Supporting Someone With OCD or Anxiety- 5 Things You Can Do To Help

How to avoid reassuring someone with OCD without feeling like a jerk

Supporting someone with OCD can be a difficult task. Many give into the reassurance and accommodation trap, while others choose to argue with the content of the obsession. Supporting someone with OCD, however, can and should involve speaking to someone’s emotional struggle, helping them get in touch with the emotion, and helping OCD symptoms pass by resisting compulsions.

The Never Ending Questions And Search For Reassurance

Do you have a person in your life who is constantly asking *that* question? The one who worries they made a mistake at work and are “definitely getting fired for it”? The friend you didn’t text back right away and worries “Did I do something to offend you?” or “Are you really not mad at me?” The one who keeps feeling this chest pain or heart flutter and the “oh no do you feel it too and am I gonna die??”

Man engaged in a conversation with a brick wall.
Despite their best efforts, friends giving reassurance can be as effective as talking to a brick wall.

If you’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve reassured them that they’re good at their job, that you enjoy their company, or that they’re healthy and fine, it’s possible this person is struggling with intrusive thoughts and compulsive reassurance seeking. When combined, these symptoms are often caused by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or a similar anxiety disorder like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Health Anxiety, or Social Anxiety. 

Far more than frequent handwashing or exceptional tidiness, OCD is a mental health disorder characterized by the presence of obsessions (unwanted thoughts, feelings, images, urges, or sensations) and compulsions (physical and mental behavior used to get rid of or decrease the obsessions). Like many other mental health disorders, OCD and anxiety disorders are maintained through a vicious cycle of experiencing distressing obsessions and feeling compelled to engage in compulsions to find relief, only to find that the obsession reemerges even stronger and requires more frequent or intense compulsions to bring about relief again.

If the anxious person in your life is a dear friend or family member, it’s natural to want to offer a “You’re fine” or “Everything’s okay.” But here’s the truth: offering reassurance to a friend with anxiety or OCD does more to feed the vicious OCD/Anxiety cycle than it does to increase the quality of their life. Your friend’s persistent questioning is evidence of this. A reassuring “Your doctor said you’re healthy” or “Of course I’m not mad at you” may have been enough to soothe their stress the first time, but soon enough they’ll get some chest pain, a terse email from their boss, or you forget to text them back, and their anxiety is back in full force.

But resisting to offer reassurance to a friend or loved one is hard. It can feel like you’re just letting them suffer. This feeling can be especially strong if they also ask you to engage in their compulsions, like asking you to redo an action, walk back and forth, say something over again, wipe down a surface, wash your hands, and so on. They may be desperate, crying, or even angry. They may plead that this is the last time, that they cannot go on unless you do this. Let me reiterate just how incredibly difficult this experience is. Watching your loved one suffer is hard. After all, weaponizing others’ suffering is how Thanos from the Marvel Universe successfully tricked “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” into allowing half the universe to perish.

What Does Supporting Someone With OCD Look Like?

If resisting to offer reassurance to a friend or loved one is so hard to do, why should we bother resisting? It’s a fair question: Isn’t it good to help those I care about feel better? To that I say a wholehearted “Yes!” In fact, pivoting from offering reassurance to offering compassion is exactly how we help others in the process of feeling better in the long term.

Imagine you slept poorly last night. Now it’s 4pm and fatigue is hitting you hard. A cup of coffee now will help you stay awake in the moment, but by bedtime you’re tossing and turning. You start the next day even more tired, and when 4pm rolls around again you need even more coffee than before. Your reassuring words or willingness to engage in your friend’s compulsions are like this ill-timed caffeine boost—seemingly helpful short-term, but ultimately damaging.

Moreover, these well-meaning and heartfelt words of reassurance tells anxiety that its fears are important and deserve all the attention you’re giving them. Even more, it becomes a reinforced mental and emotional policy that excessive attention and repetitive reassurance seeking are the correct ways to deal with uncertainty.

So how do you support someone who struggles with compulsive reassurance seeking without feeling like a complete jerk?

