Knowing how to support someone with OCD can make a major difference in helping them manage their symptoms.

It may be difficult to understand the experiences of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — but even if you can’t relate, you can learn more about the condition and do things to help.

People with OCD become overwhelmed by reoccurring, uncontrollable images or thoughts. These intrusive thoughts can lead to compulsive behaviors. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, OCD affects about 2.3% of adults in the United States.

If you’re supporting someone with OCD, it can be hard to know the line between supporting and enabling their symptoms. The best way to help them is to be loving and kind, while also refraining from entering their OCD patterns.

OCD is a mental health condition that involves a pattern of obsessions and compulsions that interfere with daily activities, relationships, and mood.

Obsessions are persistent, unwanted thoughts, urges, or mental images that lead to distress and anxiety.

Examples of obsessions include:

  • fearing contamination when touching objects that others have touched
  • doubting whether doors and windows are locked, or if the stove is turned off
  • fearing that you might harm someone, even though you don’t want to

Compulsions are urges to perform repetitive behaviors. These often take the form of rituals that help the person relieve anxiety. The rituals may not make sense to you, but they help your loved one cope with their obsessions.

Examples of compulsion include:

  • washing your hands until the skin is raw
  • checking doors and windows repeatedly to make sure they’re locked
  • repeating a word or phrase constantly to stop a loved one from being harmed

Your support can make all the difference in helping your loved one manage symptoms of OCD while strengthening your relationship with them. Here are some tips.

1. Be open to talking about it

If you notice your loved one’s compulsions or they tell you about their obsessions, see if you can react with compassion instead of shock. When they know they can be open with you without being judged, they will feel more able to talk with you about what they’re going through.

2. Be patient

It’s OK to acknowledge the situation and talk with the person — but try to avoid pushing them to talk about it. They may find it hard to open up, especially at the start.

It’s not helpful to expect them to tell you everything immediately, or to expect that they will start managing their symptoms right away.

You may not understand what they’re going through but it helps to be patient as you offer support.

3. Offer a supportive environment

Offering a supportive environment means avoiding criticizing your loved one’s behavior. Try accepting them as they go through their routine, but encourage them to take steps toward improvement.

4. Learn to recognize signs of OCD

Your loved one may have certain OCD triggers that set off their symptoms. Learning to recognize the triggers can help you offer support.

Behavioral changes can be gradual. Some OCD signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • repetitive behaviors
  • changes in eating habits
  • difficulty sleeping
  • extreme reactions to minor things

5. Adjust your expectations

Your loved one may not do things the same way as you, and that’s OK. Remember that they won’t overcome the condition on a set timeline — their symptoms will get better sometimes and flare up at other times.

It helps to adjust your expectations by not assuming that you know what will happen. Changing your attitude in this way can stop you from being surprised when things don’t turn out as you expected. It reduces the need for judgment while relieving your stress.

6. Avoid comparisons and recognize improvements

Someone with OCD can show improvement one day and experience a setback the next. Try to avoid comparing their mood or symptoms to how they were yesterday.

If you see improvements, don’t hesitate to point them out. Noticing their progress may give the person hope that they can manage their condition.

7. Help them find treatment

OCD is a treatable condition. Helping someone find treatment for OCD is one of the most supportive things you can do. A professional can help your loved one manage their symptoms.

For example, you might encourage the person to talk with a doctor or therapist. Once they set up appointments, you can help them remember or offer to take them.

If you’re looking for a therapist but aren’t sure where to start, check out Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource. You can also read our OCD resource directory for more information and support.

When you support someone, you guide them toward ways of getting better. When you enable someone, you tell them their behavior is OK and they don’t need to change.

Enabling behavior is sometimes hard to identify. You might think you’re helping, but it can easily cross the line.

Accommodating your loved one’s OCD symptoms — for example, waiting in the car as they complete their rituals — is a mild form of enabling. Changing your behavior to accommodate the OCD is often easier with someone you love than attempting to set boundaries or interfering with compulsive behaviors.

While it may feel easier and even more supportive to accommodate your loved one’s obsessions and compulsions, remember that most people in their world will not go to such lengths to accommodate them. By enabling their OCD you may be setting them up for challenges as their symptoms may be met with less kind (and possibly insensitive) reactions from others.

Examples of enabling behavior include:

  • Participating in the compulsion: Actively participating in their behavior won’t help the person manage it. Examples include purchasing or preparing food in a certain way to accommodate OCD obsessions or compulsions.
  • Helping your loved one engage in the behavior: When you do things to help the other person engage in their compulsive behavior, this may be enabling. Try to avoid doing things that help them give in to their obsessions and compulsions.
  • Changing your routine and schedule: Adjusting your daily schedule and routine to accommodate obsessive behavior is ultimately unhelpful for your loved one. Instead, it may be better to maintain your usual schedule and only help when you’re available.

Helping your loved one might involve reminding them that the compulsion is an OCD symptom and then not participating. This may, over time, empower them to resist the urges. This is best done with the support of a mental health professional.

When a person with OCD does not have the support of a mental health professional or medication, the condition can be debilitating. Setting firm, gentle, and consistent limits within therapy can be useful.

It’s natural to want to help the people you care about. When supporting someone with OCD, you can help by:

  • learning more about the condition
  • helping them find mental health support
  • looking out for signs that their symptoms are flaring up
  • approaching conversations with a patient and nonjudgmental attitude
  • learning the difference between enabling and helping

OCD is a treatable condition and support from loved ones is key in their journey to successfully manage their symptoms and condition.