What Causes OCD?

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Despite the myths that early childhood experiences (like the way one is toilet trained) might lead to OCD, there is no real evidence to support this notion (although one may end up with a particularly rigid personality because of early childhood training). There does seem to be a genetic component to this disorder, however. It runs in families. There is evidence that it may be related to brain chemistry, especially with neurotransmitters such as serotonin.

Furthermore, about one-fourth of all those with this disorder seem to have it triggered by a stressful life experience. While the exact cause is not known, it appears that OCD results from a combination of inherited predispositions combined with environmental factors. These environmental factors may include trauma, childhood neglect, family stress, illness, divorce, accidents, as well as major life transitions such as adolescence, leaving home, marriage, parenthood, and retirement.

Some Common OCD Obsessions

People who suffer from this disorder realize that their obsessions do not make sense, but they are not able to put them out of their minds. Here are some common themes in the thoughts of people with OCD:

  • Fear of getting a disease
  • Fear of being contaminated or infected by things in the environment
  • Fear that a disaster will occur
  • Fear of committing a crime or harming oneself or others
  • Recurring sexual thoughts and images
  • Fear of losing things that will be needed later, resulting in hoarding and collecting things
  • Concern over order, structure, exactness
  • Excessive worry over religious issues, morality, and issues of right and wrong

Some Common OCD Compulsions or Rituals

In order to reduce anxiety caused by obsessions, people with OCD feel that they have to do something, so they engage in ritualistic behaviors. The fears soon return, however, and they have to start the rituals all over again. Here are some common ones:

  • Grooming behaviors, like washing hands repeatedly
  • Changing clothes again and again
  • Counting to oneself over and over
  • Arranging things in a certain ritualistic way
  • Checking light switches, stove burners, locks, or electrical outlets constantly
  • Hoarding things like magazines or mail

Some Common OCD Patterns

Counting and Repeating: Some people with OCD feel that they have to count things, like passing automobiles or the number of seconds it takes to brush one’s teeth. They may feel that they have to repeat a word a certain number of times in order to protect themselves or someone else from harm, or they may feel that they have to change clothes repeatedly before leaving the house.

Protecting Against Contamination: The most common form of compulsion is repeated cleaning and washing. Some OCD sufferers may wash their hands thirty, forty, or more times a day, or they may take a shower several times throughout the course of a day. If someone has come into the house, they may later scrub the house thoroughly to avoid possible exposure to germs or other contaminants.

Checking: A common OCD compulsion involves checking things over and over again to make sure that everything is in order. A person may check the locks on the doors repeatedly or go through all the light switches in the house to make sure that they are turned off. They know logically that everything is alright, but they have a secret feeling that things should be checked again and again. They may go over a report on the job or at school so often that they cannot get things in on time.

Hoarding: Some people cannot throw out anything. In order not to lose anything of importance, they will save old mail, newspapers, magazines, old clothes, dead plants, or used containers until it becomes impossible to maneuver through the house.

Strange Movements: Sometimes rituals can be seen in the form of odd movements, like making every fourth step a skip while walking or rotating one’s neck a certain number of times before entering a room.

Being Scrupulous: Some people with OCD will do anything to avoid certain thoughts or actions. For example, their obsessions may lead them to avoid certain words in their speech, certain places, some items of clothing, or consuming certain foods or drinks.

Additional Resources:

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