Step One: Find The Feeling

Compulsions are done to avoid an uncomfortable emotion or sensation. The first thing we can do to support our friend or family member is to help identify what emotion it is they’re so opposed to feeling. Finding the feeling can help your loved one break down the unwanted experience into its various parts to see that this seemingly impenetrable mountain is made up of a series of inconvenient but manageable hills and obstacles.

To see what I mean, try it out for yourself first. Imagine a recent moment of discomfort. Maybe you were running late for work, arguing with a partner, or watching a heartbreaking movie scene. Label the emotion you were feeling, like “I was so anxious while trying to find my keys.” Then, like a scientist, examine the building blocks of that emotion from a place of curiosity. What is feeling anxious like exactly? Maybe it’s a tightness in your chest, a rushing heartbeat, and quick, shallow breathing. 

This episode of the FearCast features Erin Ramachandran who helps discuss supporting loved ones struggling with OCD.

From there, we can realize, “Hmm, it doesn’t feel good, but that’s nothing my body hasn’t handled before.” As we’ll discuss more in step two, breaking down emotions into physical sensations can increase our willingness to feel them. Let’s look at how you can help your loved one practice the same thing.

If you want to channel your inner therapist, you can always simply ask:

  • “What are you feeling right now?”
  • “How does your body feel?”

Sometimes, words often fail to capture the essence of a feeling. You can also try asking:

  • “If there’s no words to describe it, what does the feeling sound like?”
  • “Is it more of an urrgghh or an eeeeehh?”
  • “Is there a meme or TV show clip or song lyric that has a similar feeling?”

Step Two: Empower Their Ability To Feel The Feeling

Have you ever avoided someone at the grocery store because you didn’t want to feel awkward? Or put off writing an essay because you didn’t want to feel overwhelmed? When we think about common phobias, “emotions” aren’t likely to show up among “spiders” and “public speaking.” But in the case of irrational fears, it’s our feelings that make us avoid them, not the things themselves.

Feelings feel awful sometimes! And, humans are emotional beings. We’re built to feel. Let’s look at anxiety again. Many people are so afraid of feeling anxious that they’ll go to great lengths to avoid feeling it again, even when they’ve felt it before and are currently feeling a version of it right now. It’s like someone being terrified of going in water while they’re already waist-deep in a pool, and yet they went white water rafting the weekend before.

Recognizing that they’ve felt this emotion or sensation before and have already handled it can empower someone to believe they can keep feeling the uncomfortable sensation and doing things that matter to them anyways.

Woman holding the hand of another woman with care.
Supporting someone with OCD is intentional, direct, and compassionate.

Here are things you can say to your loved one:

  • “If you can feel this and still be here and talking to me, I think you’re doing something right.”
  • “Can you keep feeling this for 10 more seconds?” 
  • “You’re great at feeling [anxious] while [driving safely/having a conversation].”
  • “How many times have you been [anxious] before and survived it? You’re going to survive this moment too.

Step Three: Empathize With That Feeling

I can write a whole other article on breaking down empathy, but for now, we’ll understand that to have empathy is to share in someone else’s feelings. Some definitions of empathy require having the same experience as the one we’re being empathetic to, leading to the conclusion that the best someone without OCD can feel towards someone with OCD is sympathy, or a cognitive understanding of the feeling.

 I like Brené Brown’s approach to this. In her Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” she says, “[empathy is] a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” While you may not experience the same obsessions as your friend or loved one, you likely know how it feels to be scared, nauseous, uncomfortable, nervous, frustrated, apprehensive, or anxious at some points in your life. 

Acknowledge that your friend’s emotions are part of being human and that what they’re going through is hard. It’s easy to overthink this step. A simple “That sounds super hard” or “I’ve struggled with feeling anxious too” said in a heartfelt and validating tone is often enough to show a loved one you’re hearing and seeing their struggle, and you can relate to how hard it is to feel bad.

Step Four: Take An Action Pill

Woman sitting at a table sketching onto white paper.
Taking time to draw or engage in creative activities are great ways to redirect and resist compulsions.

