People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) experience persistent or recurring thoughts that are disturbing and cause anxiety.
People with OCD may try to cope with these intrusive thoughts through compulsions. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels they must perform.
Some aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic may trigger anxiety and repetitive behaviors for people with OCD, such as frequent hand-washing and repeatedly checking the news.
Keep reading to learn more about OCD and COVID-19, including how the pandemic can exacerbate common OCD fears, how to take sensible precautions, and other coping techniques.
OCD can manifest in numerous ways, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, a person may find that some obsessions are more common than others.
The following sections will outline these in more detail.
Contamination is one of the most common fears among people with OCD. This can be difficult for someone to cope with under normal circumstances, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may become even more challenging.
The real possibility of illness may cause people with OCD to take extreme measures to keep themselves and their families safe. This could include repetitive hand-washing, cleaning, or being afraid to leave the home.
Worrying about harming others, either by accident or on purpose, is another common feature of OCD.
During a pandemic, people with OCD may worry that they will transmit an illness to another person, or they may go to extremes to try to avoid doing so.
Researchers consider hoarding a separate disorder that is distinct from OCD. However, many people with OCD also engage in hoarding.
Usually, people with a hoarding disorder collect things that are not useful. However, during a pandemic, they may also hoard items such as medications, alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and toilet paper.
There are several aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic that might trigger OCD-related fears and behaviors. These triggers include:
- the advice to wash the hands more often
- the emphasis on proper hand-washing techniques
- the need to clean the hands every time a person returns home
- the advice to only leave the home for food and other necessities
These triggers may contribute to the following behaviors:
- widespread panic-shopping, which could trigger hoarding
- frequently reminding family members to wash their hands
- searching for information about how long the virus stays active on certain surfaces
- normalizing frequent washing and bathing
Nationwide lockdowns may also make people with OCD feel more stressed in general, which can make it more difficult to cope with the symptoms.
People with anxiety often feel pressure to follow rules perfectly. As a result, a person with OCD may find it difficult to tell the difference between taking sensible precautions against COVID-19 and excessive or perfectionistic behavior.
Many therapists suggest that people with OCD set a safety plan for themselves based on official public health guidelines. By following the plan, people with OCD will know if they are taking reasonable steps.
Therapists also encourage people to think consciously about their cleaning and hygiene practices. If a person did not go outside and no one came into their home, they do not need to disinfect anything. Disinfecting commonly used surfaces once per day is a reasonable plan.
People can also try limiting hand-washing to 20 seconds each time and only washing them:
- after going outside
- before eating
- after going to the bathroom
- after coughing, sneezing, or blowing the nose
If it is difficult for a person to tell whether or not their safety plan is reasonable, they may find it helpful to ask someone else.
Also, if a person with OCD adds extra steps to their plan and finds it difficult to stop, they may wish to consider seeking support.
Some people with OCD may find that they struggle with intrusive thoughts or checking behaviors that are not related to hygiene.
The following sections outline some other ways to cope with the OCD during a pandemic.
Limit news and social media
To ensure that everyone has access to information, many news outlets are offering free live streaming during the COVID-19 pandemic and publishing news updates frequently.
The amount of updates in the news and on social media means that people with OCD might start to check the news excessively.
The American Psychological Association (APA) advise that people who notice that they are checking the news more than usual set a limit for themselves. Defining a specific limit, such as reading the news only once per day, may help ease anxiety.
The APA also recommend restricting the number of news outlets that people use to search for information. They may wish to stick to a few good sources of information and avoid expanding to other outlets.
Seek online support and teletherapy
To limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, many therapists have stopped offering in-person sessions. However, instead, people may be able to access teletherapy online or over the phone.
Online support groups, such as the International OCD Foundation’s My OCD Community, may also help people cope with OCD during a pandemic.
Try CBT self-help
CBT is a first-line treatment for OCD. However, many people do not have access to it, either online or offline. People may have even more limited access during nationwide lockdowns, as not all insurance companies will cover telehealth services.
Researchers have confirmed that online CBT learning programs can be an effective treatment option for OCD, allowing people to learn CBT techniques even if they cannot talk to a therapist.
Many free or low cost self-help online resources and books can help people learn CBT strategies at home. However, people should consult their doctor to ensure that these resources are reliable.
Some experts say that people with OCD may feel better if they remind themselves that it is normal to worry, and that it is not their fault if their OCD symptoms get worse.
It is a good idea to be mindful of any worsening OCD-related thoughts and behaviors, and to consult a doctor or therapist if this occurs. Taking care of oneself can help people focus more on what they can control and less on the pandemic.
Many therapists also recommend that people with anxiety continue to socialize with their family and friends. Physical distancing can make socializing difficult, but using video chat software can help prevent feelings of isolation.
Pandemics do not only have biological or medical implications. They also impact many people psychologically and socially, including those with mental health conditions.
During a pandemic, people with preexisting mental health conditions are at higher risk of experiencing a relapse, stopping their medication, not engaging in self-care, or having suicidal thoughts.
If a person with OCD is struggling with their symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, they should call:
- their doctor or therapist
- a mental health helpline
- their local public health center
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
People around the world feel anxious because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is particularly the case for people with OCD.
Although fears about illness might be justified during a pandemic, a person with OCD may take extreme measures to protect themselves and their family.
Checking in with a therapist, setting sensible limits, and staying in touch with friends by phone or video chat may help people with OCD cope with their symptoms.