Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Causes of OCD

2-minute read

Why do some people develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Unfortunately, the answer is not clear. Like many mental disorders, it’s thought to develop due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There are several theories about the causes of OCD, including:

  • genetic - having a first-degree relative with OCD may increase the chance of someone developing it. It's possible that some genes may give people a predisposition to OCD.
  • biological - functional, structural or chemical abnormalities in the brain are currently being researched. Some links have been found to irregular levels of serotonin, the chemical that sends messages to the brain.
  • environmental - some research suggests that OCD behaviours could be learned following a stressful event, such as catching a serious disease from contamination. OCD rituals may even be learned from others, such as from a parent with OCD.

Personality traits and distressing life events may also play a role in developing OCD. Researchers are currently looking at how environmental factors and stress may play a role. They are also working on developing better treatments for OCD by studying how the functioning of the brain affects feelings such as fear and anxiety. However, if you’re concerned that you or someone you know has OCD, it’s important to seek treatment rather than focusing on the cause.

Where to get help

If you are experiencing symptoms of OCD, you should talk to your doctor. Or you can contact one of the services below to speak with someone urgently or to chat online:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2018

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) - Beyond Blue

Obsessive compulsive disorder can lead to unhealthy patterns of behaviour that can cause difficulties in daily functioning

Read more on Beyond Blue website

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is an anxiety disorder. People living with OCD are troubled by recurring unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses, as well as obsessions and repetit...

Read more on SANE Australia website

Obsessive compulsive disorder | Your Health in Mind

A person with OCD feels overwhelmed by unwanted thoughts, which often disgust or horrify them.

Read more on RANZCP - The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists website

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Explained | THIS WAY UP

What is Obsessive Comulsive Disorder (OCD)? Understanding the signs, symptoms & treatment options available for those dealing with OCD.

Read more on This Way Up website

Obsessive compulsive disorder - family and friends - Better Health Channel

Living with a person with OCD can have a major impact on family and friends.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

OCD in children & teenagers | Raising Children Network

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. It can stop children and teenagers from enjoying life. Here’s how to help your child with OCD.

Read more on website

Online Treatment Course for OCD | THIS WAY UP

Learn practical strategies for managing obsessive thoughts and compulsive urges with our clinically-proven online course for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Read more on This Way Up website

Hoarding Disorder - WayAhead

Hoarding is a disorder that presents persistent difficulty with discarding or parting with possessions. The person who experiences hoarding disorder perceives the items to be a necessity, therefore the need to save them.

Read more on WayAhead Mental Health Association NSW website

OCD? Not Me!

An eight stage online OCD treatment program developed by researchers at Curtin University. This program also provides support for families.

Read more on OCD? Not Me! website

University Websites - BluePages

Find help from university programs in Australia.

Read more on e-hub Web Services - Australian National University (ANU) website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo