Have you been engaging in cleaning rituals that would make Monica Geller proud? Between the shortage of Lysol products and states mandating masks in grocery stores, keeping your personal space clean might be one of the few things that make you feel a sense of control.
While it may seem like the entire world has come down with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) over the past month, the good news is most of you don’t have it. To meet the criteria for OCD, your compulsive cleaning must be excessive, must not be related to any real threat, and cause significant impairment in social or occupational functioning. The bad news is many real OCD sufferers are wondering how to manage their disorder during this genuine threat.
Whether or not you have OCD, following the tips below may help you regain a sense of control over your anxiety.
- Accept Uncertainty: At the foundation of OCD is intolerance of uncertainty. Unfortunately, the lack of information about COVID-19 only serves to magnify this symptom and resulting anxiety. You may find yourself compulsively cleaning, checking your temperature, or checking for updated information in a fruitless effort to decrease your stress. Set a goal of acknowledging and accepting the uncertainty of this situation. This may initially increase your anxiety, but with regular practice, your anxiety will decrease.
- Choose an Expert to Follow: There is a lot of conflicting information available about how to keep yourself safe from COVID-19. For example, some experts recommend wiping the outside of groceries and packages while others don’t. Some experts suggest wearing gloves when you go out, others say don’t wear gloves and sanitize regularly. Excessively researching to find the right answer will likely leave you feeling frustrated and confused. Pick a reliable source of information such as the CDC and stick with it.
- Follow the Advice of Your Expert: Anyone seasoned in the treatment of OCD knows that avoidance is not only considered unhelpful but can worsen the course of the disorder. However, when the threat is real, it is best to follow the advice of the expert you have selected, even if the recommendation is to avoid certain situations. This is the one time when it is ok to prevent contamination (as advised by the experts) by staying home, using barriers, and washing/sanitizing your hands.
- Set a Limit on Your Rituals: Your OCD wants reassurance that the risk of your fear happening is as close to zero as possible. It will cast doubt on whether you have adequately reduced your risk and create an urge to repeat or prolong your actions. For example, if you just washed your hands, you may doubt if you washed them thoroughly enough and repeat the washing. If you took your temperature earlier in the day, you might have the urge to do it again to see if it has changed. Set a plan for yourself of what you will do, and how often, and stick to it.
- Continue Doing Planned Exposures: There are several different subtypes of OCD, and many have nothing to do with COVID-19. You might have been working on planned exposures on your own, or with your psychologist. Keep doing those prescribed exposures without allowing your anxiety about the pandemic to interfere with your treatment plan.
As you work on these strategies, make sure to give yourself credit for small successes, and practice self-compassion when you don’t accomplish your goals. If your anxiety is interfering with daily life, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Most psychologists are offering telehealth sessions during the pandemic to ensure you never feel alone.
Francine Rosenberg, Psy.D., practices cognitive-behavior therapy, specializing in the treatment of adults and children with obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as stress, depression, and anxiety disorders.