The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the ongoing worldwide outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) a pandemic. In response, public health experts around the world have asked individuals and organizations to take action to prevent and limit the transmission of this disease in their communities. This may create unique challenges for people in the OCD and related disorders community as we work to balance what’s best for population health and what’s best for our individual mental health.
We've put together the following resources that you may find useful. If you have questions that aren't addressed here, please contact us at (617) 973-5801 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who to listen to
A lot of people are sharing information about COVID-19, some of which is factual and some of which is not as clearly linked to evidence. It is strongly recommended that you only listen to expert sources to the best of your ability. The World Health Organization (WHO) is a trusted source for people all around the world. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a trusted source for national information, and for local information people are advised to listen to their state/city/county department of health or public health (click here for a partial listing of these departments).
What the experts are saying
- Practice “social distancing,” which means staying away from gatherings of large groups of people (such as large lecture classes, sporting events, concerts, etc.).
- Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being outside or in public places, before eating, and after you’ve coughed/sneezed/blown your nose. If soap and water are not available to you, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid touching your face, including your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Cover all coughs and sneezes, either with a tissue that is immediately thrown away or by directing your cough/sneeze into your elbow.
- Disinfect surfaces that are regularly touched by a lot of people, such as doorknobs, counters, tables, etc.
If you are feeling unwell, especially if your symptoms include fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, stay home and contact your medical provider immediately. It is strongly recommended you call ahead to your medical provider’s office before actually visiting — depending on your symptoms, they may ask you to come in for further testing, or they may advise you on how to take care of yourself at home.
How serious is COVID-19?
With emerging research showing that most people are at low risk of being impacted by COVID-19, these guidelines are mainly meant to help protect communities in general and especially the vulnerable people among us (such as the elderly and/or those with pre-existing health conditions). Experts are recommending increased personal hygiene and decreased social contact not because we are all at a higher risk, but because by doing so we can help protect our communities and slow down the spread of COVID-19.
It can be scary for us all to think about changing our lives in the face of a new virus. For people in the OCD and related disorders community especially, these guidelines might cause extra concern, anxiety, and/or uncertainty. A lot of the guidelines aren’t specific or definitive, leaving a lot of space for OCD fears and behaviors to take over.
For those living with OCD, regardless of symptom subtype, the current situation may be worsening or intensifying your symptoms. For people in treatment, the guidelines might feel contrary to what you have been working on with your treatment team. How can we balance what’s recommended for our mental health with what’s recommended for public health?
Adapting to the new (temporary) normal
In times like these, what the experts are recommending temporarily becomes our new normal. This may mean that you need to make some changes to your treatment, including which exposures you do, when you do them, how frequently, etc. What might normally be considered a “baseline” for people with OCD to aspire to should shift to match the recommended guidelines for as long as those guidelines are in place. A good suggestion would be to talk about the guidelines with your treatment team at your next session and go over how, if at all, your plan might change for the near future.
It is important for all of us in the OCD and related disorders community to remember that this is temporary, and understand that it may feel uncomfortable. You are not going backwards in your recovery journey because the baseline changes. These troubled times will end, and you will keep doing your best in the meantime.
What to do
- Before you continue reading this list, take a deep breath. Allow yourself to feel however you might be feeling right now, and make space for how that might change in the future. These are extraordinary times, and whatever you might be feeling is natural and understandable.
- Get news and updates from verified, trusted sources (such as those outlined above in “Who to listen to”). Put a time limit on how long you spend looking at these trusted sources, including the number of times you consult them per day.
- A maximum of five minutes per day should be enough to give you all the information you need to keep yourself and your family informed and safe. This may be difficult, but going beyond your time limit could give your OCD a chance to get hooked in, making it much harder to set reasonable limits around checking for news and information.
- Focus on the facts these sources are telling you, rather than emotions you or others may be feeling about them.
- Give yourself permission to set a basic safety plan based on the recommendations of trusted health organizations, and do not add to it:
- Disinfect surfaces once a day. Focus on the surfaces in your home that are frequently touched, and think about whether this is truly needed (for example, if you stayed home all day and had no visitors, do you really need to disinfect that doorknob?). This process shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes per day.
- Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after being outside or in public, before eating, after going to the bathroom, and after you’ve coughed/sneezed/blown your nose. If soap and water are not available to you, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- If you want to do more than this, pick a person to help you figure out what might be a reasonable and rational safety measure to take.
- Keep an eye on ways in which COVID-19 may be changing your OCD symptoms, including your obsessions and compulsive behaviors. Click here to learn more.
- If you are currently in treatment, talk to your team about COVID-19 and how it may be affecting you. This can go beyond ways in which it specifically ties in to your OCD — it doesn’t have to be changing or worsening your OCD symptoms in order to be affecting your mental health! It’s natural to feel a wide range of emotions right now, and your treatment team are great people to talk to about them.
- If you are not currently in treatment, consider reaching out and getting connected to someone. The IOCDF’s Resource Directory is an excellent place to start, and you are welcome to call us at (617) 973-5801 or email us at email@example.com if you need help navigating it.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY: Be kind to yourself in these extraordinary times.
What NOT to do
- Avoid the temptation to learn “everything” about COVID-19. Do your best to stick to your time and frequency limits on news or information consumption.
- Do not ignore the guidelines from trusted health sources, regardless of whether or not they go against what you are trying to do in treatment. Work with your treatment team to bring your goals temporarily in line with the new normal we all live in.
- Do not excessively wash your hands, as this may lead to injuring your skin and making it less protective against infection. Keep it to 20 seconds.
- Don’t let “social distancing” rob you of your support networks — come up with a strategy to stay connected to others even if you can’t see them in person.
- Call, videoconference, or text your friends and family.
- Get involved in online support networks (such as HealthUnlocked).
- Reach out on social media.
- Don’t let OCD make travel decisions for you. Instead, listen to official regulations and/or warnings about whether or not to travel to certain destinations. The WHO has worldwide travel advice, and the US Department of State issues travel advisories for its citizens.
More information and resources
A great resource during difficult times is SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline. More information, including how to contact it, can be found here.
COVID-19 information from trusted health organizations
- COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions (CDC)
- COVID-19 advice for the public (WHO)
- COVID-19: Managing anxiety and stress (CDC)
- Coping with COVID-19: Managing Anxiety and OCD (Aureen Pinto Wagner, PhD)
- I have OCD. Here's how I'm dealing with coronavirus fears (Vox)
- Managing OCD about coronavirus (Shala Nicely)
- Caring for your mental health despite the coronavirus (McLean Hospital)
- Some with OCD, anxiety disorders are struggling amid the coronavirus epidemic (Chicago Tribune)
- How to manage your anxiety about coronavirus (Time)
- What coronavirus fears are doing to people with anxiety disorders (The Washington Post)
- Coronavirus and our communities (NAACP)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness updates on the coronavirus (NAMI)