Managing Stress When You Have OCD

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If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you can likely tell that stress is a major trigger of your OCD symptoms. In addition, as the anxiety caused by your stress often causes you to use poor coping strategies like avoidance, stress can get in the way of treatment for OCD. Because of this, it's vital to understand what stress is and how to cope with it.

Understanding Stress

Although we have all experienced stressful situations at one time or another, it can be difficult to explain exactly what stress is. Stress can be viewed from three different perspectives: as an event, a reaction, or a transaction.

Stress as an Event

Stress can be classified as an event, in which case the event is called a stressor. Examples of major stressors include getting divorced, being laid off from work, or being diagnosed with a serious illness. Daily hassles such as getting a parking ticket or forgetting to pick up milk on the way home can also be thought of as stressors.

In general, the more long-standing, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and ambiguous you perceive a stressor to be, the more negative its impact will be on your well-being. People with OCD often report experiencing an increase in the number or severity of stressors just prior to their symptoms becoming worse.

Stress as a Reaction

Stress can also be thought of as how we react to an event. The classic stress response is the “fight or flight” reaction in which your body activates a number of physical and behavioral defense mechanisms to deal with an impending threat. This includes the release of specific hormones, the activation of stress-sensitive brain regions, and an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure. All of these changes are designed to keep us alive in the face of danger.

It makes sense that it's often these physical and psychological symptoms that we are detecting when we say that we feel stressed out. Although the fight or flight reaction is helpful in the short-term, it puts a strain on our systems and can contribute to a variety of physical and mental illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and anxiety disorders, if it goes on for too long.

Stress as a Transaction

Another way we can think of stress is as a state that results from a transaction between you and your environment. In this model of stress, your environment is constantly making demands on you such as getting to work on time, paying monthly bills, resolving conflicts with friends or co-workers, or parenting children. In turn, you're supposed to be able to bring a number of resources such as time, money, knowledge, skill, and social support to help meet the demands placed on you by the environment.

According to this model, if you believe that you don't have the resources you need to deal with the demands placed on you, you feel stress.

A nice feature of this model of stress is that it accounts for why different people react differently when faced with the same challenges. Not everybody sees the demands of the environment in the same way, and likewise, not everyone sees their capacity to deal with stress in the same way, so you can have as many different reactions to potentially stressful conditions as you do people.

Healthy Coping Strategies

According to the transactional model of stress, the perception of our ability to cope with the demands of the environment is the key to whether we will experience stress or not. Again, if we feel we have the resources to meet the demands of the environment, we probably won't feel as much stress. As such, many types of therapy for OCD focus on developing coping strategies that help you feel like you have more control over events in your environment.

The thinking is that the more control you feel, the less stressed you are and the less severe your OCD symptoms become.

In general, most psychotherapies emphasize problem-focused coping. Coping strategies that get to the root of the problem are often far more effective in reducing stress than those that seek to simply manage the emotional distress caused by a situation.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Barkway P. Stress and Coping. In: Psychology for Health Professionals. 2nd ed. Australia: Elsevier;2013:222-250.

  • Lazarus RS, Folkman S. Stress, Appraisal and Coping. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company; 1984.

By Owen Kelly, PhD
Owen Kelly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professor, and author in Ontario, ON, who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders.