February 23, 2017

The 5 Major Causes of OCD Backed by Science

Major Causes of OCD are linked to Psychological and Biological factors. But there's more to the causes of OCD than many of us already know. Learn about how it's also linked with Perfectionism, Analysis Paralysis, and how it can be treated.

General knowledge of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) tells us, it’s a type of anxiety disorder. An illness, characterized by recurrent thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Due in part by mainstream media, the use of “OCD” to describe one’s behavior has become somewhat of an overused term. Yet, in many ways, it remains totally misunderstood. In the second part of this series, we shift the spotlight to exploring the unseen Causes of OCD. What factors contribute to these causes. And, we'll look at the commonalities across performed behaviors.

Over recent years, interest and research for OCD have grown worldwide. Especially in the area of Neurobiology. Studies across various sources suggest there’s a ticketed difference in brain function between people with OCD and those without. These studies point to a number of possible causes of OCD that many of us are not aware of. Factors of which can trigger a combination of causes. These include the following factors which we explore in more depth below.
  • Genetic
  • Neurological
  • Behavioral
  • Cognitive
  • Environmental

The Major Causes of OCD

There is growing evidence revealing a number of key factors which cause OCD. One of these results from Innate Psychological Factors such as an imbalance of Serotonin. A type of neurotransmitter in our brain which is responsible for sending messages between brain cells. Its purpose is to regulate memory and our general mental reactions to life events. For people with OCD, the imbalance of serotonin often becomes a trigger for anxiety. A serious condition affecting many of us. It's, therefore, not simply a matter of "ignoring" or "getting over" these feelings. Anxiety and obsessive behaviors are complex and powerful forces which are far from "simple" to overcome. Even for the "well-adjusted" individuals. While there is still a long way to go with truly understanding OCD, various researchers have highlighted the following as key factors which can cause OCD.

1. Genetic

Health professionals have suspected Heredity to play an important role in the cause of OCD since the twentieth century. Since then, numerous studies have surfaced supporting this theory. For instance, the research paper Genetics of OCD points out a number of key findings from various genetic-related studies. For example, the Hopkins OCD Family Study found that people were more likely to have OCD if they had a family history of it. In addition to this, researchers report that the risk of OCD is "significantly greater" if their parents suffered from it. This, in addition to various studies proposing the existence of "common genetic influences" for OCD. While the genetic basis of OCD is still largely unknown, researchers state our best hope at unraveling the complex condition will likely be through Genetics.

2. Neurological

Numerous studies have found that the 'Mechanism' for OCD is "Neurologically Meditated," according to Hope4OCD. This means that one of the causes of OCD can be explained by our very own Biology. Studies, for instance, explain how damage to a part of the brain called the Basal Ganglia can cause OCD. The basal ganglia being an area of our brain that is responsible for cognitive and emotional functions. In other words, responsible for how we think and, what we feel. Neurological-based studies, therefore, lead us to conclude that OCD is more of a 'Biological Disorder' rather than a 'Mental Illness.' But that's just the beginning. For now, the point is, one of the major causes of OCD is linked directly to our Neurobiology. More specifically—our Basal Ganglia.

3. Behavioral

The CAMH states there's a Behavioral Theory behind what causes OCD. They suggest that "people with OCD associate certain objects or situations with Fear." As a result, people with OCD learn to avoid the fear by performing rituals. Rituals being certain behaviors that help diminish the fear. Take, for example, people who are obsessive-compulsive to washing their hands all the time. They engage in this ritual because they have a fear of catching an illness or a disease. They also believe washing their hands will help to protect them. When the fear, the ritual, and the belief form a strong connection, OCD tends to occur.

4. Cognitive

The Cognitive Theory behind the causes of OCD focuses on the misinterpretation of thoughts. We all experience 'Intrusive Thoughts'. The unwelcomed and involuntary thinking we find difficult to manage. The difference, however, is how people with OCD handle these thoughts. People with OCD tend to misinterpret these thoughts as being very important, personally significant, revealing about one’s character, or having catastrophic consequences. What this means is, as thoughts are repeatedly misinterpreted, it eventually leads to the development of obsessions. Once the obsession(s) become distressful, people then form obsessive behaviors/rituals to avoid or eliminate the thoughts—even if it's only temporary.

