Understanding OCD: Causes, Signs, and Treatment

This week is dedicated to OCD Awareness Week.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent intense obsessions and/or compulsions.  Although many of us experience some thoughts or fears that seem intrusive, the key to OCD is that these thoughts and compulsions consume excessive amounts of time, cause significant stress, and interfere with daily functioning at work or school.

The exact causes of OCD are not scientifically known, however, researchers indicate it is the result of abnormal brain circuitry function and frequently runs in families.

Here are some common misperceptions about the cause of OCD:

  • STRESS. Stress doesn’t cause OCD, although symptoms sometimes begin after a severe trauma, such as the death of a loved one.  Other stress triggers include the birth of a sibling, a marriage or divorce, a move to a new home or new community, a transition to a new school or new school year, or even a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or tornado.  And if OCD symptoms are already present, stress can worsen those symptoms.  Anxiety, fatigue and illness – even the stress associated with positive events, such as holidays and vacations – can affect OCD.
  • ILLNESS. Childhood illnesses do not cause OCD, although there is growing evidence that severe bacterial or viral infections such as strep throat or the flu may trigger the sudden onset of symptoms in children who are genetically predisposed to OCD.
  • PARENTING. As previously indicated, there is no evidence that the way parents guide or discipline their children causes OCD.  Parents should not be blamed when a child exhibits symptoms of this disorder.
  • FAMILY ACCOMMODATIONS. Although family problems do not cause OCD, families may unintentionally have an impact on the maintenance of OCD symptoms.  To decrease the distress a person with OCD experiences, family members frequently accommodate OCD behaviors.  For example, they may provide verbal reassurance when the person requests it, conduct rituals with or for the person or provide items he or she needs to carry out rituals, such as soap for hand washing.  Although they usually mean well, family members may actually be enabling the individual with OCD, and symptoms worsen, rather than improve.  OCD symptoms may also intensify if family members react to a person’s rituals with criticism or hostility.  Family members need to develop special skills to help their loved one overcome and manage the disorder.

Evidence-based treatment for OCD includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP).  Additionally, medications can also be instrumental in reducing symptoms.  Often a team approach works between a mental health provider and medical provider (e.g., psychiatrist).

Twins Ella and Olivia recently shared their story of their struggle with OCD with Child Institute.org.  It started with having to do everything at the same time, and then things started “creeping them out” and became violent.  Check out how they got better together.


Check out more information below regarding causes of OCD, treatment options, and how best to find help for your child.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry



International OCD Foundation



OCD New Hampshire