Identifying Habits that Exacerbate OCD

If you are living with OCD, it is useful to know if there are things you are doing, apart from compulsions, which you probably already know doesn’t help, that make it worse. We shall look at day-to-day things or habits that could make your OCD worse.

By doing so, I hope you can better control of your condition.

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Understanding OCD and Its Triggers

OCD is a chronic disorder where a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts and behaviours. I should caveat that by saying initially, they are uncontrollable, but with therapy such as CBT and ERP, you certainly can gain control.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Exposure Response Prevention are both empirically based therapies, which means they have been proven to be effective through research.

Common OCD triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Certain medications
  • Substance abuse

Understanding these triggers is the first step towards managing OCD. It allows individuals to anticipate potential flare-ups and implement coping strategies.


Stress is a common trigger for OCD. If you are working with a therapist, you will know that it is anxiety-provoking when you are trying to reduce or eliminate your compulsions. If you are feeling stressed in general, it makes everything more difficult. On days when you feel more stressed, I would suggest that you work on reducing the stress by practising deep breathing, mindfulness or take a break from what you are doing, if possible, and get outside and do something completely different. Research shows that physical activity increases emotional resilience which can only be helpful.

Sleep Deprivation and OCD Severity

Continual lack of sleep makes everything more difficult, not just OCD. Lack of sleep is what we call a vulnerability factor and I first came across the idea of vulnerability factors while working in a specialist mental health team in the UK, treating people with personality disorders, and found it invaluable. If you are not sleeping well, you do not have the same resources available to you the next day (had you had good sleep). This lack of resources makes it more difficult to cope and harder to resist compulsions. If you find you are sleep deprived, be more forgiving towards yourself if you are not coping as well with your OCD as you normally would, and remind yourself you are doing the best you can with what you have available.

Dr Elaine Ryan PsychD

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is another factor that can worsen OCD. Drugs and alcohol can increase anxiety and trigger OCD symptoms and can be thought of as another vulnerability factor, and as a double whammy can also affect your sleep, making it much more difficult to cope with your OCD.

The Importance of Routine and Structure

Routine and structure can provide a sense of control, reducing anxiety and OCD symptoms. Disruptions to routine can trigger OCD episodes.

Maintaining a structured environment and sticking to a regular routine can be beneficial for individuals with OCD.

Behavioural and Psychological Factors

If you have undertaken therapy before, you most likely are aware that there are things you can do that make things okay in the short term but much worse in the long term; avoidance is a behaviour that makes life with OCD more difficult. When I am working with clients with OCD, I always state that it is completely understandable that you want to avoid the things that you know make you stressed or more likely to ritualise, but in the long term, this is not a good strategy.

If you want to stop avoiding things that worsen your OCD, working with a licensed mental health professional who specialises in OCD will teach you how to manage stress without avoidance.

Managing and Mitigating OCD Triggers

Managing and mitigating OCD triggers is a crucial part of treatment. This involves identifying personal triggers and developing strategies to cope with them.

It also includes maintaining a healthy lifestyle, seeking professional help, and adhering to prescribed treatments.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Exposure Response Prevention

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) are effective treatments for managing OCD triggers. CBT helps individuals change their thought patterns, while ERP exposes them to their triggers in a controlled environment.

These therapies can significantly reduce OCD symptoms and improve quality of life.

The Role of Support Systems and Professional Help

Support systems and professional help play a vital role in managing OCD. Support from loved ones provides emotional comfort, while professional guidance ensures effective treatment.

Seeking help from mental health professionals and joining support groups can provide valuable resources for managing OCD.


  • This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice.
  • Always consult with a qualified mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment of OCD.
  • Individual experiences with OCD vary, and the effectiveness of treatment approaches can differ.
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