Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder, which is a category of mental illness that present with irrational or unusual levels of fear or worry.
OCD is a chronic condition that causes uncontrollable and recurring thoughts called obsessions; along with compulsive behaviors the patient feels must be repeated. Each presentation of obsessive-compulsive disorder is different.
The precise nature of the compulsions and obsessions is unique. The most well-known manifestation includes cleaning and fear of germs, but OCD often manifests in other ways.
Common Causes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
There are several common causes of contributing factors to the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Get familiar with them now.
1. Certain Brain Abnormalities
Certain brain abnormalities have been identified in individuals who have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Not everyone with this condition has the abnormalities, and not every person with the abnormalities has OCD. However, there’s a marked correlation between them.
The research was done by comparing hundreds of different brain scans, and researchers believe the processes and areas of the brain they’ve identified play a role in the repetitive compulsions that are part of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The study indicates OCD patients can sometimes get stuck in a repetitive cognitive loop that keeps them from stopping the behaviors even when they cause distress.
In these patients, the brain has a disproportionately large response to errors, and a disproportionately small response to stop signals.
Errors are cognitive processing issues or irrational thoughts. A person without obsessive-compulsive disorder can use ‘stop’ signals to stop an irrational or intrusive thought from repeating.
But someone with this disorder can’t stop obsessing over the error, even if they’re aware the behavior is irrational and causing distress.
2. Environmental Factors
While researchers believe obsessive-compulsive disorder has a basis in neurochemical abnormalities, the way symptoms present is often determined by environmental factors, as is the severity of symptoms.
Researchers who study the way the environment shapes brain development believe behavioral conditioning might play a part in an individual’s development of compulsions and obsessions.
For example, if someone is afraid of germs, they might obsessively wash their hands to relieve the anxiety about germs.
Some cognitive behavioral researchers believe the misinterpretation of intrusive thought leads to compulsions and obsessions. Intrusive thoughts happen to everyone. They may involve thoughts about perpetuating harmful behaviors or doing things that frighten the individual.
In a neurotypical person, these thoughts can be put aside, but OCD patients become fixated on them. An individual can have dysfunctional beliefs about themselves shaped by their environment.
One common belief is an individual can cause or prevent negative outcomes by following their compulsions. Another is the idea having a thought is the same as actually acting upon the thought.
3. Genetics and Family History
Research shows genetics and family history play a large role in the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some of this may be because the brain abnormalities involved in OCD can be passed down through families.
Being raised in a household with family members with untreated obsessive-compulsive disorder can also increase an individual’s risk of developing obsessions and compulsions.
The National Institutes of Health funded a study to examine DNA and its correlation to this condition. The study drew a correlation between OCD, similar anxiety disorders, and a mutation of the serotonin transport gene found in humans.
Some patients with severe cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder also have a second mutation within the same gene. Around one-fourth of OCD patients have an immediate member of the family who has the disorder.
Studies done on twins indicated if one identical twin has OCD, the other is more likely to develop the condition than if the twins are fraternal. The findings in the twin studies suggest genetics are responsible for between forty-five and sixty-five percent of an individual’s risk of developing OCD.
4. Increased Stress
Increased stress can be a factor in how symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder present. Some individuals are under the impression stress itself is enough to cause OCD, but this isn’t the case.
An individual who already has the condition, though, will often see a worsening in symptoms when they experience stress. Illness, fatigue and anxiety can have an impact on the severity of symptoms. Changes in routine can cause increased stress, leading to a vicious cycle of worsening symptoms.
An obsessive-compulsive disorder patient who hasn’t experienced visible symptoms for a while might have a symptom flare-up following a stressful life event. Severe trauma can cause symptoms to begin.
Common traumas include the death of a loved one or abuse. Some life changes that can cause symptoms to recur include transitions to new schools or workplaces, moving into a new home or community, marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, or the birth of a sibling.
Some individuals have developed new symptoms following the stress of natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.
5. Presence of Other Mental Health Disorders
Other mental health disorders don’t cause obsessive-compulsive disorder by themselves. However, the presence of other mental health disorders has a high correlation with OCD.
It’s common for obsessive-compulsive disorder patients to have one or more other mental health disorders due to the abnormalities in neurotransmitters causing multiple different symptoms.
OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder, and many patients also have another anxiety disorder alongside it. The disorders that might occur alongside OCD include generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, panic attacks, specific phobias, and social anxiety disorder.
These disorders all have irrational anxiety and fear as their basis, though the circumstances and presentation of the fear are different. Depression is also very common in obsessive-compulsive disorder patients.
The symptoms of major depressive disorder include mood changes, loss of interest in activities, sleep issues, and fatigue lasting more than two weeks. Bipolar disorder can also occur alongside OCD, with the hallmark symptoms being extreme mood and behavioral changes.