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Living with OCD in a Pandemic: What It’s Like and Strategies to Help

woman in business using hand sanitizer
By Lifestance Health on November 1, 2020

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic mental health condition that causes intrusive thoughts and urges to complete specific tasks in hopes of stopping a catastrophe. These obsessions and compulsions can cause someone to fixate on any number of anxieties or actions. For many people with OCD, an irrational of germs is a significant source of anxiety.

So what happens when those once-irrational fears become real threats? The millions of people who live with OCD have had to find out as the world struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has also led to an increase in the number of people living with OCD.

Whether someone was diagnosed before or during the pandemic, living with OCD during this time can be difficult. If you’re concerned about this issue, be sure to learn what signs to watch for and what kinds of coping strategies can help.

How COVID-19 May Worsen Existing OCD

While not all people with OCD have anxiety about being contaminated with germs, many do. People with this type of OCD may wash their hands as many as 60 times per day. Far beyond being cleanly, untreated OCD can cause people to hyperfixate on germs so much that it is difficult for them to complete everyday tasks. Some cases may be so severe that the person finds it impossible to work outside to home, go grocery shopping, and have a healthy social life.

COVID-19 Appeared to Validate Disproportionate Fears

The main goal for a treatment plan in these cases is to help the person stop feeling overwhelmed by thoughts about germs and thus stop the compulsions that make life difficult. In order to heal, the patient must understand that while there is always some risk of getting ill, their anxiety is disproportionate to the threat.

COVID-19 changed that.

Suddenly, every reliable and trustworthy source started telling people to wash their hands more frequently, not less. These sources urged people to be vigilant about the microscopic germs all around. Even still, people everywhere are changing their daily lives because of this virus. While this strategy is important for many people to hear, it sends confusing messaging to people with OCD.

It can be difficult for people with OCD to differentiate between behaviors that are in-line with public health guidelines and excessive behaviors that worsen their condition. For example, someone may wonder how much handwashing is too much. That’s why it’s important for anyone with OCD to speak to a therapist who specializes in treating patients with OCD during this time. Telehealth visits can help keep everyone safe while the patient gets the help they need.

Struggling with OCD?
Our providers can help.

More Than a Fear of Germs

The pandemic and its consequences may harm people with OCD, even if they do not have anxiety about germs. COVID-19 and the resulting economic damage has caused uncertainty and stress for all people — whether they live with OCD or not. The intensity and longevity of this stress can worsen symptoms of many mental health conditions, including OCD.

For example, some people with OCD feel compelled to hoard. This could be made worse by the fact that many people made a run for toilet paper or the empty cleaning shelves in some stores. Other people may feel like so much is outside their control that they feel the need to gain a sense of control. This can lead to stronger compulsions or urges.

Strategies for Coping with OCD in a Pandemic

Although this is a particularly difficult time for people with OCD, hope is here. There are many ways people with OCD can manage their symptoms and find some peace, even now.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Follow Health Guidelines in a Balanced Way

People with and without OCD should wash their hands thoroughly, especially in the middle of this pandemic. However, the trick is in figuring out when handwashing is appropriate and when it is part of a compulsion. If you struggle with this, make a checklist that you can go through every time you want to wash your hands. Only proceed to wash them if you:

  • Just arrived home
  • Are prepping to cook or are in the midst of cooking
  • Just now sneezed or coughed
  • Are about to eat
  • Just touched an animal
  • Are about to be in contact with someone who may be particularly vulnerable
  • Were just in contact with someone who could have been sick
  • Just used the toilet or changed a diaper
  • Have visible dirt or other substances on your hands

If none of these apply, try to avoid washing your hands. However, don’t beat yourself up if you decide to go through with the compulsion.

Have Compassion for Yourself

If your symptoms start worsening, it’s natural to feel defeated or upset with yourself. While these feelings are valid, try to practice some compassion for yourself. Remember that struggling in the middle of a global pandemic is normal. Everyone is going through a hard time, and this is just how your struggles are manifesting.

Also remember that recovery is not a straight line. Having setbacks and missteps is part of the process. Thank yourself for how far you’ve come, forgive yourself, and keep moving forward.

Reduce Your News Consumption

Being aware of what’s happening in the world is important, especially now. It’s perfectly healthy to have some sense of the state of the pandemic, especially in your area. However, compulsive news consumption can worsen OCD.

Limit how much news you watch, read, and listen to. Consider setting aside 30 minutes each day to catch up on news, then ignore it for the rest of the day.

Reach Out for Help

Although people are socializing in-person much less, you are not alone. If you’re struggling with worsening symptoms, reach out to loved ones for emotional support. Even a phone call with someone who cares about you can help.

Depending on your current symptoms, you can also consider reaching out for help from a therapist or psychiatrist as well. Therapists can give you tools to help determine which behaviors are healthy and which are not. A psychiatrist or advanced nurse practitioner can give you medication that helps you through this time as well. Teletherapy and telemedicine options are available to keep you safe.

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