How Does OCD Start: What Causes OCD And What's It Like Living With OCD?

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 06/24/2022

As is often the case with psychological disorders, the causes of OCD are not entirely understood. A number of theories have stuck around over the years. And it just may be that the whole truth is made up of the sum of these parts.

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Perhaps the most prevalent theory has to do with the anxiety that patients must always contend with. In reaction to this natural propensity to getting anxious, patients may learn coping behaviors. Given that the person continues to stay anxious, these behaviors are likely to become repetitive and habitual. This is particularly when the patient starts to derive relief from anxiety by indulging in their obsessive-compulsive behavior, logically or illogically.

Of course, a genetic or a hereditary component is nearly a given in every psychological disorder, even though this is not very well understood. For example, genes related to some very well-known disorders have also not been identified. But this theory finds strong traction in many scientific corners.

Another possible theory is that a chemical imbalance causes OCD in the brain. This is a common theory associated with mental conditions. For instance, this same theory is often applied to depression. Meanwhile, it is also argued that structural and functional abnormalities cause OCD in the brain. Then there is always the temporal factor, such as an extremely stressful life event, development of personality traits, or even hormonal imbalances.

So what triggers OCD? There is a growing consensus about the coming together of numerous factors to trigger the obsessive-compulsive disorder. Once you are triggered and begin displaying symptoms of OCD, numerous factors go into determining how long symptoms may last. The longer that the symptoms last, it is typically more difficult to tackle them.

What Is It Like Living With OCD?

OCD can have a profound impact on the quality of life of the patient. Most patients will have to deal with compulsive symptoms as well as obsessive symptoms. Speaking literally, ablutions may end up consuming a significant portion of the person’s time and energy. It’s almost a given that familial and social relationships are going to be impacted. In most cases, the relationships at work and the work routine itself will also take a hit. Additionally, educational endeavors may suffer, as the OCD may make it hard to focus on certain education aspects.

The most general advice from the medical community about psychological disorders is not to let symptoms escalate. The effort should be that we get a diagnosis early. Then the symptoms can be addressed right away before they take hold of the person’s psyche. This way, they don’t become as ingrained and natural. In the case of OCD, when symptoms begin to take root, avoidance may emerge as a big problem. In fact, it would be quite normal for the patient to go out of their way if they could, to avoid something that is going to trigger their obsession.

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Normal lifestyle activities that some people may take for granted, including going shopping, eating out, drinking, or even reading, become cumbersome. Many people choose to become homebound. All too often, psychological disorders compound together and coexist. In the case of OCD, patients are often seen to also be afflicted with separation anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder, and other anxiety disorders, including depression.

Patients with OCD will often find it embarrassing if their symptoms are talked about. As a result, many will do whatever it takes to hide their symptoms. Living with a loved one that is suffering from OCD can also be extremely stressful. Quite often, before the disorder is nailed down, other family members may become a party to the rituals and the ablutions. This can gradually increase the disruption and distress in their lives.

How Does OCD Affect One’s Lifestyle

On the obsessive front, the patient and the family would typically deal with exaggerated amplitudes of anxieties and worries. Let us look at a few examples:

  • A gripping fear of being contaminated with germs, toxins, dirt, as well as other substances.
  • Though not as common, fear of illness, sickness, accidental death related to a loved one, etc. The patient would also experience a high sense of responsibility toward the loved one and spend resources to prevent something amiss from happening.
  • Deep and obsessive thought processes related to violence, accidents, sex, etc.
  • Derivation of extreme satisfaction from ensuring symmetry, orderliness, and preciseness.
  • Being very forthright about religiosity, morality, or ethics.
  • A compulsive desire to recall things and gain knowledge about issues, events, and things not immediately applicable to one’s life.


The problem on the obsessive front comes from obsessions being continuously present in the patient’s mind. This means that these obsessions may be quickly triggered. They increase from a specific trigger and associate with whatever may have been kept close to the original trigger or use another creative association. Lifestyle changes may account for an individual’s compulsions, unpredictability, need for vigilance, and the nature of feelings that they evoke. The obsessive impact on their lifestyle does not listen to reason. It’s also important to note that obsessions may also change drastically in their nature from time to time.


