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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Explains what obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

This section is for friends and family who want to support someone who has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

If someone you love has OCD, knowing how to support them can be hard. You may struggle to understand their experiences, or feel that their obsessions and compulsions get in the way of daily life.

But your support and understanding can make a big difference, and there are things you can do to help.

Be open about OCD

Your loved one may find it difficult to talk about their obsessions and compulsions. They may have kept them secret for a long time and be very worried about your reaction.

It can help to acknowledge this and encourage them to talk about their experience in a way that feels comfortable to them.

  • Be patient. Remember that their fears are very real to them, even if they seem unrealistic, irrational or extreme to you.
  • Don't judge. It can be upsetting to hear about some obsessive thoughts, but if you act shocked or judge them, they will be less likely to share their thoughts and feelings with you in future. Make it clear that you love and support them regardless.
  • Find out as much as you can about OCD. This will help you understand what your loved one is going through. You can read more about OCD on the OCD-UK and OCD Action websites, or read more about people's personal experiences of OCD on our blogs page

"I could feel loved ones' frustration at my need to still carry out these compulsions, despite us both knowing it was illogical."

Work out how to deal with compulsions together

One of the hardest things about living with someone with OCD is working out how to deal with their compulsions. You may find yourself helping them. This is sometimes called accommodation. For example:

  • helping them carry out their compulsions
  • offering reassurance about their obsessive thoughts and behaviours.

Refusing to help can increase someone's anxiety and make things more difficult for both of you. But helping someone with their compulsions is usually not helpful in the long term. Every time someone acts on a compulsion (including asking for reassurance), it reinforces the belief that the compulsion is the only way to deal with their anxiety.

Treatment for OCD helps people learn that their anxiety will reduce naturally, even if compulsions are not completed.

"Your first thought is why aren't they helping me check... but if you step back, breathe you realise they are not helping because they care."

How can we manage compulsions in other ways?

Try and work out some alternatives together. Your approach might depend on what your loved one thinks about their compulsions and whether they are receiving treatment. Here are some things you could try:

  • Agree on an approach that feels right for you both. For example, you might decide that you will say 'we've agreed I won't answer questions like that to help you overcome your OCD'.
  • Encourage them to challenge compulsions where appropriate. For example, instead of offering reassurance you could try and help them think about why they want to do a compulsion again.
  • Offer a hug or other emotional support instead of helping with a compulsion.
  • Seek advice. If they are getting treatment you could both talk to their doctor or therapist about the best way to manage compulsions.
  • Accept that sometimes it will be impossible not to offer reassurance or to help with a compulsion.

"My husband knows he has to tell me when I start collecting things and my daughter will remind me by asking if something is what I want or an OCD problem."

Help them to access treatment

Your loved one may find it difficult to talk to their doctor about their OCD and seek treatment. Here are some ways you could support them:

Look after yourself

Supporting someone with OCD can be frustrating and upsetting at times. Make sure you take time to look after yourself too.

You may find it helpful to share experiences, ask questions and get support from other people in the same situation. OCD Action and OCD-UK have sections in their forum for family, friends and carers.

You can find out more about looking after yourself in our pages on how to cope when supporting someone else and improving and maintaining your wellbeing. You can also visit the Carers UK website.

This information was published in May 2019. We will revise it in 2022.

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