2020 has been a challenging year for many of us. Faced with uncertainty and fear, we were placed in a government-enforced lockdown due to a global pandemic with case numbers growing at a scary rate. For the happiest and healthiest of people, this situation has been anxiety-inducing. For those of us already struggling with mental health issues, especially lockdown with OCD, I think we can all agree, it’s been a nightmare.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder impacts about 2.3% of the global population. There are many different kinds of OCD, most of which fall into these four categories:
- Checking: Some OCD sufferers will already experience a compulsion to check tasks that have already been done, like checking stoves are turned off and doors are locked. With OCD sufferers being stuck in their homes, they could be experiencing more frequent triggers for their checking behaviors, compulsively checking doors, ovens, taps and more. Some sufferers of the checking behavior may also convince themselves that they have a medical condition, such as COVID-19.
- Contamination: This is the most widely known form of OCD. Suffering from this type of OCD can cause the person to feel a compulsion to clean the surrounding area and themselves. Feelings of fear can be attached to the idea of things not being clean or things being contaminated. As you can imagine, COVID has amplified this behaviour for many OCD sufferers, causing them to wash their hands and body repeatedly, as well as over-cleaning and sanitising their surroundings, the food they eat, etc.
- Symmetry and Ordering: The need to have things displayed and presented in a very particular way. Feelings of anxiety can overtake when things aren’t in order. Symmetry and ordering compulsions could be exacerbated from spending more time at home, surrounded by triggers and opportunities all around to get things in order, compulsively organizing and reorganizing belongings Frequent changes in COVID regulations could also become a new trigger for OCD sufferers.
- Ruminations and Intrusive Thoughts: Obsessing over a certain thought. These thoughts are sometimes disturbing or violent, with some OCD sufferers having intrusive thoughts about a loved one being harmed, either by themselves or someone else, on purpose or by accident. During a global pandemic, OCD sufferers may be having intrusive thoughts about a loved one being infected with COVID.
You can imagine all of the challenges this presents for OCD sufferers during this global pandemic. Many will struggle with the uncertainty and lack of control around the situation. Others may be paralyzed, trapped in their homes by the fear of infecting those around them. Many will experience the compulsion to over-clean their surroundings and themselves. In severe cases, some OCD sufferers may even struggle to eat, with a fear of food contamination.
OCD symptoms can be triggered by normal everyday activities, such as washing the dishes, making the bed, or turning the lights off. OCD symptoms can also be triggered by sudden, unexpected change.
Since COVID, there are a whole new set of daily OCD triggers that will be challenging to overcome, such as:
- Washing hands more often
- The emphasis on hand washing technique
- Mask wearing when out in public
- Only being able to leave the house for essentials
- Spending more time at home/re-organizing home
- Recommended times to wash hands and bathe
And many, many more…
How can you support someone with OCD during COVID?
Many people hide their OCD symptoms from fear of being judged or criticized. OCD sufferers who live alone will be able to more easily indulge in compulsive behaviours as no one is around them to support them through triggering episodes. People with OCD who live alone will be especially vulnerable during these times.
If you know someone suffering from OCD during COVID, here are some ways you can help:
- Talk. Reach out to ask them how they’re coping. Find out what new challenges they’ve been presented with since lockdown. Are they able to leave the house to purchase essentials? Do they need someone to go out for them or with them? Try to find out if they’re managing to do the minimum required to stay physically well, and if not, recommend professional help.
- Be empathetic. If you haven’t experienced mental health issues, it can be difficult to understand or relate to your loved one suffering. Keeping an open mind is essential. If you can approach your loved one with empathy, it will help them feel understood and could encourage them to speak more openly about new struggles they may be facing. They may even feel encouraged to seek professional help.
- Use supportive communication. We don’t want to encourage OCD behaviors, but we do want to use supportive language when speaking about symptoms and challenges. Even saying something as simple as ‘I am here for support if you need someone to talk to.’ can be very reassuring for someone suffering from intrusive thoughts.
- Recommend useful resources. If you find any resources that could be helpful to your loved one suffering from OCD, gather them together to recommend without any pressure. There is such an abundance of information and helpful resources out there that could be useful to education and inform your loved one about their condition..
- Recommend therapy. COVID is making in-person therapy difficult to access. This can be pretty devastating for OCD patients undergoing treatment. The good news is, online therapy is becoming more and more accessible to people, with affordable online OCD-specific therapy readily available. When recommending therapy to your loved one, remember to be open and patient. Engage in this conversation with zero expectations or judgements. Your loved one may not be ready, and that’s okay. Just continue to be encouraging and empathetic towards their situation.
- Help identify triggers. As previously mentioned, OCD sufferers will be experiencing new triggers since COVID that could result in more obsessive-compulsive behaviors like hand washing. If you are able to, with the guidance of a professional, help your loved one identify new triggers they may be struggling with. If they are washing their hands too frequently, try discussing times when it’s appropriate to wash hands and suggest journaling to keep track of when exactly the compulsive behavior is happening.
- Avoid judgment and criticism. If an OCD sufferer feels like they are being judged or criticized, they may actively start to hide their OCD symptoms. This will make it much harder to treat OCD, as the sufferer will feel discouraged to seek help or speak openly about their obsessions, compulsions, and struggles.
- Lower your expectations. For people who have not experienced OCD, the solutions can seem simple and easy. For the OCD sufferer, however, the solutions can feel overwhelmingly difficult, maybe even impossible. Give your loved ones time to recover. Be patient with them and their progress.
OCD is a challenging mental health issue to overcome at the best of times. Remember to always be patient with those who are struggling with OCD. Asking for help can be a huge challenge for those struggling with mental health issues. Try not to pressure your loved ones into talking about their disorder or getting professional help. Instead, show up for them as support and encourage positive behaviors.
Remember to always seek professional help if you think you or a loved one is at risk of harming themselves or others.