How to Manage OCD During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Key Takeaways

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) looks and feels different for each person with the condition, but new triggers related to the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to be even more challenging for people trying to manage the condition.
  • Even prior to the pandemic, some people with OCD might have already felt preoccupied with worries about their health or the health of their loved ones—worries that have only been intensified by COVID-19.
  • Compensatory behaviors, such as handwashing and using hand sanitizer, might also become more intense in response to safety guidelines.
  • There are mental health resources available that can help people with OCD cope with intensified or new symptoms that have emerged during the pandemic.

Those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are already susceptible to uncontrolled, obsessive behaviors and thoughts that can interfere with their everyday lives. When you add the unprecedented curveball of a global pandemic into the equation, these tendencies can quickly spiral out of control.

How these OCD tendencies may present during this time varies depending on the individual. For some, it may include a notably heightened fear surrounding their health, including obsessive behaviors and thoughts (like compulsively checking their body for symptoms or becoming fixated on hand washing).

For others, it may present with obsessions about cleanliness or being up to date and compulsively cleaning or checking the news—to the point that it’s severely impacting mental health and interpersonal relationships.

While a global pandemic affords reason to worry, there’s a line between being well-informed and keeping yourself and your loved ones safe and experiencing an exacerbation of OCD that is potentially damaging.

Below we’ve outlined what OCD is and how to know if you have the condition, signs your OCD might be spiraling, and tangible ways you can curb these tendencies even amid the panic.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Stephanie Newman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author, explains: “Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a psychiatric condition characterized by the presence of unwanted or intrusive thoughts or images (obsessions) or repetitive behaviors (compulsions).”

The intrusive thoughts, images, and behaviors—which typically materialize as a strong urge or need to perform ritualized actions—are jarring for those with OCD. These obsessions and compulsions do not feel like part of the individual, and sufferers are frequently aware that they need help.

In that sense, those experiencing intrusive obsessions or compulsions can often recognize their OCD, says Dr. Newman. Still, having it diagnosed by a professional affords you a clear answer and, in some cases, helpful treatments.

“If your anxiety is acute and can only be relieved by performing certain behaviors over and over, it’s time to consult with a licensed mental professional. Likewise, if you cannot get a disturbing image or thought out of your mind—being stuck on something for more than two hours is a good guideline—it can be helpful to speak to someone about what’s going on,” says Dr. Newman.

Behaviors That Indicate OCD May Be Spiraling

Any large upset in your world—including the coronavirus pandemic—can trigger OCD and send you down an unhealthy path. Amber Trueblood, LMFT, says that signs you might have begun spiraling include:

  • Time: The amount of time you’re spending in compulsive behaviors has increased. Take note of how many minutes or hours you’re spending in compulsive behaviors. If this is increasing substantially or consistently, you may be spiraling.
  • Impact: Your behaviors are affecting your life, including your interpersonal relationships, work, and ability to sleep, exercise, or eat. You feel like you’re approaching (or have met) your breaking point.
  • Anxiety: Your anxiety level is not decreasing even after your compulsive behavior. 
  • Concern: Your loved ones have made comments to you about your recent behaviors.

OCD Amidst a Pandemic

When it comes to the coronavirus specifically, here are some possible behaviors to pay attention to:

  • Obsessing over your own health or a loved ones’ health
  • Compulsively washing your hands over and over again
  • Following the news cycle to the point it’s cutting into your daily life, compulsively logging into social media, or experiencing an uptick in your unique OCD tendencies

How to Curb OCD Tendencies During the Pandemic

Understanding that you might be spiraling is the first step in regaining control. Experts also recommend the following to alleviate your anxiety:

Monitor Your Thoughts and Behaviors in a Journal

In a journal, note any patterns, fluctuations, and loops of anxiety accompanied by a need to perform rituals to relieve the anxiety. "Write down the thought you are having, time of day, and what preceded the thought," says Dr. Newman.

"Same with any behaviors. Recording your anxiety daily in a journal allows you to monitor its increase or decrease and to compare times of day and particular triggers," Dr. Newman explains.

Stephanie Newman, PhD

Awareness constitutes a first step. [Being aware of] the intrusive nature of disturbing [thoughts] or seeing there is a need to repeat a behavior in order to reduce anxiety are important insights. Once you realize the thoughts and behaviors are intruding you can take actions to break the cycle,

— Stephanie Newman, PhD

The journal doesn’t have to be perfect, and if you miss a day that is OK. Just do your best to keep a log so you have a concrete history and can better determine patterns and triggers.

Minimize News and Social Media Intake

Being informed is important, but obsessively tuning into the news, checking statistics, or scrolling through social media feeds can ignite anxiety and fuel OCD tendencies.

Create strong parameters around news and social media consumption. Maybe that looks like limiting yourself to an hour of time reviewing the news in the morning before beginning your day.  

Familiarize Yourself With CDC Guidelines

Know what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines are and follow these recommended precautions to keep yourself, your loved ones, and others in your community safe. By understanding what the guidelines are, you can rest easier knowing you’re abiding by them. You’ll also better understand when you might be straying too far.

Implement Self-Care Practices

It’s completely normal to feel like your world has been thrown upside down. You are not alone and you’re wading through unfamiliar territory doing your best to navigate it. Self-compassion—which means cutting yourself some slack and investing in yourself via self-care—can help.

Amber Trueblood, LMFT

Implementing self-care practices works because any tools you can use for managing your anxiety will increase your threshold for dealing with the current health crisis. Choose self-care practices that you are most likely to actually use so that you set yourself up for success.

— Amber Trueblood, LMFT

Exercise, bake, start a project, read a book, and digitally interact with friends or family who make you feel good. And be kind to yourself.

Continue Taking Your Medication

Remember that regardless of circumstances you should always continue taking your prescribed dosage of medication, if you have one. If you need any sort of adjustment, discuss it with your physician.

Trueblood explains, “This helps because your neurochemical balance is at risk. Use an alarm on your phone, a post-it on the fridge, or a note on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself to take your medication as a form of self-care.”

Speak With a Professional

Numerous teletherapy services are available, and your therapist might also offer online therapy services at this time, as well. Speaking with a professional can help you determine which behaviors might be unhealthy. It can also help you determine your best approach forward.

What This Means For You

In these uniquely challenging times, there will inevitably be bumps in the road when it comes to managing your mental health. Do your best to stay in contact with people who love and support you, be open about what you are experiencing, and never hesitate to ask for help.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.