What To Expect About Untreated OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that affects roughly 2.5 million adults¹ in the United States, which translates to about 1% of the entire population. It is a common, chronic mental health disorder that causes uncontrollable, recurring thoughts and/or behaviors that the affected person feels the urge to repeat.

Unfortunately, many people who struggle with OCD do so in silence and don't seek the appropriate treatment for the condition. Some don’t even realize that they have OCD. But what happens if OCD is left untreated? Are there any adverse symptoms or consequences of not treating OCD on time? Read on to learn more about the ramifications of untreated OCD.

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is OCD?

OCD is a mental health disorder that results in uncontrollable obsessions and compulsions. Most people suffering from obsessions experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger extremely distressing feelings. 

People with OCD can also experience compulsive behaviors whereby they engage in certain actions or rituals to try to rid themselves of their obsessions or decrease their distress. Unfortunately, the more that sufferers lean into these obsessions and compulsions, the worse their condition can become.

The degree of OCD impairment can range from mild to severe, depending on several factors that we will discuss below. These impairments can take hours to days at a time before subsiding and can be intensely distressing. In more severe cases, your OCD can cause crippling anxiety and extreme emotional distress that interferes with your daily life.

What happens if OCD is left untreated?

Left untreated, the recurring thoughts and urges of OCD can interfere with your thinking and decrease concentration and short-term memory. Intense compulsions can drain your physical and mental energy and consume valuable time. You may find that you spend much of your day focused on insignificant – possibly non-existent – issues instead of tending to your daily responsibilities.

If you have more mild OCD symptoms, you may find yourself able to adapt once your symptoms begin to interfere with your daily life. While dealing with mild OCD isn't always ideal, some people can get by with the condition. In many cases, though, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Left untreated, OCD symptoms can worsen over the years and become even more debilitating,  causing you to:

  • Suffer from depression

  • Avoid going out

  • Have suicidal thoughts

  • Experience panic attacks

  • Avoid social gatherings

  • Experience emotional exhaustion

  • Become consumed with thoughts and have difficulty focusing on work

  • Miss work or school

  • Avoid  seeing friends or family members

  • Stop doing hobbies and other activities that matter to you.

Extreme OCD symptoms can also manifest as physical conditions, such as:

  • Developing skin complications from using harsh cleaning chemicals or products and engaging in excessive cleansing of the hands or other parts of the body.

  • Experiencing bodily pains and aches from engaging in repetitive actions.

These consequences can be life-threatening, which is why treatment is absolutely essential.

What makes OCD worse?

Like other mental health disorders, different factors can bring out mild to severe OCD symptoms. This segment highlights the top contributing factors that can worsen your OCD symptoms:


Stress is a leading contributor to many mental health problems, including anxiety disorders, depression, sadness, and panic attacks. If you start feeling overwhelmed, you may subconsciously turn to obsessions and compulsions to calm yourself down. Sometimes, obsessions and/or compulsions can become negative coping strategies because they bring momentary relief. 

However, engaging in them can worsen your OCD and other mental health symptoms, as your distress will likely return, sometimes more severely. Soon after you give in to the obsessions and/or compulsions, you will likely feel compelled to engage in them again and again, creating a downward spiral.

Trauma and abuse

Victims of trauma and abuse can also develop OCD symptoms. Trauma and abuse can cause extreme psychological damage, especially if not addressed early. Unfortunately, not everyone that experiences traumatic events or an abusive past seeks help.

Traumatic events and abusive relationships can trigger OCD symptoms that worsen over time if left untreated.

Substance abuse

Substance use disorders are another contributing factor that can worsen your OCD symptoms. People with mental health concerns may start abusing alcohol and other drugs to mask their symptoms. However, abusing substances only leads to more severe emotional problems that continue to worsen, including OCD.

Can OCD get better?

Yes, OCD can be effectively treated with medications and therapy. With the right treatment modalities, your OCD can improve with time, allowing you to live a normal, happy life. Many OCD treatments are similar to treatments for anxiety disorders. 

Here are the most effective treatment options for OCD:

1. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy² (CBT) is an effective therapeutic option for many mental and behavioral health conditions, including OCD. During treatment sessions, you will be gradually exposed to different situations and images that focus on your obsessions, leading to increased anxiety. Your therapist will instruct you not to perform your usual compulsive behaviors during the treatment.

Staying in that situation without anything terrible happening will help you to understand that fearful thought are just that, thoughts. They're not real and cannot harm you. Your anxiety will decrease over time as you continue participating in exposure therapy.

2. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) emphasizes acceptance, mindfulness, and non-judgment of your OCD. DBT is designed to increase stress tolerance, learn mindfulness techniques, and improve emotional regulation to stay in control. This therapy helps you focus on the present and avoid catastrophizing or excessively worrying about the future.

3. Exposure and response prevention (ERP)

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) involves allowing obsessive thoughts to occur without resisting or addressing them with compulsive acts. ERP is somewhat similar to CBT because it helps you learn to cope with triggering thoughts, images, or environments without trying to control them with compulsive actions.

4. Medications

Different medications can also help control your obsessions and compulsions, improving your quality of life by alleviating compulsive episodes. Psychiatric medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are very effective in controlling obsessions and compulsions. Remember that most medications can take up to 6 to 8 weeks before they start working.

Some common psychiatric drugs include:

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)

  • Citalopram (Celexa)

  • Paroxetine (Paxil)

  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)

  • Sertraline (Zoloft)

While there is no one treatment for OCD, a combination of psychotherapy and medication has shown very effective results. First-line medications like Zoloft, Prozac, and Luvox, combined with CBT, DBT, or ERP, can help alleviate obsessions and compulsions.

The lowdown

OCD  can be very disruptive and interfere with your daily life. In more severe cases, OCD can cause other mental and physical health problems that can be incredibly uncomfortable and even life-threatening. Understanding what happens if OCD is left untreated provides a clear insight into this mental health disorder and the importance of seeking medical attention and therapy.

  1. Anxiety disorders - facts & statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America

  2. What is cognitive behavioral therapy? | Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Other sources:

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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