Having OCD is a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole, the old arcade game where players try to clobber moles as they stick their heads up out of holes in the ground. For many of us, proper interventions can help OCD go underground and disappear for awhile. We get treatment, work hard in therapy, and it feels like the disorder goes into “remission.” But during stressful life stages and overwhelming events — like a Coronavirus pandemic — out comes ye olde OCD.
But fear not! You’ve still got a club in your hand, and in this article I’ll share with you how to keep clobbering away.
So without further ado, let’s get into our complete guide for quarantining during Corona virus with our not-so-dear old friend, OCD.
(And click here for 49 more tips on dealing with mental health during a crisis!) 🧠✨
Why Crisis Is a Party for OCD: Understanding Relapse and Magnification
As far as researchers can tell, OCD is a chronic condition — it never just “goes away.” However, with proper treatment, symptoms may decrease significantly. As stress levels rise or fall, symptoms will fluctuate in tandem.
That’s why crisis is one huge party for OCD: stress produces cracks in our carefully-built defense wall, and obsessions and compulsions rush right through.
Why is this? Because the nasty OCD cycle thrives on uncertainty. Like infectious bacteria thrive in an open wound, OCD needs an entrance point, and this entrance point can almost always be traced back to feelings of uncertainty — for example, feeling uncertain about whether you really locked the front door (leading you to check 3 times) or feeling uncertain about whether you will be eternally saved or not (leading you to re-do your prayers until it feels perfect).
The problem with crisis like the coronavirus pandemic is that it introduces many more points of uncertainty. Along with our normal anxieties, we have an additional load of “unknowns” to deal with.
(If you have other conditions on top of OCD, it gets even more complex. Check out my article about being a Highly Sensitive Person who also has OCD.)
These extra pressure points can lead otherwise well-coping people with OCD to feel like they’ve “relapsed.” For those who are already not coping well, the added uncertainties can magnify existing anxieties. Below is a chart to illustrate the extra burden. I’ve chosen just one subtype of OCD — scrupulosity (religious OCD).
Notice how many of our key anxieties include the word “might” or “maybe?” Listen to your self talk, and you’ll probably notice the thread of uncertainty that binds your whole OCD spiral together. Now you have not just everyday unknowns, but gigantic, critical unknowns.
Bottom line: OCD can get really out of hand during crisis because of the sheer overload of uncertainties.
To think about it inversely, we could say that if every disastrous situation like the coronavirus came with an operating manual that specified exact outcomes, our OCD would not be triggered at all.
New Terrain, Same Tactics: How to Create Battle Plans for OCD During Coronavirus
Thanks to my grandfather, a veteran Air Force pilot from WWII, I grew up watching plenty of war movies. One that I remember is the heartwarming film Tuskegee Airmen about the first African American flight squadron in WWII. Not only did the pilots face the crisis of fighting in a bloody war, but they also had the added pressure of widespread prejudice, harassment, and others’ lack of faith in their flying skills.
A 1925 Army War College Study had suggested that because African Americans supposedly “lacked intelligence and were cowardly under combat conditions,” they would never be able to fly. These airmen would need to disprove such claims and perform almost perfectly under pressure in order to gain the right to fly.
Under this immense stress, they repeated a phrase to each other: “Straighten up and fly right.”
When someone started getting sloppy in following procedure — straighten up and fly right. When steps or checklists might be incomplete — straighten up and fly right. Their success or failure didn’t depend on innovation or fancy new techniques, but in doing perfectly what they had already learned.
To me, it seems that creating a battle plan for dealing with OCD during crisis moments like a coronavirus pandemic needs to follow the same principle — straighten up and fly right.
We already know what we have to do. We know what our therapists gave us for homework. We know the necessary steps to disengage from obsessive cycles. We know what lifestyle choices help us keep OCD in check.
So do it.
Straighten up and fly right! Don’t be dumb. Don’t throw out all your hard work just because things are getting a little freaky in the world these days.
Let me share with you 3 things I did to create my battle plan once the shelter-in-place started (actually, I am living abroad, and we have mandatory self-quarantine and will get fined for going out for anything other than groceries or medicine). Here are the 3 things that comprise my own personal strategy to straighten up and fly right.
1. Avoid Aimlessness: Create a Master List
Avoid aimless drifting at all costs. The mind has to do something, and if we don’t give it something to do, it will start ruminating on something unhelpful.
I made a master list of everything I want to accomplish over the next two and a half months. I included work-from-home tasks, fitness goals, spring cleaning goals, socializing goals (because I’m an introvert and sometimes need to force myself), studying goals, and self-care and hobby goals. My list includes items like:
- Write 6 new blog posts
- Read 3 books for university course
- Crochet baby blanket for my friend’s coming baby
- Be able to do 300 squats nonstop
- Revise website design
- Take distance class
- Facetime with a friend
- Write research paper
- Fix the mold problem in the house
- Have a spa night
You get the point. Write down a ton of things you actually plan on doing over the next month or two so you don’t drift aimlessly. As the old proverb says, “the idle mind is the devil’s workshop” — especially for those of us with OCD!
One caveat: make sure to plan self-care activities in your list. Remember that we obsessives are terrible taskmasters. Be kind to yourself.
