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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Explains obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.
What causes OCD?
There are different theories about why someone develops OCD. No theory can fully explain every person's experience. But research suggests that these may be involved in causing OCD:
Even though we don't fully understand what causes OCD, it can still be successfully treated. See our page on OCD treatment for more information.
Some theories suggest that OCD is caused by personal experience. For example:
- If you've had a painful childhood experience, or suffered trauma, abuse, discrimination or bullying, you might learn to use obsessions and compulsions to cope with anxiety.
- If your parents had similar anxieties and showed similar kinds of compulsive behaviour, you may have learned OCD behaviours as a coping technique.
- Ongoing anxiety or stress could trigger OCD or make it harder to manage.
- Pregnancy or giving birth can sometimes trigger perinatal OCD. Read more about perinatal OCD.
Some theories suggest that OCD may be caused by something physical in our body or brain. These are sometimes called biological factors.
Some biological theories suggest that a lack of the brain chemical serotonin may have a role in OCD. However, it's unclear whether this is a cause or an effect of the condition.
Studies have also looked at genetic factors and how different parts of the brain might be involved in causing OCD. But they haven't found anything definite.
You can read more about the causes of OCD on the OCD-UK website.
This information was published in October 2023. We will revise it in 2026.
References and bibliography available on request.
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