Some people can trace the onset of their OCD symptoms to a major life event.

A variety of factors, including family genes, biology, and the environment, may influence the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

While there’s currently no evidence that stress alone can cause OCD, major life changes can trigger — or at least contribute to — its onset.

In fact, many people with OCD can trace the onset of their symptoms to a stressful period of life or to a traumatic event.

“Trigger” can mean many things for OCD. In general, a trigger can be a stimulus that influences the development of the condition or one that worsens its symptoms. For instance, an abusive home life during childhood could be a trigger for OCD.

The nature of the trigger sometimes has an effect on the type of OCD a person develops. In the example of an abusive home life, a person might develop symptoms of harm OCD, which is the presence of intrusive thoughts about harming oneself or a loved one. That person might obsessively avoid sharp objects to calm these intrusive thoughts.

The connection between a person’s OCD type and OCD trigger isn’t always as intuitive, however. The trigger for the onset of OCD or for a flare-up can range from a death in the family to bullying at school and lead to any type of OCD.

Major or stressful life events that may trigger the onset of OCD include the following:

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an often chronic mental health condition in which a person gets caught in a recurrent cycle of unwanted obsessions and/or compulsions.

Obsessions are persistent, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that can result in significant distress. Compulsions are the behaviors a person engages in to reduce the anxiety or intensity of the thoughts.

OCD affects about 2.3% of the population and is a leading cause of disability among all psychiatric conditions.

Similar to other psychiatric conditions, high levels of stress can trigger the development of OCD. These events may be biological (e.g. illness or infection) or psychosocial (traumatic or stressful life events like being in an accident or abuse).

A 2015 study with twins suggested that physical and sexual abuse, family disruption, and neglect exert the strongest impact on OCD severity.

Do specific types of trauma influence the obsessions?

In some cases, the life stressor or trauma may influence the nature of the obsessions. The number of stressful life events and the type of stressful event also has a significant influence on a person’s OCD symptoms.

For instance, a 2020 study found that multiple stressful life events before the onset of OCD may increase the likelihood of a person developing contamination OCD symptoms. This is when a person fears getting sick or passing an illness to another person.

A 2012 study found 61% of participants with OCD experienced the onset of OCD after at least one stressful life event. This was particularly common for women.

The study also found that women were more likely to have an abrupt onset of OCD after a stressful life event and were more likely to develop somatic obsessions after such an event (body-focused obsessions like breathing on blinking).

Lastly, a 2020 study found that experiencing the death of a loved one linked to an increased severity of hoarding symptoms.

Males and females may experience different triggers

Though OCD can occur anytime, including childhood, males tend to develop OCD in their mid-teens, while females may be more likely to have onset in their mid-20s.

According to a 2020 study, this may indicate that males and females may be prone to different types of triggers.

For instance, male onset of OCD may be more affected by genetic factors and the co-presence of other neurodevelopmental conditions such as Tourette syndrome and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). If a stressful life event triggers OCD in males, it may be most likely related to changing jobs or relocation.

In contrast, co-present mood or anxiety disorders and life events, including family problems, pregnancy, or childbirth, may influence the onset of female OCD.

If you or a family member lives with OCD, it can be tricky to navigate major life changes, especially if these events are unexpected and highly stressful.

While you may not be able to avoid stress entirely, you can take steps to learn how to better manage stress and develop coping strategies for your triggers.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Begin a mindfulness practice. Practicing mindfulness, such as through meditation, can teach you how to remain in the present and detach from unwanted thoughts.
  • Pace yourself to avoid stress. If you have an important life event coming up, be sure to plan ahead and take it one step at a time. For instance, if you have an exam in 4 weeks worth 70% of your grade, break the study materials into small workable chunks. Start the process as soon as you can, spread out the workload, and give yourself ample breaks.
  • Take care of yourself. Try to never underestimate a healthy meal, a good night’s rest, and a bit of exercise. As best you can, try to maintain balance in your life and keep up healthy habits.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for help from loved ones. If you find yourself in a situation that’s too much to deal with by yourself, don’t hesitate to reach out to family and friends. For instance, if your landlord has given you 30 days to move out, consider asking for help with packing and moving.
  • Try therapy. It can also be helpful to speak with a mental health professional to help manage your OCD symptoms. A 2016 study found that mindfulness-based cognitive strategies reduced dysfunctional beliefs in people with OCD and acted as effective therapies alongside exposure response prevention.

Similar to other psychiatric conditions, OCD is often triggered or worsened by a highly stressful event. This might be a typical life experience, such as changing schools, or a traumatic event, like the death of a loved one.

Though we can’t always know when a life changing event will occur, we can do our best to prepare. This can mean developing healthy habits, speaking with a therapist, leaning on loved ones for support, and practicing mindfulness. Remember, you’re not alone and help is always available.