How People With OCD Are Managing During the Coronavirus Outbreak

An expert says they aren't doing any worse than the general public and offers advice for all of us.

By Fred Penzel, Ph.D.
March 16, 2020

Most people have stereotyped ideas as to what OCD is.  In the 19th century, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) was known as “The Doubting Disease.”  This was rather accurate.  One of the main features of this disorder is unrelenting doubt that usually centers on the sufferer’s fear that they’re in harms’ way or that they’ll inflict harm, purposefully or negligently, on others. Their obsessive thoughts about such things are intrusive and repetitive, creating severe anxiety and a wish to eliminate all doubts. They believe, however misguidedly, that perfect certainty will eradicate doubt.  Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t work because there is very little we can be certain about in this world.  Consequently, sufferers often resort to magical thinking or superstitious behaviors in their quest for perfect certainty, which still fails to provide relief.

Many people also buy into the stereotype that people with OCD are somehow all germaphobes who constantly wash their hands and overuse hand sanitizer.  There are, in fact, many different varieties of OCD, and their points of focus or preoccupation are limitless and unique to each individual. But, OCD has an uncanny way of picking on what will bother each sufferer the most. 

With the recent appearance of the COVID-19 virus, many people have asked me if my OCD patients were all “freaking-out.” There, again, is a stereotype. People seem surprised when I inform them that by and large, my patients do not appear to be more anxious than the rest of the general public, and in fact, are less concerned in many cases.  This is not to say that some sufferers out there with OCD stemming from anxiety around health issues are not overreacting.  I’m sure they are; however, if my own patients are any indication, the coronavirus has not amped up OCD sufferers’ anxiety.

There is, I believe, a simple explanation for this.  While there is doubt about whether any particular individual will contract the Coronavirus, there is no doubt that it is here, and that many people are likely to get it.  That creates a kind of certainty that might ironically work to assuage a sufferer’s anxieties.

In the past, those with disease-related obsessions tended to focus and fear less predictable afflictions like HIV or cancer, but the Coronavirus is more concrete and calculable. Interestingly, when those with OCD are confronted with the real thing (rather than an imaginary danger), they often tend to handle it much like everyone else.  A good example was a patient of mine who was an overly cautious driver. He suffered thoughts of having hit other people or cars when driving and would repeatedly check spots where he feared an accident might have occurred or constantly review such situations in his mind. He would even regularly check accident reports on the news — all in an attempt to get certainty.  One day, as luck would have it, he got into a fender bender.  Contrary to what you’d imagine, he handled it just fine. When I asked him why, he said it was because there was no question about what had happened so there was nothing to keep analyzing or checking.  With that clarity and certainty, he could let the situation go.

I have often noted that beyond the unique anxieties that manifest their OCD, my patients are just as intelligent and competent as others.  Many are well-educated and have responsible jobs.  When it comes to COVID-19, my current group of patients seem to have the same concerns as the general public: What happens if they close my child’s school?  Will I be able to go to that concert next week?  What happens if I get quarantined?  Will I be able to go to my job?  And so on. 

People sometimes like to think of those with OCD as being somehow weaker or less logical than others, but when I recently went shopping and saw aisles emptied of paper goods and cleaning products in my local store, it seemed to me that the general public is equally capable of working itself up into compulsive and phobia-like behaviors.

People often ask me how to manage anxiety in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, and the advice I offer is the same I give my patients:

  • Listen to what the experts say
  • Limit close contact with others as much as possible
  • Wash hands when it is practical and sensible to do so
  • Limit the amount of time you spend following news reports; when you do watch or listen to the news, stick to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO)
  • Stay home if you are sick
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Cover sneezes with your elbow or a tissue

One piece of advice I would give OCD patients that might differ from what I would tell the general public would be that if they sense their OCD spiraling out of control, they should seek treatment from a mental healthcare professional and confront their fear, meaning they should not start avoiding situations beyond informed recommendations from CDC or WHO.

About the writer:

Fred Penzel, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, has specialized in the cognitive behavioral treatment of OCD since 1982.   He is the executive director of Western Suffolk Psychological Services in Huntington, New York, a private treatment group specializing in OCD and related problems, and is a founding member of the International OCD Foundation Science and Clinical Advisory Board.  He is the author of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders: A Complete Guide To Getting Well And Staying Well and The Hair Pulling Problem, a trichotillomania self-help work. Dr. Penzel is a frequent contributor to the IOCDF newsletter, and presents nationally and internationally on OCD and related disorders.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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