When you see someone you care about seized by symptoms of anxiety or depression, you want to relieve their suffering as quickly as possible. That is totally natural. But sometimes, our efforts to help are actually supporting the illness, not the person we love.
This can happen quite easily with OCD.
An individual with OCD may be stuck checking that the stove is off and their loved one, seeing their distress, may say “Its okay, its off” to reassure them. Or the individual with OCD may actively seek the reassurance by asking questions like “Did we remember to lock the door?” “Did you wash your hands before making my sandwich?” and their loved one responds “Yes, of course.”
However, giving reassurance or in the case of other anxiety disorders helping your loved one avoid altogether what makes them anxious actually feeds and gives strength to their illness, teaching their brain that those obsessions were warranted or that they really are/were in danger.
But its hard, right? Its hard to refuse to answer when a loved one pleads with your for reassurance or to not have to do something anxiety-provoking. You don’t want them to feel like you don’t care about them or don’t want to help them. They may even accuse you of being unkind.
You still take your child for vaccinations even though the shot initially causes pain and your child may cry for a while after, but you still do it because it will help them be healthier in the long-run.
Likewise, by not going along with the compulsions, reassurance seeking, and avoidance behaviors, your loved one with an anxiety disorder may initially feel hurt by you, but will become healthier in the long run and will end up thanking your for helping rather than hindering their recovery.
So what do you do?
DON’T ignore them, express anger at them for engaging in the behavior, or refuse to participate in a harsh kind of way.
DO tell them how you can see how anxious they feel and are sorry. Tell them that you love them and are there for them and that you believe they can ‘ride it out’. Give them a hug. Distract them with a conversation or other activity until their body’s hyper-arousal calms down.
Instead of focusing on the content of their anxiety (i.e. whether hands are clean or whether a stove is turned off) which easily leads you to reassure them or help them avoid it, focus on expressing love, confidence, and encouragement to your loved one.
They may bring up the obsession or anxiety over and over again for a while, until their brain calms down, but just keep doing positive things for them and expressing love and confidence and that you are there for them.
Love and affection have power to soothe over-aroused brains and help the sufferer feel supported and loved too.