Story at a glance

  • "The onset of OCD can develop as a result of the pandemic,” says one expert.
  • “It likely won't result in the onset of OCD for most, though.”
  • The OCD community is generally coping relatively well with the crisis, thanks to treatment options, say experts.

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Could frequent hand washing, extensive disinfecting and other recommended actions we take to protect ourselves from the coronavirus develop into obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) later on after the COVID-19 crisis is over?

Many people have expressed concern about this, so Changing America asked experts in the field to share their thoughts.

OCD is a potentially debilitating disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) — such as fear of germs — that make him or her feel driven to excessively repeat behaviors (compulsions), like hand washing.   

"The onset of OCD can develop as a result of the pandemic. It likely won't result in the onset of OCD for most, though," says  Dr. Sapna Doshi, director and licensed clinical psychologist at Mind Body Health, located in the D.C. area.

"The onset of OCD typically involves a combination of some factors, which include a genetic predisposition and stressful life circumstances," she explains.

"OCD falls under the category of anxiety disorders. When people are anxious, there is often a sense of uncertainty and a desire for control," says Doshi. "Many people are taking many precautions to try to control the situation to the best of their ability and prevent infection. For most, washing hands and obsessions with germs will subside as the spread of the virus slows and we return to normalcy," she says.  


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We also connected with International OCD Foundation National Ambassador Ethan Smith. Smith, who currently lives in the Los Angeles area and is working as a successful writer/director/producer, was born with OCD and struggled much of his life until he received life-changing treatment in 2010. 

"If OCD develops out of this pandemic, it is because the individual was already predisposed to having the disorder, and COVID-19 was the catalyst for coming out of dormancy,” Smith says.

"OCD can manifest in a variety of ways," he notes, "...and is not solely expressed in hand washing and other contamination/germ related compulsions."

However, those whose subtypes — the way in which OCD manifests itself, such as in the form of fear of forgetting to turn off the lights or stove, hoarding or needing to symmetrically align objects — are already rooted in health anxiety may be struggling more now than those whose OCD expresses in other ways, according to Smith. 

An example of that happened during a recent live town hall discussion on Facebook where Smith answered questions about COVID-19's impact on the OCD community. 

"How do you stay in the game against OCD when the line of what's rational and irrational seems to be blurred to someone with OCD with the current state of things in the world?" a viewer wanted to know.

We asked Smith if stress due to the pandemic can increase OCD symptoms. 

“For some, yes. OCD activates with stress, good or bad. It’s important to note, however, the (OCD) community as a whole is coping better than most," Smith emphasizes.

He believes effective therapy is the reason why.

"Because of Exposure and Response Prevention — the front-line, gold standard of treatment — those that have been treated already have incredible tools to deal and cope with uncertainty. Those skills and tools are coming in very handy during these times. And I can’t overemphasize enough, it’s not the OCD that makes us more adept to deal, it’s the treatment."  

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a strategy in which a person, under the guidance of a therapist, is asked to repeatedly confront situations which trigger anxiety, then makes a choice to not engage in the compulsive behaviors to relieve that anxiety, which over time can result in anxiety levels naturally decreasing. In essence, it's facing your fears — contamination fear is one example — and not responding through compulsions, such as the need to disinfect, excessively wash, throw out or avoid touching.

It is estimated that about 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. have OCD, along with approximately 1 in 200 kids and teens nationwide, according to the International OCD Foundation

"The onset of OCD is typically seen in children and young adults, but it is not impossible for late onset OCD to occur in older adults as well," says Doshi.

Shayla Green of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, belongs to an online OCD support group. "OCD is exhausting to have as it is, but this COVID-19 pandemic is making my world terrifying to live in," she says. Green says she's utilizing relaxation techniques to manage the stress.

"It is important for everyone to actively engage in good self-care during this time to stay psychologically and physically healthy and resilient," says Dr. Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation. 

Szymanski offers this link to the International OCD Foundation's resource page for helpful coping techniques during the COVID-19 crisis. 

These recommendations include:

  • Stay calm.
  • Limit your social media and COVID-19 coverage intake.
  • Do your best to contain the anxiety that COVID-19 brings.
  • Set a routine for you and your loved ones to help build consistency. 
  • Reach out to your support networks.
  • Focus on controlling the things that you can. 
  • Do not ignore your thoughts and feelings.
  • Stick to (or create new) healthy habits.
  • Weather permitting, try to get outside at least once a day.
  • Develop a self-care toolkit. 
  • Find at least one thing to feel positive or grateful about every day.
  • Figure out a way to help others.
  • Remember — this is a new normal, but it is a temporary normal

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Published on Apr 08, 2020