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What Causes OCD to Flare Up? Top 10 Causes

What Causes OCD to Flare Up

In this post, you’re going to find out what causes OCD to flare up.

What Is OCD?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

It is characterized by the presence of obsessions and compulsions that significantly impact an individual’s daily life and overall functioning.

According to the DSM-5 criteria, OCD is diagnosed when the following criteria are met:

1. Presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both:

– Obsessions: Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are intrusive, unwanted, and cause significant distress.

– Compulsions: Repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform in response to obsessions or according to specific rules, aimed at reducing distress or preventing a dreaded event.

2. The obsessions or compulsions are time-consuming (take more than one hour per day) or cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

3. The symptoms are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or another medical condition.

4. The symptoms cannot be better explained by another mental disorder.

It is important to note that not all repetitive behaviors or intrusive thoughts qualify as OCD. The key distinction lies in the significant distress and interference these symptoms cause in an individual’s life.

OCD can manifest in various forms, including but not limited to contamination obsessions with washing compulsions, symmetry obsessions with arranging or ordering compulsions, and intrusive thoughts related to harm or aggression with checking compulsions.

Related: How To Let Go Of OCD? Top 6 Powerful Strategies to Treat OCD Using CBT (+FREE OCD Resources)

What Causes OCD to Flare Up?

1. Stress

Stress is a common trigger for OCD flare-ups.

When individuals experience high levels of stress, it can disrupt their ability to cope with intrusive thoughts and engage in compulsive behaviors.

Stressful life events, such as relationship problems, work-related challenges, or major life transitions, can intensify OCD symptoms.

2. Life Changes

Significant changes in one’s life can also contribute to the exacerbation of OCD symptoms.

This could include moving to a new house, starting a new job, or the birth of a child.

Adjusting to new routines and responsibilities can heighten anxiety levels and make individuals more susceptible to obsessions and compulsions.

3. Substance Use

Substance abuse or certain medications can worsen OCD symptoms.

Substance use, particularly stimulants like amphetamines and cocaine, can increase anxiety levels and interfere with impulse control, leading to heightened obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

Related: How To Support A Friend With OCD? 7 Practical Ways You Can Help Someone With OCD

4. Lack of Sleep

Inadequate sleep or poor sleep quality can negatively impact mental health and exacerbate OCD symptoms.

Lack of sleep can increase stress levels, impair cognitive functioning, and weaken the ability to manage intrusive thoughts and engage in adaptive coping mechanisms.

5. Physical Illness

Some individuals may experience an exacerbation of OCD symptoms during times of physical illness or medical conditions.

The distress and uncertainty associated with illness can intensify anxiety and trigger obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

6. Hormonal Changes

Hormonal fluctuations, such as those that occur during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause, can impact OCD symptoms in some individuals.

These hormonal changes can affect mood regulation and increase vulnerability to anxiety and intrusive thoughts.

7. Environmental Triggers

Certain situations or environments can trigger OCD symptoms.

For example, being in a cluttered or disorganized space may provoke obsessive thoughts related to cleanliness or orderliness, leading to compulsive cleaning or arranging behaviors.

Related: Top 35 OCD Coping Skills

8. Emotional Triggers

Emotional experiences, such as intense feelings of guilt, shame, or fear, can trigger OCD symptoms.

These emotions can activate obsessions related to moral or ethical concerns, leading to compulsions aimed at neutralizing or alleviating the distress associated with these thoughts.

9. Traumatic Events

Experiencing traumatic events can significantly impact OCD symptoms.

Trauma can disrupt the brain’s normal functioning and increase the likelihood of developing OCD or worsening existing symptoms.

10. Negative Life Events

Negative life events, such as loss, bereavement, or interpersonal conflicts, can increase stress levels and trigger or exacerbate OCD symptoms.

Difficulties in personal relationships or unresolved conflicts can contribute to obsessive thinking patterns and compulsive behaviors.

It is important to note that these factors can vary from person to person, and what triggers one individual’s OCD symptoms may not affect another person in the same way.

Identifying personal triggers can be helpful in managing OCD symptoms effectively.

While the above factors can contribute to OCD flare-ups, it is essential to remember that OCD is a treatable condition.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), particularly exposure and response prevention (ERP), is considered the most effective form of treatment for OCD.

Related: Resources For OCD (Information, Podcasts, APPS, TED Talks, Books)

Negative Thoughts Worksheets (2)

Strategies for Managing and Preventing OCD Flare-Ups

#1. Educate yourself about OCD

Understanding the nature of OCD is essential in managing the disorder.

Educate yourself about the causes, symptoms, and common triggers for OCD.

