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Managing a debilitating mental health condition is one of the hardest things a person can go through. Watching a loved one go through this is one of the second hardest.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder in which a person is plagued by obsessional intrusive thoughts and can only find relief by compulsively repeating soothing behaviours.
Both genetics and trauma histories can play a role in the development of OCD, though exact causes are not yet known.
Studies show that OCD affects approximately 1.2-2.3% of the population. But around every person who struggles with OCD exists a network of family and friends who often want to help without knowing how. Watching your child, sibling, friend or partner manage their OCD alone can make you feel profoundly helpless.
While OCD is a notoriously difficult condition to treat, treatment is possible, and there are things you can do to help your loved one on the road to recovery.
To informally screen yourself for OCD, try our quick OCD online test. But to learn what to do (and what not to do) when helping someone you care about manage OCD, keep reading.
Being let in to someone’s struggles requires two things on your part: a genuine willingness to understand, and respect of boundaries.
It takes a lot for someone with OCD to feel comfortable opening up, and your response needs to value that bravery. Conversations around obsessions and compulsions might get difficult, and it might be tempting to steer clear of uncomfortable topics. Conversely, your loved one might need to open up in bits and pieces, avoiding certain details or explanations until trust is built.
It isn’t your job to push conversations further than your loved one is comfortable with, or to ‘keep things light’. Let them guide, telling you as much as they can in their own time.
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Obsessions and compulsions are laden with shame for people with OCD. Most OCD themes reveal this; ‘What kind of monster must I be to have these thoughts?!’ is a relatable refrain for many obsessive-compulsives.
It’s important for you to keep in mind what your loved one might sometimes doubt: that they are not their thoughts. Just because someone has intrusive thoughts about harming someone, for example, doesn’t mean they have any desire, intention, or capacity to actually do so; intrusive thoughts have nothing to do with who a person is. The surer your loved one is that you know this, the easier it will be for them to remind themselves.
On top of this, it’s important not to get hung up on the ‘logic’ of what your loved one is telling you. Most obsessions and compulsions are illogical, and people with OCD know this. They know there’s no link between thinking about having a brain aneurysm and actually having one – but it feels like there is, and that’s all that matters.
It’s not your job to remind them that their compulsions are illogical, but to listen to how their compulsions make them feel.
This step can be counterintuitive. It will be natural to want to help your loved one when you see them struggling, and this might even mean helping them carry out compulsions or providing excessive reassurance. These acts are sometimes referred to as ‘accommodation’, and although they come from a good place, they risk reinforcing the compulsive cycle at the heart of OCD.
It will be important for you to avoid engaging in your loved one’s compulsions. Rather than validating the OCD spiral, you should help them resist their compulsions wherever possible.
But, of course, this should be understood within limits. Sometimes your loved one will be tired, overworked, stressed. On days like these, challenging compulsions might just be too much for them, and it’s important for you to recognise that.
There are few things worse for someone with a mental health condition than feeling misunderstood by those closest to them. This is especially true of OCD, one of the most misunderstood psychological disorders.
Most think of OCD as synonymous with germaphobia, neatness, and being ‘high-strung’. In reality, OCD manifests in myriad ways beyond these limited stereotypes. Contamination and Symmetry are two common obsessive subtypes, but others include:
Learning about all the different ways in which OCD presents is crucial to understanding what your loved one is going through, and how you can best help.
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There are multiple treatment routes for OCD, but most will start with a trip to the GP. Offering to go with your loved one, reminding them that the visit will be confidential, or assuring them that it will be entirely their choice to progress with treatment after a diagnosis are good ways to make the appointment less stressful for them.
After this, one of the most effective routes for OCD treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in conjunction with Exposure and Response Prevention. But numerous other treatment paths exist, from talk therapy and SSRIs to mindfulness and hypnotherapy. Each person with OCD will respond differently to each path, and will only find what works best for them over time.
Reading up on what these therapies entail and being aware that they might leave your loved one exhausted and anxious after extensive sessions will allow you to better help them through treatment.