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Supporting Someone with OCD: 6 Tips for Family and Friends

June 6, 2023

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Guest blog by Rachel Ehrenberg

When someone you care about struggles with OCD, it can be challenging to know how to support them effectively. While you may not be able to understand exactly what they’re feeling, finding ways to help them manage their symptoms can improve their quality of life and make a world of difference. 

From understanding the importance of being there for a loved one with OCD, to learning important tips for supporting someone with OCD, this guide will cover everything you need to know to be a valuable ally on your loved one’s journey toward recovery.

Why is it important to offer support to those with OCD?

OCD is wildly misunderstood by the general public. Due to its portrayal in society and pop culture, most people think that having OCD means the individual likes to be organized or overly clean. While these can be compulsions for some, OCD is much more than that. OCD is a debilitating mental health disorder that can significantly impact a person’s daily life, causing high levels of distress, anxiety, and intense fear. When this happens, your loved one may feel completely overwhelmed and alone, causing them to further pull away from family and friends.  

When living with OCD, sometimes simple everyday tasks such as eating or walking can feel like a challenge. You begin to feel as if you’re the only one experiencing these thoughts. No one around you can understand. You shut down because you feel alone. You may even feel defeated and ready to give up in recovery. Offering support to those with OCD is essential to help individuals feel less isolated, more understood, and empowered to manage their symptoms and commit to recovery. 

6 Ways to support someone with OCD

Supporting a loved one with OCD is crucial to their recovery. While you may feel unsure about how to help, there are many ways you can be a valuable ally in their journey towards managing the mental health disorder. Take a look at these practical tips and strategies on how to support someone with OCD effectively.

Educate yourself about OCD

Without truly understanding what OCD is and how it affects your loved one, you won’t be able to support them to the best of your abilities. Educating yourself about OCD can help you recognize the symptoms and behaviors associated with the disorder. Knowing these signs and symptoms allows you to catch when your loved one is struggling, giving you the ability to respond and support quickly and effectively. 

Taking the time to learn about the disorder also shows your loved one your commitment to support. By becoming educated, you’re helping your loved one feel seen and heard. You’ll also be equipped better to avoid misunderstandings, myths, and stigmas associated with OCD. Learning about OCD from credible sources and gathering accurate information will not only assist your loved one, but can also aid in raising OCD awareness to those around you.  

Educating yourself about OCD can also help you navigate the challenges and difficulties that come with supporting someone with the disorder. It can provide you with insights and strategies on how to communicate effectively, set boundaries, and provide practical assistance, ultimately improving your loved one’s overall mental well-being. 

Provide a safe and non-judgmental environment

OCD can cause some pretty scary, unusual, and overwhelming thoughts. These thoughts can then lead to all types of compulsions and rituals. People with OCD often feel ashamed or embarrassed about these thoughts and compulsions, leading them to avoid seeking help or opening up about what they’re going through. By creating a safe and non-judgmental environment, you’re helping your loved one feel understood, accepted, and supported. 

Providing a safe space can also strengthen your relationship through feelings of trust. The more your loved one opens up and shares their experiences, the deeper your understanding of their struggles will be. They’ll know they can turn to you when they’re in distress and you’ll be able to provide more effective support. 

Encourage and support treatment for OCD

For a person with OCD, knowing that they have a supportive network of people who care about them can instill feelings of confidence, resilience, and hopefulness about their recovery. Many people with this disorder may be hesitant to seek help due to shame, fear of judgment, or lack of awareness of available OCD resources. Family and friends play a crucial role in encouraging their loved ones to seek professional help, connecting them with the right OCD treatment options, and motivating them to keep going in recovery even when things seem impossible. 

Offer practical help

While you may not be able to offer mental health services as a mental health professional, there are other ways to offer practical support to someone with OCD. One of the first things you could do is encourage your loved one to seek professional help from a mental health provider. This ensures they receive a proper diagnosis, effective treatment plan, and experienced guidance through recovery. Another thing you can do is to help your loved one identify their triggers. By doing so, you can assist them in anticipating and preparing for potential OCD ‘attacks’, allowing them to develop coping strategies beforehand.  

If your loved one is also struggling with completing everyday tasks, you can offer to assist with those as well. Individuals with OCD may struggle with completing daily tasks due to their compulsive behaviors. Helping with tasks such as cleaning, organizing, or grocery shopping can help alleviate stress and anxiety.

Encourage response prevention

When it comes to treating OCD, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is considered the gold standard for treatment. If your loved one is working on ERP with a mental health professional in sessions, they also need to practice it on their own. One of the hardest components of ERP is resisting compulsions, such as reassurance seeking, that arise from obsessions. While helping someone with OCD, it’s important to understand how ERP works and what you can do to support it. 

During ERP, your loved one will be working on delaying and resisting compulsions to the best of their ability. It’s common for individuals with OCD to seek reassurance about their obsessions from close friends and family. This could be asking you questions such as “Does this make me a bad person?”, “Do you think I have this disease?”, “Are you mad at me?”, and “Can you promise that I’ll be safe?” You may naturally want to do or say anything that would make your loved one feel better. Afterall, it’s hard to see someone you care about in distress. However, giving them reassurance will only fuel the OCD. 

Instead of giving them reassurance, encourage them to challenge their compulsions. Help them “ride the wave” of anxiety while delaying the compulsion. Assist them in setting a timer to sit with the feelings of uncertainty. Respond to reassurance based questions with “You’ll never know” or “Maybe, maybe not.” Leave room for doubt. This may seem counter-productive, but it can help end the toxic cycle of OCD, and you’ll be supporting your loved one more than you know.

Supporting by listening and validate their feelings

OCD can be a challenging and isolating experience, and providing emotional support, empathy, and understanding can help individuals feel less alone and more supported. Sometimes, your loved one may come to you just to vent. All they might be looking for as a shoulder to cry on. 

OCD support doesn’t have to be you finding a solution to the problem. Just being there to hear what they’re going through can make a huge impact in their recovery. Validate their feelings. Acknowledge that what they’re going through is hard. Let them know you’ll be there for them every step of the way. 

Empower your loved one with professional mental health guidance

Supporting someone who struggles with OCD can be challenging, but with patience, understanding, and the right tools, you can be a valuable part in their recovery journey. By listening to your loved one, providing emotional support, and encouraging them through the good and bad, you can help them manage their symptoms and improve their overall quality of life.

However, it’s crucial to remember that professional mental health support for OCD is essential for long-term recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, encourage them to seek treatment from a mental health professional. With the right support and treatment, individuals with OCD can lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. 

Guest blog by: Rachel Ehrenberg

Rachel is a mental health advocate living with OCD and anxiety. She has previously presented on the topic of health anxiety alongside medical/behavioral health professionals to medical schools in New Jersey, and has been featured on multiple OCD related podcasts and social media live streams. She has also served as a volunteer for the 2023 Online OCD Camp for Youth organized by the IOCDF. Using her experience in social media and digital marketing, Rachel created an Instagram account – @rachelsocdgrotto – dedicated to providing support and information regarding OCD. She also is currently a peer support specialist/mentor for SOMTHINGS. Rachel holds her Master’s degree in Communication and Digital Media from Rutgers University.

Find Rachel on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rachelsocdgrotto/?hl=en

Listen to Rachel’s podcast with Jenna on health anxiety

To learn more about ERP, listen to: Episode #90: How to Do Exposures for Intrusive Thoughts

Check out The ERP Basics Masterclass

To learn more about supporting someone with OCD, check out my masterclass on Supporting Without Accommodating

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