compass Explore next steps to improve your mental health. Get mental health help

Is OCD genetic? Causes and treatments for OCD

Is OCD genetic? Causes and treatments for OCD

Everyone can have intrusive thoughts from time to time, but when you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, intrusive thoughts can go from being a nuisance to something anxiety-ridden, single-minded, and uncontrollable. 

OCD can be extremely difficult to control, affecting how one lives and has to move throughout the world. However, with proper treatment, people with OCD can reduce their anxiety, learn to overcome their fears, and even eliminate themes in their intrusive thoughts and obsessions.

What Is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder characterized by being in a cycle of compulsive behaviors and recurring obsessions of the mind. The recurring obsessions mentioned are essentially unwanted, intrusive thoughts which often trigger urges to do something or images which can be intensely distressing. Compulsions are behaviors that an individual with OCD uses to relieve the obsessions and neutralize anxiety, though in reality engaging in compulsions actually reinforces and restarts the cycle of obsessions.

Common reactions to discomfort caused by OCD can include nail biting, hair pulling, or skin picking. Compulsions caused by OCD can include excessive hand-washing and cleaning or hoarding, among others.

What Causes OCD?

We still do not know the exact cause of OCD. However, research suggests that often genes and differences in the brain can cause OCD to develop. 

Some research suggests that OCD is an issue with the front part of the brain communicating with the deeper parts of the brain via serotonin, a neurotransmitter that sends chemical messages throughout the brain. 

Recent MRI scans have also shown that OCD has significant activation in the limbic system, but the transitional pathways that communicate between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex have certain barriers or bottlenecks.

Are You Born With OCD or Does It Develop? Is OCD Genetic in Nature or Acquired?

As stated above, research shows that OCD does run in families, and that genes likely play a role in the development of the disorder. However, genes appear to be only partly responsible for causing the disorder. 

No one really knows what other factors might be involved—perhaps an illness, trauma, or even ordinary life stresses could induce the activity of genes associated with the symptoms of OCD.

Some experts think that OCD that begins in childhood may be different from the OCD that begins in adults. For example, a recent review of twin studies has shown that genes play a larger role when OCD starts in childhood (45-65%) compared to when it starts in adulthood (27-47%).

Is Bipolar or OCD Genetic?

Similarly to OCD being familial, bipolar disorder can also be passed down through generations. 

Bipolar disorder is frequently inherited. There is approximately a 10% chance that a child could inherit bipolar disorder if one parent has bipolar disorder, and that becomes 20% if both parents have bipolar disorder.

A man sitting on a paper plane

Get mental health help

We provide award-winning mental health services nationwide, with flexible scheduling & insurance coverage. Start your journey this week.

Can OCD Be Passed from Parent to Child?

Yes, OCD can be passed from parent to child. This would be a part of the genetic component to OCD, though it’s thought that OCD may require certain environmental factors as well as genetics in order to develop.

What Are the Chances of Passing OCD to a Child?

Due to OCD being familial and genetic, there is a change of OCD being passed on to a child. If one parent has OCD, the chances of a child having OCD is approximately 15-20%, and if both parents have OCD, that would increase a child’s chances of having OCD to approximately 50%. 

Due to parenting being a lot of modeling behaviors and messages to children, it is possible that certain behaviors and thought processes present in OCD can also be passed down through learned behavior and conditioning, as well as genetically.

Is There a Connection Between OCD and Serotonin Deficiency?

Yes, research has shown that there often are markedly reduced serotonin levels with OCD, as well as many anxiety disorders. This means that often a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) such as Zoloft may be prescribed to help increase serotonin levels to reduce anxiety, irritable mood, and depression, which may come with the frustration of living with high levels of anxiety. 

Most cases of OCD involve an intense amount of anxiety, which is why treating anxiety and working to alleviate it can reduce OCD symptoms rapidly. In fact, OCD is actually a way that anxiety can manifest for people.

Can OCD Be Cured?

OCD is not a “curable” mental health disorder. However, when OCD is treated effectively by a mental health professional, one can keep OCD symptoms from interfering with one’s day to day functioning in negative, intrusive, or unwanted ways. 

If you think you might have OCD or are struggling to manage your OCD symptoms in your daily life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. They can provide you with clarity, support, and tools to help yourself when your symptoms feel overwhelming. They can also work with you to create a treatment plan that works best for you.

What Are Common OCD Treatments?

The most common OCD treatment is a combination of medication and psychotherapy.  In the realm of psychotherapy for OCD, a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure response prevention therapy is commonly used to treat symptoms.

  • CBT for OCD focuses on teaching an individual to challenge some distorted ways of thinking and challenge the obsessions of the mind, then would require them to do some behavioral tests in order to test the logic of some of OCD’s commands. 
  • ERP involves someone with OCD practicing exposing themselves to their feared stimulus (or stimuli) gradually and repeatedly over time to practice working through the fear and learning how to manage risk and uncertainty. Eventually, they should be able to work through their repetitive patterns or obsessions and reduce the amount of anxiety they feel when exposed to the simulus.

In terms of medications, antidepressants like SSRIs are commonly used to help with the severe anxiety symptoms that accompany OCD.

A mental health professional will be able to assess your symptoms, create a treatment plan that suits your needs, and lead you through these steps with expert care and attention.

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
  • 1 sources
Christine Ridley, Resident in Counseling in Winston-Salem, NC

Christine Ridley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in adolescent and adult anxiety, depression, mood and thought disorders, addictive behaviors, and co-dependency issues.

Avatar photo

Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

Picture of woman in front of flowers
Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

    1. International OCD Foundation. (2023, January 12). International OCD Foundation | What Causes OCD?
No comments yet

The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

If you’re in a crisis, do not use this site. Please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use these resources to get immediate help.

Get the latest mental wellness tips and discussions, delivered straight to your inbox.