Maybe you’ve lived your whole life without any sort of anxiety, without any compulsive behaviors or any great amount of worry or fear. Suddenly, you can’t eat certain foods for fear that they’re poisoned, or you feel germs creeping up on your skin so often that you have to wash your hands until they’re bleeding, or you can’t leave the house without checking five times that the door has been properly locked. These are all examples of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but you’re an adult, and you’ve lived your whole life without any of these behaviors or fears–until now.
This brings us to the question: when exactly does OCD develop? Though OCD can develop at nearly any age, researchers agree that there are two distinct age ranges in which OCD typically occurs (Kelly, 2019). The first age range is 10 to 12, right before puberty, while the second age range is between 18 and 23. Those in the first age range are attributed with early-onset OCD, while those in the second range have late-onset OCD (Kelly, 2019).
So, what is the cause of OCD? While there is not a definitive consensus as to its specific cause, it is generally believed that OCD is likely developed because of a combination of environmental and genetic factors (Singer, 2018). Sometimes, it can develop with no warning or external reason at all. However, if someone experiences a genetic predisposition to OCD, a stress trigger or traumatic event in their lives may cause symptoms to develop (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). So, you’ve spent your whole life never struggling with obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, but then something traumatic happens, such as a loved one dying, and you become obsessively afraid of death or disease. You’re unable to even leave the house unless you perform compulsive behaviors that alleviate your anxiety. What this means is that, though it’s not always the case, you were likely already genetically predisposed to OCD, and this traumatic event served as a trigger for the neurobiological processes behind it.
This also means that, even if everyone else in your family suffers from OCD, you are not necessarily going to suffer from it yourself. Due to the multitude of factors contributing to OCD, it is impossible to perfectly predict whether someone will suffer from it, even if all signs in their life point toward it.
This idea of traumatic events contributing to OCD speaks to the nature behind this mental illness. Those suffering from OCD feel an immense sense of doubt, guilt, and responsibility in their everyday lives. They are grappling for a sense of control, and perform compulsive behaviors in order to regain this control and quell their anxiety. A traumatic event, which could cause a major life shift, would therefore serve as a symbol of a great loss of control, and those genetically predisposed to OCD are at a higher risk of having symptoms surface as a response.
Thus, it makes sense that OCD tends to occur earlier in life, particularly during the ages of puberty. Hormone levels are rapidly increasing, and children are much less emotionally equipped to handle traumatic events or stressors than adults are. While OCD can still occur with no traumatic trigger at all and at any point in life, it is important to ensure that individuals are adequately supported when traumatic events in life occur.
Anneclaire.loughman. (2015, December 2). What it’s like to live with OCD. Retrieved from https://www.psychologies.co.uk/what-its-live-ocd.
Kelly, O. (2019, June 12). How Symptoms and Treatment Can Be Different for Early-Onset OCD. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/early-versus-late-onset-ocd-2510673.
Singer, J. (2018, October 8). OCD and Trauma. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/ocd-and-trauma/.
What Does Not Cause OCD. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/what-doesnt-cause-ocd.