The coronavirus pandemic is affecting our daily lives in nearly every way. Instead of going to parties or coffee shops, social distancing has us discovering the connective possibilities of Zoom calls and the wonders of obscure streaming platforms. For people with anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), however, coronavirus-related social distancing creates a challenge beyond learning how to do everything from home.
"A lot of my OCD stems from a desire to be in control, which is obviously not a thing that is possible right now," Michaela, 27, tells Bustle. "I've noticed an uptick in symptoms and compulsive urges, especially in the morning, which has never happened before. I think it's because I'm uncertain of what the day will bring."
"Individuals with anxiety disorders of all kinds may likely see an increase in symptoms during this time," Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. People with OCD can be triggered by uncertainty, stress, bad news, fears about contamination, or anything else — especially when access to management strategies is limited.
How The Coronavirus Crisis Is Triggering OCD Symptoms
Jaimie, 29, has OCD and a personality profile called highly sensitive person (HSP), both of which are influencing her reaction to the coronavirus. "I have been in therapy for OCD and tend to cope well, but stressful situations can bring a flare-up of symptoms," she says. "I’ll admit that I’ve gotten more edgy in recent weeks. I’m not sleeping well, I’m anxious, and my menstrual cycle is completely out of whack," she says.
A Ph.D. student, she is currently based in Lebanon and working from home with her husband. "We are quarantined on a compound where a lot of other expats live; we are not supposed to interact with each other but when we go out walking we sometimes pass each other at a distance and wave hello," she says.
Michaela, who is weathering the coronavirus pandemic with her family, has noticed her checking increase. "It waxes and wanes in its difficulty depending on my thoughts and feelings," she says. Her work-from-home routine makes room for frequent breaks whenever she feels overwhelmed. "I've actually found that my 'prime time' working from home is in the early evening, once my initial anxiety and OCD for the day has started to wane."
How People With OCD Are Managing Coronavirus-Related Triggers
People with OCD may be triggered by their inability to keep up their normal routines, Dr. Klapow says. "It is important to recognize that you may not have the bandwidth to accomplish what you normally would," he says. He recommends that anybody having a hard time with OCD pull back from commitments if they need to. Sticking to a plan can be really helpful, too. "I’m careful to keep my daily routine, always knowing what to do next, so that I can minimize those empty moments where I may be tempted to overanalyze," says Michaela.
Jaimie has been FaceTiming with friends, doing jigsaw puzzles, and finishing embroidery projects. She's made a plan for the next two months incorporating those activities: "Having these items on a to-do list reminds me that self-care is not bad and I need to make time for it," she says. Beyond that plan, she says, "Being able to look at the future and say 'I don't know' to the millions of questions that bombard me is comforting."
Michaela is limiting her caffeine intake, which she believes was contributing to her higher anxiety levels, and exercising every day. "Luckily we have a yard and some workout equipment, so I'm able to get in a daily workout. It helps me get outside of my head and calms me down," she says.
How People With OCD Can Seek Out Support During The Coronavirus Pandemic
Dr. Klapow says people whose OCD is flaring right now should reach out to support systems. "It is critical to be in close contact with your treating psychiatrist and psychologist if your symptoms are getting worse," he says. "It is also a time to rely on the cognitive and behavioral skills you have learned in psychotherapy to help manage your symptoms."
Jaimie is monitoring her body for signs of racing thoughts, chest pain, or difficulty breathing. If they appear, she uses techniques she learned in therapy, like distraction techniques, acceptance and commitment therapy, and exposure.
Now is the time for anybody with OCD to be gentle and take it day by day. "Extend yourself grace and compassion," Dr. Klapow says. This won't last forever.
If you or someone you’ve been in close contact with appears to have shown or be showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, visit the NHS website in the UK to find out the next steps you should take or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist