For people who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) the coronavirus is the perfect storm. While many Americans are striving to practice better hand-washing technique and are judiciously wiping down potential virus contamination everywhere, individuals with OCD may be particularly distressed at this time.
OCD and coronavirus are an unfortunate pairing, for sure. Those who struggle with germ obsessions anyway may experience heightened levels of anxiety and distress, scrubbing and scrubbing their hands, or avoiding public places altogether. People with OCD already battle an obsessive fear of germs, so this coronavirus outbreak may cause serious mental health issues for them.
There is no arguing that Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is a serious health concern. It is impossible to avoid the continuous news coverage or mounting infection statistics that permeate the airwaves. But OCD and coronavirus must coexist, at least for the meanwhile. This means that people with OCD will need to adopt some coping skills to help them through this disturbing time in history.
5 Tips for OCD and Coronavirus Anxiety
With some focused effort it is possible to minimize the emotional distress caused by the pandemic. Individuals with OCD tend to obsess about avoiding potential dangers, including germs that could harm them. Even seeing the empty shelves at the grocery stores, including the last of hand sanitizing soaps and wipes, can induce fear. These intrusive obsessive thoughts lead to irrational compulsions as a way of mitigating the anxiety that results. To help minimize the effect of the virus on daily life, consider these 5 tips:
- Limit the news. When something causes us fear, such as during a natural disaster or a military attack, we may find ourselves glued to the news all day long. Learning about the event can sometimes help us manage fear, as knowledge can better prepare us for outcomes. However, with the news media providing round-the-clock coronavirus programming it can keep us in a constant state of anxiety as the case counts mount. According to Shelly Hovick, Ph.D. who authored a study centering on the Zika outbreak in 2016, and who is weighing in now about the coronavirus, “The Zika virus and the coronavirus have important things in common: In both cases, they are shrouded in uncertainty and have received a lot of media attention,” Hovick said. “Our research looks at how people seek and process information when there is so much uncertainty.”
- Keep perspective. While the coronavirus pandemic is a historic event like something we have never seen in our lifetimes, it is important to try to maintain a healthy perspective. The mounting case and death numbers are disturbing, but it is helpful to remember that there are 7.7 billion people in the world as a way to keep some perspective when considering those numbers. Also, take care not to look too far into the future, as no one really knows how long it will take for the virus to play out. Focus on getting through one day at a time.
- Take rational precautions. Someone with OCD will often go to great lengths to prevent a perceived negative outcome. This is the nature of the disorder, to experience the combination of obsessive thoughts rooted in fear and then to practice obsessive behaviors as a means of reducing the resulting anxiety or risk of the feared event or situation to come to fruition. For someone with a germ-centered obsession the coronavirus is especially daunting. Practice prescribed safety measures without falling into extreme obsessive behaviors. Identify irrational thoughts as anxiety driven while sticking to practical methods for avoiding the pathogen.
- Practice wellness. One of the most productive actions to take during the coronavirus is to practice a healthy lifestyle. Although this is more challenging during sheltering orders, we are still able to get outdoors and get some exercise. Walking, running, or cycling offer excellent mental health benefits for reducing stress and anxiety and improving overall outlook. Try to avoid the temptation to eat fatty or sugary foods, and limit or avoid alcohol intake. Get at least 7 hours of quality sleep per night. All of these wellness measures will help to control symptoms of depression or anxiety during the pandemic.
- Access your support system. When, in spite of all these efforts, you find yourself becoming increasingly anxious, it is prudent to contact the people in your support system. This can be a trusted friend, a family member, or your therapist. Most psychotherapists and psychiatrists are making themselves available via tele-mental health platforms like Zoom or Skype, or telephone therapy sessions. Do not hesitate to reach out to your mental health provider if symptoms escalate.
OCD is an anxiety-related disorder that features alternating obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors repeated throughout the day. OCD can become so disruptive that it can impair one’s ability to function at school, work, or to maintain healthy personal relationships. OCD affects approximately 1.2% of the US adult population, according to statistics provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, and impacts more women than men.
OCD can become so invasive that all aspects of the person’s life are affected. Some who struggle with OCD may isolate themselves in order to avoid triggers that would expose the disorder in public. This particular trait is even more predominant now during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and state after state are imposing lockdowns.
