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Supporting a loved one with obsessive compulsive disorder

Monica Matys
Written by Monica Matys

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder. It’s marked by obsessions and compulsions that significantly impact on the daily life of those affected, as well as their family and caregivers. So how can you best support a friend or loved one with OCD? Mental health clinician Ketrina Dilo and social worker Sandra Cushing offered some guidance at the All in the Family: Supporting a Loved One With OCD or Anxiety Speaker Series.

The impacts of OCD can be different for every family, but many describe it as an “intruder” that calls all the shots. Family members can experience a wide range of emotions, including helplessness, uncertainty about what to do, frustration, concern and anger. There is also a stigma around OCD for some families, leading to a withdrawal from various social scenarios and a hesitation to reach out for help.

There can also be impacts on siblings and other people in the home. Often, so much time is spent helping that one person with OCD, others may feel neglected or obligated to follow various OCD rules in order to alleviate stress for the sufferer.

There is a range to how families affected by OCD react, including denial and even rejection. By far, however, the most common response is accommodation, where family members will participate in a relative’s rituals in various ways to try to keep the peace.

There are many community supports available to assist those affected by OCD, and the guidance of an expert medical professional can be very beneficial. Generally, Dilo and Cushing say there are four important “I’s” when helping a family member with OCD:

1. Identify the compulsion, not the person, as the problem.

While it’s normal to feel frustrated, hostile criticism and pressure don’t work and can actually make things worse. Keep in mind that rituals stem from a feeling of compulsion, and trying to ease the pain and anxiety being experienced in the moment. Also, those suffering with OCD often view everyday items and activities very differently as the condition can distort reality. For example, if someone has an upset stomach, the OCD sibling may be consumed with fear that that person has cancer.

2. Invite collaboration.

If the person with OCD recognizes their condition is creating problems and wants to work on change, you can help them do so. The dynamics around this require discussion and will be different for every person and family.

3. Interrupt the OCD cycle (with permission).

This step is about identifying an OCD problem or behaviour, defining it and having the person with OCD accept your invitation to work on it. Interfering with the person’s ability to perform certain compulsions should be done gradually and only with their permission. Otherwise, there is a risk the experience may be viewed as a punishment.

4. Integrate and model healthy behaviour.

Support your loved one in finding ways to fill time previously taken up with mental and/or physical rituals with other meaningful activities. It could be as simple as going for a walk, sharing a cup of tea or doing a yoga class, as long as it’s a positive activity and experience.

Watch the full Speaker Series lecture and learn more about available OCD resources in the community:

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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