OCD and coronavirus (COVID-19) – Summary

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Summary of how coronavirus is impacting on people living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD and COVID-19

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (or more routinely referred to as OCD) is a serious anxiety-related condition where a person experiences frequent intrusive and unwelcome thoughts, commonly referred to as obsessions.

Obsessions are unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, impulses or feelings, that bring someone’s attention to a threat or perceived danger, hence why they are so horrible and distressing. Obsessions result in a person carrying out repetitive behaviours or rituals, called compulsions, in order to prevent this perceived danger or threat. Unfortunately, intead of solving the problem, compulsions cause additional anxiety and obsessions, resulting in even more time-consuming and mentally draining compulsions. Read more about OCD here.

OCD impacts on people in many shapes and guises, from obsessive fears around germs and contamination to unwanted and distressing intrusive thoughts about harming a loved one, perhaps violently or sexually. The present global public health crisis around coronavirus (COVID-19) has led to a number of additional worries for those affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This is a list of some of the main areas of concerns users are reporting:

  • Contamination fears leading to additional washing/cleaning
  • Intrusive thoughts around passing virus on to loved ones / elderly
  • Harm related obsessions such as; ‘Have I been careless? Does this mean I secretly want people to die?’
  • Increase in health anxiety/worrying about being more vulnerable
  • Worries about not being able to do exercise for mental well-being if isolated

It’s important to highlight that all of the above are normal worries that will cause anxiety for many people even for those without OCD, but of course for people with OCD everyday normal worries can create additional anxiety and anguish.

For people without OCD much of these worries will be fleeting and will certainly pass once the present public health crisis passes. Likewise the extra hand washing is not worry driven, people are simply following recommended advice, even if it is slightly anxiety provoking.

Try to remember it’s perfectly normal for people to wash their hands to minimise the risk of a highly contagious virus, it is a normal rational response to a genuine and significant threat. But when that hand washing becomes extreme, then the safety seeking behaviour is arguably causing more harm than the virus itself.

Most people will not be worrying if they’ve washed their hands sufficiently once the tap stops. Which is why this is not OCD behaviour and why people claiming they’re ‘a little bit OCD’ about hand washing remains as inaccurate and inappropriate as ever.

By comparison for someone with OCD the worries are not fleeting and create significant anxiety that lasts long after the initial intrusive thoughts, long after the taps are turned off and will impact on their ability to function for hours or even an entire day. For some the impact of COVID-19 will last long after the public health crisis passes.

Will everybody with OCD be struggling now?

In terms of beyond the general worry the entire population has, then no, not at all. Some people’s OCD is severely affected by coronavirus, but as listed above, OCD is complex and affects people in a variety of ways, and not all with OCD will be affected with worries that lead to excessive washing compulsions. What we are discovering is that at the moment those of us living with OCD that are affected are generally falling into two categories, and each face their own unique challenges.

Group 1
Those currently receiving therapy and/or have had therapy and are making good progress along the recovery journey:

  • Worries about being able to even attend therapy
  • Where is the line between what is common sense to protect ourselves and what is an OCD compulsion?
  • How do I challenge my OCD when I am being asked to do rituals therapy suggested I shouldn’t engage with?

Group 2
Those yet to receive any kind of therapy, or those where therapy is yet to be effective:

  • No therapy input at this time to turn to for help in these challenging times
  • Have no alternative strategies in place to challenge regular OCD, without the added extreme level of anxiety brought on by COVID-19

Short term the charity advises people to follow the public health advice, and if at all possible do not allow OCD to take you beyond what is recommended. However, if your anxiety and OCD dictate that, be kind to yourself, do not feel guilty for going beyond the recommended advice at this time, what we can do is once the crisis passes is ensure we come back to focus on challenging our OCD at a later date. The charity and other resources are there to offer advice and support when we can, and in due course we can all work together to ensure we all receive access to helpful and effective treatment.

Additional support and coping tips can be found here.