental disorder characterized by a cycle of intrusive obsessive thoughts and the compulsions sufferers perform to relieve the resulting anxiety.

However, obsessions and compulsions can quickly overwhelm sufferers, consuming their time and taking over their life rendering them helpless. [1]

It is not known exactly what causes OCD, but a combination of combination of genetic, neurological, and environmental factors are thought to contribute to its onset. Once a person is diagnosed with OCD, their primary objective is managing their symptoms. Triggers can make this challenging.

Triggers can be seen as situations, objects, or thoughts that lead to adverse reactions. Triggers are something all of us experience from time to time. However, triggers are particularly stressful and difficult to contend with for people with OCD, as they lead to compulsive behaviors and increased anxiety. 

How to manage OCD triggers

In the context of OCD, triggers are situations, objects, or thoughts that can provoke or exacerbate OCD symptoms.

Managing OCD triggers involves developing effective coping strategies to reduce anxiety, nullify obsessive thoughts, and resist the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors. This can be done through a combination of therapeutic interventions, medication, and self-care strategies.

Common OCD triggers

OCD triggers vary from person to person as each individual experiences OCD differently. However, there are some common themes of obsessions and triggers that precipitate them:

  1. Germs and Contamination – An overwhelming fear of germs, dirt, or illness. Triggers can include public places, touching doorknobs, bodily contact with others, or hospitals.
  2. Desire for Symmetry – A pressing need for things to be arranged symmetrically. Triggers can include crooked picture frames, half-made beds, uneven or asymmetrical objects, and messy environments.
  3. Disturbing intrusive thoughts – Unsolicited, stressful thoughts that do not align with the person’s character. Triggers can include aggressive thoughts, violent daydreams, thoughts of self-harm, sexual or religious fantasies, or other taboo scenarios.
  4. Fear of harm – A person can feel triggered by seeing themselves, or others, in situations where they could theoretically be harmed, such as crossing the road or running down the stairs.
  5. Fear of losing control – Losing control in any given situation can trigger a person’s OCD, whether its losing control of their emotions, co-ordination, or any given situation.

What do OCD triggers feel like?

When something triggers your OCD, you may feel a sudden surge of anxiety or fear. This can range from mild discomfort to severe distress. You may feel an on overwhelming urge to take action otherwise your safety might be compromised.

Additionally, triggers can lead to unpleasant physical sensations in sufferers. These may include an elevated heart rate, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, tight chest, and heart palpitations.

Ultimately, triggers generate strong urges or impulses to engage in compulsive behaviors or mental rituals. Triggers can create a sense of discomfort, unease, or a nagging feeling that something is not right. This uneasiness can persist until the person performs the compulsion they’ve ritualized to cope when their OCD is triggered.

The person may feel temporarily satisfied or relieved after performing the compulsion, however they are perpetuating the anxiety by continuing the cycle of obsessions and compulsions. [1]

How to deal with OCD triggers

Dealing with OCD triggers necessitates developing effective coping strategies. Here are some approaches that can help: [3]

Acknowledge the trigger.

Be aware of your triggers and recognize when they occur. Acknowledge that the trigger is a facet of your mental health disorder and not a reflection of reality. Try to accept the obsessive thought, with the knowledge that it has no bearing on reality, without ruminating over how to eradicate it. [3]

Remember – compulsions are the problem, not the trigger.

It is not the anxiety you feel that is the issue, it is the compulsion you yearn to perform that will only cause further distress. Repeat to yourself that the compulsion is harmful, stay present in the fearful situation, and over time the anxiety you feel when triggered will go away. [3]

It may be helpful to use a delay or distraction technique next time you feel the urge to perform a compulsion. Force yourself to engage in another activity, or focus on something unrelated to the trigger, to take your attention away from the urge you feel to perform a compulsion.

Be gentle on yourself.

Your journey toward managing your OCD triggers and symptoms will be a long one requiring patience, support, and kindness from both you and those around you.

If you perform a compulsion to combat an obsession after a period where you feel you’ve been improving your symptom management, you are not a failure. [3] Setbacks are normal and your struggle does not define you.

A lapse is not a relapse and the best thing you can do is try and behave the way you want to the next time your OCD is triggered.

Practice relaxation techniques.

Learn and utilize relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. These techniques can help reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calm when facing triggers. [2]

Self-Care

Self-care is advisable when managing not only OCD but any mental health disorder. Here are some examples of steps you can take:

  • Establishing a sleep routine,
  • Eating a nutritious balanced diet,
  • Exercising regularly

These measures will nourish your mental and physical health, giving you the energy and focus you need to tackle your OCD symptoms. It can be beneficial to liaise with a doctor or mental health professional about any self-care methods you are thinking of adopting. They can provide expert counsel and support.

When to seek professional help

You should seek professional help for your OCD triggers when they significantly interfere with your daily life, cause distress, or lead to a decline in your overall well-being.

If your self-help techniques aren’t providing respite and your OCD symptoms feel unmanageable, consult a doctor or mental health professional. They will assess your symptoms, provide a fresh diagnosis, and offer treatment plans. Treatment plans typically include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure response prevention (ERP) and/or medication. [2]

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with ERP

ERP is a specific form of CBT and considered the frontline treatment for OCD. It involves gradual and systematic exposure to OCD triggers while preventing the accompanying compulsive rituals people use to combat them. Over time, this helps to reduce anxiety and break the cycle of obsessions and compulsions [2].

Medication

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of antidepressant medications commonly prescribed for OCD. They help regulate serotonin levels in the brain, which can alleviate OCD symptoms [2]. Commonly used SSRIs for OCD include fluoxetine, sertraline, and fluvoxamine.

Alternative treatments

The FDA approved the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in 2018 to facilitate treatment of OCD in adults. Commonly used to treat depression, this brain stimulation therapy may be effective in helping alleviate OCD triggers when frontline therapies have failed.

If you’ve already been diagnosed with OCD and received therapy, and are noticing new triggers or a recurrence of old ones, contact your old therapist and get more sessions booked in.

Resources
  1. Mills, I., Barker, S., & Renton, T. (2017). The importance of recording mental health history – a case report. Dental Update. https://doi.org/10.12968/denu.2017.44.10.922
  2. Obsessive-Compulsive disorder: when unwanted thoughts or repetitive behaviors take over. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-when-unwanted-thoughts-take-over
  3. International OCD Foundation. (2023, July 13). 25 Tips for Succeeding in your OCD Treatment | IOCDF. https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/25-tips-for-ocd-treatment/
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Samir Kadri
Author Samir Kadri Writer

Samir Kadri serves as our accomplished writer, dedicated to raising awareness about mental health and providing support to those in need.

Published: Aug 21st 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Meet Morgan Blair, our accomplished medical reviewer. Morgan is a licensed therapist with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Aug 20th 2023