Medical problems can happen any time – that’s why most colleges and universities have a health center on campus. Some disorders, including OCD, tend to surface for the first time at an age when many young people are in college. Other people have their first significant symptoms while they’re away at school.
Stress doesn’t cause OCD, but college stress can trigger OCD in students who are predisposed to it.
Because OCD frequently has its onset in childhood or young adulthood, a lot of people experience their initial symptoms during the college years. Others may have had mild to moderate symptoms in high school, but they didn’t interfere with their lives. When you’re living at home, family members often learn to work around OCD symptoms (referred to as “accommodating”). This might include cleaning or checking things for you in a certain way, avoiding certain places or people at your request, not requiring you to do certain things or go certain places, and even incorporating OCD rituals into the family routine. Your parents may have reassured you, for example, that everything was OK or that all doors and windows were locked at night.
In high school, your parents may have known how late you stayed up at night revising homework over and over but just excused it by saying you were a “hard worker” or a “perfectionist.” They may also have taken responsibility for getting you up in the morning and making sure you got to class on time.
But things change – and they often change dramatically – when you get to college. College comes with all kinds of new stressors: academic pressures, new independence and responsibilities, and different ideas and temptations. And if you’re living on your own (or with one or more roommates), it may be the first time you’ve lived away from your family. Being immersed in so many new things can be extremely stressful. Although stress doesn’t cause OCD, it can trigger OCD symptoms in those who are predisposed to the disorder. And for someone who has had mild OCD in the past, the stresses associated with college may worsen symptoms.
Another factor that may play a role in triggering or worsening OCD symptoms is that college students frequently neglect their physical health.
Chances are you don’t eat a balanced diet or get enough sleep or exercise, and you may drink too much caffeine. Neglecting your health can make any illness worse, and OCD is no exception.
Some college students use alcohol or recreational drugs when they experience anxiety symptoms in an effort to feel better or forget about their problems (known as “self-medicating”). The jury is in on this one: alcohol and drugs are not effective in reducing OCD symptoms. Self-medicating will not solve your OCD problem, and it may even make things worse.