Is it anxiety from the pandemic or is it OCD?
Over the past two years, the fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of us to take a closer look at our hygiene, where germs live in our home, and how illness might spread from person to person, even on a microscopic level. People without obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) might have found themselves wiping down groceries with Clorox wipes, fearing social interactions without distance or masks, and excessively washing their hands, for example. Some of those individuals are finding that even after the immediate threat of death or hospitalization is decreased, their behaviors persist. How do we know whether anxiety-based behaviors are OCD? Below are some initial questions to ask yourself.
Are your habits context-dependent?
If you found yourself wiping down your mail in March 2020, you are not alone. At the time, little was understood about how the virus spread or what we could do prevent exposure. Now, infectious disease experts have more information about risks to spreading the virus and provide specific recommendations regarding safe practices. If you are able to adapt to new standards of safety and shift your behaviors depending on the context, your health anxiety is unlikely OCD. Individuals with OCD experience intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and engage in compulsions (behaviors or mental acts) regardless of the context.
Someone with OCD might say, “I know the risk of spreading COVID-19 by touching something is not significant, but I still can’t stop wiping down my counters multiple times per day.”
If your habits are interrupted, do they take over your mental space?
You might have picked up some new habits during the pandemic that you continue to do and find helpful. Maybe you upped your cleaning routine and have tried to stick with it. Maybe you keep some hand sanitizer in your car to have on hand. These habits themselves are not enough to determine whether behavior is OCD related. The more important question is asking yourself what happens if you can’t do these things? Can you still eat a snack in your car if your hand sanitizer ran out? And, if you did, could you let it go? If you would spend your day thinking about the routines you missed, or the small possibility of the “worst case scenario,” then you might be experiencing OCD symptoms.
Do your habits get in the way of your values?
We have all experienced a universally high level of stress during this pandemic. Taking care of our mental health involves understanding what “refills our cup” and doing more of that. Could you skip a cleaning day if something more compelling to do came up? Flexibility is key to maintaining mental health. If you miss out on time spent with your loved ones to maintain a rigid routine, that routine might be indicative of OCD.
If you are concerned that your symptoms may be clinical OCD, there is hope. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is used to treat OCD and is one of the most effective evidence-based therapies available. If you or a loved one might be struggling, the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) is a good place to start navigating your next steps. Visit their website for more information about OCD and treatment options near you. https://iocdf.org/