Obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly referred to as OCD, can be a debilitating mental health concern for the millions of people who have it. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates that the disorder affects roughly 2.2 million adults, which translates to 1.0 percent of the U.S. population. The typical onset of OCD is age 19, but 25 percent of cases occur by age 14. Nearly one-third of adults affected by the disorder experienced symptoms in childhood.

OCD is considered a long-lasting disorder in which someone has uncontrollable or recurring obsessive thoughts and behaviors. They possess an urge to repeat these over and over. Of the adults the National Institute of Mental Health surveyed in the past year, the degree of impairment ranges from mild to severe.

Among these adults with the disorder, approximately 50.6 percent of them had a serious impairment, whereas 34.8 percent of adults had a moderate impairment. The same survey showed 14.6 percent had mild impairment. But what makes OCD worse?

What Is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by compulsions and obsessions that can take up to an hour a day, but usually longer, and cause a significant amount of distress. These obsessions can be persistent, and the uncontrollable thoughts or impulses are often intrusive and disturbing.

It often causes anxiety and discomfort that interfere with one’s daily life. An individual who doesn’t struggle with OCD can filter out their recurring thoughts about germs, but people with OCD do not have the same luxury. They believe they are contaminated, and in some cases, they will avoid public places altogether.

Those with the disorder will feel compelled to perform repetitive actions or rituals as a means to relieve the distress caused by their obsessions. An example of this is someone with an obsessive fear of burglars who will check and recheck the door locks several times over to ensure no one can get into their home.

The compulsions are overt, which means they are visible to everyone. Unfortunately, these may also be carried out mentally, such as counting or mental praying. While we cannot observe these, they can be just as debilitating as those we can see.

Most of those struggling with OCD are aware of their obsessions and that they are thinking or behaving irrationally. But they also think the only way to fix their anxiety is to perform compulsions. The relief they may experience, unfortunately, is only temporary and will end up reinforcing their obsession. This creates a cycle of OCD behavior that will gradually worsen.

Unfortunately, many people with OCD will struggle in silence. Many of them are unaware that a neurological problem causes the symptoms. OCD can be managed with the appropriate treatment, but unfortunately, many of these individuals will turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their symptoms and function normally.

Does OCD Get Worse?

Most people who experience mild-to-moderate symptoms of OCD will learn to live with the inconveniences of their obsessive thought patterns and compulsive actions. In many cases, these individuals will rationalize their repetitive behaviors as not that bad, or that these are helping them succeed in their daily routine. Since these behaviors do not interfere with work or school, they see no issue with leaving it untreated.

However, if these symptoms are left untreated, they can become worse over the years. In some cases, they can become so debilitating that an individual will completely isolate themselves from society. Some of these worsening symptoms may include:

  • Loss of focus at work
  • Failure at school
  • Complete isolation
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Panic attacks

Early-onset of OCD during the adolescent years has a 60 percent chance of becoming a lifelong disease if it is left untreated. In most cases, however, OCD symptoms will dissipate throughout one’s life, but others will be classified as chronic. The only way to know for sure is to seek help from a physician who specializes in mental health. Mental health screenings are just as vital as a yearly checkup at the doctor to determine the status of your physical health.

What Makes OCD Worse?

Like other anxiety disorders, periods of high stress can bring out symptoms. Stress is a major contributor to mental health problems. As you start to feel overwhelmed, your resolve to stick to the positive coping responses that you have learned. That can lead to a return or worsening of OCD symptoms. 

Trauma and abuse can also worsen OCD. Trauma and abuse can cause significant psychological damage, especially if you don’t address it with loved ones or in therapy. Not everyone that experiences a potentially traumatic event will experience lasting negative psychological symptoms, but trauma can affect anyone.

Substance misuse is another thing that can make OCD worse. Many people start using drugs or alcohol to mask mental health disorder symptoms. However, as substance use problems begin to manifest, problems usually get worse. 

What Are The Symptoms Of OCD?

The obsessions of OCD are persistent and repeated. The urges or images that are intrusive will cause distress and anxiety, and you may try to ignore them or get rid of them by performing a compulsive behavior or ritual. The obsessions more commonly intrude when you are trying to think of or do other things. Some of these obsessions have themes, and according to the Mayo Clinic, they include:

  • Needing things to be symmetrical or orderly
  • A fear of dirt or contamination
  • Unwanted thoughts that may include aggression or sexual subjects
  • Horrific thoughts that may consist of harming yourself or other people

The Mayo Clinic Also Mentions Obsession Signs And Symptoms, Which Include:

  • Intense levels of stress when an object isn’t orderly or facing a specific way
  • Fear of contamination by touching objects others have touched
  • Continual doubt that you’ve turned off the stove or locked the door
  • Unwanted images of hurting yourself or someone else that make you uncomfortable
  • Distress about unpleasant sexual images that repeat in your mind
  • Avoiding situations that may trigger obsessions, such as shaking hands

If you are experiencing these symptoms at any level, you should speak to a therapist or mental health counselor for guidance. Medications can be highly effective in treating these symptoms.

Can OCD Get Better?

OCD can be treated with therapies and medications. With treatment, OCD can get better over time. As a form of anxiety disorder, OCD can be treated in ways that are similar to other anxiety disorders. Psychotherapies are a great option for learning more about what triggers OCD symptoms. They can also help you learn better-coping responses that can help you avoid a relapse of symptoms. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common therapeutic option for several mental and behavioral health disorders, including anxiety disorders. CBT is a form of behavioral therapy that examines your thoughts and how they lead to patterns of behavior that can contribute to a relapse of OCD symptoms. CBT can help you identify triggers and your responses to them. The goal is to increase your self-efficacy by learning more effective coping responses to triggers and high-risk situations. 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a subcategory of CBT that emphasizes acceptance, non-judgment, and mindfulness. DBT was initially developed as a way to treat borderline personality disorder, but it has been adapted for anxiety disorders and OCD. DBT is designed to increase your stress tolerance, develop better emotional regulation, and learn mindfulness techniques to stay in the moment. Mindfulness is a concept that involves focusing on the present. In anxiety disorders, it can help avoid catastrophizing and excessive worry about the future.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a therapy designed to help people with OCD. It involves letting obsessive thoughts occur without addressing them with compulsive actions. Through this therapy, you will learn to cope with excessive thoughts without being controlled by compulsive actions. 

Several medications are used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. Antidepressants and anxiolytics are often used to treat anxiety disorders, and they may be useful in treating OCD. There is no one medication that’s useful in treating everyone. Finding the right treatment for your needs may be a trial and error process. It’s important to work with your doctor and let them know about any new or worsening symptoms. 

Does OCD Go Away?

There is no cure for OCD, and you may see symptoms come and go for a long time. Symptoms generally come and go over time, and they are more likely to improve with treatment. In some cases, symptoms may go away for a long time. However, they often return and require ongoing management. Some people may continue to experience mild OCD symptoms like obsessive thoughts and compulsions, even if they have their disorder under control. 

However, learning better coping skills and medications that work for you can help you manage your OCD and prepare yourself for any return of symptoms you may experience in the future. 

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