Common Risk Factors for OCD

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There are many risk factors for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A risk factor is something that increases a person’s chance of eventually developing a given illness. 

No one knows what causes OCD, but these are the risk factors, below. Remember, just because you might have a higher risk for developing OCD does not mean that you will. Conversely, people can develop OCD without having any or many risk factors.

Risk Factors for OCD That You May Be Born With

Genetics: About 50 percent of your risk for developing OCD is determined by your genes. As such, having family members with OCD is a risk factor. The closer that these individuals are to your immediate family, the greater your risk—particularly if their OCD began in childhood or the teen years. It is important to keep in mind, however, that families can shape behavior in ways other than through genes. For example, you might learn unhealthy coping mechanisms during stressful situations by observing your parents.

Gender: Gender as a risk factor for developing OCD varies with age. Males are at greater risk of developing childhood OCD. However, following the onset of puberty, the risk of developing OCD for males and females is about the same. It's worth noting that men and women may exhibit different symptoms. Males are more likely to complain of obsessions that are related to sexuality, exactness, and symmetry, and women are more likely to complain about obsessions and compulsions that are related to contamination and cleaning.

Brain Structure: Though the connection is not clear, there seems to be a relationship between OCD symptoms and certain irregularities in the brain. Research is being done to discover more on this topic. 

Personality: Certain personality characteristics may contribute to a vulnerability for developing OCD. For example, people who score high on measures of neuroticism may be at greater risk.

Socioeconomic Status: Lower socioeconomic status is another risk factor for developing OCD. But it's unclear whether this is a cause or consequence of OCD symptoms—all that's known is that there is an association between the two.

Risk Factors That Are Outside Your Control

Age: Late adolescence seems to be the time when people are at the greatest risk for developing OCD. Once you're in early adulthood, your risk of developing OCD drops with age.

Life Events: Stressful life events, particularly those that are traumatic in nature and occurred early on in life, are major risk factors for developing OCD. For example, having been physically or sexually abused would fall into this category.

Mental Illness: Having another form of mental illness, especially another anxiety disorder, is a risk factor. This relationship is complex, however, since, in some people, OCD may be a risk factor for other mental illnesses.

Risk Factors That Are Modifiable

Drug Use: Drug use can create a vulnerability for developing OCD by causing neurotransmitter changes in the brain. It can also indirectly lead to OCD by creating additional stress through conflict with parents, difficulty maintaining employment, and trouble with the law.

Marital Status: Being unmarried seems to be a risk factor. Whether this is a direct cause of OCD or not is unclear, as being unmarried may simply be a result of debilitating OCD symptoms that get in the way of forming relationships. On the other hand, marriage may buffer people against life stress, thus reducing the chances of developing OCD.

Employment Status: Another risk factor is being unemployed. However, like being unmarried, being unemployed may be both a cause and a consequence of OCD symptoms.

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Article Sources

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  • Grisham, J.R., Anderson, T.M., and Sachdev, P.S. Genetic and environmental influences on obsessive-compulsive disorder. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. 2008 258: 107-116.

  • National Institute of Mental Health. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.