2. Commit to an Brain-Friendly Lifestyle
We’re all at different stages in creating optimal environments for our bodies and brains to thrive. I get that. Not everyone has the time, money, or ability to eat kale and do pilates every day. But we’ve got to be brutally honest with ourselves about what lengths we’re willing to go in order to see an improvement in OCD symptoms during problematic times like a coronavirus pandemic.
There are a number of lifestyle factors that contribute to brain health. In times of crisis, there’s a tendency to throw schedules, routines, and expectations to the wind. We can easily turn into couch potatoes when stress walks in the door, and then brain health goes down the drain very quickly.
When I talk about contributing factors to brain health, I’m talking about
- Decreasing or avoiding alcohol
- Exercising regularly
- Sleeping consistently (for a healthy circadian rhythm)
- Getting sufficient sunshine and vitamin D
- Eating nutritious food that will supply your brain with the ingredients it will use to make feel-good hormones, and will promote good blood flow to the brain (hint: you need things like flax seeds, walnuts, dark green veggies, berries, grape and cranberry juice, avocado, and whole grains).
- Drinking plenty of water (your brain is 85% water)
- Connecting regularly with people (even if it’s by Zoom)
These simple but fundamental building blocks to a healthy lifestyle go a long way to helping us maintain positive mental tone. With these steps and counseling, I was able to overcome clinical depression some years ago. I notice that when I get lazy, my OCD flares up and I begin feeling depressed again.
It’s always a reminder to straighten up and fly right.
3. Lean into the Uncertainty
Therapy for OCD involves coming face-to-face with our greatest fears and anxieties. For me, working through OCD is always like lancing a boil: it causes incredible mental anguish, but afterwards, I feel so much better. Now that coronavirus is causing so much uncertainty about the future, it’s another opportunity to go face-to-face with those terrifying feelings.
Yay! More ERP! 🎉
I’m using this time of coronavirus lockdown to not only get a lot of work done, but also to face more of my OCD anxieties. I’m trying to view this time of uncertainty as a crucible that forces me into a state of anxiety so that I will learn healthier ways of dealing with it (i.e. less compulsive responses). As I lean into the uncertainty, little by little it loses its terrifying nature.
Note: if you have never done exposure therapy with a licensed therapist, it may not be a good idea to try it out on your own, as it can cause significant feelings of distress that might be hard to work through on your own. Which brings me to another thought: the coronavirus shelter-in-place or lockdown (depending on where you are) is also a great time to get hooked up with an online teletherapist!
The Complete Guide for Dealing with OCD During the Coronavirus Pandemic
If you have OCD, you might be feeling triggered by the added stress and pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I get you. Totally. I’m right there in the same boat.
I promised to give you the “complete guide” for surviving the coronavirus pandemic as someone with OCD. But here’s the surprise: coping with OCD during crisis is the same as coping with OCD during the good times. There aren’t any shiny new tricks; it’s more of the same. But we have to be more dedicated to doing the things that we know will help us.
Let me tell you a story about one of my favorite high school jobs. It illustrates my point.
Some people have great high school memories of working as a lifeguard or babysitter. But my official job title was “Scraper.” Sounds spooky, huh? 💀
But actually, I worked in a nursing home kitchen and my job was to bring in the trays of half-eaten meals, scrape the unwanted food into a slop bucket, and slide the dishes into the sink, where another girl would wash them and put them in a high-powered 6-minute dishwasher.
The work came in three waves as three batches of nursing home residents were seated and served. While they ate, I could stand around, clean up my workplace, or do handstands if I wanted. But soon the food trays would start trickling in and I’d get to work by the slop bucket.
Scrape food, toss trash, slide dish. Scrape food, toss trash, slide dish.
My coworker and I had a rhythm, and we always did the same thing. Always.
When the wave hit its peak and all the residents started leaving the dining room at the same time, we still had the same rhythm, we just did it faster.
Scrape, toss, slide. Scrape, toss, slide. Scrape, toss, slide.
For 17-year-olds, this was fun. We enjoyed the fast pace and a job where we got to use high-powered sprayers and toss indestructible nursing home dishes like frisbees.
But just because the dishes were coming at us faster didn’t mean we changed tactics. We just did more of the same. We did it faster. We did it better.
That’s how OCD is during times of crisis. We don’t have to change anything. We just need to do more of the same techniques our counselors have been recommending to us all along.
You’ve got this. You already know how to whack OCD back in its hole. Maybe you just needed a reminder about where to focus your efforts: right where you’ve been focusing all along.
You might feel overwhelmingly stressed by recent events. This is probably because your OCD thrives on new crises. But you’re in charge, not your OCD, and it’s time to crack down.
In this article, I’ve suggested that the way to deal with added obsessive-compulsive spikes due to coronavirus is exactly the same as we would deal with them at other times — simply with more serious devotion to our intervention practices. For me, my main three include:
- Making lists to help me stay busy and prioritize the things I need to do to be happy, healthy, and productive,
- Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and
- Leaning into the crisis through interventions like ERP.
Despite what our intrusive thoughts may be telling us, we WILL make it through this time of crisis. One day we’ll look back on 2020 and realize that this pandemic took us big steps ahead in our journey to overcoming OCD.
I wish you all the best,