Coping in Chaos: Managing OCD During the Coronavirus Pandemic
By Elliot Mears
The coronavirus outbreak has brought significant challenges to all of our lives but it is undeniable that for those of us living with obsessive compulsive disorder, it has brought unique and overwhelming hurdles and exacerbated existing ones. A period of such high anxiety, uncertainty and fear for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones fuels OCD’s fire. Those of us with contamination obsessions have been living our lives in a state of anxiety and rituals fitting for a global pandemic for a long time – now that we find ourselves in a real one the disorder goes into overdrive. We are bombarded with our worst fears constantly through the news, social media and conversations with friends and family. A lot of us are also seeing treatment come to a halt as therapy and psychiatry appointments are cancelled. Having our usual routines disrupted leaves time for thoughts to spiral in times where we would otherwise be distracted. If you’re anything like me, you’re feeling overwhelmed and your brain is throwing you intrusive thoughts left, right and centre. It’s easy to feel out of control and powerless, easy to fall into OCD’s grip; though times are uncertain and scary, there are some things we can do to feel a little calmer.
It is important to remember that although we can’t be sure exactly when, this, like all things, shall pass. You will be able to resume therapy (if you’re receiving it), you will be able to see your friends in person again, the rhythm and routine of your life will return. These things are not gone, but on pause. Make a list of things you’re looking forward to doing when this blows over – activities as simple as returning to work or school, or a holiday you want to go on. When one is overwhelmed with the present moment, I find it is comforting to know that better ones lie ahead.
Perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve been given is to limit my news consumption. Whilst it is important to stay informed, do so on a need-to-know basis; for example you do need to know the most recent guidelines about social distancing and self-isolation in your country but you don’t need to know and be checking the death tolls in every country. I appreciate this can be incredibly difficult, especially if checking the news is or has become a compulsion for you, so I would suggest setting yourself a time limit for each day and ensuring your news comes from a reputable source, as it can be all too easy to end up reading sensationalised or inaccurate news which will only frighten you further. I try my best to stick to 10 minutes of reading the BBC News website but set your limit wherever you feel is realistic for you at the moment and you can always decrease it when you feel you’ve mastered sticking to the first limit. If you get your news via the TV or radio, try and stick to just one briefing; in the UK we have a news programme first thing in the morning, then again at 1pm, then at 6pm and again at 10pm – you don’t need to watch more than one to get the necessary information. I also think it’s wise to make sure you aren’t looking at the news right before you go to bed so that you aren’t lying awake thinking about what you’ve just read, set a cut off time after which you don’t look at any news stories.
Even when we are setting limits on the time we spend consciously seeking news, it can come at us via social media and conversations we have with our loved ones. I would suggest limiting social media use, or curating your feed so you follow people who you know will make you feel happier rather than more anxious (if you have Instagram I recommend @morganharpernichols for beautiful art and uplifting quotes, @mattzhaig who posts a lot of insightful things about mental health, finding pages surrounding your interests and following pages who post cute animals). It’s also a good idea to try and set boundaries with your friends and family, for example if you’re calling a friend let them know you’re feeling very overwhelmed with the current situation and would prefer if you talked about other things.
One thing that is imperative for everyone right now is that we keep hold of as much of normality and routine as possible. It can be easy to think life has completely stopped but it hasn’t – it’s just different for now. Keep taking your medications on time if you have them, keep getting exercise, keep doing the things that you enjoy where it’s possible. If you have therapy homework or exposures you would normally be doing, keep doing them, your recovery doesn’t have to stop. Stay connected with the people in your life, this doesn’t have to mean social isolation, in the age of the internet we are more connected to each other than ever before. I’ve had group video calls with friends I’d like to see as well as with the people from my support group and I cannot tell you how valuable that time has been. Even half an hour spent chatting with a friend can make things seem a lot brighter and soothe an anxious mind. You are not in this alone, the connections you have with others are still there and are vital.
In a similar vein it is still necessary and 100% okay to ask for help. Don’t invalidate your struggles just because others are facing different ones. Yes there are people losing loved ones because of this virus but knowing that will not make your distress disappear. There will always be someone worse off than you, that does not mean your problems aren’t real. The way you access your support system may have temporarily changed but the support system itself remains. Speak to friends and family about how you’re feeling, after all a problem shared is a problem halved. If you are able to have telephone contact with mental health professionals – do. There is also a wealth of support available from charities. If you’re in the UK the charity OCD Action run both telephone and email support as well as a lot of online support groups; Samaritans also offer a 24/7 confidential helpline and similar resources are available all over the world.
It is okay to feel overwhelmed and anxious, give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you feel. Acknowledge the uncertainty and the magnitude of the situation without giving in to and believing your intrusive thoughts surrounding it. Make sure you’re following government guidelines around handwashing and staying at home, not OCD’s orders, and try to accept that that is all you can do to prevent the spread of the virus.
The government and scientists aim to control the virus, OCD only aims to control you.