How to Support a Friend with OCD
Try to remain as positive as possible and refrain from scolding or negative remarks. Keep in mind that your support is very important in your friend’s fight against OCD. Research has indicated that negative emotions such as criticism and hostility may actually worsen OCD symptoms and interfere with treatment. Also remember to avoid asking your friend “Why don’t you just stop it?” If your friend could just stop the OCD behavior at will, he or she would have been the first one on the face of the earth to have stopped it! And if your friend’s family members are also trying to help, talk with them to make sure you are all on the same “wavelength” with regard to the way you respond to OCD behavior.
Gather up the courage to stop participating in your friend’s rituals or avoidance behaviors. Maybe you’ve found yourself doing some of the following to try to help your friend:
Getting involved in rituals by checking door locks, helping decontaminate clothing, food or even entire rooms;
Providing constant reassurances when he or she seeks reassurance about something;
Giving or buying him or her items needed to carry out rituals, such as soap for hand washing;
Allowing/helping your friend avoid certain stimuli that trigger OCD symptoms, triggers, such as taking a longer route to a destination to avoid a feared location;
Tolerating delays associated with ritual completion, such as waiting in the car to drive to school while your friend completes a washing ritual in the house; or
Trying to have rational conversations or debates with him or her about the OCD behavior.
Participating in OCD rituals actually allows or enables the rituals to persist and even become stronger. If you’ve found yourself doing any of the above, you’ve probably learned by now that none of this will actually make OCD stop.
It’s important to talk with and remind your friend that participating in the rituals may make him or her feel better temporarily, but that it doesn’t help decrease the symptoms in the long term. In fact, it makes the symptoms worse.
Discuss with your friend the ways you’ve been accommodating the OCD and how important it is to work together as you start to decrease your participation in rituals. Try to help your friend understand that you’re doing this because you care about and want to support him or her. You’re not doing this to be mean or spiteful; you want him or her to overcome OCD.
Encourage your friend to get treatment. If your friend isn’t already in treatment, you can be supportive by encouraging him or her to get treatment. That doesn’t involve nagging; let him or her know you want what’s best for him or her. And Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) – sometimes accompanied by medication – is the only known treatment that is effective in helping people gain control over OCD. If your friend is refusing treatment, there are a number of ways you can support him or her. Learn more about what to do if your friend refuses treatment.
It’s only natural that you will be affected by your friend’s roller coaster of emotions. When your friend is undergoing CBT, he or she will be facing his or her fears and experiencing increased anxiety levels. It’s normal for him or her to go through many emotional ups and downs: hopefulness and feelings of success at times, as well as frustration, exhaustion, feelings of failure and a desire to give up at other times. And if your friend is on medication, he or she may also experience some unpleasant side effects initially.
You can help by encouraging him or her to persevere with treatment and letting him or her know that you have faith in his or her ability to succeed. There may be times when your friend is struggling with CBT sessions or homework and may want to give up. Remind your friend how difficult this work is, and always praise him or her for effort – even when he or she isn’t successful.
Some people have found it helpful to use humor, whenever appropriate. In some cases, seeing the humor – if not absurdity – in some of the OCD symptoms may help your friend become more detached from the disorder. It’s extremely important, though, to use your best judgment as to when to use humor. Remember that a situation is funny only if your friend finds it funny, as well. Needless to say, inappropriately laughing at or mocking OCD behavior can be very harmful.
Help your friend by remaining positive after a relapse. Even after treatment, relapses – or reoccurrences of OCD symptoms – can and do happen. It may be frustrating to you, but it can be downright frightening for your friend. Relapses in people who have been treated successfully for OCD are common, and “booster” sessions of Cognitive Behavior Therapy are a customary part of the treatment and recovery process. Reiterate that many people who’ve been treated for OCD experience relapses and encourage him or her to seek the necessary help.
Remember, you aren’t responsible for your friend’s progress. It can be easy for you to become stressed by your friend’s OCD and his or her progress (or lack of progress) during treatment. It’s important to remember that although you can provide your friend much support, you aren’t responsible for his or her recovery. And it’s also important for you to keep up your normal routine and activities with your family, at school, and with your other friends. When you take care of yourself, you’re in a much better position to help your friend.
Consider attending a local support group meeting that is open to friends and family. Learn how others in your position have supported their friends with OCD. It’s very possible that people in your group may have had guidance from their loved one’s cognitive behavior therapist and can share their experiences and knowledge with you. The good news is that the journey to recovery will most likely take much less time than the time OCD has already consumed.