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Can Coronavirus Health Behaviors Trigger OCD?

The connection between coronavirus and compulsive behaviors.

If you have contamination OCD, you worry about germs everywhere. When my OCD was full-blown, it made me refuse to drink a coffee I’d bought at a Starbucks because one of the baristas touched the lid with her fingers, and I saw it, and I was afraid to drink it because maybe she had an infectious disease—or so my OCD made me think—and I could now get it. I wasn’t scared of that particular barista, just anyone touching the lid. I was afraid of the germs. This happened a lot. I’d pay for the coffee and take it outside—I didn’t want to be impolite, and I knew, on some level that this was overkill—and then I would throw it away.

That’s OCD. But that kind of fear follows most of us today in this moment of coronavirus. The world for non-OCD people now looks a lot more like the world that those with OCD live in every day. People who never had OCD have said to me, “I’m starting to understand what it’s like to have OCD! I saw a man cough and then touch the door in Publix, and I didn’t want to touch it.”

A big question I’ve gotten a lot these past few weeks: “Can coronavirus make you OCD?” Meaning, can these behaviors we’re all doing, like obsessive hand-washing, turn into OCD?

It’s a reasonable question. As I write and explain to my clients, doing compulsions reinforces OCD. Every time you do a compulsion, you train your brain to believe that you need that compulsion, that doing the compulsion protected you from what you fear. The more you do a compulsion, the more your OCD is satisfied. In this way, the OCD gets stronger every day.

So now we’re all compulsively washing our hands, and maybe our clothes, and maybe the groceries. Normal people today are much more thorough than I ever was at my most OCD. I didn’t disinfect my groceries! Coronavirus seems to prove the OCD person’s fears. When the virus recedes, won’t we keep doing the compulsions, unable to stop?

The truth is, some won’t. But some will. For several, coronavirus caution may turn into full-blown OCD.

Most people will come out of these weeks or months of hand-washing and face-mask wearing without developing OCD partly because you have to be pre-disposed to OCD to “get” it. You’re not going to become OCD just because you’re washing your hands every time you enter your house. You have to have the “O” and the “C.” Doing the compulsions doesn’t necessarily create the obsession.

But for those who have the OCD predisposition, yet aren’t clinically OCD right now, coronavirus behaviors could be a trigger. That’s the at-risk group. With OCD, you’re predisposed to it, and then something triggers it. This virus could be the trigger.

How do you know if you’re at risk?

No one wants to get coronavirus, of course. So, we’re all washing our hands to avoid it. But if you’re washing your hands with frequent, disturbing, and intrusive thoughts—you can’t stop thinking about getting coronavirus, about how you don’t want to get it, and how you do not want to give it to your loved ones, and you are washing your hands repeatedly, and for longer than 20 seconds—then you’re in the at-risk group.

If you’re compulsively washing your hands because the government has asked you to, that’s fine. You’re following orders or recommendations; your compulsions are not calling the shots. Your behaviors are not being driven by an obsession, but rather by responding to the government and the society around you. You’re in the safe zone, not a corona-triggered OCD risk.

A lot of my clients have checked in on me, to see how I’m doing. I have contamination OCD, and they’ve been worried that this would bring it back, full-force. But actually, I’m doing fine. I’m doing more compulsions, but I’m doing them because I’m being asked by the government to do them. It’s the government asking me, not my obsessions.

If you’re taking your temperature throughout the day, even though you feel basically fine, that’s a compulsive behavior. It’s not recommended by WHO. You, too, may be at risk of becoming OCD due to these repeated behaviors, motivated by the obsessive fear.

You might say, “But I’m reading the news every day and that’s causing me to obsess! How could I not be thinking about coronavirus every single hour of every day?”

If you’re obsessively checking the news, you could be at risk of OCD. Of course, anyone who is reading the news hour by hour feels overwhelmed by the scope of this problem. You can’t not obsess about getting coronavirus, or about the economy, or about your family’s safety if you’re reading the news all day. But if you’re obsessively reading, you’re also at risk because that non-stop reading is a compulsion itself. You’re reading to deal with your anxiety about corona. We all know that the news is not going to show you stories of hope and reassurance. The news watching will most likely increase your obsessive thoughts, in turn, making them even more disturbing.

So, what can you do if you’re in the corona-onset OCD at-risk group? Interrupt your compulsions, immediately!

  • First, stop reading the news all day. Kudos to you for reading this post; but you’ve got to limit your reading about this pandemic to once a day. That’s it. You’re on a restricted reading-the-news diet. One reputable source. One time. It could be WHO. CDC. One newspaper. That’s it. That’s what I recommend to my clients. Check in once. Find out what you need to know for your own life, that day. And then go on. You might even ask a friend to tell you the news if you’re afraid you can’t keep peeking.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds and no more. If you’re going over 20 seconds, or your hands are cracked and bleeding, that’s too much. And limit your hand-washing to what the CDC says. The CDC is not asking you to change your clothes or shower after being outside. Follow the experts; not your obsessions.
  • Notice any sidelong glances from family. Or long, drawn-out sighs from friends on the phone or Zoom. These responses may indicate that your friends and family view your reactions as extreme. They are protecting themselves from coronavirus, too. But if you are engaging in behaviors that everyone else finds extreme and unnecessary, stop them.

This is a scary, unnerving, unprecedented time. It calls up all of our quirks and weaknesses, our mental health challenges and bad habits. Our love of binge-watching TV. (Check out my next post: “Can Corona Make You an Addict?”) But it can also call out our strengths. All this time at home alone is a chance to really look at what’s going on inside our own heads (or with our own hand sanitizer) without the usual distractions. I believe we can let this experience challenge us positively, if we use it to consciously increase our self-knowledge and self-growth.