Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that—like other mental health conditions—has a range of causes.
The precise cause of OCD in any given individual is not fully understood. However, several theories exist that help explain how someone may end up developing OCD. For a lot of people, the causes of OCD are complex and have many contributing factors.
Learn how you or a loved one might have developed OCD. But remember that having OCD doesn’t mean that the condition will control your life forever. By recognizing what causes OCD, you can take the necessary steps to manage the condition and get your mental health under control.
The Causes of OCD
There is no single reason why you might develop OCD. However, there are many potential causes of this mental illness, involving one or a combination of the following:
- Biological factors
- Genetic factors
- Learned behavior
- Cognitive theory
- Environmental factors
Brain imaging studies have shown that OCD patients have functional abnormalities in the brain compared to healthy minds. OCD sufferers have differing levels of blood flow in certain brain regions.
For example, there is a lack of activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This brain region is responsible for telling us that something is safe. Reduced activity in this region can result in OCD patients viewing normal situations as threatening.
There is also a lack of communication between some brain regions, which can result in additional OCD symptoms. For example, there is a disrupted connection between the front of the brain and the basal ganglia.
Both of these brain regions are crucial for flexible thinking and goal-directed behaviors. Researchers believe that these brain changes make it difficult for OCD patients to overcome their compulsions.
These findings suggest that OCD is somehow connected to these brain changes. However, it may be the case that OCD causes these brain changes and not the other way around. If this is true, the cause of OCD could be something different, such as a stressful environment.
Genetic factors are another possible cause of OCD. Research suggests that OCD runs in families. For example, an OCD patient is four times more likely to have a family history of OCD than a person without the disorder.
However, studies have failed to identify specific genes responsible for OCD.
Many OCD sufferers also have a family history that does not feature OCD. It is possible that a family history of OCD could mean that OCD sufferers develop the condition as a learned behavior.
In this way, a child could learn certain obsessions or compulsions by growing up with a parent who has the condition.
We can’t rule genetics out as a cause of OCD. But they are likely not the only cause.
There is also the theory that OCD is a learned behavior. This theory states that OCD symptoms are a result of someone developing learned negative thoughts and behaviors. This can result from life experiences.
For example, if your parents had similar anxieties and compulsive behaviors, you may have learned it from them. Also, you may have grown up associating certain objects with fear.
You may then learn to perform specific rituals as a coping technique to reduce this fear. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you unlearn this behavior and find healthy ways to manage your anxiety disorder.
Many people may also develop OCD due to learned avoidance. This means that OCD sufferers have learned to avoid situations they fear.
They avoid situations related to obsessions because it triggers intense feelings of distress, fear, and anxiety. We can also view compulsive behaviors (e.g. checking and washing) as forms of avoidance.
These compulsions are a way for OCD sufferers to escape their feelings of anxiety. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, based on the CBT model, also helps OCD patients overcome learned avoidance. It teaches OCD sufferers to expose themselves to feared situations and resist compulsions.
The cognitive model of OCD says that someone’s misinterpretation of intrusive thoughts leads to OCD. We all have intrusive thoughts, but people with OCD interpret certain thoughts as very significant. If you suffer from OCD, you have faulty beliefs, such as that your thoughts can lead to catastrophic outcomes.
When you constantly misinterpret your thoughts, this can turn those thoughts into obsessions. And since those thoughts cause a lot of anxiety, you may develop compulsions in an attempt to resist or neutralize your obsessions.
According to the cognitive theory of OCD, you may develop OCD if you interpret thoughts as meaning that you are, have been, or could be responsible for harm or its prevention. In this way, an inflated sense of responsibility can be one of the causes of OCD.
Stressful life events can trigger OCD in people who are already vulnerable to the condition. For example, studies reveal that traumatic brain injury (TBI) in children and adolescents increases the risk of those individuals later developing OCD.
Other research shows that people with OCD frequently report suffering from a stressful or traumatic life event before the onset of symptoms. You may adapt an obsession or compulsive behavior after becoming seriously ill from contamination, for example. Without treatment, stress can worsen OCD symptoms for people living with the condition.
Break the Cycle of OCD
OCD can have a diverse range of causes. For many sufferers, it seems that they are born with a predisposition to the condition and then their upbringing, environment, and life events act as triggers, leading them to develop OCD.
While it can be difficult to break free from the obsessions and compulsions you live with every day, it is possible. OCD treatment includes cognitive-behavioral therapies, which are evidence-based and effective.
When combined with medication, such as antidepressants, this treatment can help you manage your symptoms and live a fully functional and satisfying life.
A new form of OCD treatment also exists. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive procedure that activates cells in the prefrontal cortex and can help regulate your mood and overall mental health.