If you have a close friend or loved one who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, you might feel helpless or unsure when trying to support them. OCD is unpredictable and can impact all areas of your friend’s life, so you may struggle to understand their experience, wonder about what you should do when OCD flares up, or feel distressed about their suffering.
Caring for someone with OCD can seem counterintuitive, which makes it especially difficult for loved ones to navigate. However, assisting someone with OCD on their road to recovery is not only possible, but it can make a significant difference in their OCD recovery journey.
Here are three main things anyone can do to support a close friend who has OCD:
Educate yourself on their condition.
As we mentioned, supporting someone with OCD can often feel counterintuitive. This means that, despite your best intentions, the usual things you do to care for your friend may not always help them manage OCD, and they may even hinder their progress.
That’s why it’s so important to do what you’re doing right now: educating yourself on your friend’s condition. Here are some of the main things you should know about OCD in order to support your friend as effectively as possible:
- OCD isn’t what most people think it is. And it’s not their fault: OCD has always been widely misunderstood and diminished as cleanliness or quirkiness. In reality, OCD comes in countless different forms and can often be completely debilitating. People with OCD experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges, called obsessions. Unlike the stereotypes of the condition, a lot of OCD obsessions can be distressing, embarrassing, or taboo. Obsessions bring uncertainty, anxiety, and distress, causing people with OCD to engage in compulsions in an attempt to get rid of anxiety, eliminate uncertainty, or solve a perceived problem. Compulsions can be physical actions or mental behaviors, and they do nothing to address anxiety and stress long-term—in fact, they only make obsessions worse over time.
- They can’t just “stop thinking about it.” Your friend probably wants nothing more than to simply stop having intrusive thoughts, images, urges, and feelings, and to stop worrying, ruminating, and performing other compulsive behaviors for hours of their day. Unfortunately, trying to repress thoughts can give them even more power, and it does nothing to change the way they respond to their thoughts.
- You can’t always tell when they’re struggling. Many people with OCD hide their symptoms due to shame, stigma, and the desire not to burden others. As a result, you probably won’t notice every time OCD is causing your friend anxiety or getting in the way of their life. All you can do is learn what you can about the ways OCD impacts your friend’s life whenever they share their experiences.
Encourage them to live the life they want to live, without giving reassurance.
Compulsive avoidance can greatly disrupt the life of anyone who struggles with the condition. Your friend may intentionally keep away from places, people, and situations that they worry might trigger their obsessions, avoiding the discomfort and uncertainty that comes with OCD at all costs.
Reassurance-seeking can be especially hard to spot. Let’s say your roommate has intrusive thoughts about their relationship, so they ask you to read every text they send to their partner in order to feel positive that they didn’t say anything wrong. Knowing that this worry is distressing for your friend, you may feel inclined to accommodate them every time they ask.
Though these compulsive behaviors bring about temporary relief, they can end up causing your friend to miss out on activities that mean a lot to them and increasingly depend on reassurance from you and others in order to live their life, making OCD worse in the long run. Instead, try to encourage your friend to do the things that they want to do and engage in activities they enjoy, without trying to offer reassurance by telling them that they won’t experience any discomfort or anxiety. With the right tools and with your support along the way, they’ll learn that they can manage the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with living the life they want to live.
Celebrate their victories in treatment and recovery.
Making headway in the OCD recovery process won’t always feel good. Even when your friend accomplishes major milestones, they may feel highly uncomfortable, and worry about whether their symptoms are getting better or worse.
As a friend, you can be a valuable resource to help support your friend on their way to managing OCD, but you are not an expert in OCD treatment—and it’s not your job to be! This is best done with the guidance of a licensed therapist who is specialty-trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold standard treatment for OCD. Doing ERP therapy with a therapist who is specialty-trained in treating OCD will teach your friend that they can handle the uncertainty and anxiety that comes with their intrusive thoughts, images, and urges, by being exposed gradually to the things that trigger their obsessions and resisting the urge to do compulsions in response.
Once you’ve educated yourself on the OCD recovery process, you can identify when your friend has practiced response prevention by resisting the impulse to do compulsions when they have intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges. You can recognize these as the victories that they are, and encourage your friend in continuing to practice response prevention, even when it’s difficult or distressing.
Above all else, having your understanding, encouragement, and support as your friend or loved one is in treatment will go a long way. Being compassionate and patient with them through the ups and downs of their recovery journey will show them that you care and are there for them.
If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free call with the NOCD care team to learn what kind of treatment is available. Every NOCD Therapist specializes in OCD and receives specific training and ongoing guidance from our clinical leadership team. Many have experienced OCD themselves and understand how crucial it is for therapy and support to be specific to OCD.
NOCD can also guide you further in supporting loved ones who struggle with OCD and related conditions. Our Family Support Sessions are specifically designed for the family, caregivers, and friends of people with OCD and related disorders. Book a free, 15-minute call with our team to learn more about NOCD’s Education Sessions and how to help loved ones recover from OCD.