How COVID Impacts OCD Intrusive Thoughts
Last Updated: October 24, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated additional stress for months on end. There’s so much more to think about with nonstop news about case numbers, deaths and vaccines. This situation has been even more challenging for people living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Managing OCD symptoms with the pandemic’s additional stress and uncertainties can be difficult, but good self-care and treatment make it possible.
What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition rooted in anxiety. Upsetting and intrusive thoughts repeatedly pop into a person’s mind, so they’ll try to make these thoughts go away by doing specific behaviors. This pattern creates an irresistible urge to do repeated behaviors whenever the thoughts appear.
Unfortunately, modern culture has taken OCD out of its mental health context. People sometimes describe themselves as OCD about organizing their work desk or obsessed with their favorite TV show. Because of popular references, the general public may not fully understand OCD. It’s diagnosed in 2 to 3% of the population, but many people never come forward or seek treatment.
Types of OCD
OCD symptoms fall into two categories, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and compulsive behaviors. The following types of OCD are among the most common:
- Checking: Checking OCD involves fiddling with stoves, furnaces, locks, alarm systems and other things around the house. It can also include rechecking minor health symptoms despite doctors finding no problems.
- Contamination: Contamination OCD involves fears of being dirty or at risk of getting an infection. Cleaning and bathing rituals can be elaborate and time-consuming.
- Symmetry and ordering: Symmetry OCD is about the discomfort a person feels when a person’s surroundings don’t appear orderly. A person will straighten out books, papers or other objects in their home.
- Rumination and intrusive thoughts: Rumination is a mental behavior of repeatedly cycling through a specific line of negative thoughts. Unlike problem-solving, it does not lead to a solution or positive outcome.
- Hoarding: Hoarding means avoiding getting rid of unneeded objects. Some may believe the objects feel rejected, while others have strong beliefs that they will need the discarded objects someday.
Obsessions vs. Compulsions
The term “obsession” is often incorrectly used to describe an all-consuming focus on something. The psychological definition of an obsession is a persistent, unwanted or intrusive thought. A compulsion is the urge to react by performing a specific ritual or behavior.
Obsessive thoughts can include:
- Constant worry about becoming ill or getting hurt (oneself or others)
- Hyper-awareness of body sensations like breathing, swallowing or physical contact
- Trouble with uncertainty, often seeking more information or needing definite answers
Compulsive habits can include:
- Repeated hand-washing or cleaning rituals
- Following a strict routine of behaviors regardless of circumstances or need
- Checking and counting things a certain way as part of a ritual
Causes of OCD
Researchers aren’t certain what causes OCD. However, several factors can increase the chances that a person may develop OCD, including:
- Biological changes: Research has shown that the brain of a person with OCD functions differently, but the process and origins of these changes aren’t clear.
- Family history: OCD is not a condition that can be directly inherited, but it does tend to run in families. Experts believe this risk may come from similar genetic vulnerabilities or from observing and imitating close family members with OCD.
- Genetic factors: Some variations in a person’s genes are more closely linked with OCD, though this is not consistent.
- Stressful or traumatic life events: having a history of trauma or stressful events could make the development of OCD more likely.
- Having other mental health disorders: about 90% of people with OCD have another mental health condition. In many cases, the symptoms of both conditions are more severe.
How COVID Affects Those with OCD
Some people living with OCD have come through the last year feeling more stressed, especially if their thoughts focus on contamination. However, this is not the only stress-inducing factor that has come about during the pandemic.
Working at Home
Working from home changes how a person views their environment. In their comfort zone, people with OCD may not do all their typical self-care activities to keep symptoms in check. While this can feel more liberating in a way, symptoms may become more disruptive. Permitting their compulsive behaviors can become time-consuming, causing work quality and mental state to suffer.
Most people have stayed at home more during the pandemic, even if they go to their usual workplace every day. COVID-19 precautions can cause feelings of isolation and social disconnection. Many people with obsessive-compulsive symptoms may already find it challenging to interact with others and cope with their symptoms. Added isolation can feel like an extra dark layer over everything.