It isn’t fully understood what causes OCD, however research suggests that there is a connection problem between neural pathways involving the frontal lobe and deeper brain structures. Some progress has been made in understanding OCD through neuroimaging studies. These detailed brain scans reveal how certain areas of the brain are functioning differently in those who have OCD, compared to those without the disorder. As such, it is understood that OCD is primarily a neurobiological disorder that may be influenced by environmental factors.
In addition, there is some evidence that OCD has a genetic component, as the mental health disorder, as do other anxiety disorders, does seem to run in families.
How OCD Manifests
Some of the different ways OCD may manifest itself in daily life include:
- Contamination obsessions with cleaning compulsions. Obsessions around contamination and germs can lead to compulsions of repeated hand washing or cleaning behaviors.
- Harm obsessions with checking compulsions. Driven by intense fear of danger or potential harm to oneself or others, this individual will use compulsive checking rituals to relieve this fear.
- Symmetry obsessions with ordering compulsions. The obsessive desire for order and symmetry drive compulsive behaviors that include ordering, arranging, and counting.
- Obsessions that have no visible compulsions. These might involve distorted and irrational thoughts involving sexual, violent, or religious themes or fears. Compulsive mental rituals, such as reciting words, prayer, or counting, are not visible to others.
- Hoarding. Obsessive fear around losing important papers or items drives the hoarding of mail, magazines, containers, clothing, and junk mail.
The most common types of obsessions revolve around:
- Fear of germs or contamination
- Fear of some dangerous event, such as setting the house on fire or being burglarized
- Forbidden sexual thoughts, including perversions, homosexual thoughts, thoughts involving children, or aggressive sexual behaviors
- Perfectionism, concerning symmetry or exact placement
The most common types of compulsions include:
- Washing hands, cleaning, preventing physical contact
- Checking, such as repeatedly checking that the lights are turned off or the oven is off.
- Repeating routine actions, like going in and out of a door, tapping, touching, blinking, rereading.
- Placing items in a specific order or arrangement
Living with OCD and Coronavirus
The last thing anyone should do is to allow this coronavirus to cause people to live in perpetual fear. OCD is characterized by a fear of lack of control over something that is regarded as dangerous, making having the disorder especially concerning during the pandemic. Many individuals with OCD have acquired helpful coping skills through a type of therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP). These techniques will be very helpful during this particular time in history.
It is easy to fall into fear mode, especially when watching news reports. Be proactive and obtain help from a therapist or mental health professional who can help manage the OCD flair-ups. OCD is a manageable disorder, even when the coronavirus crisis further complicates symptoms.
Treatment for OCD
The traditional treatment for OCD strategies involves a combination approach including medication and psychotherapy. The medications most effective for treating OCD include the antidepressants fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, and sertraline. In some cases, an anti-psychotic medication called risperidone can be effective when the antidepressants are not, or might be combined with an antidepressant for better results.
Psychotherapy will focus on behavior changing therapies to assist individuals with responding to the obsessive thoughts in a more productive manner. Some of these evidence-based therapies include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy involves training the mind to focus on the actual experience caused by the negative thought and to respond to it in new ways. By helping the individual change the way his or her thoughts are interpreted from negative to neutral, cognitive behavior therapy can alter the disordered behavioral response to them.
- Habit reversal training. Individuals become aware of the physiological muscle or body sensation that is associated with it by practicing compulsive habit in the mirror, which helps develop awareness for how the urge manifests. The patient then learns a competing intervention that blocks and reverses the disordered compulsive habit.
- Exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP can help relieve fear-based symptoms by incrementally exposing the individual to their fears. As the object of fear is introduced, the individual is taught coping skills that help reduce the related anxiety attached to this trigger. As the individual becomes comfortable with ERP, the therapy can help them better manage their response to the triggers when they occur.
Elevation Behavioral Health Provides Support for OCD and Coronavirus Anxiety
Elevation Behavioral Health provides residential mental health support in Los Angeles, California. Offering luxury accommodations in a beautiful setting, Elevation Behavioral Health can help individuals struggling with OCD and coronavirus by improving functioning and increasing peace of mind. Call us today at (888) 561-0868.