The recent news about the outbreak of COVID-19, more commonly known as Coronavirus, has created panic, uncertainty and tragedy across the world. While this is a scary and uncertain time for everyone, it could be particularly challenging for people with pre-existing mental health conditions, in particular OCD, as there are constant triggers and reminders from all media platforms to carry out behaviours to keep ourselves and others safe.
OCD Action has seen a large increase in support requests from people affected by OCD whose fears have become focused on the Coronavirus outbreak.
The advice being given by Public Health England is for everyone to wash their hands more frequently and thoroughly to protect themselves and others from catching the virus. They are also increasing restrictions on attending public gatherings, going to work, and leaving the house altogether. For people with OCD, in particular contamination or responsibility fears, it could be difficult to identify which behaviours are 'acceptable' and recommended, and which are driven by the OCD and anxiety.
OCD Action has put together the following tips for those struggling during this particularly challenging time:
Look out for the function: for example, ask yourself - is the washing being carried out for the recommended amount of time to reduce the risk of spreading of the virus, or is it being done ritualistically in a specific order with termination criteria of feeling comfortable/ ‘just right’? Recognising that a behaviour is driven by OCD anxiety is the first step to challenging it.
Acknowledge the distress: remember that fear and anxiety are normal responses that everyone will be dealing with to varying degrees at this challenging time. Trying to suppress these emotions could lead to increased compulsions (and consequently increased anxiety), so try not to be hard on yourself when you feel distressed.
Spend limited time checking social media and the news: while it is natural and understandable to want to be well-informed about COVID-19 and the latest developments, be mindful that repeatedly checking news sources and social media for updates can lead to increased anxiety and distress. Remember that social media will be full of unsubstantiated reports and speculation surrounding the virus and that not everyone will be using social media in a responsible and supportive way. Try to limit yourself to seeking information only from reputable news (such as the NHS website) and information sites, perhaps once or twice a day, and only engaging with people on social media who you trust and who can support you. Muting key words on Twitter and disabling notifications on media apps can help with this.
Only do what is recommended and no more: Public Health England guidelines advise on washing your hands for 20 seconds, before and after eating, after sneezing or coughing, when entering or leaving the house, and after coming into contact with others. Try to limit handwashing to the recommended time and no more. Adhering to these guidelines will help you to monitor whether your compulsions are increasing in frequency and/or severity. Find the guidelines for protecting against COVID-19 here.
Prepare: Self-isolation can be a daunting prospect for many people who have OCD. It could therefore be helpful to think of ideas for activities to do at home if you do have to self-isolate at any point, e.g. getting stuck in to your reading list, watching films and TV shows, starting a creative project etc. Having a range of activities to engage in will help to keep you mentally and physically occupied while isolating.
Challenge your OCD in other ways: if specific contamination rituals are becoming too difficult at the moment, try and recognise other ways that your OCD affects you, and attempt some exposure work in those areas. Perhaps pick just one compulsion that you feel you can try and reduce or resist – even one time - and try and challenge yourself in that way instead.
Acknowledge and celebrate every victory you do have over OCD! It can be challenging, especially during periods of heightened anxiety, to acknowledge that every time you resist or reduce a compulsion, you are fighting OCD and winning! Be proud of yourself for even trying to challenge OCD.
Connect with others: whether you are self-isolating or not, living with OCD can often feel quite lonely, but there are people who can help and others in the same situation. Consider connecting with others through forums, support groups, or helplines (more info below).
Seek support: Our helpline and Skype/phone support groups remain open during this challenging period. You can call or email our helpline (0845 390 6232, firstname.lastname@example.org), or access our skype groups by calling 0303 040 1112. If you are currently in therapy for OCD, try contacting your therapist or service provider and ask if they offer skype/phone sessions instead of face-to-face appointments.
It’s also important to note that during this period, misconceptions about OCD (which are already rife) may be exacerbated. OCD Action will continue to work hard to challenge these misconceptions and inform and educate the general public about OCD and the various ways in which it can manifest.