Medically reviewed by: Meaghan Rice, PsyD., LPC

Reviewed On: February 3, 2023

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that causes excessive, unwanted thoughts and repetitive, ritualistic behaviors, but the nature of symptoms can vary based on what type of OCD a person has. While triggers for OCD symptoms can vary from person to person, some are more common than others. 

Keep reading to learn about five common OCD triggers. We’re also looking at how to manage triggers once you identify them, so you can take back control instead of OCD controlling you.

What Is an OCD Trigger?

OCD triggers are catalysts for OCD symptoms. Exposure to triggers can bring on or make symptoms more severe. Triggers can be internal or external and are often shaped by a person’s personal experiences. 

“Situations or things that cause a high level of anxiety or distress can trigger OCD symptoms. Not everyone with increased anxiety/distress manifests OCD symptomatology, but for those who do, it can be extremely hard to handle and quite frustrating to overcome. OCD behaviors are usually related to actions related to a person’s current obsession to help cope with anxiety/distress.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

What causes OCD symptoms to heighten? Anything that causes stress, anxiety, or an intense emotional reaction has the potential to be a trigger. After someone with OCD is triggered, they may experience an increase in intrusive thoughts, which can then result in carrying out compulsions. 

Learning to identify triggers can help people with OCD manage symptoms and their condition more effectively. 

What does an OCD trigger feel like?

While obsessions and compulsions can vary greatly, most people with OCD respond to triggers similarly. 

First, they’re exposed to a trigger, which causes anxiety and sets off unwanted thoughts. Then, they feel compelled to engage in compulsive behavior  — unhealthy and generally unhelpful — in a desperate attempt to stop the intrusive thoughts. 

What Triggers OCD? 5 Common OCD Triggers

While there isn’t any single trigger that would apply to everyone living with OCD, there are some common things that tend to be triggering for many people.

“It’s largely based on the person and what can cause their anxiety levels to heighten so that some sort of unhealthy coping mechanism is employed. It can be anything from starting a new job to a traumatic event or even the start of a new phase in life. Left untreated, some anxiety symptoms will manifest in OCD-like behaviors in an effort to cope with the situation. Seeking treatment, online or in person, can help start the path in addressing the anxieties/distress that cause OCD behaviors.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

1. Chronic stress

Stress is a normal part of life, but prolonged periods can cause anxiety levels to spike. Long-term stress can make someone feel on edge and trigger OCD symptoms, and studies suggest that this can trigger an obsessive thought. Thus, finding ways to cope with stress is key to managing OCD. 

2. Traumatic experiences

Trauma is an emotional response to a profoundly upsetting event. Injuries or illnesses that result in hospitalization, natural disasters, or the death of a loved one are all examples of traumatic experiences. The term “trauma” can also refer to a series of events, such as an abusive relationship. 

Research has uncovered that many people develop OCD in response to trauma. A traumatic experience can also worsen existing symptoms. While not everyone reacts to trauma in the same way, it is associated with a decline in mental health. 

3. Major life changes

Triggers for OCD often involve negative experiences, but even positive or exciting events have the potential to bring on symptoms. For example, significant life changes, such as a move, a new job, or becoming a parent, can disrupt life and increase stress and anxiety that triggers OCD. 

Adapting to a new life can be tricky, even for someone excited about the changes. They might feel worried about where their life is going, and these fears could be a catalyst for symptoms.

4. Sleep disturbances

People with OCD frequently suffer from sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or nightmares. These disturbances can interfere with sleep quality, negatively affecting physical and mental health.

When someone with OCD can’t get the rest they need, they may find their symptoms more difficult to manage. This can become a never-ending cycle, as people with OCD often find sleep challenging as their symptoms become worse. 

5. Obsession triggers

In addition to broad symptoms, many people with OCD are triggered by things that remind them of their common obsessions. For example, someone with intrusive thoughts about contamination might be triggered by seeing a dirty room. Likewise, if a person has thoughts about harming others, they could be triggered when they see objects that could cause harm, like knives. 

Once someone starts thinking about their obsession, it can feel impossible to stop. These kinds of triggers can be difficult to avoid, which is why it’s so critical that people with OCD find ways to cope with their triggers. 

How Do You Stop OCD Triggers?

Exposure to triggers can bring on an obsessive thought that pushes someone with OCD to engage in any compulsive behavior. Once the cycle starts, it becomes increasingly hard to stop. For this reason alone, we see how essential it is to find effective ways to identify and manage triggers. 

Figure out what your triggers are 

Once you know what triggers OCD, you’re less likely to be caught off-guard, as you’ll be better prepared to handle them when they appear. Because triggers can be so personal, tracking your symptoms in a journal can be helpful. It might allow you to begin being able to spot triggers you may not have been aware of before.

Find better ways to manage stress

Stress and anxiety are significant known triggers for OCD. Learning how to cope with stress healthily can be a game-changer in managing your OCD. Try to limit your exposure to things that could cause distress — like the news, toxic relationships, or environments that give you anxiety. 

To prepare yourself for stress, you should also take care of your body. For example, eating a healthy diet and practicing good sleep hygiene can help you fight stress before it triggers symptoms.

Get professional help

OCD symptoms can be severe and overwhelming. Many people feel helpless once they’re triggered. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone and you can learn how to deal with OCD. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a treatable condition. If you work with a professional, you’ll be able to find treatment. Therapy for OCD can help you discover ways to cope with triggers and keep your symptoms under control. 

Learn How to Manage OCD Triggers with Talkspace

When you have OCD, it’s easy to blame triggers for your symptoms. However, while triggers can worsen your symptoms, they’re ultimately not the cause of your distress. 

Talkspace can connect you to a mental health professional who can help treat your symptoms. Since Talkspace offers both online therapy and OCD medication (with a prescription), you’ll be able to get the type of help you need conveniently and affordably. 

Get started today by reaching out to Talkspace.