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.
How can I help someone with OCD?
Supporting someone with OCD can be overwhelming and confusing at times. You might struggle to understand their experiences.
But your support and understanding can make a big difference. It can take practice and patience to work out how best to help. This page covers some of the things you could try:
- Learn more about OCD
- Recognise and understand compulsions
- Help them to manage compulsions
- Work together
- Help them to get treatment
- Be kind and patient with them
- Be kind and patient with yourself
There is also information about what to do if their obsessions or compulsions are about you.
- Find out as much as you can about OCD. This can help you understand what your friend or family member is going through. You can read more on our What is OCD? and OCD symptoms pages. Or get information from other charities, like OCD-UK and OCD Action.
- Look at blogs, videos or posts from people with OCD. For example, you can search for stories about OCD on our Your Stories pages.
- Remember that everyone's experiences are different. One person's experience of OCD may be very different to what the person you know is going through.
- Try to talk to the person about their OCD. No information will be able to fully explain what they're going through in the same way.
- Try to keep an open mind. OCD can be complicated and confusing. Your friend or family member may tell you things that worry or don't make sense to you. Try to remember that they may have kept their experiences secret for a long time. They may be worried about your reactions. Try to listen without judgement and let them know that you'll be there to support them.
- Challenge stigma if you can. There's still lots of stigma about OCD. If you hear or see someone talking about OCD in a way that stigmatises, stereotypes or trivialises OCD, try to challenge this. This could be through explaining your experiences or sharing our information on OCD stigma. It's not always easy or safe to challenge people, so if don't feel able to do this, that's ok too.
It was so hard that instead of speaking out loud I showed them the stories and descriptions of the illness I found on Google and said this is what I have. This is where my recovery began.
OCD has two main parts that are linked, obsessions and compulsions. Compulsions can make people feel better at first. But in the long-run, compulsions make OCD symptoms worse.
One of the hardest things about supporting someone with OCD is working out how to help them resist compulsions. You may find yourself unknowingly helping them with their compulsions. This is sometimes called accommodation.
For example, you might:
- Check something for them, helping them with their compulsions
- Give reassurance by repeatedly answering questions about their worries and doubts
- Help them avoid things that make them distressed or anxious
It's natural to want to try and help someone. Especially if they're distressed and they're asking you for help. You may feel guilty about not helping them or may not know how else to support them.
But the more you help someone with their OCD compulsions, the more they might feel like they need this help again and again. And this can make their obsessions and compulsions stronger over time. We have more information about the OCD cycle.
An important first step is often recognising compulsions in someone close to you. Anything can become compulsive. They may have one main compulsion, or lots of different ones. These might change over time.
You can read some examples of compulsions on our symptoms of OCD page. Some signs that someone may be struggling with a compulsion include if they:
- Get distressed or agitated if they can't do something
- Need to do something again, but the more they do something, the more they seem to need to do it again
- Spend more and more time doing something
- Have the same conversations with you, over and over again
- Can't seem to let go or move on from difficult situations or feelings
- Need to do things which don't make sense to you
- Act out of character or against their values
- Keep asking you for reassurance, apologising or asking if you're sure about something
- Ask you to check something again and again
- Seem more distracted or distant than normal at times
- Avoid certain things
- Struggle to manage daily responsibilities at times
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.
Managing compulsions can be a very complicated and difficult thing to do. But it's an important part of managing OCD. There are some things you can do to try to help:
- 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 manage your OCD".
- Encourage them to challenge compulsions where appropriate. For example, you could try to remind them that compulsions are unhelpful in the long term.
- Resist giving reassurance. Seeking reassurance is a very common symptom of OCD that often involves those around them. For example, they may ask you whether they did something wrong. Or they may ask you to confirm that their memory of an event is true. Try to gently explain that you don't want to make their OCD worse by reassuring them.
- Try not to use logic to reassure them. For example, if they're worried that they've hurt someone, you might try to help by explaining all the reasons this is unlikely to be true. This might reassure them in the short term, but may make them feel the need to seek this reassurance again.
- Be gentle but consistent. In the moment, they may feel hurt or rejected if you don't help with their compulsions. Try to give gentle, simple explanations without getting into discussions about their obsessions. For example, you could say, "I love you but we agreed that I wouldn’t help with this" or "I know this is hard, but I think this could be your OCD talking right now".
- Use code words or signs if it helps. For example, you could plan a word or symbol between you to symbolise OCD. This may be useful to use in the moment when someone is distressed and struggling to explain their feelings.
- Try to validate their feelings, rather than help with compulsions. For example, you could say, "I understand that you're feeling really upset right now".
- Encourage them. Remind them of times when they've managed to resist compulsions in the past.
- Try to stay calm and patient. It's understandable to feel confused, upset or frustrated if we're seeing someone we care about in distress. But remember that by not engaging with compulsions, you're trying to help support them.
- Remember that resisting compulsions takes practice for you and them. Take things one step at a time.
- Help to distract them. Suggest things you can do together to take their focus away from their OCD. This could be things like watching a film or going for a walk. They may find it hard to believe a distraction will work in the moment. It may help to start an activity yourself and let them join in gradually.
- Offer a hug or other emotional support instead of helping with a compulsion.
- Compromise with the compulsions you help with at first. For example, if you help them with a number of compulsions, you may need to slowly reduce the number you do.
- Help delay the compulsion. For example, rather than offer reassurance straight away, you could ask them to wait a set amount of time before you talk. Try to increase the delay a little bit each time.
- Help them to reduce compulsions. For example, you could suggest ways they could spend less time on their compulsion, and encourage them to reduce them more and more each time.
- Try not to judge yourself if you sometimes help with compulsions. It's likely that this will happen at times. You may need to do so in a crisis situation or it may happen without you realising. Try to think about how you could manage that situation differently in the future.
