Implications of COVID-19 on People With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Why people with OCD are likely to struggle during a pandemic - and how to cope.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by obsessive and repetitive thoughts or behaviors that severely affect a person’s quality of life. Both people with OCD and other types of anxiety disorders battle challenging mental health conditions that are made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether a person is struggling with incessant fear about the virus, fear of the unknown, or social and economic insecurity, the normal level of worry that most people experience may be exacerbated in some people with OCD.
People with OCD often feel compelled to perform certain behaviors over and over, such as cleaning a certain spot in the house or closing the door several times before walking away. These nonstop, intrusive thoughts make day to day living particularly challenging, especially in a time of COVID-19.
Common Obsessions Among People With OCD
Obsessive-compulsive disorder may manifest in a number of different ways and no two people with the disorder are exactly the same. Let’s take a look at some of the most common manifestations of OCD and how they are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Contamination - contamination is one of the most common and most challenging fears among people with OCD. These individuals may take extra or unnecessary behaviors in order to keep themselves and their homes sanitary. People who struggle with contamination fear may engage in repetitive cleaning, handwashing, or sanitizing. During the time of COVID-19, it is easy to see how these individuals are affected. With a general obsession with social distancing, hand washing, and avoiding the spread of germs in general, the pressure to fight contamination may be increased in people with OCD, making their daily life more difficult than usual.
- Hoarding - although hoarding and OCD are two separate disorders, people with OCD often engage in hoarding. Usually, people with OCD will hoard items that aren’t necessary. This is particularly concerning in the time of a pandemic where stores have previously seen a shortage in toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or even over-the-counter medications.
- Hurting others - another common fear among people with OCD is that they will harm others, either by accident or on purpose. During a pandemic where there is so much focus on stopping the spread, people with OCD may worry so much that they will get someone else sick that they will go to extreme measures to stay away from others.
Pandemic-Related OCD Triggers
The signs and symptoms of OCD tend to get worse when individuals are under a great amount of stress. Furthermore, certain situations can trigger worsening symptoms of OCD. During COVID-19 in particular, there are many pandemic-related situations that may trigger OCD-related fears, thoughts, or behaviors, such as:
- Constant advice in the form of media and signs advising people to wash their hands as well as an emphasis on hand-washing techniques
- Hearing people talk about staying home, only going out for the essentials, and avoiding large groups
- Reading about widespread panic or grocery store shortages
- Being unable to go inside places without a mask
- Constant reminders of social distancing guidelines
Even though these instances are all necessary measures to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, they have the potential to make people with OCD feel more stressed and have a challenging time coping with their symptoms.
Coping With OCD During a Global Pandemic
In an interview with Elise Guthmann, LMFT, and Clinical Program Director at Evolve Treatment, about the effects of COVID-19 on people with OCD, she explains that “the trick is to keep their anxiety in the protective range, not the damaging range. Because when it gets too high it can simultaneously get harmful.” She explains an example where a person is stressed out and goes to the store to purchase an entire stock of hand sanitizer. In doing so, this person may actually be damaging his or her community by not leaving any stock for other people. Moreover, the internal struggle that people with OCD may be facing during this time is painful and excruciating, so it is important to know practical ways to cope with OCD during a pandemic.
First, it is important to recognize that anxiety is normal, and if you have OCD, it is perfectly okay to feel a little extra stressed out right now. Rather than trying to fight your feelings of anxiety or shame yourself for the way you feel, accept it so you can begin to cope with it.
Second, many people with OCD struggle to know whether or not the precautions they are taking are actually reasonable or not. As a result, many therapists recommend that people with OCD develop a safety plan to follow that is based on public health guidelines. This helps individuals think logically and realistically about the measures they are taking.
Other important ways to cope with OCD during the pandemic that is crucial for your mental health include:
- Limiting news and social media - even though so much is happening in the year 2020, it is crucial to put your phone down and step away from the news/social media. The news is heavy right now and can add to your anxieties, therefore, worsening your symptoms. Instead, limit the amount of time you spend reading the news and scrolling through social media.
- Be kind to yourself - when you struggle with intrusive thoughts, it is easy to let them get the best of you and begin controlling your life. However, you will feel better if you recognize that your thoughts are normal, your needs are important, and you are more than your mental health condition.
- Seek therapy - many therapists are providing telehealth services to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Speaking with a therapist will help ease your worries and provide you with individualized and professional advice on how to cope with OCD.
During stressful times, such as a global pandemic, people with mental health conditions are at a higher risk of relapse, medication misuse, self-neglect, and even suicide. As a result, it is imperative to speak up and get help if you are struggling right now.