Have you ever been given advice about your mental health that was unhelpful, or even harmful? Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common experience. Even the most well-meaning individuals can make misguided suggestions and give advice that’s rooted in misunderstanding. Our collective understanding of mental health has come a long way, thanks to advancements in science and research, but there’s still work to be done. This is especially true for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), one of the most widely misunderstood mental health conditions.
While sadly, it can end up being the subject of jokes about being clean or organized, the truth is that OCD is no joke. Considering that OCD impacts millions of people worldwide, that it can be highly debilitating, and that it takes 14-17 years on average for people to seek treatment, it’s clear that OCD demands to be taken seriously. A lack of understanding and awareness can perpetuate stigma that keeps people from seeking treatment for OCD, makes them feel isolated and ashamed, and even prevents them from being aware that they have the condition in the first place.
Mental health advice that hurts
To fight this issue, it’s imperative that we bring attention to advice rooted in misunderstanding or misinformation about OCD. While certain frequently-said statements regarding mental health may have good intentions behind them, they often fail to address the needs of those who are struggling with OCD. This can serve to increase levels of guilt and shame among sufferers, creating further harm.
Whether you have OCD yourself, know someone who does, advocate for the OCD community, or are simply looking to cultivate a better awareness of this condition, you have the power to make a positive impact by becoming more aware of what common mental health advice may be ineffective or even harmful for OCD. It is vital that we learn how to validate individuals who are struggling with this condition and provide them with effective advice and encouragement. For those living with OCD, it’s equally as important to be aware of the misguided advice that you may encounter.
1. “Just stop thinking about it,” or, “Don’t think that way, be positive.”
How frustrating it is to hear these words. Imagine pouring out your heart and soul to someone in an act of desperation. You’ve made the brave decision to open up about some of the most terrorizing thoughts you have ever experienced and now, standing there with your heart on your sleeve, you’re being met with an oversimplification of the issues you’re facing. You feel invalidated and alone, like no one in the world understands.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having positive thoughts. In fact, it can be beneficial to cultivate positive thinking in many areas of your life. The reason this response misses the mark is because it overlooks the complexity of OCD. Like any mental health condition, OCD is not the result of choice. Those who suffer from OCD did not ask for it. Similarly, they cannot simply choose for it to go away.
People with OCD do everything in their power to not think the thoughts that cause them so much distress—the intrusive thoughts that characterize OCD, which are often disturbing or taboo. But the irony of this is that by trying so hard not to have these unwanted thoughts, they can end up having more of them. Believing that someone with OCD would choose to think about terrifying and disturbing things places blame where it isn’t deserved.
The reason intrusive thoughts tend to be so distressing is because OCD often latches onto what’s most important to someone. It’s important to understand that, because of this, people who have OCD are the least likely to act on the things that they obsess over. Their obsessions target their worst fears. Now, imagine being confronted with your worst fear and being told, “Don’t worry about it.” You can probably understand how invalidating that could feel.
2. “Everyone struggles with something. Snap out of it.”
Again, statements like these erode the severity of what someone with OCD is experiencing. Telling a person struggling with OCD to “snap out of it” dismisses their suffering. It also places blame on them, implying that if they would simply try harder, they wouldn’t be having this issue. While determination can be an important skill to utilize and develop in certain situations, suggesting that determination alone can make someone with OCD feel better puts pressure on them to be in control of something that no one can control.
This advice can be especially harmful due to the craving for control that OCD can create. Suggesting that control is possible can continue the OCD cycle by fueling the urge to engage in compulsions and perpetuating the belief that a person with OCD needs to “do” something to “fix” their obsessions. When you have OCD, this is simply not the case. While the urge to perform a compulsion or to try to stop an intrusive thought can feel difficult to resist, it’s crucial to keep in mind that chasing control won’t help anyone find long-term relief from OCD.
The truth is that OCD requires very specialized care. Techniques like thought-stopping, which involves the pushing away or suppressing of unwanted thoughts that’s directed by the advice above, can end up amplifying intrusive thoughts, leading to more anxiety. Trying to “snap out of it” or force intrusive thoughts to go away deprives you of the opportunity to learn that you are capable of handling the presence of intrusive thoughts, that your thoughts don’t say anything about your identity, and that they will pass without you needing to take any action.