Unemployment is an emotionally exhausting and stressful situation. With the challenges of OCD, a person facing job loss may experience more intense symptoms. The concerns are realistic, but the intrusive and pessimistic nature of obsessive thoughts can make the situation feel even more daunting.
Anxiety About Public and Personal Health
The pandemic has put hand-washing and hygiene habits in the spotlight. For individuals who already have anxious thoughts about health and cleanliness, this is an added emotional burden. Some people have developed rigid cleaning and hand-washing routines or have taken social distancing to an extreme.
Even people who don’t typically think much about illness prevention have taken notice. As a result, the pandemic has magnified the connection between anxious thoughts and personal health.
Tips for Self-Care at Home
Self-care is a critical piece of a comprehensive OCD treatment plan. When a person creates good self-care habits, they learn to stay on top of their needs throughout the day. Self-care activities also promote the flow of endorphins and other calming body chemicals throughout the body. These healthy habits make daily life easier by keeping OCD symptoms in check:
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine.
- Avoid alcohol, marijuana and other substances.
- Eat meals and snacks with protein to keep energy throughout the day.
- Limit sugary foods, which can cause rapid changes in blood sugar and mood.
- Understand the effects prescription and over-the-counter medications could have on symptoms.
- Get adequate sleep each night and have periods of rest during the day.
- Exercise and find ways to be more active.
- Stay connected with friends, loved ones and other social supports.
- Take medications as prescribed.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation exercises to calm an overactive mind.
- Limit news and social media time.
There is no known cure for OCD. Like other chronic health conditions, people with OCD learn how to live with it.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a counseling approach that addresses thought, emotion, and behavior patterns. A specific type that’s often effective for OCD symptoms is called exposure and response therapy (ERP). A person is gradually exposed to situations that cause them anxiety so they can learn to manage their compulsive behaviors.
Medication doesn’t specifically address obsessions or compulsions but can keep a person’s overall anxiety lower. Meanwhile, self-care habits ensure that a person stays healthy, rested and relaxed.
Treatment plans are unique for each individual with OCD. If you or a loved one is struggling with OCD symptoms and a co-occurring substance use disorder, contact us here at The Recovery Village Columbus to discuss treatment options that can meet your needs.
FAQs About OCD
- How would I know if I have OCD or if my thoughts and habits are normal? Everyone has worries or intrusive thoughts at times, and it’s normal to stick with routines that work for you. Sometimes, anxious thoughts and inflexible habits get tangled up together and interfere with daily life. At that point, an assessment by a mental health professional like a counselor can help to diagnose if you have OCD or not.
- Does OCD affect all ages? OCD typically emerges in the teen years but can start as young as preschool. Most people are diagnosed by their early twenties, with males often being diagnosed at a slightly younger age than females.
- Are ruminating thoughts a form of OCD? Not on their own. It’s common for people to ruminate when stressful life events occur. When it interferes with a person’s life, rumination may be a symptom of OCD or depression.
- Is OCD hereditary? A family history of OCD increases a person’s risk of developing the disorder. OCD is not passed down directly or with a specific gene. A combination of environmental and genetic vulnerabilities is likely part of the connection.
- American Psychological Association. “Obsession.” APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed February 24, 2021.
- American Psychological Association. “Compulsion.” APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed February 24, 2021.
- Hyman, Bruce M; Pedrick, Cherry. “Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).” University of New Hampshire. Accessed February 24, 2021.
- McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School. “Everything you need to know about OCD in the age of COVID-19.” October 4, 2020. Accessed February 24, 2021.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” MedlinePlus, April 19, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2021.
- Zucker, Bonnie; et. al. “What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?” Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center, Fall 2017. Accessed February 24, 2021.
- Ranger, Laurel. “Greater disease severity with comorbid OCD, bipolar disorder.” Psychiatry Advisor, July 10, 2019. Accessed February 24, 2021.
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