Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be a very isolating condition. Embarrassment, shame, or feeling like you have to hide your OCD (or anxiety)…all of these things can make socializing a real challenge for people with OCD. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make your life easier and enjoy a more fulfilling social life:
- Let a few close friends and loved ones know that you have OCD. There’s nothing worse than going for a night out with friends and feeling like you have to hide your OCD and anxiety the entire time. Wouldn’t it be easier to go out with a couple close friends who know you have OCD and aren’t bothered by it? That way you can relax, enjoy the evening, and not feel like you have to hide anything. Remember, you’re not an axe murderer, you’re just a person with OCD. It’s worth it to let those closest to you know what you’re going through. I’m not saying tell everyone that you have OCD (particularly at work). But it’s important to let a few close friends and loved ones know what you’re experiencing. They can provide important moral support and serve as a confidant when you need one. And trust me, good friends aren’t going to reject you because you have OCD. They’ll probably feel compassion and sympathy for you, and they may find some of your tendencies amusing. But they’re not going to reject you. If they do, they’re not good friends and you’re better off without them. Note: If your OCD involves intrusive sexual or violent thoughts/images, you may want to be cautious about how much you reveal to people. You could give them a general idea of what’s going on without going into detail (e.g., that you’re struggling with “anxiety” or “strange thoughts that you can’t get out of your head”). If you’re working with a therapist, ask her/him how to talk with friends and loved ones about your OCD.
- Keep your values in mind. What’s truly important to you? What motivates you? Maybe it’s to be a good example to your kids, or to live with integrity, or to not let your OCD run your life. Whatever your values, keep them in mind when confronting your fears. Feeling nervous about meeting a friend for lunch because of your fear of germs? Remind yourself about the importance of being a good friend and not letting fear dictate how you live your life. That may be enough to get you out of the house and down to that café. And remember, when you get there, you will likely feel some anxiety or uncertainty. That’s OK. Let yourself feel it and go ahead and enjoy your lunch too. The two are not mutually exclusive. Remember, the point is not to live an anxiety-free existence (I still have to remind myself of this repeatedly). The point is to embrace all the emotions and experiences that come with life. Yes, there may be some anxiety and discomfort in a particular social situation, but there may be laughter, warmth, and connection too. Don’t just latch onto the “negative” aspects of your experience (as we humans tend to do). Remember the good stuff too.
- Keep your overall stress level under control. For most people with OCD, as your stress level increases, your obsessive thinking and urge to perform compulsions increase as well. Keeping your baseline stress level at a manageable level can help keep your OCD symptoms from flaring out of control. Do what you need to do to maintain good overall mental health. That could include exercising, getting enough sleep, meditating, letting your boss when your workload is too high, or anything else that contributes to your well-being and happiness.
- Stay on top of your Exposure and Response Prevention work. If you’re seeing a therapist for OCD, or if you’ve been treated for OCD in the past, you’ve likely learned about Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). In ERP, we expose ourselves to situations that trigger obsessive fears and don’t allow ourselves to perform a compulsion in response. Don’t avoid doing your ERP work. Avoidance of your fears will only make them stronger. If you stay on top of your ERP work, the anxiety you feel in response to your triggers should be more manageable and being in social situations will feel less daunting (it may even be fun, inviting, and exciting).
- Incorporate friends and loved ones into your treatment. In addition to providing important moral support, friends and family members can help hold you accountable. Let your friends know what your compulsions are and ask them to call you on it if they see you performing them. And try to avoid reassurance seeking. Because confronting your OCD fears can be very anxiety-provoking, it’s natural to want someone to tell you that everything is “OK” (e.g., “yes, that picture frame is aligned correctly” or “no, that door handle does not look like it has germs on it”). Don’t do this. Seeking reassurance may reduce your anxiety level in the short run, but in the long run it hinders your recovery.
- Try to laugh when you can. I don’t want to downplay the suffering OCD can cause. I wouldn’t be engaged in the kind of work I do if I didn’t know first-hand how difficult living with OCD can be. That said, if some of your obsessions and compulsions are clearly absurd (and perhaps comical), don’t be afraid to laugh at them. Share that laughter with a friend or someone else with OCD. It can lighten your load, improve your mood, and it just feels good. And if you don’t feel like laughing, that’s OK too. You may in the future.
I hope that’s helpful. Remember, isolation is not good for anyone, particularly people with OCD. It gives us time to indulge in our obsessions and compulsions (making our OCD worse), and can lead to depression, hopelessness, and other negative feelings. So keep your values in mind, summon some courage, and get out there! You’ll probably feel some anxiety but you may feel other things too (e..g, joy, happiness, freedom?). Embrace them all. And remember, the more you do it, the easier it’ll get.
As always, if you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (510) 599-9845.
John “Andy” Bradshaw, Associate Marriage & Family Therapist #101517 (supervised by Dino Di Donato, MFT #39831) focuses on the treatment of OCD and anxiety at Market Street Center for Psychotherapy.