As I write this, it’s April of 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has everyone stockpiling hand sanitizer, hoarding toilet paper, checking the news constantly, and washing their hands more than ever before.
But where do we draw the line between reasonable precaution and compulsive behavior?
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For those of us who live with OCD, the current situation presents new challenges for managing our mental health.
Here are five essential tips for managing OCD during a pandemic.
Remember You’re Not Alone
OCD affects about 1% of the US population – it’s significantly less common than more widespread anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and there is still a lack of understanding surrounding OCD among the general population.
In our culture, we often make jokes about being “so OCD” to describe someone who is neat and orderly. Having OCD does not mean that you’re a neat freak. Even messy people can have OCD.
Let’s make it simple: OCD = obsessions (disturbing and intrusive, unwanted thoughts or images) + anxiety about these obsessions -> compulsions (checking/rechecking, hand washing, etc.) to relieve the anxiety.
The more we engage in compulsive behavior to reduce the anxiety caused by our obsessions, the worse the obsessions and compulsions become.
There are several different sub-types of OCD – for some OCD sufferers, the focus of unwanted thoughts is related to germs, contamination, or disease. For others, the obsessions could be about something entirely different.
It’s easy to feel alone when you have a disease that many people do not understand. But, please remember that there are 2.2 million other adults (in the United States alone) who are struggling with the same disorder you have.
Even if you’re living at home by yourself during quarantine right now, you are not alone.
Even if no one in your personal life understands what OCD is, you are not alone.
You may find it helpful to join an OCD support group, read blogs or books written by others who live with OCD, check out the free resources available through the International OCD foundation, listen to helpful podcasts, or try online therapy.
For just $37 per month, you can get help from a trained therapist while you stay home and shelter in place.
For those who live with OCD, our greatest fears are uncertainty and a lack of control. OCD thrives on doubt.
Can you be 100% sure that you turned the stove off? That there wasn’t a typo in that email? That your hands are clean enough? That you didn’t expose yourself to the Coronavirus? That you haven’t made everyone around you sick?
The key to overcoming OCD is to accept uncertainty. It is impossible to be 100% certain of anything and we cannot control the world around us. No matter how many times you wash your hands or how many precautions you take, you could still get COVID-19.
If you can learn to accept that, you’ll be able to find some peace.
The more we allow anxiety, uncertainty, and doubt, instead of trying to escape from these emotions, the more peace we will find. Over time, our obsessions and compulsions will not go away, but they will decrease.
As we become less bothered by them, they will no longer hold the power they used to hold over us.
I find that surrendering control to God is incredibly helpful for me. I may not have certainty about anything in this world, but God is the one constant I can always rely on…regardless of my circumstances.
Turn Off The News
As a culture, we seem to have this misconception that the news exists to keep us informed. That is not their goal. The purpose of the news is to engage us so we’ll continue watching, listening, scrolling, or clicking. How do they do that?
By publishing the most startling information they can find.
Our brains instinctively scan for danger in the world around us and we pay close attention to anything that we perceive as a threat. This is actually a good thing because it has kept our species alive. Imagine living in a hunter-gatherer type of society.
If there’s a dangerous animal that roams around near where you are, wouldn’t it be good to learn as much as you can about that animal? If you know it’s strong and smart, but also incredibly slow, you’d know to run if it approached you.
Learning about this animal would keep you alive. If you ignored the animal and were unconcerned about it, it would probably kill you.
In modern first-world countries, we don’t face the same types of threats as we did back then…but our brains still work in the same way. Your brain will convince you that it’s very important to learn everything you possibly can about the pandemic…simply because your brain wants to keep you safe.
If you have OCD, this could easily lead to compulsive checking of the news. This will likely worsen your anxiety…leading to more compulsive behaviors…creating more anxiety…. and more compulsions. It’s a vicious cycle.
I’d recommend limiting your news intake to a certain amount per day – perhaps one hour, 10 minutes, or not at all. Find what works best for you. I personally prefer not to watch the news at all.
Allow Yourself to Follow The Rules
Many of us who have OCD actually wash our hands less often or less thoroughly than we maybe should – simply because we’re trying to keep compulsive behaviors in check.
What do we now that we’re being told we really should be sanitizing frequently touched surfaces every single day?
Allow yourself to follow the CDC’s rules – but don’t go beyond those.
If the CDC tells you to wash your hands only after you’ve gone to the bathroom, before eating, after coughing or blowing your nose, and after you’ve been to a public place, wash your hands then and only then.
Let the CDC make the rules – not your OCD.
Leave the House
I know you’re probably under some kind of quarantine, shelter in place, or stay at home order right now.
But, for now, we’ve been told that it’s completely fine to go for a walk, run, or bike ride outside. As long as you practice social distancing and stay six feet away from other people, this is okay.
It’ll be good for you to get out of the house for once, get some sunshine (and Vitamin D), and get those endorphins flowing.
Be Gentle With Yourself
This is a challenging, unprecedented time. Even those who don’t normally feel anxiety on a day to day basis are feeling fear, anxiety, overwhelm, and worry.
It’s okay to feel anxious.
It’s okay if you’re not managing your OCD perfectly right now.
It’s okay to feel whatever emotion you’re feeling.
OCD often leads to intense shame, so I want to end this post with a note on this.
OCD does not define you.
You are not your thoughts.
You are not your emotions.
You are a soul. You have a body and a mind…a mind that has a disease called OCD.
You wouldn’t be ashamed of having diabetes or another physical health condition. This is no different.
You may find it helpful to lean on your faith.
Remember that God loves you always. Period. There is nothing that you can think, say, or do that will ever change that.
You are 100% worthy because you were created by a perfect and loving God. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross washed away all of your sins – past, present, and future.
There is no need to carry the weight of shame.
That burden has been lifted off your shoulders.
Have a blessed day, and remember, you are not alone in this.
This is not going to last forever. We don’t know when or how this pandemic will end, but it will.
Accept the unknown,
and just breathe.
Here are some resources you may find encouraging or helpful:
- International OCD Foundation – this nonprofit has a list of resources for managing OCD during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The OCD Workbook – written by a trained therapist, this book is endorsed by and used by hospitals and clinics around the world
- Online Therapy – For just $37/month, you can get virtual counseling with a trained therapist – from the comfort of your own home!