By Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP | Board-certified Clinical Psychologist
“I don’t know what to do. I can’t leave the house. I literally had a panic attack as I moved toward the door, and my OCD has really escalated.”
OCD symptoms amid COVID-19
There are more than 2.2 million people in the United States with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and close to another 13 million with either generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. Dealing with fears of COVID-19 infection or contamination can make it harder to balance between safe, healthy practices and a worsening of symptoms.
Most of us have experienced at least some measure of anxiety or concern regarding the coronavirus. I’ve certainly increased my hand-washing and pay a lot more attention to not touching my face. I also discovered that I had a bad habit of putting things in my mouth to hold when my hands were full (keys, mail, etc.), which I’ve since stopped.
The anxiety that we are experiencing now is similar to what people with OCD experience every day, especially since government and medical experts are strongly recommending cleaning, disinfecting, and isolating—hallmarks of the struggle for many with OCD. And it’s hard.
We also know that OCD and anxiety disorders often run in families, so now whole families may be struggling with exacerbated symptoms—all while sheltering in place together.
Thriving in uncertainty
So, is the situation a lot worse for people with OCD? Truthfully, that depends. People already dealing with fears regarding contamination or illness are experiencing a harder time, including those who have not been previously diagnosed with OCD. And yet, others are doing pretty well by using skills they have already developed to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty of their obsessions and compulsions.
One month into “stay at home,” the client mentioned above told me her OCD has “calmed down” to pre-COVID-19 levels. She’s staying at home, we meet through video conferencing, and she’s regularly practicing the skills she’s developed over years of managing her OCD—because there’s nothing like a global pandemic to reinforce and strengthen the skills you’ve been practicing.
OCD is about anxiety, uncertainty, and fear—and a drive for control and certainty. Successfully addressing symptoms of OCD is about learning to tolerate discomfort and challenging thoughts born from catastrophizing and overgeneralization, and learning to live with the unknown instead of engaging in compulsive thoughts or behaviors. This behavior is where everyone can take a lesson from those who have been dealing with OCD. The practice of accepting anxiety instead of trying to ignore or overpower those feelings, and treating yourself with compassion are key practices.
How to manage OCD symptoms while responding to COVID-19:
Know that you are not alone. Whatever your struggle, we are all in this together.