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.

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How can other people help?

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

If someone you love has a diagnosis of 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.
  • Stay calm and don't judge. It can be upsetting to hear about some obsessive thoughts, but your loved one may be scared you will judge them or think that there is something wrong with them. 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. Reading personal experiences can help too.

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 it difficult not to help with compulsions, or get involved (this is sometimes called accommodation). For example you might:

  • check locks for them
  • reassure them that they didn't cause an accident
  • reassure them that an obsessive thought doesn't mean anything

You may have found that refusing to help with rituals, or offer reassurance, increases their anxiety and makes life harder for both of you.

But helping someone with their compulsions is not usually 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' or 'I'm here for you and I love you but I'm not playing OCD's game today'.
  • 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.

OCD-UK suggests that it can help to see OCD as something external to you both. This can help everyone understand that you are challenging the OCD and not the person themselves.

Read more about OCD-UK's suggestions here.

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:

  • Remind them that the appointment will be confidential and the GP is there to help them access treatment. Offering to go with them could also help make things easier. Take a look at our page on supporting someone to seek help.
  • Some parts of treatment for OCD can be challenging. During treatment they may be agitated, tired, anxious and depressed. Try to be patient and ask them what you can do to make things easier.
  • They may feel that things will never get better, especially if they are finding treatment hard or their symptoms come back. You can offer hope. Remind them that most people with OCD do benefit from treatment and show them personal stories of people who have recovered.

Look after yourself

Supporting someone with OCD can be exhausting and upsetting at times. Make sure you take time to look after yourself too. It can help to share experiences, ask questions and get support. OCDAction 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 July 2016. We will revise it in 2019.

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