Managing OCD During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 03, 2023
3 min read

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) takes effort to manage even in the best of times. The coronavirus pandemic may make that even harder for some people with this condition, if they’re anxious about the virus.

Public health experts are right when they advise steps to prevent the virus’s spread, like hand washing, social distancing, avoiding sick people, and disinfecting things you touch often. Still, when all these steps add up over a day, it’s a lot to manage.

OCD is complex, and each person is unique. Some people with OCD may find that their condition worsens in response to COVID-19 concerns. Some may not.

People who have OCD often have unwelcome thoughts or obsessions -- ideas, images, feelings, and desires to act. For someone with OCD, these obsessions can feel like a warning sign of danger and that doing certain things (compulsions) might help to tame this anxiety. But those actions aren’t a true solution and may feed into the cycle of even more anxiety, obsession, and compulsion.

To fight the coronavirus, just about everyone around the world has been urged to wash our hands more thoroughly and more often, to disinfect surfaces, and to avoid touching their faces. For someone with OCD, these well-needed safeguards can be triggers.

The potential fears are many: You may worry that you washed your hands one time less than you needed to or stood too close to someone who looks well but is carrying the virus -- and as a result that you could get sick or you might spread SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to someone else. In looking for relief, you may worry about not being able to keep up your usual routine or get help from your doctor.

No. OCD can be caused by a lot of things, such as changes in your brain or body chemistry, genes you’ve inherited, and habits learned over a long time. But what makes it unique is that it’s a long-term pattern. It doesn’t come on suddenly, even in the face of something as troubling as COVID-19.

Many people feel anxious about the coronavirus pandemic. For people who don’t have OCD, these feelings don’t take over or make you want to try to solve something through rituals or compulsions. They can take a break from their worries while still following guidelines to help keep themselves and others healthy.

But for people with OCD, it may be harder to shake off the anxiety and compulsions.

If you’re being treated for OCD and have been making good progress, you may worry about whether you can continue with your therapy and draw a line between public health guidelines and compulsion. If your OCD hasn’t yet been effectively treated, you may not know where to turn for help or how to deal with the added challenge of COVID-19 anxiety.

There are a lot of ways to get relief, even amid COVID-19 stress. Here are some ideas:

  • Remember, most people who get COVID-19 don’t have serious complications.
  • Be kind to yourself and remind yourself that it’s a challenging time and you’re doing the best you can.
  • Follow advice from heath care professionals. For example, only wash your hands as often and as long as advised.
  • If COVID-19 precautions match up with your behavioral exercises for OCD, take extra care not to overdo it.
  • Follow guidelines for social distancing, but don’t isolate yourself more than necessary.
  • Get information from reliable sources rather than social media.
  • When online, avoid stressful people and websites if you feel overwhelmed by them. Likewise, you can limit how much news you read or watch -- enough to stay informed, without worrying.
  • Trust yourself that you can take creative approaches, outside of your usual therapy, to help yourself deal with OCD.
  • Take time to do things you enjoy: connect with family and friends from afar, listen to music, read good books, get some fresh air, sing or dance, watch TV and movies that make you happy, and take every opportunity to relax.