While there is no singular cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it can be helpful to understand some of the underlying factors behind the diagnosis.
Understanding the Causes of OCD
When discussing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), we must remember that what causes OCD varies. There is no singular cause of OCD, and it is better understood as a combination of biological, genetic, learning, and environmental factors.
Current research shows that genetic and biological factors make a person more likely to develop OCD, while learning and environmental factors influence the type of OCD someone has. People commonly report that their OCD symptoms were triggered by a life event, drug use, or even random interactions that plant a seed of doubt in their mind that does not go away.
When someone is diagnosed with OCD, it is not their fault. People are not responsible for the development of OCD in themselves or others, and it is always best for everyone involved to approach an OCD diagnosis with patience and understanding.
How Does OCD Affect the Brain?
OCD affects the brain by causing individuals to hyperfocus on intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are sudden involuntary thoughts that can be uncomfortable or distressing, and they can be related to religious, sexual, relationship, violent or relational themes. These thoughts can detract from a person’s quality of life. For individuals diagnosed with OCD, intrusive thoughts:
- Occur more often
- Last longer
- Are more distressing
- More important than reality
- Trigger an avoidance response
Is OCD Genetic?
Genetic factors may make a person more vulnerable to developing OCD. However, genetics alone are not enough to determine whether someone will be diagnosed with OCD at some point in their life. While genetics play a role in developing OCD, OCD is not exclusively genetic. There may be certain temperaments that are more susceptible to developing OCD.
Is OCD Caused by a Chemical Imbalance?
While studies in the past have shown possible links between chemical imbalances and deficiencies, including serotonin production issues, recent research has largely disproven any connection between an OCD diagnosis and chemical imbalances in the brain. While brain structure may play a role in developing OCD, chemical imbalances in the brain have not been found to be a contributing cause of OCD.
Are you or someone you care about struggling with obsessive-compulsive thought patterns? PCH can help you evaluate the impact those thought patterns may be having on your quality of life. Talk to an Expert
Why Does OCD Occur?
OCD is driven by a pattern or imbalance of intrusive and unwanted thoughts. When exploring why people have these intrusive thoughts to begin with, there are two predominant hypotheses:
The Thought Generator Hypothesis
The thought generator hypothesis suggests that intrusive and unwanted thoughts are a natural part of the human mind’s creative abilities. In order to solve problems and survive, the human mind has to be able to imagine, anticipate, and prepare for all kinds of scenarios.
Some of those imagined scenarios may be enjoyable to think about, while others are not. Having a mix of both is natural. The same way we find ourselves daydreaming about happy events, the “thought generator” in our brain may also produce ideas or images that we would rather not think about.
The Mental Noise Hypothesis
The second predominant hypothesis to explain obsessive-compulsive thought patterns is called the mental noise hypothesis. The mental noise hypothesis suggests that intrusive thoughts have no real-world importance and are simply harmless sounds that float through the mind.
To illustrate the mental noise hypothesis, it helps to imagine complex machines with many parts, such as a computer or a refrigerator. When these machines are running and working properly, they may make unexpected or strange noises like clicking, whirring, buzzing, or scratching sounds.
However, the sounds themselves are nothing to be concerned about—they always sound worse than they are. Similarly, even healthy minds produce all kinds of intrusive, senseless, and unwanted thoughts from time to time that may seem worse than they are.
The Causes of OCD Are Not as Important as Treatment
Following an OCD diagnosis, it is natural to start by understanding the explanation and causes of OCD. After all, if you can fix the underlying cause, you might assume you eliminate the problem.
That approach does not work when treating OCD because the cause of OCD is unique to each individual. Ultimately, OCD occurs because of a complex combination of genetic, biological, learning, and environmental factors, and as a result, requires a multi-faceted treatment approach.
The good news is that not all of these factors are of equal importance when treating OCD, so the next thing to do is understand which factors you should prioritize when researching treatment options.
What Causes of OCD Are Most Important to Treatment?
To effectively treat OCD, you don’t need to address specific causes of OCD. Instead, treatment only requires a clear understanding of the cognitive and behavioral processes underlying OCD. Knowing the biological or environmental causes may help professionals make a more accurate diagnosis, but they aren’t critical components of treatment.
When Do Thoughts Become Obsessions?
If you or someone you care about may be struggling with obsessive-compulsive thought patterns, it is vital to be aware of the line between intrusive thoughts and obsessions. As discussed above, intrusive, unpleasant thoughts are a natural part of the human experience. However, obsessions are not.
Thoughts become obsessions, not based on the content of the thoughts necessarily, but on the individual’s appraisal of them as:
- Absolutely true
- A statement of reality
- A rule to be followed at all times
- A threat to get rid of immediately
- Something demanding all attention
If you or someone you care about starts to exhibit these kinds of responses to intrusive thoughts, it might be a precursor for obsessive-compulsive behavior. When that behavior impacts someone’s overall life satisfaction and interferes with responsibilities, reach out for help.
How Can PCH Help?
Whether you are trying to gain a better understanding of what causes OCD or you are ready to start exploring OCD treatment options, the team at PCH is here to help. Our dedicated OCD specialists begin by gaining an understanding of what’s happened to you. Learn more about how we treat OCD, then find out if PCH is right for you. When you are ready to take the next step, we will be here to help.