Isolation and loneliness may be common among some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In some cases, it’s a personal decision. Other times, an effect of OCD symptoms.
Sometimes, the symptoms of a mental health condition may make it hard to reach out to your loved ones, particularly if there’s stigma surrounding the illness. The same is true for obsessive-compulsive disorder: isolation and a sense of loneliness may accompany your symptoms.
OCD has two main symptoms:
- obsessions: unwanted, upsetting, persistent thoughts
- compulsions: rituals or actions you engage in to get rid of or neutralize the obsessions
Both obsessions and compulsions may take a lot of your time and energy, and they can be disruptive and upsetting. This can make it hard to socialize or engage in some activities with other people.
Social isolation isn’t a formal symptom of OCD as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), the reference handbook most U.S. mental health professionals use to diagnose conditions.
It doesn’t mean that what you experience isn’t valid or a result of living with OCD. Even though social isolation isn’t the main criterion for diagnosing OCD, clinicians usually consider it an effect of living with it.
Part of determining whether someone meets the criteria for a diagnosis of OCD is how much obsessions and compulsions affect their lives socially, occupationally, physically, and emotionally.
Not everyone who lives with OCD also experiences loneliness or social withdrawal. It may depend on some of these factors:
OCD and intentionally avoiding socializing
Some people with OCD may intentionally withdraw from social interactions or spend most of their time alone.
People with harm OCD, for example, experience intrusive thoughts about hurting other people. It doesn’t mean they want to, but images and thoughts of these actions may continue to pop up, causing great distress and fear.
Some may choose to avoid their loved ones to feel they’re keeping them safe. This is called avoidance and may be one of the causes of social isolation in OCD.
OCD and stigma
The stigma attached to OCD can also be isolating. Some people may have misconceptions about obsessive-compulsive disorder, making it difficult for someone with it.
Stigma or lack of knowledge about OCD may make you feel your loved ones don’t understand or accept you, which can lead you to choose isolation.
Even when people mean well, you might find it hard to open up to them, or it may be exhausting trying to explain your symptoms.
Let’s say you talk with your mother about your obsession that you’ll become ill if you don’t wash your hands every hour. Your mother might try to make you feel better by downplaying your fears. To her, this might seem like she’s reassuring you, but to you, it might feel dismissive. After some time, you might stop communicating about your symptoms.
The mental health stigma might also prevent you from opening up and connecting with others. You may avoid close relationships because you don’t want to disclose your diagnosis. Some people may feel ashamed of having OCD and fear their symptoms might look strange to others, for example.
Sometimes, talking about your OCD diagnosis might be met with confusion and disbelief, especially if your loved ones don’t understand what OCD is.
Relationship OCD and isolation
Relationship OCD involves obsessions and compulsions that revolve around your relationships.
If you have relationship OCD, you might have upsetting, intrusive, persistent thoughts about:
- if you really love your partner
- if you really find them attractive
- whether you should stay or break up with them
- finding out if they really love or care about you
Although relationship OCD usually impacts romantic relationships,
Relationship OCD can be difficult to deal with. It can cause you to feel distant from your loved one, and it may also cause you to avoid future relationships, leading to isolation and loneliness.
Energy and socializing
OCD symptoms can be exhausting and time consuming. This can leave you little time and energy to socialize, even with your loved ones.
For example, you might have obsessions about your home being broken into. You must check the locks 10 times when you leave your house. This might make you late for social occasions and arrive tired and frantic. In time, you might avoid socializing altogether, as it feels too stressful to leave the house.
In this case, you might want to see your loved ones but find it very difficult to have the time or energy to do so.
Social isolation means avoiding interpersonal interaction or activities or events with other people. You might choose not to go out, avoid communicating with your loved ones and stay away from social events.
Emotional isolation refers to becoming emotionally unavailable, distant, or detached. You may interact with others but not engage in open conversations or fear intimacy. You may also feel lonely even when surrounded by other people.
Everyone’s different, but it’s possible that OCD can lead you to both social and emotional isolation.
You might find, for example, that you go out and socialize but still don’t feel connected to others. You might feel that they don’t understand you, or you might feel like you can’t open up to them the way you’d like to.
It’s possible to manage symptoms of OCD. You may feel more inclined to interact with others physically and emotionally when you start.
OCD treatment can include a combination of:
- talk therapy (particularly exposure response prevention therapy)
- medication (when necessary)
- self-care strategies
Family counseling might be helpful if you’re finding it hard to talk with your loved ones about your OCD symptoms.
You might also find it useful to connect with other people with OCD. You can do this through online forums or support groups like the IOCDF OCD in-person support groups or IOCDF online or telephone support groups.
As lonely as OCD can make you feel, you’re not alone. You might find comfort in the fact that many people understand what you’re going through, and many of them have learned to manage their symptoms successfully.
OCD can affect every aspect of your life, including your relationships with others. Although social isolation isn’t a formal symptom of OCD, the disorder may lead you to withdraw socially and feel lonely.
But symptoms of OCD can be managed, which may reduce the disorder’s effects, including isolation. Finding a compassionate therapist may help.
It is possible to have OCD and still have strong, healthy, happy relationships. Reaching out for help may be the first step.