Think about a time when you’ve felt a hard emotion. It’s likely the intensity of that feeling was at its worst when you were still. The word emotion has roots in Latin for “out” and “move”. Research continually points to the importance of movement in our physical and emotional health. Thanks to modern medicine, we have a remedy for so many of life’s ailments. Allergies, neck pain, upset stomach? There’s a pill for that. When we or a friend is stuck in a negative thought spiral or an uncomfortable feeling, we can take an action pill.

This action pill is not a literal pill but rather an understanding that movement and activity can be powerful tools in emotional regulation. Just as physical movement is recommended for treating bodily pain, doing some sort of activity can ease our mental suffering. Does your friend enjoy drawing? Send them this mini challenge to doodle against an AI. Do you know their favorite band? Play a game df tapping out the beats to their songs and guessing what the other is thinking.

This tool really starts to shine when we incorporate Newton’s first law: an object in motion tends to stay in motion. When someone is really stuck in their feelings, any sort of movement can feel impossible. But it’s important to remember that something being really difficult is fundamentally different from something being impossible. Start with action pills that can be as simple as wiggling your toes and build on that momentum.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Count the letters in your first and last name
  • Take a nose breath in and a mouth breath out
  • Fill up a glass of water and try to drink exactly half of it without looking
  • See how close you can get to touching the ceiling (safely!)
  • Open your front door and take a deep breath of outside air

You might say:

  • “How about we go for a walk and talk about that while you’re riding out this wave of feeling bad?”
  • “While you’re feeling bad right now, shall we talk about what we want for lunch and see how we’ll feel after then?”

Step Five: Remind Them Of A Value

Once someone starts an activity, you can pivot them towards their values. The goal with action pills is not to distract your friend from their emotions but rather to help them channel their energy into something meaningful and constructive. You can read more about differentiating between avoidance and redirection of our feelings here.
To find valued actions, ask them:

  • “What would you be doing if you weren’t feeling [anxious] right now?”
  • “When this is no longer a problem, what things will you be focusing on instead?”
  • “That sounds pretty similar to what OCD tells you it needs to know or wants to do. I’m here for you, not for OCD. What did you (not OCD) really want to do today?

From there, you can encourage them to move towards those values by saying:

Father pushing his laughing daughter on bike while his wife is walking behind them holding a younger sibling.
Living your life with freedom and choice is what you gain by resisting your compulsions.
  • “Ok, I’m gonna do that with you”
  • “Let’s do that for the next few minutes”
  • “We’re going to try doing that for a while, and after 10 minutes we can see if we want to keep going”

Once you’re engaged in a valued action, you can start talking about other things you might be having a conversation about if the anxiety weren’t there, like:

  • “So what did you think about that latest episode of [TV show we watched]?”
  • “Did I ever tell you about the time I embarrassed myself when I…”
  • “I saw this crazy post on Reddit the other day where …”

Important Things To Remember

Your loved one’s feelings are not their fault, but they are their responsibility. This means your friend or family member is ultimately the one in charge of how they will process their feelings.

Feelings are never “right” nor “wrong”, they just ARE. We cannot control feelings like we can control actions. Quick – blink twice. You could probably do that instantly. Now just as quick – feel genuine shock and surprise. It’s practically impossible to “just do” like you could “just” blink your eyes. Therefore, when you or someone else is feeling a feeling, we honor the fact that the feeling is there.

Feelings always pass. Whatever emotion you and your loved one is feeling right now will not last. 

Because feelings just are, you may very well say all these things perfectly and still end up feeling like a jerk. For better or for worse (hint: it’s for better), we cannot zap away emotions or guarantee that we’ll feel a certain way if only we do x, y, and z. However, with these tools, you can know that you’re doing your best in being there for your friend without compromising on feeding the OCD’s insatiable appetite for certainty.

Written by Anna Chen, AMFT

To learn more about supporting a loved one who has OCD, or would like to speak with someone about starting treatment for anxiety, including OCD, please contact CalOCD. We provide online teletherapy and face-to-face in-office therapy for OCD and anxiety spectrum disorders.

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