Advice For Living With Someone With OCD
Sep 11, 2023, 10 min read
Living with OCD is hard on anyone who suffers with the condition, but it can also have a huge impact on the lives of those who love them, especially if you live together. Whether someone in your household was recently diagnosed with OCD, or you have been living with someone with OCD for a while, you may be wondering what the best ways are to cope with what can be a rather stressful living situation at times.
It’s normal not to fully understand a loved one’s obsessions and compulsions, but even without a full understanding of why they think the way they do, you can still support them and offer a calming, loving environment so they can live life free of shame, and continue to get better through treatment.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about living with someone with OCD or another mental health condition, we’re here to help.
What is OCD?
OCD stands for “obsessive-compulsive disorder”, and is a mental health condition that can cause obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. It is thought that around 1.2% of the UK population suffers from varying degrees of OCD. The condition is thought to start most often in early adulthood, but it can begin at any age – sometimes symptoms can appear as early as 6 years old, and this can affect both males and females.
OCD tends to manifest as obsessions, compulsions or both, which means either repeated unwanted thoughts or mental images, or a compulsion to carry out a specific action.
Examples of obsessions might include things like fear of germs, violent or intrusive thoughts, and rumination about events from the past. You can read more about OCD rumination here: Why OCD Ruminating Is A Problem (And What To Do About It)
Examples of compulsions might include things like excessive cleaning, compulsive counting of objects, or checking things over and over again in case something awful happens. Compulsions are often performed as a way to feel better about anxiety, but this only provides temporary relief. Many of these symptoms have the potential to negatively impact daily activities like school, work and relationships if left unchecked.
OCD obsessions and compulsions tend to begin as a result of a specific trigger (these are different for everyone). For example, if someone has an obsession with avoiding germs, their OCD might flare up if they sit next to someone at their lunch break who tells them they have just gotten over the flu.
You can read more about triggers in our article; OCD Triggers: How and Why Do They Happen?
How is OCD treated?
At Augmentive, we believe getting professional advice and treatment is the best way to ensure someone with OCD gets on a path to recovery that is bespoke to their situation and specific type of OCD. OCD manifests differently for each individual, and therefore treatment should be unique too. Treatment should also take into account that often those with OCD have comorbid conditions like anxiety or depression.
As a general rule, OCD is typically treated with either medication, psychotherapy, or in many cases a combination of both. Many patients undergoing OCD treatment will see improvements to the point of being free of their OCD, but others will learn tactics to manage it in daily life while still experiencing ongoing symptoms.
Treatment for OCD may involve:
- Medication: Medications such as Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SRIs) can be prescribed to reduce OCD symptoms, although these medications are typically used to treat depression. Be aware these can take anywhere from 8-12 weeks to begin working, and any side effects should be noted so the dose can be adjusted if needed.
- Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy can help those with OCD too, and research suggests things like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) can be as effective as medication. ERP involves immersing oneself in the situation that triggers compulsions (for example, if the compulsion is cleaning, they might face a very dirty object) and working to manage the thoughts, feelings and compulsions that come up as a result. Most of those with OCD see a significant improvement in their symptoms after engaging in therapy, but only 1 in 5 manage to resolve their condition without seeking treatment.
Less common alternative treatment options include the likes of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), deep brain stimulation, and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, but generally medications or psychotherapy would be explored first.
OCD is often considered to be a lifelong condition, but the outlook is more promising when it is discovered and tackled in children and young adults. 40% of young people with OCD recover entirely by the time they reach adulthood, and studies have found that 32-70% of those with OCD experience symptom remission, suggesting that recovery is highly possible for many with the condition.
What self-care tips can help someone with OCD?
As we've already said, at Augmentive we believe a bespoke approach designed by a professional is the best option for those with OCD symptoms, however, if you live with someone who is undergoing treatment for OCD you may also be looking for self-care tips they can try at home and in daily life to further support their treatment. OCD compulsions are not easy to overcome, but there are some mindset shifts and day-to-day activities that can be used as helpful self-care strategies, such as:
- Talking: Keeping everything bottled up can be difficult for the person with OCD, and won’t help those in their household to better understand their symptoms. Encourage them to talk to someone they trust about the emotions surrounding their OCD (even if that isn’t you), and support them in making this happen on a regular basis, without being pushy.
- Managing stress: Stress and anxiety tend to exacerbate OCD symptoms. Relaxation methods like mindfulness activities, yoga, breathwork or meditation can help to ease anxious thoughts and make tackling OCD symptoms each day more manageable. In fact, one study suggested that mindfulness meditation alongside clinical hypnosis could be a successful treatment for excessive rumination.
- Staying healthy: Lifestyle choices can play a big part in how good we feel each day, which has a huge impact on how well people manage their OCD symptoms. Sticking to a regular routine of getting plenty of sleep to boost your energy each day, eating healthy foods to manage your blood sugar levels, and moving your body to improve your mood and stay healthy can make a big difference. One 2018 study found that just one session of exercise can reduce rumination.
