Teen girl struggling with ocd while someone reaches out to help her.

Five Ways to Help Someone With OCD

April 18, 2023

7 min.

Watching someone struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can feel frustrating and might make you feel helpless. We share five ways you can help someone with OCD.

By: Amanda Lundberg

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

If someone you love has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), knowing how to support them can be challenging. Most people struggle to understand the daily experiences of someone with OCD and are frustrated with how the symptoms get in the way of daily life.

Your support is valued and important. You can strengthen your relationship with loved ones with OCD and promote cooperation, which helps each day run more smoothly. It’s easier to support someone with OCD when you understand how the condition affects them. First, let’s explore five ways you can help someone with OCD.

How to help someone with OCD

It might be hard to relate to someone with OCD overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts that can lead to compulsive behaviors. When you’re supporting someone, it’s hard to recognize the line between enabling their symptoms and demanding they stop the behavior. Let’s review five ways to help someone with OCD that ultimately helps support your relationship and the family.

1. Get educated

Knowing as much as possible about OCD can help support your loved one. Consider reading books and articles, exploring the International Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, and attending a support group. The more you know, the better able you will be to help. 

OCD is a biochemically based disorder that wasn’t caused by how a person was disciplined or not disciplined, whether their mom stayed at home or went to work, or if their parents were divorced. It is a treatable neurobiological disorder not caused by action or inaction.

2. Be open about OCD

Your loved one likely wants to talk about the intrusive thoughts that have changed their behavior. Yet, people with OCD often find this challenging and keep their obsessions and compulsions a secret because they worry about other people’s reactions. 

Try to be open about how your loved one experiences the world. Their fears may seem unrealistic or extreme to you, but they are very real to them. It’s crucial that you do not judge or act shocked by anything your loved one tells you. 

You know from your own experience that when someone judges, you’re less likely to share your feelings with them in the future. Make it clear that you love and support them regardless of their symptoms.

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3. Reduce your enabling behavior

While it’s important to be supportive, it’s also important to avoid enabling your loved one’s compulsions. For example, a common compulsion is to ask for reassurance repeatedly. Similarly, a friend dealing with Harm OCD may consistently ask for reassurance that they will not hurt anyone. Your first instinct may be to reassure them, but acknowledging the compulsion is real only increases your loved one’s anxiety. 

Instead, encourage them to resist the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors and to work with their therapist to develop healthier coping strategies.

4. Modify expectations

Your loved one with OCD will likely tell you that change of any kind is stressful. Even times when the change is positive, it can still feel overwhelming or even anxiety-inducing to someone with OCD. This is when symptoms tend to flare. While you may not be able to modify the situation or cannot eliminate change, you can moderate the stress level by modifying expectations. 

For example, you can validate the person’s experience by acknowledging the changes occurring and recognizing that symptoms can worsen when they’re under stress. These setbacks are not permanent. 

There is a wide variation in the number, type, and severity of symptoms between people. You can encourage a person with OCD to function at the highest level possible without pressuring them to appear perfect. Also, avoid comparing their day-to-day behavior and instead acknowledge even the small improvements you see.

5. Help your loved one access proper treatment

While it is important to support someone with OCD, they also need professional help from an OCD specialist who can offer effective treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. Because the symptoms can appear to change frequently, and some are hidden, OCD can be confusing. Qualified professionals can help you understand your loved ones’ condition and offer guidance for your everyday activities.

What is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health condition that triggers a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. The American Psychiatric Association notes that most people have a few obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors during their lifetime. Still, they are not diagnosable with OCD as these thoughts and behaviors do not consume their daytime activities. 

OCD is an anxiety disorder that triggers recurring and persistent unwanted thoughts, impulses, or images. This causes a person to perform repetitive actions that are distressing, excessive, and time-consuming. 

Most often, people with OCD are unaware that these obsessions and compulsions are irrational or excessive. Yet, they may communicate that they cannot control their thoughts or resist their compulsive actions.

