Managing Emotions & Attitudes

It’s important to realize that when a family member has OCD, everyone in the family experiences emotional ups and downs.  One day, you may feel as if your loved one is making great strides in the fight against OCD; the next day, it may seem that he or she isn’t even trying.  If your loved one is taking medication, he or she may also experience some unpleasant side effects initially.  So you may find yourself experiencing the whole gamut of emotions – from happiness and optimism to frustration, anger and resentment. 

Negative emotions may have built because your loved one has suffered with OCD for years, and you and other family members have been unwilling or reluctant participants in the rituals for a long time.  Keep in mind that during treatment, the OCD sufferer will also have high and low periods – periods of hopefulness as well as times of hopelessness.  All of this is a normal part of the therapy process. 

You are in a unique position to help your family member in his or her fight against OCD.  As difficult as it may be at times, trying to remain as positive as possible is one of the most important ways you can support your loved one.  Research has indicated that when family members express negative emotions (e.g., criticism, hostility) toward the individual with OCD, symptoms may worsen.  Critical or hostile remarks may also impede successful treatment.  Therefore, refrain from scolding or making personal attacks on your family member.  Very importantly, avoid telling him or her to “Just stop it!!!”  If your loved could just stop the OCD behavior at will, he or she would have been the first one on the face of the planet to have stopped it. 

There will be times when your loved one is struggling with Cognitive Behavior Therapy homework exercises.  He or she may feel overwhelmed and may want to give up. You can help by encouraging him or her get back on track with exposure exercises and remaining optimistic.   Let your loved one know that you have faith in his or her ability to succeed.  Acknowledge how difficult a task must be, and always praise him or her for effort – even when he or she isn’t successful.

One other strategy family members have found useful is to keep a sense of humor, whenever possible.  In some cases, seeing the humor – if not absurdity – in some of the OCD symptoms may help your loved one become more detached from the disorder.  It’s extremely important, however, to use your best judgment as to when using humor might be appropriate.  The situation is funny only if your loved one finds it funny, as well.  Inappropriately laughing at or mocking OCD behavior can be very destructive.

Another very important component of managing emotions within the family is to try to keep your family routine as “normal” as possible.  At first, family members may choose to “keep the peace” by giving in to their loved ones rituals – rituals that preclude them from having people over or using a particular piece of furniture.  It’s important to preserve family life and routines through negotiation and limit setting; your loved one must learn to tolerate exposure to his or her fears and understand that you and other family members have needs that must be met.  The cognitive behavior therapist treating your loved one may be very helpful with this process,

Even after treatment, relapses can and do happen.  It may be frustrating to you, but it can be downright frightening for your loved one.  Knowing that symptoms commonly reoccur among individuals who have been treated successfully for OCD is empowering, as is being aware that “booster” sessions of Cognitive Behavior Therapy are a customary part of the treatment and recovery process.  You can help your loved one by remaining positive, reminding him or her that people with OCD frequently experience relapses and encouraging him or her to seek the necessary help. 

The bottom line: Communicate positively, directly, and clearly with your loved one.  Try to be as kind and patient as possible; separate your loved one from the OCD and focus on his or her positive qualities; and keep family life as normal as possible and the home a low-stress environment.  The good news is that the journey to recovery will most likely take much less time than the time OCD has already consumed.

Take Care of Yourself

Research has indicated that family members report some – if not severe – distress adjusting to a loved one’s OCD.  And yet they seldom seek the professional help they need; instead, they usually focus on the individual with OCD.  Living with or caring for a spouse can be extremely stressful, and it’s critical that you take care of your own physical and psychological needs.  Be sure to seek out help when you need it; it’s a sign of strength, not weakness.  And when you’re less overwhelmed by frustration, guilt, and other negative emotions, you are in a better state of mind and will actually be more effective in helping your spouse.

You may find it helpful to talk with your loved one’s cognitive behavior therapist for guidance or seek help on your own.  You may also want to consider attending a local OCD support group that is open to family members or an online group.  Talking with others who have had similar experiences and learning about how they have approached family difficulties can be extremely helpful, if not therapeutic.

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