Negative COVID-19 Effects on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific researchers have focused on the overall psychological effects of public health containment measures like social distancing and quarantining. However, there has been less research on the effects of COVID-19 containment measures on patients struggling with certain mental health disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But speaking from a psychological perspective, patients diagnosed with OCD could be struggling the most as a result of the pandemic. OCD is a mental illness marked by the presence of recurrent obsessional thoughts or compulsive actions. One of the most common obsessional themes in  OCD patients is the fear of contamination. The distress caused for OCD patients with their doubts surrounding hygiene and the compulsion to stay clean has only increased as the demand for hand sanitizers, soap, and gloves has skyrocketed all over the world (French, 2020). 

OCD is a mental illness characterized by recurrent and intrusive obsessions and unwanted thoughts, urges, or images resulting in distress that lead to compulsiveness to relieve this distress. Obsessions are usually accompanied by intense feelings such as fear, disgust, or doubt, causing the obsessions to impact daily life. The most common obsession found in OCD patients is contamination. The contamination obsession could be related to body fluids, germs, disease, household chemicals, etc (International OCD Foundation, 2021). The fact that contamination is the most common obsession is an extreme danger during COVID-19, as these patients now have to deal with added stress surrounding their already demanding obsession. Although the pandemic is negatively impacting many OCD patients, it may be surprising to find out how the pandemic has altered many’s views towards OCD symptoms. 

Fig. 2 Data and the results of different variables in the study

Another extreme effect on OCD patients is that most patients cannot complete regular checkups due to the fear of contamination. Although there are telehealth and Zoom appointments, these definitely should not be considered as equivalences to person meetings. Dr. Patrick McGrath, a psychologist and head of clinical services for NOCD, a telehealth platform for treating OCD, explains, “The whole goal of ERP [exposure and response prevention] is exposing people to things that make them uncomfortable and then stopping them from doing their typical coping strategy” (Legg, 2020). Therefore, the lack of in person treatment prevents the full effect of exposure to uncomfortable things, hence preventingOCD patients from proper rehabilitation. Second, leaving the house during the pandemic is daunting; this fear is especially true for those suffering with OCD, leading to these patients not receiving  the medications and help that they need. As a result, many patients are not able to properly collect their medicines, hence leading to possible relapses of the illness.

The containment measures of COVID-19 have hidden and normalized the symptoms of OCD, as excessive hand washing, stocking of masks, soap, sanitizers, and disinfectants have become common practices. A phenomenon specific to COVID-19 is the newly increased need to be extra clean during the pandemic, which hides the otherwise obvious symptoms of OCD. With all family members constantly washing their hands, OCD patients may view their own act of handwashing as normal. In addition, other family members who, under “normal” circumstances, would question the excessive hand washing, now regard it as a normal behavior. This has led to the public being more accepting towards OCD symptoms. Therefore, patients may not be diagnosed or seek treatment, leaving them vulnerable to perpetuate their OCD behaviors. OCD behavior is also being advertised by health agencies everywhere. For example, the CDC site now recommends the population to “clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily… if soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol [and] cover all surfaces of hands and rub them together until they feel dry” (CDC, 2020). In times of normalcy, these CDC recommendations on how to be extra clean would be considered unusual, but now these obsessive behaviors are going unnoticed. 

Overall, COVID-19 has affected different groups of people in various ways, but we need to be more aware than ever of the effects this pandemic can have on patients with mental illnesses such as OCD. The obsession to be clean has heightened, interruptions of the recovery process have occured to those struggling with OCD, and the need to constantly be clean has been normalized. With 1 in every 100 adults being diagnosed with OCD, it is crucial that more attention will be brought to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on OCD patients.

Edited by Edward Xue

References

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COVID-19 and Your Health. (2021, February 4). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fprepare%2Fprevention.html

French, I. (2020, May 21). Acute exacerbation of OCD symptoms precipitated by media reports of COVID-19 | Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine. Cambridge Core. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/irish-journal-of-psychological-medicine/article/acute-exacerbation-of-ocd-symptoms-precipitated-by-media-reports-of-covid19/1B6810E7AC8CB708B8C0D27242D22A82

International OCD Foundation. (2021, February 11). What is OCD? https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/

Legg, T. J. L. (2020, May 28). Will the COVID-19 Outbreak Lead to More OCD Diagnoses? HealthLine. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/will-covid-19-lead-to-more-ocd

Obsessive-compulsive disorder during COVID-19: Turning a problem into an opportunity? (2021, January 1). ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0887618520301432

Silva, R. M., Shavitt, R. G., & Costa, D. L. (2021). Obsessive-compulsive disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, 43(1), 108-108.

Davide, P., Andrea, P., Martina, O., Andrea, E., Davide, D., & Mario, A. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on patients with OCD: Effects of contamination symptoms and remission state before the quarantine in a preliminary naturalistic study. Psychiatry research, 291, 113213.

Image Citations

French, I. (2020, May 21). [This image shows data of different variables and whether the patient felt like it decreased, no change, or increased]. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/irish-journal-of-psychological-medicine/article/acute-exacerbation-of-ocd-symptoms-precipitated-by-media-reports-of-covid19/1B6810E7AC8CB708B8C0D27242D22A82

The Vicious Cycle of OCD [Digital image]. (2021, February). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/obssessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd.htm

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