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Mental health impacts of COVID-19: ‘What it’s like to have OCD in a pandemic’

Obsessive hand washing, intrusive thoughts and incessant cleaning are already a big part of many OCD sufferers’ lives. But what happened when coronavirus hit? 

Not to brag, but I was stockpiling hand sanitiser before it became popular.

In fact, I was washing my hands, compulsively cleaning and avoiding people, too. I wish I could say I was a trendsetter, but I spent most of last year trying to stop these behaviours during therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder or ‘OCD’.

Most people don’t know about my condition. You wouldn’t notice it if we met at a party. The doctor doesn’t issue you with a ‘Hello, I have OCD’ badge.

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Jo Jukes knows what it’s like to have OCD in a pandemic. Image: Supplied.

“This skyrocketed once the pandemic hit”

This anxiety disorder is complex and takes many forms but one common symptom is the fear of contamination and germs. Other characteristics can include intrusive thoughts, hoarding, hair pulling, compulsively checking things and fixation with numbers or symmetry.

Since childhood, my key behaviour was the impulse to complete actions to neutralise an underlying and unfounded fear – I must switch this light on and off X-number times or bad things will happen. Through working with a clinical psychologist, I was finally making progress, feeling empowered and in control of my mental health. And then COVID-19 happened.

Germs were never my primary fear but this skyrocketed once the pandemic hit. I barely ate anything for a couple of days because I had an intense fear that food could be contaminated. My apartment was tinged with the permanent smell of bleach as I was sterilising it top-to-bottom twice a day.

The bleach also left my hands red, dried and cracked as no gloves were available in shops due to ‘panic buying’.

Cleaning became obsessive for Jo. Image: Stock

Obsessive cleaning took over Jo’s life

When we had a supermarket delivery, I sprayed every package with anti-bacterial cleaner. Then did it all again in case I hadn’t done it properly the first time. If you don’t, bad things will happen, I thought on repeat.

I also did excessive loads of laundry, including things that hadn’t been worn, somehow hoping that if my clothes were clean, perfect and lilac-fresh then maybe the world would be, too.

Most OCD sufferers (myself included) are not ignorant to how odd and irrational their behaviour is. To me, it always felt like backwards survival instinct. 

A surf instructor once told me that if I get caught in a rip tide, fight your instinct to swim against the currents, relax until you can swim to safety. So, what did I do the one time I was caught in a rip? Panic! I paddled frantically, becoming exhausted as I was dragged further out to sea.

For many of us, rationality dissipates when adrenaline kicks in. That’s how OCD feels to me, like manically swimming against the current even when you know it won’t save you.

OCD feels like trying to swim against a rip tide. Photo: Stocksy.

At least 500,000 Australians (2 percent of the population) have OCD, and many will currently be relapsing or struggling.

Crisis support organisation Lifeline Australia has reported that since the COVID-19 outbreak their helpline has received 90,000 calls per month. That’s a 25 percent increase since this time last year and around 50 percent of callers want to discuss coronavirus.

Martine Prunty is a Clinical Psychologist who has treated people with anxiety disorders for 15 years.

“Germ-phobia is one of the most common forms of OCD,” says Martine. “With every source of media telling us to wash our hands, avoid people and not touch surfaces, you can imagine how heightened this fear has become for people with OCD, and almost very validating.”

Martine advises that daily exercise, getting enough sleep and focusing on mindfulness exercises like meditation is paramount during this time as stress can magnify OCD symptoms. Restricting news consumption is also essential to keep anxiety at bay. “Limit your checking of [COVID-19] information,” says Martine. “Read only one or two reputable sites and twice a day at most.”

Keep moving for better mental health. Image: Stocksy.

When living through a pandemic, things that were deemed irrational six months ago are now part of everyday life and enforced by government guidelines. So how can we separate sensible caution from an OCD flair up?

Ryan Kaplan is a Clinical Psychologist and owner of Sydney-based clinic Be Psychology and Mental Health. He’s also a member of the International OCD Foundation. Ryan explains, “If someone is applying the protective measures in a way that is excessive then that might be regarded as verging on the irrational or part of the OCD. That might be applying hand sanitiser several times within a 15-minute period even though there’s been no contact with someone else or they haven’t left their house, and really having an irresistible urge to do so.”

As for me, after working with my psychologist I’m doing much better, and the bottle of bleach is taking a well-earned rest. But when you’re out and you see someone wearing a mask, keeping their distance, or looking stressed, be kind and give them space. They might be fighting against the current, trying to paddle for shore.

If you are struggling with anxiety speak with your doctor or reach out to mental health organisation like Lifeline Australia (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue.

This story originally appeared on whimn.con.au and is published here with permission

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