How to Help Someone With OCD: 5 Therapist-Approved Tips

Published on: 07 Oct 2021
person holding woman's hands

When someone has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), they’re overwhelmed by recurring images or OCD thoughts they can’t control. These obsessive thoughts can cause them to behave in a compulsive manner as they try to suppress those thoughts. 

Knowing how to deal with OCD is hard, but it can be done with the right support. That’s why learning how to help someone with OCD is so important. Caring for someone with OCD is easier if you know more about the mental health condition. Keep reading to learn the top five tips on how you can help a friend or family member with OCD.

Five Ways to Help Someone With OCD

Being supportive and understanding is the first thing you should focus on. Even though it can be a struggle to truly understand what someone with OCD is experiencing, your patience and willingness to accept how difficult their challenges are is key. 

If you’re looking for tips on how to help someone with OCD, some of the following ideas are a good place to start connecting:

1. Be open

Your willingness to discuss their condition can help someone with OCD open up. Try to accept and understand that it may be hard for them to talk at first. Discussing their obsessions or compulsions can be intimidating and make them feel vulnerable. Because people with OCD often try to hide their OCD thoughts and behaviors, suddenly opening up can be extremely difficult. How you respond can make them feel more comfortable and reassured that they’re in a safe space.

2. Don’t be judgmental 

Even if you feel like you want to react, try not to. While it can be hard to hear about obsessive thoughts or compulsive behavior, your goal here is to establish trust. If you react with shock or even a hint of judgment, it’ll be harder for them to open up to you (and others) in the future.

3. Be grateful

Let them know that you’re honored to have gained their trust. By reassuring that you understand how hard it may be to open up, you’re establishing a deeper connection and reaffirming that they can be honest with you. Let them know that you’ll guard the trust they’ve placed in you and your relationship. 

4. Try to be as patient as possible 

Patience is a virtue, and it’s one that’ll be especially appreciated by someone with OCD. If they feel like you respect their struggles, they’ll be more inclined to continue reaching out. Keep in mind, regardless of what they’re telling you about their obsessions or compulsions, their experiences are incredibly real to them. Their reality, even if it’s not something you can relate to or understand, is both painful and real

Even if what they’re sharing seems unrealistic, you need to keep in mind that it’s not irrational to them. This mindset can help you really hear and accept what they’re telling you. 

5. Take the initiative to learn more about OCD

Knowing how to help someone with OCD in part comes from understanding the disorder. Take the time to learn as much as you can about what people with OCD go through. Learning the symptoms and causes can help you get a better grasp on ways you can help a loved one’s OCD. You can also learn more about the different types of OCD and what causes OCD to get worse.

“One thing that family members can do is educate themselves about OCD with the help of a mental help professional.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSW-C, CFTP, EMDR

Do’s & Don’ts

Wanting to help someone you love is natural, but there are certain ways to go about it that can be more effective than others. One of the trickiest parts of OCD is you might feel a counterintuitive urge to help your loved one actually carry out their compulsive rituals. This isn’t actually in their best interest, but it can be easy to fall into the trap if you’re not careful. 

You may feel frustrated, desperate, confused, and above all, unsure about what to do. Learning about what’s known as family accommodation is essential if you hope to develop healthy habits that’ll benefit your loved one. Family and friends often want to engage in the following behaviors.

  • Participation – Having an active part in a loved one’s OCD behavior. For example, offering extra reassurance or washing your own hands along with your loved one. 
  • Participate in avoidance behavior – Don’t over-accommodate in an effort to help your loved one avoid things that might upset them. 
  • Facilitation – Doing things that will help your loved one partake in their symptomatic behavior. For example, if handwashing is one of their OCD compulsions, buying extra soap could be one way that you’re facilitating their behavior or compulsive rituals.
  • Adjusting your own schedule – It’s not particularly helpful if you reduce your hours at work in an effort to have more time to take care of a loved one with OCD.
  • Changing routines – You may want to change your own personal habits to accommodate your loved one’s need to do something at a certain time, but that may do more harm than good. 

Do’s

So how can you help someone with OCD? There are certain, specific tactics you can use that are positive ways to help someone with OCD. Encouraging them to get treatment from a specialist is really useful. Someone trained to help those with OCD will have educated insight that most of us can’t offer. One type of therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is especially effective in treating OCD, and a licensed therapist can use this technique to help.

According to Catchings, if you want to help a loved one with OCD, you can: 

  • Show your support by asking questions about how they feel and what would make them feel supported (don’t assume you know what they need).
  • Be prepared to help your family member when an episode happens by learning the signs.
  • Be sure to not enable them, but use positive communication (speak calmly and be respectful and kind).
  • Help them find an OCD specialist and get involved by asking if family sessions can be part of the treatment.

Don’ts

Just as there are a number of things you can do to help your loved one, there are certain things to be aware of that you want to avoid. For example, it’s critical that you don’t offer too much reassurance. Constantly reassuring someone with OCD that everything is OK can actually be harmful. Any relief they feel from your attempt to appease them will be temporary, and their compulsion will eventually return. 

You also don’t want to try to relate to their experience. Of course, you want to connect, but reassuring them that you understand (in the sense that you “get it” because you have elements of obsession or compulsion too) can feel dismissive.   

Catchings also recommends that when trying to help someone with OCD, you definitely should not:

  • Ask the person to stop their OCD behavior or refer to it as something that should be easy to avoid.
  • Insult or belittle the person.
  • Assume that you know what to do. If in doubt, ask — consult a professional, or look for a book or articles.
  • Talk about the person’s diagnosis with other people.
  • Laugh or call the person names before or after they experience the behaviors and compulsions.

Helping Someone with OCD Find Treatment

Finding treatment for OCD includes finding the right therapist or online psychiatrist. This is going to be one of the most important parts of helping your loved one manage their disorder. There are a number of treatment options out there that have proven beneficial for OCD. OCD therapy, medication, and as we’ve noted, family education are all essential.  

“Actively participate in the individual’s search to find a qualified mental health professional who teaches the family different strategies on how to respond while also working with the client.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSW-C, CFTP, EMDR

Treatment can be empowering and can help your loved one take control of their life again. But treatment isn’t just for your loved one. By now you probably know that there’s a lot for you and others in the family to understand about obsessive-compulsive disorder. The more education you get, the more you’ll know how to help a loved one with OCD. Whether you are dating someone with OCD or your family member has this condition, your willingness to support them is a great start.

Sources: 

1. Rodriquez PbyK. What not to say to someone with OCD: Pass member. Pass Member | Let’s travel. https://passmember.org/what-not-to-say-to-someone-with-ocd/. Published September 9, 2020. Accessed October 6, 2021.

2. Smith, M.A. M, Robinson L, Segal, Ph.D. J. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – HelpGuide.org. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/obssessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd.htm. Published 2021. Accessed September 6, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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