A related mental health condition is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), which is ruled by a person’s need for perfectionism and control. While a person with OCD has intrusive thoughts, a person with OCPD has rigid beliefs and a need to control themselves and the people around them.

A teen girl hugging her friend who is struggling with OCD

How does OCD affect families?

OCD has a significant impact on the individual and the family. Television has frequently portrayed obsessive-compulsive disorder as a quirk, but for those who have OCD, it can have a devastating impact. The data has suggested that the burden of mental illness, such as OCD and anxiety disorders, has been seriously underestimated.

OCD affects people in different ways. While some appear to be able to cope with their day-to-day life, others spend much of the day carrying out compulsive behaviors and cannot manage normal daily activities. 

The severity of the condition is markedly different from one person to another, but the disorder often hurts social relationships inside and outside the family. It can also interfere with a person’s ability to work, academic performance, or engagement in leisure activities. 

The difficulty for families increases when the person with OCD doesn’t recognize that their concerns and behaviors are excessive. This can financially burden the family and, in some cases, directly impact their physical health.

The family may want to help the individual with their compulsions to reduce stress. For example, they may wash their hands alongside the person with OCD or keep “checking” that things were completed, called ‘family accommodation.’ 

This can have an extremely disruptive effect on functioning. Inevitably, it can lead to family conflict as the attempt to help someone with OCD is ineffective. Learning to recognize family accommodation behaviors is essential as they can increase your loved one’s compulsive behaviors.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can also manifest in children. Pediatric OCD may present as rituals centered around family members, for example. Children with OCD may hoard objects more frequently than adults and may have a significant preoccupation with order and symmetry. 

As with adults, children may excessively clean their hands, shower, or brush their teeth. They may have an elaborate bedtime ritual or excessively repeat sounds, numbers, or words to themselves.

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What other disorders have symptoms of OCD?

To be effectively treated, OCD must be appropriately diagnosed. However, the condition can sometimes be confused with other disorders. Overlapping symptoms can make diagnosis challenging, but receiving the correct diagnosis is vital to getting the proper treatment. 

Even disorders that have similar symptoms may require very different treatment modalities. When a person with OCD receives the wrong treatment, it takes time and resources and potentially increases feelings of hopelessness about getting better. Conditions that have some of the same symptoms as OCD include:

  • Body dysmorphic disorder: People with body dysmorphic disorder and OCD will both do repetitive checking. However, people with OCD don’t usually have behaviors that focus on the way they look, while the behaviors of those with body dysmorphic disorder concentrate solely on how they look.
  • Eating disorders: People with OCD can have fairly rigid rules about food and eating, though they are often unrelated to body image. Those with eating disorders, however, may present with obsessions, compulsions, and rituals centered around food, control, and body image. 
  • Tic disorder: A tic disorder is a rapid and recurring involuntary movement or sound that typically starts during childhood. While someone with OCD might have frequent movements, these are often triggered by compulsions and are not involuntary.
  • Hoarding: People with a hoarding disorder or those with OCD can be preoccupied with collecting, ordering, and arranging things. But while people with a hoarding disorder get pleasure from saving things, those with OCD do not want to engage in this compulsive behavior and have few sentimental attachments to the items.
  • Misophonia: Misophonia is an obsession that’s related only to sounds. People with OCD have obsessions in a variety of areas.
  • Emetophobia: People with emetophobia have a fear of vomiting, including situations that may lead to vomiting, such as food poisoning or having the flu. People with OCD can have fears or obsessions related to various areas. Read more about phobias here. 
  • Olfactory reference syndrome: People with OCD and Olfactory Reference Syndrome perform repetitive behaviors to try to eliminate the stress caused by obsessions. However, those with olfactory reference syndrome only obsess about their body odor and the way they smell.

How Charlie Health can make a difference

Charlie Health’s Intensive Outpatient Program integrates family therapy, individual therapy, and group support for people struggling with OCD. Mental health professionals work closely with you to identify coping strategies and develop a plan that offers the best outpatient mental health solutions for your unique situation. Learn more about how Charlie Health can help make a difference in your life and the lives of those you love with OCD.

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