How To Help Someone With OCD
If you know of someone suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, you might feel helpless and frustrated at times, as though there is nothing you can do to help them through their distress. You hate to see your friend, teammate, or daughter suffering, and probably want to help – but caring for someone with OCD can be quite counterintuitive, which adds to its already challenging nature. However, assisting someone on their road to recovery is far from impossible.
We here at NOCD have created some basic guidelines when it comes to walking with your loved one on their journey:
Don’t offer reassurance
A common OCD compulsion is asking a question repeatedly to hear that everything will be okay. For example, a boy dealing with Harm OCD might excessively ask his father: “Are you sure I wouldn’t hurt anyone?” The father’s first instinct is to reassure him and say, “Of course you wouldn’t, kiddo!”
As much as you may want to ease your loved one’s racing mind, know that reassurance will offer them only temporary relief. The sufferer’s compulsion will be fed, and then they’ll most likely fall right back into an obsessive spiral.
Don’t try to relate
People have a natural urge to connect with one another. In certain areas of life, this can be quite comforting! However, if someone is trying to open up about their troublesome obsessions, it’s usually not helpful to say something like “I understand. I am also so OCD. My closet is always color-coordinated!”
A lot of OCD obsessions can be distressing, embarrassing, and taboo. Equating them with surface-level OCD stereotypes might cause the person coming to you for help to feel like you’re belittling their daily struggle.
Don’t suggest they just “try not to think about it”
If people with OCD could stop thinking about their obsessions, they probably would have done so a long time ago! Besides the fact that the implication they haven’t already tried this could upset the person, it’s not good advice. Repressing thoughts usually gives them more power. Whether you have OCD or not, the more you try not to think of something, the more likely you are to start thinking about it. So by avoiding this one you can maintain their trust and encourage them to find better strategies.
Do encourage them to find an OCD specialist
As much as people want to help others, sometimes they are simply not trained to do so! Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in tandem with exposure and response prevention (ERP) is the gold-standard treatment for people with OCD, and typically shows promising outcomes. This condition can be very confusing because its symptoms change frequently and are often hidden. A professional will be able to understand the ins and outs of OCD, offering essential guidance to your loved one.
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Do help them embrace uncertainty
Most, if not all, of a sufferer’s obsessions are derived from a place of uncertainty. One of the best ways to combat the anxiety of not knowing an answer is by embracing the fact of not knowing that answer! Sounds backwards, huh? For example, when someone asks a question in a quest for reassurance, simply respond with “Maybe, maybe not!” or “Who knows!” Their initial frustration may be difficult to deal with, but in the long run this type of response may help reduce the urgency they feel.
Do educate yourself on the disorder
One of most important moves you can make is educating yourself on OCD. It’s a highly misunderstood disorder, making it that much harder to handle. By understanding its common manifestations, you can help destigmatize the disorder. Also, if you know OCD’s common tricks and traps (like reassurance-seeking), you can help the other person acknowledge and move beyond their urges and compulsions, and help them challenge the black-and-white thinking that OCD encourages.
Do urge them to try to live life as normally as possible
Another common compulsion for people living with OCD is avoidance. They may try to sidestep situations that could potentially trigger their obsessions. For example, if someone fears contamination, they might try to avoid spending time in public places, where contracting a disease seems like a possibility. As much as this may feel more comfortable for them in the short term, it’s actually promoting the act of withdrawing, and empowering their OCD to dictate their life choices.
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If they usually enjoy hanging out with friends, recommend they hang out with their friends! If they typically do yoga on the weekends, advocate for them to continue attending class! This continuation of their usual, everyday tasks may not seem significant, but may assist in integrating them back into their normal routine.
Remember: All of this being said, it’s important to keep your own mental health a priority as well. Taking care of a loved one who’s struggling can be very stressful at times. Try your best to remain compassionate and patient with your loved one, as well as with yourself. Keep up the great work everyone!
NOCD can guide you in supporting loved ones who struggle with OCD and related conditions. Our new 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.
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Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapist, MA
I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.