This knowledge will help you recognize your own patterns and provide a sense of empowerment when facing OCD-related challenges.

#2. Seek professional help

Consulting with a mental health professional experienced in treating OCD, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, is crucial.

They can provide accurate diagnosis, develop a personalized treatment plan, and guide you through evidence-based therapies, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).

#3. Engage in CBT and ERP

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is highly recommended for managing OCD.

CBT helps individuals identify negative thought patterns and develop healthier coping strategies.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a specialized form of CBT, gradually exposes individuals to their obsessive thoughts or situations that trigger compulsions, helping them resist engaging in compulsive behaviors.

Related: Best 10 OCD Books

#4. Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation, can help reduce anxiety and increase your ability to tolerate distress.

Regularly engaging in these practices can promote self-awareness, decrease obsession-related anxiety, and enhance overall well-being.

Here’s a mindfulness exercise to practice:

1. Find a quiet and comfortable space where you can sit or lie down without interruptions.
2. Close your eyes and take a few deep, slow breaths to help relax your body and mind.
3. Begin by bringing your attention to the sensation of your breath. Notice the feeling of the breath entering and leaving your body. If your mind wanders, simply acknowledge the thoughts and gently redirect your focus back to your breath.
4. Now, bring your awareness to any physical sensations in your body. Without judgment, observe any tension, discomfort, or areas of relaxation. Allow yourself to fully experience these sensations, without trying to change them.
5. Shift your attention to your thoughts. Notice any intrusive or repetitive thoughts that are characteristic of your OCD. Instead of engaging with these thoughts or trying to suppress them, simply observe them as passing mental events. Recognize that they are separate from your true self.
6. As you continue to observe your thoughts, remind yourself that you have the power to choose how you respond to them. See if you can cultivate a sense of distance from these thoughts, recognizing that they do not define you.
7. Finally, expand your awareness to include your surroundings. Notice any sounds, smells, or physical sensations in the present moment. Allow yourself to be fully present and engaged with your immediate environment.
8. Take a few more deep breaths, gradually bringing your attention back to the room. Open your eyes and take a moment to reflect on your experience.

#5. Establish a structured routine

Creating a structured daily routine can be beneficial for individuals with OCD.

Plan your days, establish specific goals, and allocate time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation.

A structured routine provides a sense of control and minimizes uncertainty, which can help reduce OCD symptoms.

Related: Best 8 Mindfulness Exercises For Adults That Will Help You Regulate Your Emotions

#6. Manage stress levels

Stress can exacerbate OCD symptoms.

Implement stress-reduction techniques like exercise, practicing hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and engaging in activities that promote relaxation.

Regular physical activity releases endorphins, which can improve mood and alleviate anxiety.

Learn to recognize obsessive thoughts and challenge their validity.

OCD often involves irrational beliefs and distorted thinking.

Engage in cognitive restructuring by questioning the evidence supporting these thoughts and generating alternative, more realistic perspectives.

Related: Best 10 Intrusive Thoughts Books

#8. Utilize visualization and imagery techniques

Visualizing yourself successfully managing OCD-related triggers can be a powerful tool.

Imagery-based techniques involving exposure to feared situations in the mind can help desensitize you to anxiety-provoking situations and reduce their power over you.

#9. Build a support network

Having a supportive network of family, friends, or support groups can provide encouragement and understanding during difficult times.

Joining OCD-specific support groups or online communities can offer valuable insights, practical advice, and a sense of solidarity.

Related: Best 9 Tips On How To Receive More In Life And Relationships?

#10. Maintain good physical health

Taking care of your physical health can indirectly influence your mental well-being.

Ensure you have a balanced diet, get enough sleep, and avoid excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption.

Physical well-being supports emotional resilience and can reduce the likelihood of OCD flare-ups.

#11. Minimize substance use

It is crucial to minimize the use of substances that may exacerbate OCD symptoms, including alcohol, recreational drugs, and even some medications.

These substances can interfere with medication effectiveness and worsen anxious feelings.

Related: What Is Emotional Sobriety and How to Achieve It? (+FREE Worksheets)

#12. Practice self-compassion

Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion.

Remember that managing OCD is a gradual process, and setbacks may occur.

Developing a healthy and compassionate attitude towards yourself can foster resilience and perseverance.

Self-Compassion Worksheets (1)

How to Support A Loved One With OCD?

When someone we care about is living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), providing them with support can be crucial for their well-being.

However, understanding how to offer that support in a constructive and empathetic way can sometimes be challenging.

#1. Educate Yourself

Start by educating yourself about OCD.

Learn about the common symptoms, triggers, and treatment options available.

Recognize that OCD is a complex disorder and varies from person to person.

