Living through a pandemic when you have OCD
This time last year, someone who felt so worried about becoming ill that they followed strict rules about wearing a mask and avoiding contact with others would have been considered an anxious person. Today this behaviour is regarded as not only sensible, but essential!
For people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or who have been treated for it in the past, the arrival of a global pandemic will have been a challenge. The uncertainty and fear may have made their symptoms worse, or caused them to return. The situation could also have triggered OCD symptoms in people who haven’t had them before.
This is understandable: we’re facing a genuine threat, and we’re constantly reminded of the risks, and that we’re all responsible for keeping ourselves and others safe. OCD can also be exacerbated by stress or low mood, which more people are experiencing at the moment.
What is OCD? OCD is a common mental health condition that is related to anxiety. It can affect anyone. Symptoms include obsessional or intrusive thoughts, and compulsive behaviours. An intrusive thought can pop into our head out of nowhere. It might take the form of a doubt, such as ‘Did I touch someone accidentally?’, or a statement like ‘I didn’t wash my hands for long enough’.
Someone with OCD will believe they have to respond to the thought by carrying out an action. For instance, if they tend to agonise about passing the virus on to someone else, they might worry they got too close to a friend while out walking. This could make them feel they need to call the friend and check whether that was the case.
In the context of coronavirus, compulsive behaviours will often relate more to someone’s thoughts and how they’re feeling than the actual risk. For instance, while hand-washing is necessary someone with OCD might feel compelled to wash for longer than 20 seconds, or a certain number of times, or to keep doing it until they feel it’s enough. These behaviours can lead to further intrusive thoughts.
This cycle can be time-consuming, exhausting and distressing, and have a negative impact on quality of life.
If you recognise any of the behaviours described above, and think you might be experiencing OCD symptoms, there are some techniques you can try to manage them.
Aim to find a more balanced perspective.
- We all need to be careful right now, but being over-cautious can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Ask yourself:
- What are the relevant rules here?
- What am I doing – am I going above and beyond what’s required? How much more?
- What’s the reason behind this; why do I believe it’s necessary?
- Does my behaviour have an impact on me or those around me?
If you find that you’re overcompensating, try to resolve to follow the current guidelines, rather than listening and responding to your own doubts or intrusive thoughts.
Don’t give your thoughts too much power. Random intrusive thoughts happen to everyone. Problems arise when we give meaning and power to them – for instance by thinking ‘I’ve had that thought so now I’m responsible for making sure everything’s ok’, or believing something will happen because you’ve thought about it.
The best strategy isn’t to try and block these thoughts out or stop them happening – unfortunately this can actually make them more likely! Instead, make a conscious effort to acknowledge them: ‘I’ve had this thought – and that’s all it is, words and images in my mind, not a fact.’ This way you can step back and examine it, which you may need to do to be able to move on.
If you’re afraid you might have caught the virus while walking, for example – did you get close enough to anyone for this to happen? Did they cough or sneeze? Were you wearing a mask? Were they? Did you touch anything? If so, how likely is it that it was contaminated? Did you sanitise your hands when you got home? These questions may help you to gain a new perspective on the reality of the risk.
Lift some responsibility off your shoulders. Some people with OCD are particularly anxious about harming others, and coronavirus may exacerbate these worries. This exercise might help if you’re feeling excessively responsible for other people’s health.
Write down the fear or doubt that’s bothering you – for instance, ‘I’m afraid I infected someone in the supermarket’. Imagine that someone in the shop did develop coronavirus later on. How responsible would you feel? 100%? Next, list all the factors that could have led to them catching the virus – from the supermarket’s safety policies, to the person’s decision to go out. Give a percentage to how much each of these factors might have contributed. Bearing in mind how many of those things you’re responsible for, how responsible do you feel now?
You can find out more about OCD at www.ocduk.org. If you’re having difficulties that are affecting your ability to function normally from day to day, online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you learn coping strategies that will reduce OCD symptoms. You can find out more about that here.