- Understanding triggers: OCD often begins with a ‘trigger’, which is something that kick-starts the obsessive thoughts that lead to compulsions. By understanding what your loved one’s triggers are, you can help them take steps to become desensitised to these (ERP therapy can help with this too). You can read more in our article; OCD Triggers: How and Why Do They Happen?
How else can I help a loved one with OCD?
Aside from helping them to seek professional advice and treatment (which we always recommend), according to the International OCD Foundation, some of the best ways to support someone in your household who is suffering from OCD symptoms include:
- Noticing when something is wrong: If your loved one is spending a lot of time by themselves (and using excuses like they are getting ready or tidying their room), they may be privately engaging in repetitive behaviours. Or perhaps they constantly question things and obsessively ask for reassurance that they haven’t done something wrong. If you notice OCD symptoms like this, you may wish to bring it up in a non-judgemental manner to start a conversation about their thoughts.
- Educate yourself as much as possible about OCD: This will help you to understand what the other person is going through and help you to empathise with them. You can learn more about OCD in places like OCD UK, OCD Action, or via Mind.
- Don’t compare: It doesn’t help someone with OCD to hear things like ‘your OCD is worse than it was last week’. OCD treatment is an ongoing battle so try to focus on their progress rather than comparing to past versions of themselves, as this will only make them disappointed and could see them regress further.
- Acknowledge small improvements: By commenting on small improvements they have made with their OCD symptoms, this helps them remain positive and feel they are accomplishing things.
- Talk about OCD (but not too much): It’s great to ask them regularly how they are doing, but don’t let this become a habit. Talking about OCD all the time isn’t good for their recovery either, so decide on how often you will discuss it each week and try to stick to this.
- Do not participate in rituals: One of the most difficult things for family, partners and friends of those with OCD can be watching them perform rituals that most would deem unnecessary. You may want to help them in order to make the checking easier, but by not engaging, you are in fact helping them more in the long run, as it reinforces the idea that compulsions are the only way to manage their anxiety You can make it clear you are not doing it out of meanness, but because you want them to get better.
“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.” - Anonymous, via Mind.org.uk
- Communicate your boundaries: It’s okay to sometimes feel frustrated with someone with OCD even while they’re working with treatment and support. It can be helpful to set boundaries so they know that you will be understanding of their behaviours and compulsions while they are working on improving them, but you might not be able to always accommodate these. There should be balance in the household.
- Challenge compulsions when the time is right: As long as the person with OCD is happy with it, being involved in their treatment plan can be helpful so you know if it’s a good idea to challenge a compulsion or leave it be, depending on their feelings at the time. When it does feel appropriate to challenge compulsions, offer emotional support instead to help them get through the urge.
- Manage expectations: Change won’t happen overnight, so help your loved one understand this by recognising their small wins, not dwelling on any setbacks, and discussing the ongoing nature of OCD treatment.
- Be patient: It may be a while before someone with OCD starts to feel changes within themselves, and a while before the people living with them start to notice those changes. Be patient, and remember there is always a chance your loved one will never be fully ‘cured’ of their OCD, so it should be treated as a marathon, not a sprint.
How do I encourage someone to seek support for OCD?
If someone you live with is struggling with OCD symptoms, the first hurdle in helping them can often be in convincing them that they need additional help. Try setting some clear and understandable boundaries to help steer them towards getting more support; for example agreeing certain topics or discussions are off-limits to avoid their OCD triggers, and gently (but firmly) remind them of this if these things come up.
“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.” - anonymous, Mind
You cannot force someone to get help for their compulsions, but here are a few things you can do instead:
- Make sure they are living in a supportive environment where they know they don’t need to hide their compulsions, and that there’s absolutely no shame if someone sees them carrying them out.
- Provide a listening ear anytime they need it. They may have thoughts and feelings about their OCD that they would feel better sharing with someone they trust, so make sure they know you can be that person, and never make them feel ashamed for the thoughts they bring up – even if they don’t make sense to you.
- Reassure them that seeking professional help for OCD symptoms does not mean they will be physically stopped from performing their compulsions. This is not how OCD treatment works. It is much more focused on tackling the feelings associated with obsessions and compulsions.
- Point them in the direction of professional help for OCD symptoms. This might mean seeking private therapy options through a service like ours at Augmentive, or reaching out to their GP first through the NHS, a charity like Mind for further advice.
If your loved one is unsure which treatment option might be best for them, our free 15 minute consultation can help by listening to their symptoms and needs, and putting them in touch with the practitioner that is best suited to them.
Remember, living with someone who suffers from OCD can be challenging on your own mental health too, as their actions can cause frustration or even be upsetting, and always having to be “on alert” to support them can be taxing, so take time to yourself regularly, talk about your feelings with someone you trust, and don’t allow your loved one’s treatment to consume your life. Their treatment and progress can continue in a positive direction even if you do set boundaries for your own health and wellbeing.
If you have a question about a mental health condition, like real event OCD and how to cope with it, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.
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