Familiarize yourself with strategies such as Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, which is often the gold-standard treatment for OCD.

By understanding the intricacies of the condition, you’ll be better equipped to empathize with your loved one’s experiences and challenges.

#2. Foster Open Communication

Establish open and non-judgmental lines of communication with your loved one.

Encourage them to share their thoughts, fears, and concerns related to their OCD.

Be an active listener, showing empathy, patience, and understanding.

Avoid downplaying or dismissing their worries, and refrain from offering reassurance that reinforces their OCD rituals. Instead, gently challenge their irrational beliefs and encourage them to seek professional help.

Related: How To Validate Someone’s Feelings Without Agreeing? (+Examples of Validating Statements)b

#3. Support Treatment Seeking

Encourage your loved one to seek professional help from a mental health expert specializing in OCD.

Offer assistance in researching and finding appropriate therapists or psychiatrists who have experience in treating OCD specifically.

Accompany them to appointments if they desire your support.

Understand that it might take time for them to take this step, so be patient and supportive throughout the process.

#4. Be Cognizant of Triggers

Identify potential triggers that worsen your loved one’s OCD symptoms.

These triggers can vary widely, from certain environments to specific objects or situations.

Collaborate with them to develop strategies to minimize exposure to these triggers when possible.

However, it is essential to strike a balance between accommodating their triggers and encouraging gradual exposure to them, as avoidance can reinforce their anxieties over time.

#5. Encourage Self-Care

Promote self-care practices that enhance your loved one’s overall well-being.

Encourage regular exercise, healthy eating, and sufficient sleep.

Engage in activities together that they enjoy and find mentally soothing.

Respect their need for personal boundaries, alone time, or potential breaks from OCD-related discussions.

Encouraging overall self-care supports their mental health and builds resilience against OCD-related stressors.

Related: 35 Self Care Saturday Ideas To Try This Weekend

#6. Promote Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Help your loved one develop healthy coping strategies to manage their OCD symptoms.

Encourage them to engage in relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation.

Explore the potential benefits of creative outlets like art, writing, or music, which can provide a positive distraction and emotional expression.

Encourage them to connect with support groups or online communities of individuals experiencing similar challenges.

#7. Emphasize Patience and Understanding

It is important to approach your loved one’s journey with patience and understanding.

Remember that recovery from OCD takes time and persistence.

Avoid becoming frustrated with their repeated rituals or anxieties; instead, offer reassurances and gently challenge their fears.

Celebrate even small victories and progress, as this will help to motivate and inspire them along the way.

Related: Best 99 Coping Skills (+FREE Coping Worksheets)


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a complex mental health condition characterized by intrusive and distressing thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive, ritualistic behaviors (compulsions).

While the exact cause of OCD is not fully understood, there are several factors that can contribute to its flare-up.

Understanding these factors can be helpful in managing and reducing symptoms.

Managing and preventing OCD flare-ups requires a multifaceted approach. Incorporating these evidence-based strategies into your daily life can help you regain control over OCD symptoms and improve your overall well-being.

While these strategies can be helpful, it is important to remember that seeking professional guidance is crucial.

With the right support and commitment, you can effectively manage your OCD symptoms and lead a fulfilling life.


What are the possible causes of OCD?

The exact causes of OCD are still being investigated, but research suggests a combination of genetic, neurobiological, and environmental factors contribute to its development.

There may be a genetic component, as individuals with a family history of OCD are more likely to develop the disorder.

Neurologically, abnormal serotonin levels and dysfunction in certain brain regions (such as the orbitofrontal cortex and basal ganglia) have been implicated.

Some individuals may develop OCD following a traumatic event or experience high levels of stress.

Related: How To Feel Your Feelings? Top 9 Difficult Emotions To Cope With In Healthy Ways

Is OCD a lifelong condition?

OCD is typically a chronic condition, meaning it lasts for an extended period.

Without appropriate treatment, symptoms can persist and fluctuate in intensity over time.

However, with the right combination of therapy, medication, and support, many individuals with OCD can effectively manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives.

Early intervention and consistent treatment adherence play crucial roles in improving long-term outcomes.

Are there different types of OCD?

OCD can manifest in various ways, and individuals may experience different obsessions and compulsions. Common subtypes of OCD include:

– Contamination OCD: Excessive fear of germs, dirt, or harmful substances leading to excessive cleaning or avoidance.

– Checking OCD: Persistent doubts and fears about safety, resulting in repetitive checking behaviors.

– Symmetry and Ordering OCD: A strong need for things to be perfectly ordered, aligned, or balanced.

– Intrusive Thoughts OCD: Disturbing and unwanted thoughts or mental images that cause distress.

