While Covid-19 is proving tough for most people, the challenges are heightened in those who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is a common mental disorder that causes intrusive and distressing recurring thoughts, urges or images. The most common of these “obsessions” include fear of contamination, fear of causing harm and fear of things not being in order or out of control – scenarios that are all too real these days.
“The current pandemic plays on many of these concerns and those with OCD may believe it even validates their behaviour,” explains Ghania Kabbara, a clinical psychologist who treats patients with OCD at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai. “It’s likely to exacerbate symptoms in those already living with OCD and could also encourage the re-emergence of symptoms in others.”
For people with OCD, fear of the virus could translate into an overwhelming obsession with hand hygiene, general cleanliness and an avoidance of situations perceived to be high-risk. Combined together, this behavior can have a debilitating effect on the daily lives of those who are affected.
“While many of us will naturally be anxious as a result of Covid-19 and will adhere to the recommended safety precautions with relative ease, those with OCD will experience an extreme fear and take risk-averse behavior to the extreme,” Kabbara explains. “Symptoms such as excessive handwashing, cleaning and avoiding contamination are common among those with OCD. However, this current situation is likely to cause such rituals to intensify.”
Not only will sufferers feel the need to wash and sanitize their hands more frequently and for a longer time, they will doubt whether their efforts are working.
That means that they can never feel they have done enough, encouraging a never-ending cycle of hand-washing. Some may take this ritual a step further and use harmful cleaning solutions or abrasive materials, causing skin irritation and possible infection.
While it is important to keep updated with reliable information from the government and health bodies about preventing further infection, Kabbara warns people with OCD against an unlimited exposure to 24/7 news updates and health warnings across all media and social media platforms, which has the potential to “trigger” symptoms.
“For many sufferers, their impulses will now seem to be validated by the current virus and it could undo everything they’ve been told before via counselling or therapy programmes,” says Kabbara. “Routines that they’ve developed to manage their OCD could now feel redundant. It’s therefore crucial that they are supported and reassured that this current situation is not ‘normal’ and will come to an end. When it does, many will be able to reflect on how they got through the crisis and hopefully lay some of their fears and anxiety to rest.”
Anyone with anxiety needs to be proactive in taking care of their mental health, particularly now. Kabbara suggests a number of ways to get through the day as calmly as possible:
- Learn to relax. Meditation apps, deep-breathing and mindfulness exercises can all help to focus and calm the mind.
- Limit access to news related to the pandemic. A constant barrage of news-related items, even when just on in the background, will leave OCD sufferers in a permanent and higher state of anxiety. Ensure you keep up to date with current advice, by all means, but keep it to perhaps once a day.
- Reduce possible triggers/stressors, such as certain physical objects and situations. The more anxiety experienced, the more likely OCD symptoms will emerge.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ensure a family member/partner/friend is aware of how you are struggling, to help offer regular reassurance and support.
- Seek professional help where available online or by phone. Psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy and medications may be recommended, depending on the severity of the symptoms.
Key symptoms to look out for in OCD sufferers who may be struggling more than usual at this time include:
- Raw hands from over-washing and using harmful detergents.
- Repetitive showering/washing due to an overriding obsession with being constantly ‘clean’
- Lack of sleep, due to over-worrying and anxiety.
- Difficulty sticking to any kind of schedule, whether it’s work or school, due to an excessive amount of time being spent on washing/hygiene rituals.
- Angry outbursts, especially if the person is not able to carry out desired rituals.