When someone you love is diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), your first instinct is to help them out in any way you can. But helping someone with OCD is a double-edged sword; while family support is an essential part of OCD recovery, it can worsen the OCD symptoms if done incorrectly.
OCD is a highly debilitating mental and behavioral disorder, significantly disrupting the life of those who suffer from it. However, OCD doesn’t just affect the person who has it, but everyone around them.
Friends and family often get caught in the crossfire of a person’s obsessions and compulsions. Sometimes, they become the subjects of a person’s obsessions and objects of their compulsions.
So, how can you help a loved one suffering from OCD while safeguarding your mental and physical well-being? It’s not easy, but certainly doable.
Here are some important pointers to help you help your loved one recover from OCD.
Educate Yourself About OCD
You can’t help a loved one with OCD without knowing the ins and outs of OCD: the signs and symptoms, causes, triggers, and treatment options.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5) characterizes OCD with two overarching symptoms: obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions are constant intrusive, distressing, and unwanted thoughts, mental images, ideas, and urges. Likewise, compulsions are repetitive, borderline ritualistic behaviors that temporarily soothe the obsessions. The sufferer can experience a lot of anxiety, discomfort, and, in some cases, guilt if they do not carry out their compulsions.
These obsessions and compulsions can revolve around anything, from cleanliness, order, and organization to relationships, existential questions, and sexuality. Hence, multiple subtypes of OCD exist, with each subtype corresponding to the subject matter of a person’s obsessions and compulsions.
The paragraphs above give you a rudimentary introduction to OCD. However, you need to go into a lot of depth about the multiple subtypes of OCD, their specific symptoms, and the diagnostic process and treatment options for OCD.
Luckily, there is a plethora of easily-accessible information about OCD available online. Some of these websites are:
- Impulse Therapy
- International OCD Foundation (IOCDF)
- Beyond OCD
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
Avoid Family Accommodation Behaviors
The most common and dangerous pitfall that families of people with OCD fall into is being overly accommodating to the demands of OCD. While accommodating a person’s obsessions and compulsions may seem like the intuitive thing to do, it is actually counterproductive.
Multiple studies suggest that common family responses play a huge role in maintaining and even intensifying OCD symptoms. Here are some ways you might be engaging in unhelpful accommodation behaviors:
- Participating in OCD behavior — For example, you may wash your hands as frequently as your loved one with contamination OCD.
- Enabling rituals/ compulsions — For example, if they have contamination OCD, you may buy them undue amounts of cleaning products.
- Constantly providing reassurance — Reassurance-seeking is a common symptom across all OCD subtypes, providing temporary relief to the sufferer. In the long run, though, reassurance-seeking only perpetuates the OCD cycle. If you keep providing them reassurance, they’ll never be able to break this cycle.
- Modifying your plans and routines — You might move plans around or alter your daily routine to accommodate your loved one with OCD. For example, a person with checking OCD may spend a long time checking all outlets and faucets before leaving the house. So, you might delay your pre-planned activity so they can conduct their checking rituals.
Admittedly, avoiding accommodation behaviors is not easy. You might feel like you’re neglecting or forsaking your loved one. Or, you might feel too powerless and overwhelmed to not give in to their OCD demands.
This is why you need to actively involve yourself in the treatment and recovery process. Family therapy is a great way to learn how to respond to OCD demands more productively.
Encourage Your Loved One To Seek Treatment
Many OCD sufferers go their entire lives without getting diagnosed with OCD, let alone seeking treatment for it. They either don’t know where to go, back out for financial reasons or simply don’t want to seek treatment.
This is where you come in; encourage your loved one to get tested, diagnosed, and treated for OCD.
The foremost treatment option for OCD is Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. It aims to change thinking patterns and behaviors by making the patient confront their OCD triggers head-on in a safe and controlled environment. This treatment can be extremely difficult for the patient, which is why they need your full support during the process.
Another important thing to heed is that medication is only a supplementary treatment for OCD; medication alone does not treat OCD symptoms. So, make sure your loved one isn’t relying solely and excessively on medication.
But what can you do if they refuse treatment?
Well, you can’t force them to go to therapy; someone with OCD can not begin ERP therapy or medication if they aren’t willing. Instead, you can try:
- Reminding them how important professional treatment is.
- Showing them research, videotapes, success stories, etc., about OCD treatment and OCD in general.
- Showing them how you’ve been accommodating them and that both of you need to learn to disengage from each other.
- Encouraging them to join support groups.
Take Care of Yourself First
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to help someone with OCD is to take care of yourself first.
Seeing your loved one go through hardships and pain is difficult, and not catering to them seems downright impossible. But creating boundaries with your loved one is crucial, not only for your well-being but for their recovery as well.
Hence, your job is a difficult one: telling your loved one “no.” When you feel the urge to accommodate their compulsions or entertain their obsessions, you must say no and help them resist their compulsions.
Furthermore, make sure you take care of your mental, emotional, and psychological health by:
- Seeking professional advice from an OCD specialist or support groups.
- Linking with another person going through the same thing, i.e., someone in their family suffers from OCD.
- Look into multi-family behavior therapy.
- Talk to other family members about your feelings.
Watching your loved one suffer through the tribulations of OCD can be gut-wrenching. Your first instinct might be to accommodate them by entertaining their obsessions or enabling their compulsions.
But while it might feel like you’re helping them out, you’re actually perpetuating the OCD cycle.
Instead, you need to avoid accommodation behaviors, establish boundaries, encourage them to seek professional treatment, and educate yourself as much as possible about OCD.