Coping with OCD During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is something that most people relate to personally. We all use the abbreviation “OCD” to refer to some aspect of symptoms related to this disorder, often in joking about our or someone’s behavior. And it is mostly always the case that the other person knows immediately what OCD means. Why is this? Well, we all experience and automatically use aspects of OCD functioning that have become part of how we do things. It is part of a natural organizing function. Counting steps or stairs, a song that gets stuck in our head, making lists, morning routines, bedtime routines, hygiene routines, different habits for how we do something; these are all at least partly related to the same OCD functional mechanisms.

These mechanisms are commonly used and quite functional with little to no stress or anxiety. It is the brain’s way of adapting to the present and “gearing up” to meet future demands that are manageable to excessive and overwhelm the system. When present and particularly future circumstances become more complex to overwhelming we develop more of a complex set of possible future events to consider or worry about, and more complex routines that are not helpful in relieving the anxiety or stress. The other direction may happen as well and the individual may “freeze” in panic. This usually results in unreasonable isolation with unrealistic fears.

True OCD thoughts and behaviors may be seen as a series of exaggerated thoughts and responses meant to protect or relieve stress. These thoughts and behaviors often arise out of excessive stress, and anxiety that escalates. Distress is a series of stressors that accumulate and feels hopeless to manage. Such is the current case with the COVID-19 pandemic making for a cascading of potential stressors including staying safe and not contracting the virus, changes in work, financial stressors, relationship stressors, unavailable services, fears of an uncertain future, on and on.

At the extreme, more severe end of this spectrum are OCD symptoms and fears that may make for debilitating fear over having been exposed to or contracted some horrible disease. An example may be an individual who is convinced each day with a different physical aspect such as a tiny perceived bump under the shin, to a temporary cough or congestion being signs of cancer or some other life-threatening disease. By the way, medical students often develop similar fears of symptoms when they study and learn about different diseases and pathologies.

We at Fox Valley Institute for Growth and Wellness know that the current life circumstances challenging our community and the world at present make for a variety of anxiety and stressors along the entire spectrum. We stand with you as part of the community.