3. “You just need to push past it and move on with life.”
This belief downplays the impact that OCD can have on a person’s ability to interact with others and to function in society. The idea that “If you just act as if you’re okay, you’ll become okay,” is misleading. It also neglects to account for the countless ways that OCD can impact someone’s everyday experiences.
If people could just “snap out of it” and live their lives how they wanted to, wouldn’t they all choose to do so? It just isn’t that simple. It may take specialized treatment for those struggling with OCD to reach a point where they’re able to engage with life in meaningful ways in spite of their symptoms.
If you’re the person with OCD on the receiving end of this advice, please remember that comments rooted in a lack of understanding don’t say anything about you. OCD can cause a great deal of shame and guilt, so it’s crucial to be kind to yourself whenever you can. Remember that you’re trying your best. Celebrate your wins, big and small.
And finally, remember that you’re not alone. There are people who understand what you’re going through and connecting with them can be a powerful source of support. Seeking the help of an OCD specialist can give you insight into your symptoms and help you find ways to manage OCD long-term. A qualified OCD specialist will know how to make you feel seen, heard, and understood as they work with you to regain your life from OCD. You can also find connection, understanding, and inspiration in peer communities and OCD support groups.
4. “Just trust your gut.”
The idea of following your intuition and letting your “gut instinct” guide your decisions can be helpful in some situations, but it’s not ideal for OCD. People with OCD often struggle with distress intolerance, or difficulty processing uncomfortable emotions, like uncertainty. A level of uncertainty that might feel comfortable to someone without OCD can be incredibly stressful for someone with it. And with uncertainty comes doubt, another common manifestation of OCD. OCD is more likely to create a stream of questions about your choices than it is to present a clear outline of how to act.
Taking Relationship OCD (ROCD) as an example, let’s say someone with ROCD came to you and expressed that they were worried about whether or not their partner was “the one.” In response, you told them to “trust their gut.” Amid an onslaught of intrusive thoughts, this can be incredibly difficult to do—and suggesting it can have the exact opposite effect of what was intended.
OCD can make people crave certainty, and telling someone struggling with OCD that they’ll be able to be certain if they listen to their intuition can send them down a path of checking, rumination, research, and reassurance-seeking—mental compulsions that only serve to keep them stuck in their doubts and worries.
Instead of expecting a feeling to inform a decision, a more helpful approach for someone with OCD can be to focus on their values. Values can serve as a reminder that you are so much more than OCD. By focusing on what you care about, you can practice making choices based on the things that are most important to you.
A more helpful approach
While these are some of the more common examples that you may encounter, unhelpful advice for OCD can come in many forms and from many sources. As we continue working toward a world where awareness and understanding of OCD is the norm, it’s important for every one of us to be conscious of the mental health stigma that exists in our society, the misconceptions that we may encounter, and our ability to make a positive change by educating others and ourselves.
The truth is that many people who give ineffective or invalidating advice are trying to help. When people want to help but don’t know what to say or how to “fix” a perceived problem, they may be quick to give generic, one-size-fits-all advice. But those suffering from OCD don’t need this advice. They need to feel seen, respected, and cared for—to be shown empathy, just like anyone else. Feeling validated can help decrease feelings of isolation and shame.
The best advice? Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Perhaps the most important advice that can be given to anyone struggling with OCD is to remember that it’s okay to need help and to ask for it. OCD, while chronic, is highly treatable with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that was developed specifically to treat OCD, and research has proven it to be incredibly effective.
At NOCD, our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs—which means the best care for our members.
In addition to being highly effective, we’ve made sure that this life-changing care is convenient. As a NOCD Member, you’ll have access to live video ERP therapy sessions with an OCD specialist. In a study validated by the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR), virtual ERP achieved a significant reduction in OCD symptoms over twice as quickly as in-person therapy.
And because we know how important it is to feel supported at every step of your journey, we provide support between therapy sessions, when it matters most. You’ll be able to privately message your therapist, chat with a NOCD Member Advocate for help throughout your journey, get 24/7 peer support from others in treatment in the NOCD Community Feed, and join dozens of free support groups.
When you’re ready to start your treatment journey, our team is here to help. You can book a free 15-minute call with us at any time. On your call, we can answer any questions you may have, share what you can expect, and help you get matched with a therapist so you can begin regaining your life from OCD.