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.
- When they're feeling well, talk and plan for times when they might struggle in the future. It might help to write your agreed plans down. For example, you may want to go through the above tips about resisting compulsions together and decide which ones might work best.
- Use visualisation. It may help to think of the OCD as something or someone separate. You could suggest they give their OCD a name that you both use. This might help you to explain that it's the OCD you don't want to help, not them.
- Share your own intrusive thoughts. People with OCD can feel very ashamed and alone about the thoughts they experience. It may help if you share some of your own intrusive thoughts if you feel comfortable doing so. This might help them realise that having them is common. Learn more about intrusive thoughts.
- Try to avoid minimising their feelings or saying things like, "just don’t worry about it". Instead, try to acknowledge that they're struggling right now.
- Think about whether you've taken on too much responsibility. If you feel like you're doing too much for them, try to take a step back and encourage them to do certain things themselves. You may need to do this in small steps.
- Try to sit with their distress. It's understandable that you want to help someone feel better when they're upset. Especially if they're directly asking you for help. But accepting difficult thoughts and feelings is a big part of managing OCD. Rather than trying to fix their problem or make their distress go away, try to help them accept it and sit with it.
- Try to work together and be consistent if you're part of a group supporting someone, for example, a family or group of friends.
- Always include the person you're trying to support when you're making decisions about how best to support them.
People can find it difficult to talk to their GP about their OCD and seek treatment. Here are some ways you could support them:
- Remind them that the appointment will be confidential and that the GP is there to help them get treatment.
- Help them practise what they're going to say to their GP. Or help them write notes to take with them to their appointment.
- Offer to go with them to speak to their GP. You can read more about supporting someone to seek help.
- Ask them what you can do to make things easier. Learning to manage OCD can be challenging. For example, they may feel agitated, tired, anxious or depressed before or after attending therapy sessions.
- Seek advice on how to help. If they're getting treatment, you could both talk to their GP or therapist about the best ways you can help them manage their symptoms.
- Offer hope. They may feel that things will never get better, especially if they're finding treatment hard. Or if they experience setbacks. Remind them that many people with OCD do benefit from treatment. They may find it helps to read about people who are successfully managing their OCD, or have recovered from OCD, in Your Stories.
I have never liked asking for help or telling people, even those close to me, how I'm feeling, so even as I grew up I avoided seeking support.
- Try not to judge. Remember that their fears are very real to them, even if they seem unrealistic, irrational or extreme to you.
- Celebrate wins with them, no matter how small. If you've noticed that they've coped with a situation well, tell them. Or you could celebrate ways that you've coped well together.
- Focus on the whole person. OCD can have a big impact on self-esteem and take over people's lives. Try to recognise and celebrate other things about them or your relationship.
- Remember that they're trying. Coping with OCD is not straightforward. Someone may be managing their symptoms well for some time and then have a setback. This can feel distressing and frustrating to watch. But try to remember that they're not choosing to struggle. And that they may be feeling very confused and distressed too. Try to remind them that setbacks are a normal part of managing OCD and encourage them that they can cope.
- Encourage them to be compassionate with themselves. OCD can come with a lot of guilt and shame. Encourage them to treat themselves with kindness.
I could feel loved ones' frustration at my need to still carry out these compulsions, despite us both knowing it was illogical.
- Take time to look after yourself too. Supporting someone with OCD can be frustrating and upsetting at times.
- Find out more about looking after yourself in our pages on how to cope when supporting someone else and improving your wellbeing. You can also visit the Carers UK website.
- Share experiences, ask questions and get support from other people in the same situation. The OCD Action forum and OCD-UK forum have sections for family, friends and carers. You might find these helpful.
- Think about what you can and can't control. It may help to write things down. As much as you may want to help, you cannot be completely responsible for someone else's mental health. All you can do is try your best to support them.
- Ask for support. If you're struggling, reach out to others and ask for help. This could be through people close to you, or through your GP or a therapist.
- Take things one step at a time. You're not always going to do or say the right thing and that's ok. If you don't manage a situation as well as you could have, try to forgive yourself and move forward.
- Try not to be hard on yourself. Supporting someone with OCD can come with a lot of guilt. If you resist helping someone with compulsions, you may feel guilty about their distress. And if you do help with compulsions, you might feel guilty for not resisting. Try your best and remember that OCD management takes practice and patience, both for the person experiencing it and for those supporting them.
It took my wife a long time to learn how to deal with my mental health, and I know it's really hard to understand OCD unless you're living with it.
Anything can become obsessive or compulsive. And OCD can often attach to things that are most important to people. This includes the people they love.
Obsessions and compulsions about relationships are very common. This is sometimes called 'relationship OCD'. This can impact any relationship, including partners, friends and family members.
You may sometimes find that their OCD starts to become about you, or your relationship with them. For example, they may develop obsessive worries that you no longer care about them. They may compulsively ask you to reassure them that you do. Or they may worry that they no longer care about you and may compulsively confess this to you.
This can be very challenging. It may be harder to help them manage or resist these compulsions. It can be difficult to work out whether something is a real issue with your relationship or a symptom of their OCD. And it can also be hard to not take things personally if their worries or doubts are about you.
Try to resist engaging in any compulsions, even if they're about you. If you think someone's distress could be due to OCD, try to delay any important conversations or arguments until they feel calmer. And take time out of the situation if you need to. Remember that your feelings and needs are important too.
There's a reason why OCD is classed as 'the secretive disorder' because it is exactly that, and it put a huge strain on our relationship, but we have since worked through these issues together and are now moving forward.
This information was published in October 2023. We will revise it in 2026.
References and bibliography available on request.
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