Going back to basics can help OCD sufferers when it comes to COVID-19

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is having an impact on some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some of it is negative, but some of it is positive, experts say.

Del Camp, chief clinical officer with Ozark Center in Joplin, said anecdotal information is showing while some OCD sufferers, blindsided by the sudden eruption of the pandemic back in March, are dealing with heightened anxiety and repetitive behaviors — such as hand-washing and checking the news for the latest pandemic news — others have been able to take the sudden uncertainty in stride. Mostly because the people around them are adopting the behaviors they’d incorporated in their lives for years.

“Part of the issues with having OCD,” Camp said, “is that you feel different. You feel like your behavior is noticeably different from others, and that drives its own anxiety level.”

The growth of COVID-19 over the last three months into nearly every aspect of a person’s life has in some ways evened the playing field for some OCD sufferers.

“For some, it’s been a relief because everyone is now doing some of what they’d been doing all along,” Camp said. “Everybody is now worried about whether somebody is sick or not; everybody is worried about touching doorknobs; everybody is worried about touching the pen at the restaurant to sign their name.”

This connection with the public has made their repetitive behavior less noticeable or feeling less awkward than before.

“The more (they) feel connected to others, and the safer (they) feel in relationships, the better (they) are likely to feel,” Camp said. “For some people, whose symptoms were largely manageable, they can talk to someone or have their medications adjusted … and (they’ll) be right back on track.

“I’ve heard people say they feel better about their symptoms,” he said, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean their symptoms are better.”

For other, however, the chaotic and uncertain nature of the pandemic — centered on hypervigilance, deadly germs and contamination — has been enough to throw them significantly off track.

“The things that they used to do in order to effectively manage their condition,” Camp said, “are no longer effective.”

For example, the real possibility of illness may cause people with OCD to take extreme measures to keep themselves and their families safe, such as repetitive hand-washing, cleaning or being afraid to leave the home out of fear of harming others through contamination. Their fears may also lead to hoarding items, such as medications, alcohol-based hand sanitizers and toilet paper.

“One of the problems is with a pandemic, your world shrinks dramatically. You don’t get to go out and do things you normally would, or options are now curtailed or modified to a level where you’re constantly reminded that there is a risk (out there).”

To help overcome heightened OCD fears, Camp said, sufferers should go back to the basics by “stepping outside yourself” to see if responses to the pandemic and its risk are reasonable.

“If I’m willing to starve myself rather than going out and getting food, then the chances are that that’s an overreaction to what’s happening,” Camp said. “Remember, that’s the OCD talking, not COVID talking. There are plenty of social distancing and (masking) and things like that that you can do, and still be OK in those circumstances.

“It’s about understanding that even at its worst, you will survive (the anxiety),” Camp said. And by not engaging in compulsive behaviors, the more the anxiety levels will subside.

“If you fear something,” he continued, “and you run away from it, it gets bigger every step you take. So, if you just simply turn around and deal with it, then there’s a part of your mind that says, ‘It can’t be that scary because I’m facing it.'”

Expecting spike

Based on the numbers Del Camp has seen, there has been a rise in numbers of those suffering from depression, substance abuse and anxiety, in which obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder.

“If you think about it, we haven’t really been at this long enough to see a big spike on the mental health side,” Camp said. “That will be the real second wave, which is mental health issues, that are coming up. But I suspect we will see a significant spike in anxiety in the coming months, and for OCD I would not be surprised to see at least a moderately level surge, because it really has thrown off a lot of individuals who had coping mechanisms in place.”

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