April 14, 2020

Living with OCD During COVID-19 

“It’s just a moment; this time will pass” - U2 

If you have lived with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), you are aware that the world can be a scary place. Your world can feel very small. Your thoughts can be your biggest enemy. It is already isolating and when you are told you need to social distance yourself; it becomes even more lonely and uncomfortable to be stirring in your own thoughts and compulsions with no end in sight.   

My OCD came on after a concussion at the age of eight. It manifested in the form of excessive handwashing and contamination fears, a distraction from the trauma I hadn’t processed from a hiking accident. As a coping mechanism, I found a way to stay hypervigilant and in control of everything, except at that age I didn’t understand it. I was afraid of my thoughts and washing them away seemed to be a nice diversion from the reality that I slipped and fell. 

The evolution of OCD therapy  

Thirty years ago, mental health wasn’t as prominent as it is now, therefore I’m not sure my family even knew how much I was suffering. Years later, many medications and treatments tried, I can say there were times I didn’t think I would come out of an OCD episode. However, exposure therapy and facing my fears has been the most helpful to me, but also knowing that it is not going to be comfortable while you confront them.  

My mother was a microbiologist and has always been fascinated by microbes, so similarly, I pursued a graduate degree in public health and communicable disease control. I have spent most of my career working in healthcare, specifically with cancer patients, and it was that exposure that was essential to getting over my fears of contamination and disease.  

Understanding the risk factors and watching the physicians’ commitment to their patients was essential to my healing. I watched thousands of patients over the years go through treatment and come out stronger than before and with that my obsessions reduced. I still live with OCD and it grabs onto different themes, especially during periods of extreme stress, but I know the less I resist, the less threatening the thought becomes. What you resist, persists.   

OCD during COVID-19 

The challenging thing about the Coronavirus outbreak is that we are told to avoid, and the concept of willingly exposing yourself could be harmful to your health. We haven’t in modern times experienced a pandemic of this magnitude and unfortunately, we are unsure how to control it without taking strict quarantine measures. The public health response is to wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and maintain a safe distance from people, which likely you are already doing. 

If you are having intrusive thoughts about contracting the virus and want to engage in a ritual such as handwashing and cleaning to calm you down, choose to challenge that cycle. Instead, write down your thoughts every time they come up in a notebook instead of partaking in a ritual. After a few days, this cognitive behavioral technique will help you to not only notice how frequently OCD is interfering with your life, but also give you some perspective on your worries and what does not usually transpire. You can then decide to move forward and let go. Imagine the thought flowing in and out of you without assigning meaning to it and overtime this practice will become easier.  

In the midst of the Coronavirus inundating our daily lives, please note that you are not alone. Some things that are helping me through this time are: 

1. Minimizing your exposure to the news. 

The media frequently overemphasizes the risks and fixates on the virus and case incidence. If you are seeking reassurance, a very common compulsion of those with OCD, you won’t find it. There are no definitive answers and the media wants you to continue to consume the content. Yes, you can be informed, but the basic recommendations from the CDC haven’t changed much since the beginning of the pandemic. 

2. Connecting with others, but limiting time discussing the virus. 

Fear feeds fear. With social media filled with Coronavirus content, calling a friend or family member might be a better outlet than checking your Facebook feed.  

3. Getting outside. 

Take a walk and connect with nature to avoid feeling alone with your thoughts.  Exercise is important for your mental health and when the gyms are closed you need to move your body and breathe fresh air.   

4. Going out if you need to. 

If you need to leave the house to get groceries, trust that you have already taken the proper precautions and that stores have adopted protocols to keep their customers safe and their facilities clean.   

5. Understanding that everyone is having similar thoughts now.  

Even if they do not have OCD, we are all in this together with a certain level of fear not knowing what will transpire. The risk is greater for the elderly and those that are immunocompromised. Most people have moderate to mild symptoms and the majority of people have made a full recovery.  Keeping this in perspective is important in reducing anxiety. 

6. Knowing that this time will pass. 

Life will go on and we will get through this together. If we wait for our unwanted thoughts to be gone, we will always be stuck. Instead of spending your energy trying to prevent the Coronavirus, decide to confront your OCD and take your power back because that is one thing you can control. 

Learn about ERC and Insight Behavioral Health Centers' programs for mood & anxiety disorders

Julie joined Eating Recovery Center with extensive experience in operations, recruiting, marketing and event/meeting planning this January. Julie earned her Bachelors in Marketing and Master of Public Health with the goal of working in health promotion. She spent much of the last decade supporting both cardiac and general thoracic surgeons, running surgical clinics, and coordinating patient care. Most recently, she worked for an international lung cancer association recruiting members and planning meetings, including the World Conference on Lung Cancer.

Julie is a Denver native who loves to travel internationally with her husband. A self-taught family photographer, she spends her weekends doing photo shoots, watching Netflix and movies, and enjoying the pool.
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