Uncertainty. More than anything else, this word sums up what most of us have been struggling with during this pandemic.
Uncertainty about how long it will last, uncertainty about money, uncertainty about safety, uncertainty about the future.
What this equates to is a lack of control. This is unsettling and anxiety-inducing to most people but to those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), this can lead to an unravelling of all the good work you’ve done on yourself to calm your obsessions.
What is OCD?
According to Health Direct, OCD is an anxiety disorder that is made up of two parts:
• obsessions – unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or urges that repeatedly come into the mind
• compulsions – repetitive behaviours or rituals, that are difficult or impossible to resist doing, which are carried out to reduce anxiety¹
According to Dr Katherine Stewart of Uplift Psychological Services in Redfern, Sydney,
“If you’ve ever thought about falling off a ship in the middle of the ocean without a life jacket, you would know how it feels to experience OCD. Profound fear. The accepted model of treatment is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which views the problem as obsessions giving rise to anxiety, and this anxiety is then reduced by certain compulsive behaviours, for example ‘checking’. Certainly, the Covid-19 pandemic would be a nightmare scenario for many people suffering from OCD.”
Examples of compulsive actions are excessive hand-washing, checking locks multiple times, walking in distinct patterns on the street, turning doorknobs multiple times, to name a few. This can all be very time-consuming, exhausting and debilitating.
OCD & COVID-19
If you’ve been working on your OCD, going through CBT and beginning to convince yourself that these compulsive actions are not necessary to combat your irrational fears, a global pandemic that suddenly makes these fears a reality can be destabilising, to say the least. Many of your compulsive behaviours have now become World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended actions to prevent the spread of this virus.
People with OCD have reportedly reacted in one of two ways to this pandemic. Some have continued as normal because their everyday ‘norm’ has now become the new norm for everyone else. Their compulsive hand-washing is now a compulsion of the larger population and this makes them feel safer in general. On the other hand, some OCD sufferers are spiralling. All their irrational thoughts have now become rational in terms of the situation and this can be very hard to reconcile in their mind, especially if they have been receiving treatment.
Here are some signs to look out for:
If you notice that the amount of time you’re taking to complete the compulsions is increasing, this may be cause for concern.
Notice if your behaviour is having an impact on other areas of your life. Maybe you’re having relationship issues, struggling at work, battling to sleep, or your exercise or eating routines have been affected.
• Health focus:
You’ve been obsessing over your health and that of your loved ones and your hand-washing or sanitising compulsions have increased.
• Information overload:
You follow the news updates, social media and the COVID-19 statistics websites constantly, to the point that your daily life is affected.
Even after performing your compulsive actions, your anxiety level is unchanged.
People closest to you have commented on your compulsions. You’re feeling out of control and at the end of your rope².
It’s not an easy time, but there are things you can do to help yourself cope until this pandemic eases off and you can go back to your regular treatment to work on your OCD.
Here are some ideas to help you cope:
Be strict with yourself about how much news/social media you view each day.
Give yourself a certain time slot where you are allowed to check the updates on the pandemic. Once the time is over, switch off and continue your life. Constantly checking media can exacerbate your anxiety and your OCD.
Setting a routine
The lack of control and disruption of our routines that this pandemic has caused has unsettled a lot of people. Try to set yourself a daily routine so you feel in control of your life, which can then translate to control of your impulses.
Remember to self-care
We are all going through an unprecedented experience. Go easy on yourself. Many people are struggling at the moment and it’s important to do things that you enjoy, take moments to give yourself happiness and give yourself a break. Activities such as exercising, taking a bath, reading a book, building a puzzle or watching a feel-good movie are examples of self-care.
Monitor your obsessions and compulsions
Keep a journal of your thoughts, actions and the time of day and frequency with which they occur. This will help increase your awareness of patterns, triggers and loops and help you to take steps to reduce these.
Follow recommended advice
There are tips on how to stay safe on the Australian Department of Health website. Follow the advice to the best of your ability and you can rest assured you’ve done everything you can to prevent contracting the virus or spreading it to others.
Reach out digitally to family and friends. It is important to stay connected with your support systems so that you remember that you are not alone. And chances are, those who support you are also needing support right now. Make use of video calls, messaging and voice calls to connect with those you love.
Don’t stop your medication
If you are on medication, do not stop it during this time. This can lead to a strong regression and a spiral into compulsive behaviours. You need to keep your neurochemical balance, especially in this trying time.
Get professional help
If you feel like you are not coping and need professional help, you have options. There are multiple 24-hour free helplines that you can call for immediate advice and help. If you are not already on a Mental Health Care Plan, head to your GP and get a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist. While a face-to-face consultation might not be possible at the moment, counsellors are conducting sessions over video calls to assist their patients.
Finally, control what you can and try to accept what you cannot. Uncertainty is not a comfortable feeling, but if you can differentiate between the aspects of your life that you can control, it will help you to accept the things that are out of control and will, hopefully, help you to manage your OCD until this situation passes. Dr Stewart notes, “It it is always helpful to know that a thunderstorm becomes insignificant when considering that the vast sky has plenty of space to cope with all kinds of problems”.