How to help someone with OCD
Samantha A. Huston, M.S., LCPC
Director of ERP Services
Most people are familiar with the stereotypes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): incessant
handwashing, making sure things are symmetrical, and excessive cleaning. However, as those
living with OCD or supporting a loved one with it know, these characteristics can be much more
than a quirky personality trait that results in tidy living quarters. OCD is a complicated,
neurological issue that causes distress daily.
Uncomfortable emotions – like extreme fear, guilt, and disgust – are experienced in response to
everyday tasks. Moreover, the extensive rituals performed to deal with these feelings can take
over one’s life and significantly impact the lives of those around them.
For those touched by OCD, it can be difficult to know how to begin the healing journey.
Similarly, it can be challenging for loved ones to know how to best provide support.
Over the years of helping individuals and families managing OCD symptoms as well as hearing
from clients what they have found most supportive, I have identified a few “dos” when it comes
to helping yourself and/or helping a loved one:
Do become educated about OCD. Join a support group, do some online research, listen to
podcasts…whatever way you enjoy gathering information, go for it! The International OCD
Foundation is an excellent starting point: https://iocdf.org
Understanding the symptoms and neurological mechanisms behind obsessions and compulsions
will help normalize and validate experiences. If supporting a loved one with OCD, this deeper
understanding of their diagnosis will help put into context the irrational thoughts and behaviors
(from a non-personalized perspective), thus increasing the overall capacity to be supportive.
Do use supportive and encouraging words. People with OCD often hear or even say to
themselves phrases like: “Just stop worrying about it!” or “Focus on happier thoughts and ignore
the bad!” If obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors were a choice, most would shut them
off immediately. But it’s not that easy and these well-meaning statements ultimately feel
minimizing, defeating, and shameful. It would be like asking a grieving person to ‘just stop’
being sad, or a soldier returning from a warzone to ‘just stop’ being startled by loud noises.
So, what should be said in these situations?
Make an effort to validate the experiences. This helps someone (or yourself!) feel heard while
also leading with compassion. A way to validate and offer support could be through a reflective
statement like. “I know you don’t want to be doing compulsions. How can I support you getting
better?” It’s also helpful to recognize and celebrate any effort or progress you or your loved one makes.
OCD recovery can be tedious and slow work so pointing out progress can be helpful in
Do find appropriate, effective treatment by a qualified professional. Research has shown that the
most effective trifecta for treating OCD symptoms is a multi-modal approach that includes
medication, behavioral therapy, and family support. There is ever-growing research regarding the
effectiveness of a variety of medications – and even supplements – that can assist in the
treatment of OCD. However, medication alone will not cure symptoms. Many people with OCD
report that while on effective medication, their obsessions and compulsions don’t go away but,
rather, their worries become easier to dismiss and compulsions easier to resist.
When it comes to OCD therapy options, Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) is the gold
standard. ERP involves making a list of feared or avoided situations, objects, thoughts, images,
and urges then systematically exposing oneself to those triggers. Now, the idea here isn’t to flood
with overwhelming fear but allow distress to exist and then naturally decrease on its own.
Through continued ERP therapy, when clients are exposed to triggers they will reduce their use
of compulsions and tap into their natural ability to face and tolerate discomfort. As they begin
developing new, more tolerant-neural pathways, they will weaken the pathways to obsessions
For families assisting a loved one, Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions
(SPACE) skills can be effective. SPACE focuses on parents and caregivers adjusting their
behaviors to reduce accommodations for anxiety and instead empower tolerance through
response prevention. https://www.spacetreatment.net
To learn more about AMK’s behavioral therapy programs and team members visit us,
You can also click here schedule an intake appointment with an ERP specialist, or contact [email protected] or call 773-413-9523