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How to Support Someone With OCD

by edinburghtherapyservice
13 minutes read

Supporting a loved one with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) requires compassion, patience, and an understanding of the challenges they face. Understanding their experiences might pose difficulties, yet your support and comprehension hold significant transformative potential. It requires consistent effort to determine the most effective ways to help. Consider these guidelines as adaptable tools for family members and loved ones, acknowledging the need for customization in individual situations. Sometimes, seeking the guidance of a therapist specialised in OCD can enhance the impact of these strategies.

Educate yourself

Understanding OCD is the first step towards effective support. Take the time to educate yourself about the disorder, its symptoms, and the various ways it can manifest. This knowledge will equip you to empathise with your loved one and dispel any misconceptions about OCD. You can find more information about OCD on our OCD page and our OCD treatment article.

Notable books like “Brain Lock” by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and “Break Free from OCD” by Fiona Challacombe also provide valuable insights into the intricate nature of OCD. Exploring reputable mental health websites, such as the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) is another avenue for comprehensive information. Explore blogs, videos, or posts created by individuals who have OCD, such as Taming Olivia, as valuable sources of information.

Charities dedicated to OCD, such as OCD Action, serve as additional fountains of information. Not only do they furnish resources on their website, but they also extend a helpline where loved ones can seek support and guidance, and online support groups for both people with OCD or their parents and partners. 

Encourage professional help

OCD is a treatable condition, often best managed with the help of mental health professionals. The first line of treatment for OCD includes medication and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) with exposure-response prevention (ERP). CBT with ERP is the therapy approach recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines. You can encourage your loved one to seek therapy and offer to help them find a qualified therapist.

Be patient and understanding

Living with OCD can be incredibly challenging, and your loved one may experience moments of frustration and anxiety. Be patient and understanding, recognizing that their behaviours are driven by the need to manage overwhelming thoughts. Avoid judgement and instead offer empathy and support.

Recognise and comprehend compulsions

OCD consists of two obsessions and compulsions. While compulsions may initially provide a sense of relief, in the long term, they exacerbate OCD symptoms. Recognizing compulsions in someone close to you is often the essential initial step, as anything has the potential to become compulsive, whether it’s a primary compulsion or several evolving ones over time.

Individuals with OCD may harbour thoughts unknown to others, so it’s important to be attentive to behavioural changes. Signals to be mindful of include, but are not limited to:

  • Extended periods of unexplained solitude (in the bathroom, while getting dressed, doing homework, etc.).
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviours.
  • Persistent self-doubt and an excessive need for reassurance.
  • Tasks taking longer than usual.
  • Heightened concern for minor details.
  • Intense emotional reactions to trivial matters.
  • Staying up late to complete tasks.
  • Avoidance of certain activities.

Don’t accommodate or help with compulsions

Unintentionally aiding in their compulsive behaviours, often referred to as accommodation, can be one of the most difficult aspects of providing support.

For instance, you might find yourself checking things for them, providing reassurance, and assisting them in avoiding situations that trigger distress. However, the more assistance provided with OCD compulsions, the more the individual may rely on this help, reinforcing their obsessions and compulsions over time. Hence, a crucial initial step is to cease aiding them with their compulsions. This entails refraining from providing reassurance or checking things for them.

Help them manage compulsions

Encourage individuals to confront and question their compulsions when appropriate. For instance, you can emphasise the long-term ineffectiveness of compulsions. Remind them that what they are experiencing is a condition known as OCD, and each time you observe them engaging in obsessions or compulsions, gently bring it to their attention.

Avoid relying on logic to provide reassurance. For instance, if their concern revolves around potentially causing harm to someone, refrain from attempting to reassure them by presenting logical reasons why this is unlikely. While such reassurance might provide momentary relief, it could contribute to a cycle of seeking repeated reassurance. You can provide emotional support, such as a hug, instead of assisting with a compulsion.

Another option is to help them divert their attention by proposing activities that you can do together, drawing their focus away from OCD. Activities such as watching a film or going for a walk can be beneficial.

Engage in open communication

Create an open and non-judgmental space for your loved one to express their feelings and experiences. Encourage them to share their thoughts about their OCD, and listen actively without offering solutions unless they ask. While it is not your responsibility to provide solutions, you can validate and acknowledge their feelings to create a sense of support and understanding.  Sometimes, having someone who listens can be incredibly comforting.

Be mindful of language

Be mindful of the language you use when discussing OCD. Avoid dismissive statements or minimising the severity of their experience (e.g., “Just stop it!”). In contrast, expressing understanding with statements like “It’s no wonder your symptoms are more intense given the changes you are experiencing” is validating, supportive, and encouraging.

Acknowledge the validity of their struggles and offer encouragement. Phrases like “I’m here for you” can go a long way in providing comfort.

Support their treatment plan

If your loved one is undergoing therapy or taking medication, offer your support in adhering to their treatment plan. Attend therapy sessions together if appropriate, and help them stay consistent with medications as prescribed. Consistency is key in managing OCD.

Recognising small improvements

In the journey of supporting someone with OCD, it’s essential to celebrate and acknowledge even the smallest steps of progress. Recognizing these incremental improvements reinforces positive behaviours and fosters a sense of accomplishment for the individual.

Whether it’s a reduction in the frequency of compulsions, an increased ability to confront obsessive thoughts, or a newfound resilience in the face of anxiety triggers, each small improvement is a significant victory. By actively acknowledging and appreciating these strides, loved ones contribute to the individual’s motivation and confidence in managing their OCD.

Foster a low-stress environment

OCD symptoms often intensify in high-stress situations. Develop a low-stress environment at home by maintaining routines, providing a calm space, and minimising unnecessary pressures. A stable and supportive home environment can significantly contribute to symptom management.

Encourage self-care

Support your loved one in prioritising self-care. This includes promoting healthy lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and balanced nutrition. Physical well-being can significantly impact mental health, contributing to a more comprehensive approach to managing OCD.

Supporting a loved one with OCD is a journey that requires patience, understanding, and active participation. By educating yourself, encouraging professional help, fostering open communication, and providing a supportive environment, you can be an instrumental part of their recovery. Remember, your empathy and consistent support can make a meaningful difference in their journey towards managing and overcoming OCD.

Further reading

Do you offer OCD therapy near me?

Edinburgh Therapy Service offers both in-person OCD counselling in Edinburgh (United Kingdom), and online therapy accessible worldwide. You can find our exact location here. We specialise in therapy for OCD, offering CBT with ERP as the main treatment option. 

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The Edinburgh Therapy Service is a psychotherapy and counseling practice based in Edinburgh, Scotland (United Kingdom). We offer therapy both in-person in Edinburgh and online, available in English and Spanish.

Contact info

Contact us for more information or to book your first appointment: [email protected]