OCD and Mental Health in a Time of Illness

Periods of public health crises such as the current coronavirus outbreak can upend one’s way of life, and introduce a great deal of uncertainty and fear into day-to-day activities. With expert international health agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 (also known as novel coronavirus) to be a global pandemic, many are putting an important emphasis on the way they interact with one another, as well as their level of hygiene.

Such precautions are understandable and indeed necessary to protect both ourselves and our loved ones. However, for the millions of individuals already facing anxiety-centered mental health conditions, such as OCD, the raised level of stress due to the present health situation can interact with established sensitivities, causing them and those around them to greatly suffer as a result.

OCD: Basic Traits and Symptoms

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is an anxiety-based disorder that normally combines obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, which eventually cause the individual facing them a significant amount of suffering.

OCD-based thoughts can be diverse, and over time induce many patients with OCD to develop methods to calm themselves, in the form of repetitive actions and rituals. For example, someone whose OCD manifests through an obsession to order and cleanliness may develop the compulsive ritual of sweeping the floor each time they get an alarming, intrusive thought. However, as over time this form of self-soothing becomes ineffective, individuals with OCD find that the repetitive rituals add to their anxiety, instead of relieving it.

Increased OCD-Based Anxiety Over Health Emergencies

Anxiety acts as a central symptom for OCD, and normally persists when the condition itself is left untreated. Although the anxiety experienced during OCD can be very disconcerting, OCD as a whole is believed to develop from a basic survival mechanism that became overgrown and ineffective: for example, the same OCD obsession over cleanliness and its accompanying anxiety over infection can, when managed and moderated, keep an individual healthy and safe from illness. It is precisely this attention to health, sterility and sanitation that makes people with OCD—particularly OCD-focused cleanliness—extremely susceptible to increased anxiety in times of health crises.

Reports from around the world cite patients with OCD, as well as general anxiety disorder and hypochondria, as being vulnerable to increased anxiety over the current coronavirus epidemic. Calls for increased vigilance when it comes to personal hygiene have at times referred to OCD rather carelessly, stating that “this is the time for OCD.” Such statements have triggered criticism from mental health advocacy groups, which stress that for those facing this condition’s various debilitating symptoms, OCD is no laughing matter.

Effective OCD therapy is more relevant for individuals battling this condition, and as such, empirically proven treatments such as Deep TMS serve an ever-increasing purpose. The only non-invasive medical device to be FDA-cleared to treat OCD, Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (or Deep TMS) utilizes magnetic fields to safely and effectively regulate the neural activity of brain structures that have been found to be associated with OCD. Its ability to offer empirically-based symptom relief is helping a growing number of patients maintain and improve their quality of life in an otherwise tumultuous time.

The heightened, global attempts to protect against infection play on the anxieties of individuals battling cleanliness-centric OCD, who even before the current epidemic faced significant distress over the possibility of contracting an illness. Adding to that is the fact that many of these individuals are working to diminish their OCD-based anxiety through evidence-based treatments such as cognitive behavioral psychology (CBT), or exposure-response therapy (ERP), both of which include exposure to the very stimuli that cause them anxiety—i.e. less sterile environments. To protect themselves against corona, patients with cleanliness-obsessed OCD must therefore focus even more on their own hygiene, which would likely increase the frequency and intensity of their symptoms.

For many patients with anxiety-based conditions, and particularly those battling cleanliness-focused OCD, the present coronavirus scare is a nightmarish, real-life manifestation of their most powerful inner fears. Empathy, a stable support network and an effective treatment course are vital components of their road to coping with the recent changes to our reality. And for this reason, it is important to communicate with one another over our shared and personal concerns, and help each other receive the tools and comfort we need.