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Is OCD Genetic?

Why do some people develop obsessive-compulsive disorder? Is OCD genetic, is it caused by external influences, or is some other factor responsible?

What Is OCD?

Before we address the question, “Is OCD genetic?” it may be helpful to take a moment to review what, exactly, OCD is.

As its full name (obsessive-compulsive disorder) suggests, people who have OCD can be impacted by two types of symptoms: 

  • Obsessions are persistent and unwanted thoughts, images, and/or urges. The obsessions that are characteristic of OCD are sources of considerable distress for the individuals who experience them. People who have obsessions may engage in a variety of behaviors in an attempt to avoid or suppress them. 
  • Compulsions are repetitive actions or behaviors that a person feels forced to do. Sometimes, compulsions are associated with obsessions (for example, a person with OCD may take several showers each day due to an obsession related to contamination). In other cases, people with OCD may have behavioral compulsions that are unrelated to any obsessions.

A person does not need to have both obsessions and compulsions in order to be accurately diagnosed with OCD. Some people with OCD only have obsessions, some only have compulsions, and some have both types of symptoms.

Is OCD Genetic?

Is OCD genetic? This may seem like a simple, yes-or-no question, but it requires a somewhat complex response.

As is so often the case when attempting to identify the underlying cause of a mental health concern, genetics are just one of several factors that can influence a person’s risk for developing OCD.

Many reputable sources – including the authors of a November 2021 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry – report that heritability and genetics seem to play significant roles in determining whether or not someone will develop OCD. However, these sources typically qualify their reports by noting that gene variations and related concerns are accompanied by a variety of other possible risk factors.

For example, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies the following OCD risk factors:

  • Abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences during childhood
  • Exposure to certain infectious agents
  • Developing a post-infectious autoimmune syndrome
  • Having a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) who has OCD
  • Dysfunction in various areas of the brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the striatum

Regarding the elevated risk among people whose close family members have OCD, the DSM-5 notes that having relatives who exhibited symptoms at a young age may be significant:

  • Among individuals who have a first-degree relative who developed OCD during adulthood, the rate of OCD is twice as high as among the general population.
  • Among those whose first-degree relatives developed OCD when they were children or adolescents, the rate of obsessive-compulsive disorder is 10 times higher than among the general population.

Referring back to the question at the top of this section, “Is OCD genetic?” it is safe to say that genetics and other family influences may raise or lower a person’s risk for developing this disorder – but genetics alone cannot account for every person who has OCD.

What Are the Effects of OCD?

The effects of untreated OCD can include physical, emotional, and social harm. These effects can vary according to several factors, including what types of symptoms a person experiences and how severe their symptoms are. With that in mind, Examples include:

  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Onset or worsening of co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Withdrawing from or being ostracized by peers
  • Pervasive shame, guilt, and frustration
  • Diminished confidence and self-esteem
  • Being bullied or harassed 
  • Struggling to perform to expectation in school or at work
  • Academic setbacks
  • Trouble finding and keeping a job
  • Difficulty establishing financial independence
  • Overwhelming sense of helplessness and/or despair

To underscore how disruptive OCD can be, a study in the July-December 2016 edition of the Industrial Psychiatry Journal revealed that 52% of patients with OCD (including 70% of female OCD patients) had experienced thoughts of suicide. The research team also found that 16% of the OCD patients in the study had attempted to end their own lives at least once. 

To put these statistics into context, a 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA) indicated that the rates of past-year suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among the general population in the U.S. were 4% and 0.5%, respectively.

How Is OCD Treated?

Treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder can involve medication and therapy.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are often used to treat depression, have also proved to be effective at helping people with OCD. Examples of prescription medications from this category include Paxil (paroxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Lexapro (escitalopram). 

The therapeutic component of OCD treatment is designed to help people learn to manage symptoms that are not alleviated by medication. If a person has a co-occurring mental health disorder or is also struggling with addiction, therapy can address these concerns as well. 

OCD treatment may be provided on several levels, including residential treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP), and an intensive outpatient program (IOP). Some people only need to spend time at one of these levels, while others may benefit from receiving care at two or all three of them. 

There is no single, ideal path for recovery from OCD. What’s most important is providing each patient with the care that aligns with the full scope of their unique needs.

Begin Treatment for OCD in Atlanta

Peachtree Wellness Solutions offers multiple levels of personalized OCD treatment for adults in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. Features of care at our center include residential and outpatient options, customized treatment plans, multiple forms of therapy, and a highly supportive environment. In every program and at every level of care, our patients work in close collaboration with a team of skilled professionals who truly care about them. 

To learn more about how we can help you or your loved one, or to schedule a free OCD assessment, please visit our admissions page or call us today.