This is a very complex issue for a variety of reasons, namely because each person is different and so their OCD can be unique to them. Obsessions can range from consistent intrusive thoughts to seeing images in their mind or having impulses to take actions over and over again. Most people with OCD have a compulsion in which repetitive behaviours or rituals are carried out in order to prevent a perceived danger or threat.
For example, someone with OCD could have a focus on, say, hand-washing. Somewhere in their mind they “need” to wash their hands twice, sing a song at the same time and then dry their hands in a specific and certain way. They simply cannot face one single moment unless their hand-washing and drying technique is done in exactly this way. If it is not done properly the ritual must start again. It can be utterly debilitating, time wasting and sufferers feel as if there is simply no way out. It is a life-altering mental health disorder.
There are many rituals undertaken by people with OCD and one of the most common involve fear of contamination and germs. So news of the highly infectious disease of Covid-19 already causes distress, anxiety and concern for those of us without OCD, and can become an intensely difficult time for those struggling with it.
People who have a history of a hand-washing ritual, washing excessively to avoid contamination will very likely be “triggered” by the news of this invisible virus. There is already a spike in anxiety about the virus fuelling fears of infection for people with good mental health issues so this will undoubtedly trigger destructive compulsive actions for those with a more fragile mental health.
The compulsion to clean, scrub or wash hands will likely intensify and anyone who has successfully recovered from this behaviour, may well see the symptoms return. Being consistently told on every news channel, social media channel and food shop you enter, to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after you have touched something, someone or even food, will really worry people affected with OCD.
Many OCD sufferers may actually find it difficult to stop washing after 20 seconds. They may feel if 20 seconds is the minimum, they are compelled to wash longer or harder. If they don't, doubt may arise around the exact technique and effectiveness of the hand wash itself. Suffers may even go to excessive lengths using abrasive cloths or bleach, making hand-washing painful and create more problems. OCD is insidious and exhausting. So what can we do to minimise the anxiety and stress?
First, I would advise sufferers to take a break from the 24/7 news cycle and ensure that while you follow official advice, don’t go to excessive lengths that might be counter-productive. Ask yourself: “If I did not have OCD, what would I maybe do differently today?”
Second, I always like for my clients to take control of their mind without drugs in the first instance, so I would strongly suggest you take a long look at the App Store on your phone, because you can get some amazing apps to help you with breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises and very importantly, breathing techniques. I would recommend… Calm and Breathe.
Third, you can always see your GP, who can refer you to a local psychological therapy service or discuss taking a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or clomipramine, which is currently recommended by doctors as a first-line agent for drug treatment of OCD.
There are also lots of support forums online and, of course, a lot of very helpful information available from OCD-UK the national OCD charity, run by and for people with experience of OCD.
Jacqueline Hurst is a therapist and the creator of online life-coaching site The Life Class.