At some point, you’ve heard a friend, family member, or coworker use the phrase, “I’m so OCD” to describe something like their work habits or house cleaning. You may have even done it yourself, not realizing it minimizes the impact obsessive compulsive disorder has on those who suffer with this very real mental illness. A person with OCD can have severe symptoms that interfere with daily life to the point that it’s in the top 20 causes of disability worldwide.
If you have a loved one affected by OCD, you know it can be confusing and frustrating for friends and family. With other mental health issues like depression and anxiety, there’s at least some point of reference for other people because we all know what it’s like to feel sad or nervous. OCD has a unique set of behaviors that can be hard for others to understand. But once you learn more about OCD, it’s possible to help the person you love with both emotional support and practical actions.
To help, it’s important to understand the obsessions and compulsions that make up this mental illness.
Individuals with OCD experience obsessive thoughts that are often irrational; for example:
- Germs are going to harm them.
- A punishing event will happen.
- Something violent will happen to a loved one.
They feel compelled to perform repetitive behaviors to ensure these things don’t happen, and/or they can’t stop thinking about them. You may see their symptoms manifested in actions like flicking a light switch and counting or repetitively washing their hands.
These could seem like silly habits that can be easily broken, but brain scans show how people with OCD struggle because of their unique neurological pathways. Essentially, their brains have strong responses to perceived threats and a weakened ability to send “stop signals.” That means it’s important for family and friends to keep in mind that while it’s easy for us to say, “Just stop!”, there’s a very real brain pattern on the inside causing their behaviors.
Note: While these symptoms may suggest your loved one has OCD, a proper diagnosis can only be made by a trained mental health professional.
Often, family and friends will reinforce obsessions and compulsions by participating. That means rationalizing the behavior; performing the rituals; or assisting with repetitive behaviors, such as hand-washing. The stress and suffering you see in the person you care about can make you feel responsible to help and provide comfort, but participating will only have a negative impact on your loved one’s progress. To get better, they must learn to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts that lead to compulsive behaviors. Only they can do the work, and jumping in to help disrupts the process.
Therapists trained in ERP are aware of this and will meet with family and friends to create a “roadmap.” In this process, the therapist, patient, and loved ones sit down and create a contract that states which accommodation behaviors are no longer acceptable. This will help you set healthy boundaries that have your loved one’s recovery in mind.
The most important thing you can do to help is encourage the person with OCD to seek treatment. OCD is not something that can be conquered through force of will. To get better, it often requires a combination of medical and behavioral therapy.
If your loved one is resistant to getting help, provide emotional support and encourage them to research OCD on their own. The International OCD Foundation has a website with plenty of information detailing what’s involved with this mental illness and the steps that can be taken to get better. Seeing examples of other people with OCD can also help your loved one normalize their own experience and realize many others have the same struggles.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Once your loved one has bought in to treatment, it’s important to note how the right treatment programs from qualified health professionals can make all the difference.
Successful therapy for OCD requires a therapist trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP). Research shows that this form of cognitive behavioral therapy should be considered a first line treatment. ERP involves having the patient expose themselves to the obsessive thought and progressively learn to delay or altogether stop the compulsive action. Check out the International OCD Foundation’s online resource for finding therapists trained in ERP.
In some cases, it can be most effective to combine antidepressant medication with ERP therapy. This can be especially helpful if your loved one has a related disorder, such as major depression. When co-occurring disorders impact a patient, it can be necessary to lift the symptoms of one of the related disorders, so they can work on the rest in therapy. Within their first session or two of ERP, their therapist should be able to tell if an antidepressant would be helpful.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
TMS is a treatment for mental health disorders that works by recalibrating neuronal pathways in the brain. For over 10 years, TMS has been FDA approved as a highly effective treatment for major depression. In 2018 the FDA approved TMS to treat OCD as well.
The most attractive feature of TMS is that it has none of the side effects associated with antidepressants, such as fatigue, weight gain, or sexual dysfunction. The sessions are short, just 18 to 19 minutes long. If your loved one has been struggling with OCD for quite some time despite being on medication or in therapy, TMS could be an excellent option.
HPR Treatment Centers is a national TMS provider with locations across the country. TMS for OCD is an off-label treatment for OCD at HPR Treatment Centers and may not be covered by insurance. Learn more about whether TMS could be right for your loved one’s OCD by giving them a call at 877-565-3753.
Provide Emotional Support and Feedback
With mental illness, it’s often family and friends who notice improvements before the patient does. Make sure to point out the positive strides made by your loved one in treatment, so they feel confident that treatment is working.
Don’t check out once you’ve set up rules to avoid accommodation behaviors! Your loved one will appreciate that you make yourself available to listen to their feelings. There may be frustrations along the way of treatment, which makes your understanding and support vital.
Helping a loved one with OCD can be a difficult process, but it’s well worth it. With so many different treatments available, it’s a matter of finding what will work best for your friend or family member.
Remember that people with OCD do get better with treatment, and your encouragement can make a huge difference in their recovery.