Research suggests that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is partially linked to genetics, as having a family history of the condition increases one’s risk for developing it themselves.1,2,3 However, there are many other contributing factors that play into the onset of symptoms, such as parenting styles and trauma.
What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness characterized by obsessions, unwanted thoughts, and compulsions, rigid and repetitive behaviors. Compulsions develop as one attempts to rid themselves of or cope with the anxiety caused by obsessions.4 OCD is one of the most debilitating forms of mental illness, and often causes people extreme distress, and impairment. The symptoms of OCD generally begin emerging in childhood or adolescence.1,2,5
A person’s specific obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors can vary depending on the type of OCD they experience. For example, someone with contamination OCD may struggle with intrusive thoughts about germs and bacteria, resulting in compulsive hand-washing, disinfecting, or cleaning. Without treatment, OCD symptoms can worsen to the point where the condition consumes a majority of one’s time and energy.4,6
Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Genetic?
There has been an active debate in the medical and psychiatric field about the role of genetic or biological factors (nature) and social or environmental factors (nurture) in a person’s risk for developing a disease.7
Studies do indicate that having a close family member with OCD, such as a parent or sibling, more than doubles a person’s likelihood of developing the disorder.1,2 Further results suggest this possibility may actually be much higher.2,3 Additionally, research into molecular genetics has identified specific genes that may be involved in OCD. Still, this does not guarantee that a person will develop the condition.5,7,8
Other Biological Risk Factors
There are several other biological factors that increase the risk of one developing OCD. There is some research suggesting edema, excessive weight gain, and complicated, prolonged labor during pregnancy may increase the risk of OCD in offspring. However, this thesis needs to be proven in future studies.8 Additionally, giving birth may be a trigger of postpartum OCD.5
Additionally, some individuals may develop OCD after contracting certain illnesses, such as strep infection. Studies indicate that while infection doesn’t necessarily cause OCD, it can trigger the onset of OCD in children who are genetically predisposed.9 Certain personality traits may increase a person’s risk as well, such as high levels of perfectionism, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.9
Environmental Risk Factors for OCD
It is theorized that genetic and biological predispositions for OCD can be ‘activated’ by certain stressful events or circumstances. Some of these risk factors are common to many mental illnesses, while others are unique to OCD.
Environmental risk factors of OCD may include:5,7,9
- Experiencing trauma in childhood
- Overprotective parenting styles
- Heavy substance use in adolescence
- Experiencing many major life events and changes at once
- Being the victim of rape or sexual assault
- Separation anxiety in children and teens
- High levels of toxic stress
- Having another co-occurring mental health condition
Can I Pass My OCD to My Child?
If you are diagnosed with OCD, it does not mean that your child will develop it themselves, even if they’re genetically predisposed. In some cases, it is possible to offset genetic risks with protective factors.5,7 It’s important to remember that if your child does experience OCD, there are many effective treatments available. OCD symptoms can often be managed or even overcome with early treatment.10,11
Treatment for OCD
There are several effective treatments for OCD. Therapy is considered the frontline approach, but may sometimes be combined with medication. In therapy, people learn how to cope with obsessive thoughts without relying on compulsive behaviors. Breaking compulsive habits slows or halts the progression of OCD symptoms for many, and is an important aspect of managing the condition.10
Therapy for OCD
Certain types of therapy have proven more effective for individuals with OCD, including cognitive behavioral therapy for OCD, exposure and response prevention for OCD, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).10,11
OCD is commonly misdiagnosed, so it’s important to find the right therapist who specializes in treating the condition to obtain an accurate diagnosis.12 Many people begin their search by using an online therapist directory that allows them to filter results based on location, insurance, and specific treatment needs.
Medication for OCD
In addition to therapy, some individuals with OCD also benefit from psychiatric medication. Antidepressants are generally the most common type of medication for OCD prescribed. However, benzodiazepines*, antipsychotic medications, or anticonvulsant medications are sometimes recommended, as well.10
Medications may help people with OCD reduce obsessive thoughts, anxiety, and urges to engage in compulsive behaviors. Because OCD often co-occurs with depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, prescriptions may be needed to help reduce symptoms of accompanying disorders as well.10
*This medication has black box warnings, the most serious kind of warnings from the FDA for abuse or misuse, risk of physical dependence and risk of serious side effects, including death, when combined with an opioid.
OCD is a mental health condition that is believed to be hereditary. A genetic predisposition can be compounded by certain environmental risk factors like trauma, high levels of stress, or substance use.5,7,9 If you are struggling with OCD, seeking therapy is recommended as it can greatly reduce your symptoms and improve overall well-being.10,11