5. Environmental

Exposure to bacterial or viral infections has been reported to trigger symptoms of OCD. In particular, those with a family history of OCD. In addition to this, the organization Beyond OCD suggests "stress and parenting styles" contribute to the environmental factors that have caused OCD. While limited research has been done in the area of Environmental Factors, it's already become a considerable point of interest. One of the main findings being that "environmental factors are of substantial importance in the likelihood of obtaining OCD symptoms."

Signs of OCD

While it's true that researchers haven't been able to identify definitive causes of OCD, it's certainly possible to recognize the physiological reactions in people with OCD. Common anxiety-related responses in these individuals include sweaty palms following a trigger event. Studies have also identified strange sensations. Often reported as 'Occasional Localized Hyper-Sensations,' in a particular area of the body associated with OCD-related anxieties. One example is a fear of not appearing to walk properly in public. This type of fear may then lead to a hyper-sensation of 'jelly-like' feelings in the legs and an unpredictable way of walking. A disempowering type of fear that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What, then, are common OCD-related behaviors to look out for?


One of the few common factors observed amongst people with OCD is an over-the-top (OTT) drive for Perfectionism. Health professionals agree stating; it's the same type of people who are often recognized for "taking on too much." It doesn't matter it's at work or at home. And, neither will they delegate their workload. Primarily because they can't be sure other people will do the work to the same standard they want it to be. This can lead to severe anxiety and a serious sense of failure when things go wrong. To add to this. It can also feed into an unhealthy cycle and reinforce the feelings and symptoms of OCD.

Analysis Paralysis

The tendency to always overthink situations is common amongst many people with OCD. Health professionals, for example, can recognize individuals with OCD by the emphasis they put on thoughts. Often at times more so than is reasonably healthy or rational. When this occurs, it can lead to a phenomenon known as "Analysis Paralysis." It's a State of Mind where an individual becomes so overwhelmed by the choices and possibilities of a given situation that they do nothing at all. Instead of making a decision or taking a step, they are overcome by a real sense of despair and sense of failure. In essence, they don't know if they can make the right choice, so they make no choice at all.

Methods of Treatment for OCD

Fortunately, today, there are ways to successfully treat OCD. One of those ways is through a series of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions. Researchers, at the OCDLA, state it's taken 15 years and many clinical studies but, CBT proves to be "dramatically superior to all other forms of treatment for OCD."

What Do CBT Sessions Involve?

According to OCD Action, the UK's largest OCD charity, they outline the following as to what's typically involved during CBD sessions. A session, for example, will require the patient and therapist to take active roles towards devising how the OCD patient reacts to the obsessive-compulsive thoughts. The patient and therapist, then, also spend time forming practical steps to counter the symptoms. Of course, depending on how severe the OCD, it's entirely possible to require repeat treatment over time.

OCD is NOT a Sign of Weakness

In the past, I've come across people who've asked questions like: "I have OCD, does it mean I'm weak?" Or, "My OCD is uncontrollable, am I broken?" While questions like this seem trivial, I realize they are coming from a real person facing real OCD. What's my answer to such questions? It's simply this: You are not weak. You are not broken. And, you certainly are not alone. If you think you have a severe case of OCD, know that many OCD sufferers struggle with the same issues. Despite how different their conditions are.

See also: A Simple Guide to What is OCD: Signs, Symptoms and More.

The Verdict

Although researchers have yet to precisely identify what causes OCD, we can certainly identify common symptoms. As we've also learned, serotonin imbalance and physiological factors may indicate the issues that feed into the causes which underpin the condition. It will require more time and research before we discover the true causes of OCD. However, in the meantime, taking into consideration the possible triggers and effects we've outlined here should help sufferers and those who live and work with them to better understand their behaviors. What's really important to remember, however, is that OCD is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it's most likely to be caused by a combination of inherent and learned factors coming together, into a series of complex situations.