How to Help Someone with OCD
Written by Johanna Younce, MA
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a really difficult thing to have and experience for yourself, but it is also difficult to care for someone who experiences it. When someone has a diagnosis of any kind, psychological or physical in nature, it is always better to have support from loved ones. If you are reading this because someone you love has OCD, I want to start by thanking you for caring so much. The first step is to do more of what you are doing right now: Seek out information. One excellent source for information on OCD is the International OCD Foundation website (start with https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/). This will help to get a basic sense of what the disorder actually is. This is important because OCD is often misrepresented in media and popular culture, so what many people think they know about OCD may not be completely accurate. As you learn more, it is important to remember that OCD is a complex problem and it looks different for everyone. Some people with OCD have symptoms that most people are aware of, such as fear of germs and washing rituals, but others experience completely different types of obsessions and compulsions. In fact, some people perform compulsive rituals entirely in their minds (for example, repeating phrases over and over in their head). Look for reputable sources to find information, but also ask your loved one about what OCD looks like for them.
Depending on your relationship with your loved one, you may want to help them find a therapist if they don’t already have one, or if their current therapist is not experienced in treating OCD. When looking for a therapist, look for a specialization in OCD or anxiety disorders, and ask whether the therapist is trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP), the gold standard treatment for OCD. For a list of providers at OakHeart that specialize in treating OCD and utilize ERP, visit our OCD specialty page. ERP for OCD is very well-researched and effective. For more information on finding a therapist, see the past blog post "How to Find the Right Therapist for You" by Dr. Katherine Harris.
This next piece can be harder to do. When a loved one experiences great anxiety, our impulse is often to help them get rid of the anxiety by helping them avoid or escape their triggers (feared object or situation). This is super helpful when someone’s anxiety is caused by a truly dangerous thing - when our loved ones are actually in danger, we want to help them and ourselves get to safety. However, when the anxiety is unhealthy and disproportionate to the actual danger involved, we find that these escape and avoidance behaviors actually worsen the problem. When loved ones help the client avoid, we call this “accommodation.” When I work with the families of individuals with OCD, we talk a lot about identifying accommodating behaviors and stopping them. This is often very hard to do, because this makes your loved one more anxious in the short-term, but it is essential to their recovery. It’s similar to when a person struggling with alcoholism begs for alcohol - it’s going to make them feel better in the short-term, but it feeds their problem. We wouldn’t want to give alcohol to an alcoholic, so we also don’t want to give accommodations to our loved ones with OCD.
One of the most common accommodations is reassurance seeking. People with OCD will sometimes seek reassurance from others regarding their fears. If the fear is that they are secretly an evil person, they might ask a parent or partner if they did something wrong or if they are a good person. If they have fears that the house will burn down if the oven isn’t turned off, they may ask someone if they did indeed turn the oven off. It is difficult to do at first, but we as loved ones must learn to stop giving reassurance. If the loved one is in treatment, you can remind them of their treatment goals and tell them (gently) that you will not answer their question. Sometimes I will have the client write down the loved one’s typical response to their reassurance seeking, and the loved one can simply remind them to look at what they wrote the next time that client asks for their reassurance. It feels difficult, and it may go against everything you have been doing for this person for a long time, but finding a way to stop accommodations and communicate your love and support in more fruitful ways will be the best you can do to help your loved one with OCD.
Finally, take care of yourself. Those of us in the helping professions put great emphasis on self-care because we cannot support others well unless we are taken care of. Take care of your body, mind, and spiritual self. Look for support from others.
I believe in you.
If you feel you would benefit from talking with a clinician who specializes in OCD call OakHeart at 630-570-0050 or email us at Contact.OH@oakheartcenter.com.