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What Causes OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)?

There are several theories about the origins of obsessive compulsive disorder, but it’s impossible to know for sure how and why it develops. However, we do know genetics, brain chemistry and external factors can all play a role. Importantly, the treatment an individual receives won’t depend on the cause of the condition, but it will depend on understanding the nature of the obsessions and compulsions.
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Research suggests that OCD can take place in a brain that has chemical imbalances or in a brain that functions differently than other brains.

Chemical Imbalance

There is correlation between patients who experience OCD and those that have lower levels of serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that acts as a neurotransmitter, and is involved in modulation of mood, cognition, memory and more.

Brain Functions

Studies have shown that certain areas of the brain — including the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex — may be in higher use with people who experience OCD than those who don’t.


Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections (PANDAS) can be diagnosed when a child develops OCD or a tic disorder (sometimes both) after a strep infection. It is thought that the cause of the OCD occurs when autoimmune antibodies mistakenly attack part of the brain, the basal ganglia, rather than the infection.

Genetic & Inherited Factors

There is a notable genetic component to OCD, and it is not uncommon for family members to also have it.

Potential Genetic Component

The rate of heritability of OCD is reported to be between 35-50%, and the risk of developing OCD is greater in first-degree relatives, such as siblings or children, than compared to the general population.

Learning & Observed Behaviors

There is a theory that OCD compulsions and behaviors are learned over time.

Watching Family Members

Through watching family members avoid their fears or perform compulsive behaviors, it’s thought that others can pick up those habits and begin to perform them themselves.

Other Risk Factors

OCD can be related to a family history of having the disorder, or can be caused by specific events in your life.

Family History

Studies have shown that OCD is more commonly occurring among relatives of someone who experiences OCD than in relatives of people who don’t.

Stressful Life Events

A traumatic or stressful event can increase the risk of developing OCD. The event may trigger intrusive thoughts, compulsions or emotional distress.

Start Treatment for OCD Today

Treatments for OCD can vary, but patients seeking help through Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center can find relief in the Residential and Partial Hospitalization Programs.

The OCD track is focused on supporting patients in managing triggers and experiencing success. It utilizes Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP) therapy — an evidence-based treatment for OCD and phobias — specialty OCD group therapy, family therapy for ongoing support and education, and psychiatric assessments to modify treatment plans.

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