Coronavirus Gives Surprising Insight Into a Common Disorder
Parenting a kid with OCD? Coronavirus can help you understand what it's like.
Posted Mar 26, 2020
You’re in the kitchen, when suddenly, one of your children sneezes. Instantly, you freeze. Does he have the coronavirus? What if he’s infected? You start to wash your hands, and immediately start spraying every surface in the kitchen. You know that your son has seasonal allergies, and he’s probably not contagious, but you can’t be sure. You start to feel furious towards your son, and that makes you feel guilty. I mean, the kid sneezed! It’s not his fault. As you think about it, you realize you haven’t been concentrating on the voice memo you’ve been listening to from your boss. That makes you feel even more stressed out.
Welcome to daily life with the coronavirus. And welcome to some insight into what it’s like to have an anxiety disorder or OCD. This kind of stressful, moment-to-moment calculation is what life is like all the time for many people with OCD. The inability to look away from that kid in the supermarket with a runny nose—needing to track where he is, just in case he touches you; the need to obsessively monitor the news about outbreaks; the feeling of contamination and uncertainty.
The thing about OCD is that it’s a chronic inability to deal with uncertainty. Your son is probably not contagious, but you don’t know for sure, right? That meeting your boss wants you to attend is probably not going to kill you (although it might bore you to death!). Tracking various people in your family who may or may not be sick isn’t going to be helpful, but that’s where your brain is going. As much as you’d like to listen to that voice note, you simply can’t. Your need to obsessively monitor everyone in the family is much more compelling.
Great! I’m so happy you’re experiencing this.
To understand why, let’s talk about a psychologist named George Loewenstein. He studied a cognitive bias called the “hot/cold empathy gap.” Basically, this gap suggests that humans are very bad predictors of their own behavior. The idea is that we have two basic states – our “cold” state, when we’re calm and rational, and our “hot” state, when our emotions are activated. When we’re in a “cold” state, we know all the answers. If my child is acting disrespectful, I will calmly talk to him about what might be underlying his behavior. If my sister in law makes a comment that gets under my skin, I will remember that we all have baggage, and I will respond calmly. If I go to that fancy wedding, and I see that delicious cake that’s my favorite, I will remember that I’m on a diet, and I'll stick to salad and Diet Coke.
But what happens in real life? We’re 10 minutes late to that dentist visit, the child is being extremely unreasonable, we’re stressed out at the thought of the traffic and the secretary’s snide remark, and we find ourselves yelling. Our sister in law makes that comment just at the worst time (maybe that day that we were late to the dentist appointment and still smarting from hearing ourselves yell?) and we shoot back a snarky comment of our own. Oh, and that cake was delicious!
The only way to truly understand what it’s like to be in a hot state is to be in a hot state. That’s why in therapy, I sometimes trigger panic attacks with my patients. Not because I enjoy torturing people, but because I can’t help you get out of a hot state unless you are in one. Then, we can talk about how to handle the hot state – when you’re in it.
Coronavirus puts us in the kind of hot state that most OCD patients live in year-round. Now that we’ve felt it, it’s much easier to understand it. My mother, who has compromised immunity and poor lung function, lives with my family. The other day, I was washing my hands, and I got distracted. I started asking myself “Did I wash my hands yet? I’m not sure I washed between my fingers. Maybe I should wash my hands again?” Since I have a security camera in my kitchen, I watched the footage that night. Turns out, I washed my hands thoroughly three times.
Like my OCD patients, my brain’s “done” switch didn’t click on, because I was so distracted by the call I was busy with. So, I repeated the action three times. Watching myself do that gave me a lot of insight into what it feels like not to have that “done” button click in my brain. It really isn’t a pleasant feeling.
I probably understand OCD as well as it’s possible to if you don’t have it yourself. But until I experienced the “hot” state of feeling so uncertain and compelled to repeat an action, I was missing a certain level of insight.
There’s also the uncertainty of the implications of coronavirus. Will it impact the economy? Will events be cancelled? What type of dangers are lurking that we haven’t even thought of? These are thoughts that are both extremely compelling and almost impossible to act upon. Sure, we can stockpile toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but we can’t predict dangers we haven’t thought of.
This type of compelling worry cycle that we also can’t do anything about is what it’s like to live with anxiety. We know it’s counterproductive to worry—in fact, worrying increases stress, which lowers immunity—but the thoughts are so compelling and “sticky” that it’s hard to dismiss them.
If there’s one “good” takeaway from coronavirus, it may be this: The insight we gain into what it’s like to live in a “hot” state, the empathy we should feel, and why it’s so important to treat anxiety and OCD, because no one should have to live like this permanently.
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020
Loewenstein, G. (2005). Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision making. Health Psychology, 24(4, Suppl), S49–S56. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.24.4.S49