Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a psychiatric disorder that affects 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children in the USA. There are 2 core symptoms of this disorder:
- Obsessions: These are intrusive, uncontrollable and distressing thoughts that can be hard to get rid of. They typically cause a lot of anxiety in the individual experiencing them.
- Compulsions: These are actions that the individual engages in repeatedly, to ease the distress they feel due to their obsessions. Some of the most common compulsions include washing hands, checking something, and counting.
The spread of the novel virus has put us all in a state of high alert. Governments, doctors and researchers all over the world are emphasising the importance of being hygienic and clean. In light of these messages, many individuals are now experiencing significant health anxiety. Studies are reporting higher relapse rates for individuals who have recovered from OCD – who are now slipping back into their old compulsive habits. More people are also reporting a fear of germs as well as mild symptoms of OCD.
If you know someone who has been diagnosed with OCD in the past, or if you are beginning to notice compulsive behaviour amongst any of your friends and family, here are a few things you could do to help them:
Learn as much as you can about OCD from reliable sources. This could include consulting a mental health professional, books or websites that provide information about OCD. Understand why the current crisis could be triggering for them and understand what you can do to help.
Recommend professional treatment
Encourage your friend to seek professional help to manage OCD. Treatment may include a combination of therapy and medication. Many therapists are providing online counselling through various platforms. It’s best to reach out to a clinical psychologist as they are trained in treatment techniques for OCD. You can also look up psychiatrists and doctors, many of whom are now practising online and can help your loved one get access to medication.
Avoid accommodation behaviours
Accommodation behaviours are behaviours you might engage in to help your loved one feel better when it comes to their obsessions or compulsions. However, they actually end up maintaining or even worsening the symptoms that your loved one is experiencing. Accommodation behaviours could include the following – assisting your loved one to carry out their compulsion, helping them avoid a situation that triggers anxiety, and/or changing your own routine to accommodate their OCD behaviours. You can consult with your loved one’s therapist to learn about these behaviours and to know what you can do to avoid them.
Encourage your loved one to talk to other people they trust, as having emotional and social support can help them cope with their emotions. They may be feeling vulnerable, afraid, helpless and alone – acknowledge that this is a difficult time for them. Check-in with them regularly and, if possible, get other people involved in their recovery. It is hard to manage obsessions and compulsions alone – this is why involving others can make it easier for your loved one to follow through with treatment, implement the techniques suggested by therapists, and work towards their own self-care.
The current health crisis makes it harder for those with OCD to challenge their obsessions and resist their compulsions, as a lot of focus is laid on washing hands and warding off germs. At the very least, make sure you do not judge your loved one, no matter what. Even if you don’t understand why they are feeling a certain way or engaging in certain actions, do not criticise them. Making light of their concerns and/or shaming them for their thoughts can make them feel worse. If nothing else, just tell them that you are sorry that the situation is so distressing for them. Try to distract them and suggest relaxation exercises when they are overwhelmed.
Acknowledging the small gains made by your loved one in therapy can be very helpful. Some of the signs that indicate your loved one is making progress are as follows – attempting to avoid or delay the compulsive behaviour, reaching out to talk when they feel the urge to engage in the compulsion, or spending lesser time in the compulsion as compared to before. Openly praise them for these small changes – and recognise the strength and effort that your loved one has put into making these changes happen. This can provide them with the motivation and support they need for continuing therapy.
Prioritise your own self-care
Helping someone with OCD is difficult. You may feel inadequate and unhelpful at times. You might also get annoyed with your loved one, following which you might feel ashamed or guilty. It’s important to manage your own emotions as well! Take out time for yourself – you can’t offer support when you aren’t feeling great yourself. Spend time on your other relationships and do small things for yourself each day. It’s also okay to take a break from taking care of your loved one once in a while.
While the current health crisis has brought about new challenges and stressors that everyone is dealing with, the situation may be more complicated for those who have OCD. Providing them with the support and care they need to get through this pandemic is important.
Khanna, S. & Reddy, Y. J. (2004). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, an Indian perspective.
The Therapy Community (2009, Spring). Living with someone who has OCD. OCD newsletter.
Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. (2006). How to help your child. A parent’s guide to OCD.
International OCD Foundation. (n.d.). What you need to know about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
Torres, A. R., Hoff, N. T., Padovani, C. R., & Ramos‐Cerqueira, A. T. D. A. (2012). Dimensional analysis of burden in family caregivers of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences,66(5), 432-441.