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How to manage OCD during the coronavirus outbreak

We spoke to our consultant psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford, Dr Andrew Iles, for advice and information on managing OCD in the coronavirus outbreak.

If you are currently living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and experience obsessions related to fear of contamination, fear of causing harm and/or fear of things not being in order, the current coronavirus outbreak may be causing a new wave of intense thoughts and emotions. And if you have experienced OCD in the past, you may be worried about your obsessions and compulsions returning once again, and that the hard work you have put into managing your symptoms may start to unravel as a result of your coronavirus-related worries.

The advice below gives you an opportunity to pause and think about ways in which you can manage your OCD in relation to the new challenges that coronavirus may have presented, and how to get access to the support you need at this time.

Coronavirus and OCD: advice for coping at this time

Is the 24-hour news about coronavirus intensifying OCD symptoms?

The news needs to inform people of the risks of coronavirus, and it is important to keep up to date with the latest guidelines. But tuning in regularly may be heightening your anxiety and OCD, and stopping you from being able to focus on anything other than the coronavirus.  

Rather than tuning into news online or on the TV, allow yourself to visit and/or NHS 111 Online once a day for a maximum of 15 minutes to understand any updates to guidelines and procedures.

If you have found that content on your social media platforms is also causing you to worry, think about muting or un-following the accounts that make you feel this way. This can stop you from constantly consuming coronavirus-related posts that may be causing your OCD symptoms to intensify.

Follow official advice but don’t go to excessive lengths

As many people with OCD have a heightened sense of risk and may assume responsibility for others, you may have found that your thoughts related to getting coronavirus or passing it on to others is leading to you ‘overdoing’ government advice related to hand-washing, by washing for longer, too regularly or with substances that are stronger than soap or hand wash.

Current government and NHS advice is to wash your hands for 20 seconds at a time and not touch your face. If your OCD tells you that you have not cleaned your hands well enough or for long enough, recognise the thought and really resist the urge to continue washing. Remember that you need to be following government and NHS guidelines related to coronavirus, rather than the ‘guidelines’ and ‘rules’ set out by your OCD. At that point, you would be washing your hands to try and soothe an obsessive thought, rather than to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Set rules for yourself and try to stick to them. And importantly, don’t beat yourself up if you occasionally give way to a compulsion. This will not help your emotional health in the long run.

We understand that this can be incredibly tough in the current climate when everyone is sharing advice on hand washing, or the idea that people aren’t washing their hands correctly, but please resist so that you can keep yourself well.

Pay attention to your OCD obsessions and/or compulsions

If you are finding that you are experiencing unwanted thoughts related to coronavirus, and your OCD is resulting in you carrying out compulsions in an attempt to cope with these, which may include checking, counting or seeking reassurance, now is the time to pause and think about what you can do to prevent these.

If you previously attended therapy for your OCD, look back over your notes and take it ‘back to basics’ with your recovery by doing any exercises and journaling that was recommended during your treatment. If you are currently in therapy or haven’t received any treatment, read the section below for advice on what you should do next.

Seek support for your OCD from a medical professional

If you can speak to your GP at the minute, as your OCD is having a large impact on your quality of life during coronavirus self-isolation, please do so. This may be over the phone or over video conference, but it is well worth doing. There is support available online. There are online doctors and therapists who can support you with the OCD symptoms that you are experiencing during this outbreak of coronavirus.

If you are currently receiving therapy for your OCD, check whether this is something that you can do online or over the phone. The relationship you have with your therapist is something that is special, so try to maintain communication over this time. They will be able to help you to learn how to navigate therapy and manage your OCD symptoms during the coronavirus outbreak.

At Priory, we have an online therapy service called Priory Connect which can put you in contact with a highly qualified specialist experienced in supporting people with OCD at this time when people are being advised to stay indoors. 

Stay in touch with your family and friends virtually

The self-isolation that many of us are experiencing as a result of coronavirus may be giving you more time and space to worry. There are positive steps that you can take, using technology, to prevent your OCD from worsening. Set up messaging groups with friends, family members and work colleagues, video chat with the people you are closest to and book in a daily phone call with someone who understands what you are dealing with. You can talk to them about what is worrying you, or you may want to use it as a welcome distraction.

OCD Action also has a forum where you can speak to a supportive group who will understand what you are going through.

Do things that distract you from both your OCD and coronavirus

Write out a daily schedule to keep yourself busy, distracted and most of all, well. From hobbies and self-care activities to chores and life admin, do the things that will stop you from focusing on your OCD obsessions related to coronavirus. There are many things that you can still do in self-isolation or when practising social distancing. You can still enjoy music, reading, gardening, and video games – do whatever makes you feel good.

Try and learn to change your focus

Spend some time thinking about and jotting down the things that you can and can’t control. Some of the things that you do have control over include:

  • Your social media, TV and internet use
  • Your hourly, daily and weekly routines
  • Whether you follow government recommendations
  • Your outlook and your emotions

And some of the things that you can’t control include the following:

  • The amount of products left in stores
  • The future of the coronavirus outbreak
  • How other people act and react to coronavirus

Writing these down and spending time looking over what you can and can’t do can help you to refocus so that you are concentrating on the things in your life that you do have control over, and the things that you can do to keep yourself well during the coronavirus outbreak.

Also, at the end of every day, try writing down any negative thoughts you had, how they made you feel and behave, and then think about how you could turn that negative thought into a positive:

  • Change “I’m going to get coronavirus” to “I’m following government guidelines that they have put in place for staying safe, so my chances of not getting coronavirus are very high. People do recover from coronavirus.”
  • Think about changing “I’m going to spread the coronavirus to other people” to “I am following government guidelines around social distancing and self-isolation, so I am doing everything in my ability to stop the spread of coronavirus. I am acting in the safest way possible at the minute. ”
  • Instead of “I’m going to run out of items at home”, change it to “I am well prepared and will use the items that I have in my home. Supermarkets and pharmacies will remain open for essentials.”
  • Think about swapping “There will be nowhere to go if I get coronavirus” to “There is government advice that I will follow if I do believe I have coronavirus.”
  • And change “I am so worried about how the coming weeks” to “The government is putting action in place to stop the spread of coronavirus. Scientists are working to get the vaccine. I cannot control the upcoming weeks and months, but I can manage my own actions so that I remain safe and well at this time.”

Continue to practise these techniques. Once well-versed, you will find that when you have this type of negative thought, you will have the ability to pause, acknowledge the thought, and find a healthier way of thinking so that you can start to leave such negative distractions behind.

Blog reviewed by Dr Andrew Iles (MBBCh, MSc, MRCPsych), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford

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