People with OCD are trained to thrive during a pandemic, but not in the way you think.
By International OCD Foundation Ambassadors:
Ethan S. Smith, National Ambassador
Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT
Shala Nicely, LPC
During his twenties, Ethan constantly carried thermometers. He took his temperature upwards of one hundred times a day, constantly monitoring his health for the slightest deviation from normal. Without the proper treatment, his insight into his own obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was low. His ability to cope with obsessions, and the anxiety and uncertainty they created, consisted of never-ending compulsions that severely disrupted his life. So much so that he eventually became bedridden and homebound.
Many people believe OCD sufferers to be hand washers, germophobes, and clean freaks. Hypervigilant human scanners perfectly attuned to detect and destroy enemy bacteria and viruses. So who wouldn’t want to be a “little OCD” in the current climate? The ultimate survival tool almost guaranteed to ensure one comes out of this pandemic unscathed!
The truth is, however, that OCD is a painfully debilitating disorder that manifests in a nearly infinite variety of obsessions and compulsions, not just hand washing and being clean. These obsessions and compulsions can consume every waking hour, disrupting one’s entire life to a point of non-functioning. It can be a living hell, and definitely NOT something anyone with the disorder likes or enjoys or anyone without the disorder would want.
In these strange days, one might think those with anxiety disorders and especially with OCD will fare much worse than the average non-germaphobic citizen. While that unfortunately may be true for undiagnosed and/or untreated individuals, we can actually turn to those successfully managing OCD to learn effective skills to cope with anxiety and maintain overall mental health during this COVID-19 pandemic.
certainty, comfort, and control, and through an evidence-based therapy called Exposure
and Response Prevention (ERP), we learn that we don’t have, have never had, any
of these things. We face our fears, tolerate the discomfort instead of engaging
in compulsions, and learn we can LIVE WITH THE UNCERTAINTY. Over and over and
over again until we train our brains to just be ok not being ok. In
time, the anxiety and thoughts dissipate. We act in accordance with our values
despite our concerning thoughts and uncomfortable feelings and reclaim joy in
our lives as a result.
While we all valid reasons to be anxious, the OCD community holds the key to living well in the absence of certainty and the presence of fear. You can use the same skills we use to effectively manage anxiety during these uncertain times:
Accept anxiety instead of wishing it away and making it worse. No one enjoys anxiety and it’s normal to wish you weren’t anxious. But when you label your anxiety as “bad” and try to get rid of it, your brain then misinterprets the anxiety as a problem and dumps more stress chemicals into your body to help you manage this “threat.” The result? You feel more, not less, anxious.
Instead, accept that it’s likely you will continue to feel anxious during the pandemic, and that this is okay. Anxiety is uncomfortable, but it’s not going to hurt you, and if you tell yourself you can handle being anxious, your brain is less likely to get confused and think anxiety is a threat. Accepting anxiety, not being afraid of being afraid, is how to keep it manageable.
Tell yourself you can handle uncertainty, because you can. This situation is scary because there are so many unknowns. But you have huge muscles for tolerating uncertainty already: you drive or ride in a car every day and that’s one of the most dangerous and uncertain activities people do. You willingly accept that uncertainty without even thinking about it! Recognize you have the skills to handle the current uncertainty, too.
Recognize there’s always very little in life that we can control. If we believe we have control over outcomes, we feel a sense of safety and comfort. But it’s unfortunately an illusion. While we have some control of our actions, we have almost no control over results. We can follow guidelines, practice social distancing, etc. but we still may get sick or spread coronavirus to others. Beyond our immediate actions, the outcome is out of our control.
Accepting this lack of control is empowering. Instead of exhausting yourself trying to micromanage everything you do and then blaming yourself when things go wrong, you can turn your focus to what you can do and find freedom in letting go of the rest.
Be self-compassionate. During difficult times, it’s reasonable to experience strong emotions. Not only are we experiencing fear and uncertainty, but we’re also managing sadness, anger, irritability, overwhelm, and stress. While we cannot choose our emotions during the pandemic, we can choose how we respond to them. We can create a hostile psychological environment where we are harsh and critical of ourselves and our feelings, or we can create an environment that is kind and self-compassionate.
Self-compassion is a tool that allows us to meet our emotions, no matter how strong they are, with tenderness and warmth. We can experience fear or uncertainty while also treating ourselves with respect and self-kindness. Using self-compassion, we can become our own support system, a place that is gentle, kind, and safe.
If we want to take self-compassion to a whole new level, we can also become fierce with our practice. Fierce self-compassion is an unrelenting commitment to taking care of ourselves during difficult times, similar to how a papa or momma bear commits to protecting the cubs from threats. Practicing fierce self-compassion during COVID-19 allows us to adopt a radical approach to self-kindness where we commit to being there for ourselves, no matter how severe this pandemic is and or how long it lasts.