How Past Sexual Abuse Can Show Up As (Harm) OCD

Understanding the presence of scary thoughts, impulses, and sensations in child abuse survivors (but can occur with anyone).

The perpetual fear of being re-harmed or fear of harming others in any way, stemming from child abuse and violence, or any other trauma or issue, can exist either consciously or unconsciously. These particular type of symptoms occur from the compromise or loss of the sense of the goodness/stability of our self and loss of personal and human identity. 

Christina Vaughn

Harm OCD is a common subtype of OCD that causes intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images or urges to harm oneself or others.

My Experience of The Results Of Early Trauma

A Breeding Ground For OCD

After experiencing sexual abuse in 1983 at age 14, I began having symptoms of panic in my everyday life, fight or flight responses that worked to keep me in a constant state of terror and an urgency to try to control my environment.

A few weeks after being sexually abused by a fellow (adult, age 19) student in my high school, I became acutely aware that I had begun aggressively shaking my knee as I sat in each class, distracting myself from the chaos I felt inside. I began to recognize that I felt on edge all the time. I then began making decisions that put me further in harm’s way, such as hanging out with the girls I had met who had also been abused by the same person. Other boys I met in this crowd began to prey on me as well, as the unaddressed vulnerability from trauma often attracted the attention of other abusers.

The most detrimental, long-lasting effect of the abuse that I still struggle with today was the overwhelming feelings of “foreboding” and heaviness (guilt). I had no words or definition for the blanket of dark and suffocating terror that would creep over me.

Upon revealing to my parents what had happened to me, I was guided to my high school counselor for “talking” about the incident and subsequent harmful occurrences in my life.

Tragically, this man had the habit of taking advantage of vulnerable students and further traumatized me and my situation by asking overtly inappropriate sexual questions and making lewd suggestions to me regarding the abuse. This was all said after he got up and locked his office door in that first and only appointment before executing these violations against me.

I received no other help for the abuse nor sought help until recently, 40 years after the original incident of abuse. Manifestations of abuse will erupt sometime, somewhere in life and more so erratic and abstract without therapy.

Symptoms Begin To Manifest

first experienced a year-long bout with OCD symptoms in 1989 at age 20 during my first pregnancy and for the first year of my newborn son’s life. I can say with confidence that the symptoms evolved with a definition of Postpartum Syndrome. Still, I believe the issue was more related to an initial acute presentation of Harm OCD.

Because of the urgent nature of harmful thoughts, sensations, and impulses toward my newborn, I believed I was a murderer and only told my father what was happening a year after the experience began because I thought I was going to lose control, commit a violent act, and be sent to prison. To me, the threat was very real. The impact remains with me. The overwhelming vulnerability and incredible sense of loss of self-control were tormentous and paralyzing.

Today, I still have strong memories of several other random thought processes related to my children’s safety that occurred in the past 33 years and provoked life-long terror, guilt, and shame.

The ever-present foreboding feelings caused me to almost completely shy away from intimate playtime with my children as they were growing up. I did not know that these feelings I was having were defined as anything except scary. I was terrified of committing a criminal act involuntarily so I just distanced myself in that way.

I saw and felt that it confused and hurt them. I did not know what to do and deeply grieved the loss we were all experiencing and felt such deep sorrow and shame that subsequently drove most of my life decisions forward.

I experienced a second extended bout of intrusive thought processes and symptomatic Harm OCD several years later:

One Thanksgiving holiday, I made plans to travel from our home in Austin, Texas to Dallas to be with family. After many setbacks in the plans, including having the brakes on our car suddenly go out and finagling repairs near a Holiday, we set out. Just before we reached the highway, a commercial truck hit us head-on. My 8-year-old daughter smashed her face into the back of my seat. Everyone was crying and upset, especially me.

All the frustrations of single-parenting and years of being alone in our needs as humans and family void of any support just seemed to capitalize that day emotionally.

Our car was towed, and we went home. I pressed the insurance company for a rental and we went on to Dallas the next day, but not without experiencing a terrifying incident the night of the crash at the kids’ bedtime.

While putting my two youngest children to bed, I turned my head to speak to them and distinctly heard the words with overpowering impulse “Kill them, kill them, now!”

I was startled and terrified. My body had a neuro-receptive response and I felt “shaky” inside and felt the urgent need for immediate cover or safety, but there was none. Again, because I had no reference point or explanation for any of these feelings, I just condemned myself as crazy and innately murderous.

From that point on, I continued to suffer from harmful thoughts, sensations, and impulses for almost 3 years. One particular day, I had enough and as I was driving somewhere I finally verbally “evicted” what I perceived as demons (and there is truth to this) from my life and thoughts. What changed was that I actually shifted my thought processes and decided to “stop believing the problem was character-related” and to “pay them no attention.”

These two belief mindsets are the bedrock of OCD therapy, as I have learned in my extensive research during the last couple of years.

This thought process is challenged constantly in my life with the symptoms and various nuances of OCD and I do not always have victory over it in the moment, but I am aware of its incongruencies, now, at least.

In employing these changes in my attitude toward the thoughts at the time, the intensity of the symptoms was relieved. Although I experienced relapses of them, they were very brief in comparison.

I endured a few more intense encounters over the following years. Notably, it has only been the last year that I have gained any understanding of and even the definition for OCD and how it is intricately connected to the root origins of C-PTSD I see my therapist.

How Can Sexual Abuse show up as (Harm) OCD Symptoms?

The correlation between childhood abuse (and other traumas) and OCD are noted as often congruent occurrences. Although psychotherapy does not directly source the two at this time, it is well-documented that the sudden and invasive loss of one’s personal boundaries works immediately to compromise an individual’s trust of themselves, others, their surroundings, the perception of their safety, and that of others in their world.

These and many other dysregulated responses create an environment of uncertainty in the mind that seeks from conception to reassure itself. Fear becomes a leading emotion, one from which most of life’s subsequent choices are made, including reactions, responses, and emotional states of being. Autonomic body responses (sensations, impulses, unexplained physical symptoms — the feeling that your response to the symptoms is involuntary.) occur and can cause a great deal of confusion concerning one’s personal “desires” vs. OCD symptoms.

The perpetual fear of being re-harmed or fear of harming others in any way, stemming from child abuse and violence, or any other trauma or issue, can exist either consciously or unconsciously. These particular type of symptoms occur from the compromise or loss of the sense of the goodness/stability of our self and loss of personal and human identity.

Unconsciously, there is the question sometimes asked of oneself “If someone could do those things to me, what stops me from doing the same to others?”

This begins a tormentous, scrupulous investigation into one’s innate morals and decency, true intentions in interactions with others, and a condemning defamation of our person.

Convoluted thought processes that occur as the mind tries to make sense of both the trauma experienced and what to do and how to be afterward can produce thoughts focusing on potential similar threats to those we love and others we value, as OCD capitulates many times on the themes and values we hold dearest to us: such as children, family, certain populations (children, parents) reputation, body functions and perception and others.


All OCD themes work the same: unwanted and distressing intrusive thought, anxiety, compulsive behavior, temporary relief, repeat. Cancellation is just one topic the brain can obsess over, and what ultimately matters, is understanding that people’s intrusive thoughts are ego dystonic! And that we should NOT be engaging in compulsive behaviors in response to them. For more info, you can check out our site (link in bio) or our OCD FAQ playlist 🧠 #pureo #pureocd #ocdrecovery #intrusivethoughts #compulsions #learnontiktok #harmocd #pocd #rocd #mentalhealth #ocd #anxiety #obsessivecompulsivedisorder #madeofmillionstok

♬ original sound – Made of Millions

Feeling like you could harm someone you love or others physically, sexually, or otherwise (this includes children, which is deeply distressing to experience) detaches a person from healthy physical and emotional interactions with those around us.

As we focus on the horror of those type of thoughts we seclude ourselves further emotionally and physically second to the tormenting shame and guilt associated with those thoughts. One can begin to question every physical or emotional encounter, ruminating relentlessly on one’s “true intentions” for touch, especially any response to normal human interactions.

This is crippling and debilitating.

What To Do:

The primary route to wellness in and from Harm OCD is obtaining help. Therapy for Harm OCD and any other OCD theme includes many methods, with ERP showing the most positive and effective treatment.

Obtaining proper intervention prevents and treats the resultant state of mind that can evolve from initial concerning symptoms to the absolute terror, panic, and dark, chaotic existence that can happen from isolation. Trying to “figure it out” on your own will not bring success, the same way a heart attack or a broken leg will not fix itself without proper intervention.

Many people suffer in silence as guilt, shame, and humiliation prevent them from speaking about their OCD experiences. Being human with a creative mind means we are going to encounter bizarre and sometimes problematic mind processes.

You are not crazy, murderous, pedophilic, or losing your sanity. You have OCD and you need help right now.

Disclaimer: This article focuses on the relationship between Harm OCD and (child) sexual abuse. This type of OCD is not specific to an abuse victim of any particular violence and can occur in anyone for many reasons other than abuse. There is always a core fear(s) that needs to be addressed in any subtype of OCD to treat it effectively.


Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

Christina Vaughn
Christina Vaughn
Medicine, wellness, mental health, addiction, and parenting. See my blog Published Amazon author: Of Death and Brokenness. License number is 175694 with the Texas BON. Graduated from Austin Community College (ACC) in December 1999.
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