On the compulsive front, patients with OCD will experience disruptions, both mentally and behaviorally. Patterns and rules start to affect their routine because these compulsive indulgences will be repetitive. Usually, compulsions exist to prevent an obsessive fear from precipitating. It is the process of wanting to get things just right that presents the biggest challenge to the psychological well-being of the patient and those around them. Let us look at a few common compulsions:

  • Habits of cleanliness, including persistent and repetitive handwashing, tooth brushing, showering, etc.
  • Repetitive cleaning activitiesand washing of the area inhabited, items used, food, and gadgetry.
  • Checking up on safety precautions, locks, gas or electrical appliances, etc.
  • Rigid rules will disrupt lifestyle as to the configuration of items, placement of objects, clothes, books, furniture, etc.
  • Moving a certain way, or interacting with objects in a precise fashion, on a repeat basis.
  • Requiring reassurance by repeatedly asking questions or seeking confessions.
  • Concentrating on a good or a lucky measure of something.
  • Disruption of thought processes because of a need to substitute bad thoughts with good thoughts.
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As these compulsive symptoms reinforce into rituals, the impact on the lifestyle aggravates. Again, these compulsions go on to always soothe the feeling of anxiety. But in reality, they have the reverse impact: that of reinforcing the anxiety. This makes it easier for anxiety to return.

Living With OCD And Opting For Treatment

Living with obsessive-compulsive disorder can be very disruptive. This means treatment is critical in preventing symptoms from taking root. Some of the most common treatments used to improve a patient’s quality of life while dealing with OCD include:

  • Psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy.
  • Management of underlying anxiety
  • Peer and support groups.


Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are one of the most popular treatment methods for OCD. The goal of such therapy is to reset your patterns of thinking. In turn, thoughts are driven by your beliefs. Therefore, psychotherapy tries to create a new you by clearing out your beliefs and behaviors, particularly those that trigger anxiety and symptoms related to OCD. Psychotherapy also includes an educational element to help patients understand the condition and cope with the various symptoms.

CBT and psychotherapy address OCD triggers head-on. While gradually increasing exposure to the triggers, counseling focuses on reducing the need for compulsions and prevents them from taking root. Of course, your therapist or licensed counselor is likely to target something that you can easily tide over initially. The small successes you’ll experience will then give you the confidence to tackle even your worst fears. As patients undergo more exposure while working to not give in to the compulsive behavior, there is often a decrease in overall anxiety levels. With even more time, individuals begin to create new trust levels and start believing in their ability to function and manage their affairs. This process is called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).


The scientific community increasingly sees indulgence in compulsive behavior as a direct reaction to anxiety in life. Therefore, anxiety management techniques are worth their weight in gold to OCD patients. Some of the most common techniques used to manage anxiety with OCD include:

  • slow breathing techniques
  • mindfulness
  • control over hyperventilation
  • meditation
  • relaxation training


Peer support groups are another effective method of coping with OCD symptoms. However, some patients will benefit more than others. Support groups are also available for caretakers and focus on how patients and caregivers can be more patient toward one another. Not only do these groups provide support, but they are also a good place to learn first-hand about the disorder.


The most common type of medication used with OCD is antidepressants. The reason antidepressants are commonly used is because this type of medication works on the serotonin system and works to reduce some of the symptoms. However, it is important to determine whether the side effects are worth the benefits with your doctor. The information in this article is not a replacement for professional medical advice. Common side effects of antidepressants include dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, etc. While medication can be helpful, patients must remember that it can take a bit of time to start feeling and noticing any difference.

OCD Doesn’t Have To Control Your Life

Dealing with OCD can be tiring, and the quality of your life can suffer greatly. Recognizing the symptoms of OCD is the first step in getting a proper diagnosis and coming up with a treatment plan to deal with the symptoms. This free test can help you evaluate your symptoms and prepare to talk to your doctor about your condition.