If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it’s common to wonder how or why it developed. Was there a single instance in your life that triggered OCD? Were you born with it? Did you develop OCD because of your upbringing?
If you experienced an onset of OCD at a young age or if someone else in your family has it, you may feel like you were born with it. However, while there are some genetic underpinnings that can contribute to a person developing OCD, the causes of OCD are typically a combination of genetic and environmental factors — meaning that both your biology and the circumstances you live in have an effect on OCD development.
What is OCD?
OCD happens when someone has recurring, unwanted thoughts or fears (obsessions) that lead them to do something repeatedly (compulsions) to alleviate distress.
Many people may do these things occasionally as part of their everyday lives. However, when the obsessions and compulsions interfere with social interactions and/or daily activities — when someone can’t resist engaging in them, to the detriment of their normal life — it is considered OCD. For someone with OCD, obsessions come as recurrent and persistent thoughts, images or ideas that create distressing emotions such as anxiety. The distress is not something that goes away on its own or is resolved with reasoning. Some examples of obsessions include:
- Fear of getting sick
- Extreme concern with order or symmetry
- Worries of harming someone
Repetitive behaviors performed as a response to an obsession are compulsions caused by OCD. Carrying out the behavior typically reduces someone’s distress related to the obsession — but only temporarily. Compulsions can come in a variety of forms. They can be directly related to the obsessions, indirectly related to obsessions, mental actions, physical actions, and more.. Examples may include:
- Excessive hand-washing
- Checking and rechecking door or window locks
- Counting to a certain number
- Keeping mental lists or mentally reviewing situations
What causes OCD?
There are numerous things that can cause OCD, including genetics, your surroundings and things that can randomly happen in everyday life.
If a close relative has OCD, studies have shown there could be a series of genes that you inherit, making OCD partially genetic. However, these genes only make you more susceptible to developing OCD — they don’t guarantee you will develop it. And some people with these genes may not end up experiencing OCD symptoms.
Someone’s surroundings or environment could also contribute to the development of OCD. If you watched a parent or a sibling engage in compulsions, you may pick up on it. This is called a learned behavior, something that develops as a result of an experience or common practice.
There is also the possibility that experiencing a traumatic event will trigger OCD. For example, if someone enters your home while you and your family are inside and aggressively confronts you while stealing things from you, you might realize that the door was unlocked and the alarm was not set. As a result, your routine now consists of checking again and again that the front door is locked, and checking the alarm panel in the house and/or the alarm app on your phone every 15 minutes to make sure it’s set.
One well-known explanation for the development of OCD and other mental health diagnoses is the stress diathesis model, also known as the vulnerability-stress model. This proposes that some people are more genetically predisposed to conditions like OCD, as we mentioned above. Then, if people experience a significant life stressor such as bullying, a traumatic accident or a loss in the family, this can trigger the onset of symptoms.
How is OCD treated?
Regardless of how you developed OCD, it’s now considered highly treatable thanks to the emergence of treatment options like exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. A form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), ERP is considered the “gold standard” of OCD treatment, and the way it works is very simple. During ERP, you will work with the guidance of an experienced and licensed mental health professional to gain exposure to your obsessions in a safe and controlled environment. As a result, you can learn how to manage — and eventually prevent — your compulsions, giving you freedom from the endless cycle of obsessions and compulsions.
If you suspect you have OCD, reach out to a member of the NOCD clinical team through ourconvenient online form to schedule a free 15-minute call. During the call, a team member will ask questions to learn more about your concerns and provide information for next steps and details in the appointment process. From there, NOCD will match you with a ERP-licensed therapist who can help you begin the process of treating your OCD, all within the safety and convenience of your own home.