– Hoarding Disorder: Difficulty discarding possessions, leading to excessive accumulation and clutter.

Related: Dysregulated Nervous System: Top 9 Signs & How to Heal

How does OCD differ from other anxiety disorders?

OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder in the DSM-5.

However, it differs from other anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and panic disorder (PD).

While these disorders share some similarities, each has distinct features.

OCD is characterized by the presence of obsessions and compulsions, which are absent in other anxiety disorders.

Additionally, the focus of anxiety differs; individuals with OCD are primarily concerned with specific obsessions and controlling them through compulsive behaviors, whereas individuals with GAD, SAD, or PD experience diffuse and generalized anxiety symptoms not linked to specific obsessions.

Related: Dysregulated Nervous System: Top 9 Signs & How to Heal

Is there a genetic component to OCD?

There is evidence to suggest that there is a genetic component to OCD.

Studies have shown that individuals with a family history of OCD are at a higher risk of developing the disorder themselves.

It is believed that multiple genes, rather than a single gene, contribute to the development of OCD.

However, specific genes associated with OCD have not been definitively identified.

Environmental factors are also thought to play a role, as the interaction between genetic predispositions and environmental triggers may influence the development of OCD.

Can OCD coexist with other mental health conditions?

OCD can coexist with other mental health conditions, which is known as comorbidity.

The most commonly occurring comorbid conditions with OCD include depression, anxiety disorders (such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder), and eating disorders.

Related: High Functioning Anxiety Test (& How To Support Anxiety Recovery)

Is it possible to have OCD and not realize it?

It is possible for individuals to have OCD and not realize it, especially if they exhibit less typical or less visible symptoms or have limited insight into their thoughts and behaviors.

Some reasons why individuals with OCD may not recognize their condition include:

– Lack of awareness about OCD and its symptoms.
– Shame or embarrassment about the nature of their obsessions and compulsions, leading to secrecy.
– Misattributing their thoughts and behaviors to personal characteristics or unrelated issues.
– Minimizing or normalizing their symptoms, thinking they are simply quirks or personality traits.
– Compulsions performed mentally rather than physically, making them less noticeable to others.

Related: Best 10 Intrusive Thoughts Books

Differentiating between normal worry and OCD-related thoughts can be challenging, as both can involve feelings of anxiety and unwanted thoughts.

However, there are some key differences that can help distinguish between the two:

1. Frequency and Intensity: OCD-related thoughts often occur more frequently and with greater intensity than normal worries. They may feel intrusive, bothersome, and difficult to control, causing significant distress.

2. Persistence: While normal worries tend to come and go depending on the situation, OCD-related thoughts persist over time. They can become a constant presence, interfering with daily functioning and causing distress even when there is no real reason for concern.

3. Specificity of Concerns: OCD-related thoughts typically revolve around specific themes, referred to as obsessions. Common examples include contamination fears, doubts about safety or morality, and a need for orderliness or symmetry. Normal worries, on the other hand, are usually related to real-life concerns and are not confined to specific themes.

4. Relation to Reality: Normal worries are often based on realistic events or situations, while OCD-related thoughts are often irrational and not supported by real evidence. Individuals with OCD may recognize their thoughts as irrational but still find it extremely challenging to dismiss or ignore them.

Can OCD symptoms change over time?

It is possible for symptoms to fluctuate and evolve over time.

They can vary in intensity, frequency, and themes, impacting different areas of your life at different times.

It is not uncommon for new obsessions or compulsions to develop, while existing ones may diminish or temporarily subside.

This variability highlights the importance of ongoing treatment and support to manage the ever-changing nature of OCD symptoms effectively.

Related: Best 10 Books For Overthinking And Anxiety

Is it necessary to disclose my OCD diagnosis to my employer/school?

Whether or not to disclose your OCD diagnosis to your employer or school is a personal decision that depends on individual circumstances.

In some cases, disclosing your diagnosis may be beneficial, as it allows for accommodations and support to be provided.

For example, reasonable workplace or academic adjustments like flexible schedules, modified deadlines, or reduced workloads can alleviate stress and improve overall functioning.

However, it’s important to consider potential consequences and the level of understanding and support within the educational institution or workplace.

Discrimination and stigma still exist, unfortunately, so careful consideration should be given to how comfortable you feel sharing this information and whether it will genuinely benefit your well-being and success in that environment.

If you decide to disclose your OCD diagnosis, it can be helpful to document your concerns and any accommodations or adjustments you may need.

By Hadiah

Hadiah is a counselor who is passionate about supporting individuals on their journey towards mental well-being. Hadiah not only writes insightful articles on various mental health topics but also creates engaging and practical mental health worksheets.

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