Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, David Turner – a self-described germaphobe who lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder – was terrified of being infected by a pathogen that would threaten his health.
During periods when his obsessive-compulsive disorder was particularly acute, Turner, 36, had a routine. Outside of his home, he’d use different strategies to avoid germs, like covering a train or bus seat with a plastic bag. As soon as he came home, he’d take off his clothes, turn them inside-out and place them in the hamper. Then he’d take an hour-long shower.
“If I got out and brushed up against the wall or something, I’d have to take another full shower again,” Turner says. The Los Angeles resident, who considers himself a “recovering germaphobe,” has written an as-yet unpublished manuscript that he says contains practical, personal and science-based advice for lowering the risk of getting an infection.
For millions of people in the U.S. who, like Turner, live with OCD, the coronavirus outbreak is amplifying their pre-existing fears of germs, says Mark Mayfield, a board-certified counselor and founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The coronavirus crisis “definitely exacerbates the fear germaphobes have about getting sick, and it escalates their isolation, anxiety and depression,” Mayfield says.
What Is OCD?
OCD is a “common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children in the U.S. have OCD, according to BeyondOCD.org, whose website provides facts about the disorder and information regarding treatment options.
Signs and Symptoms of OCD
People with OCD may have symptoms that include obsessions or compulsions. Obsessions are repeated thoughts, mental images and urges that cause anxiety, according to the CDC. These symptoms can interfere with their work, school or personal relationships.
Common obsessions experienced by people with OCD include:
- Fear of germs or contamination.
- Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion or harm.
- Aggressive thoughts toward others or self.
- Having things symmetrical or in perfect order.
The Germaphobia Spectrum
There’s no single definition of germaphobia. Rather, germaphobes can be on a spectrum.
“You may have someone who is concerned with cleanliness, sanitation and order, who goes above and beyond what a typical person might do to clean or disinfect their home,” Mayfield says. “They are concerned with their own environments but typically won’t impose their values on others.”
On the other end of the spectrum is someone who is so obsessed with cleanliness that he or she can’t have raw meat or eggs in their home out of fear of salmonella, can’t use public restrooms and engages in constant hand-washing.
Mayfield and other clinicians are seeing patients with OCD whose fears have been amped up by the coronavirus outbreak.
Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist based in New York City, says some of her patients believe the coronavirus crisis “confirms” their longstanding fears of pathogens. “It’s intensified their convictions about contamination danger,” she says.
Some patients say the pandemic is boosting their preoccupations and compulsive behaviors.
Increased levels of anxiety among people with OCD is understandable, but there are approaches for managing such fears, Dorfman says.
Here are six strategies for people with OCD to manage their fears during the coronavirus outbreak:
- Limit your exposure to information about the coronavirus crisis.
- Engage in activities that mitigate anxiety.
- Indulge in distractions.
- Maintain a daily routine.
- Monitor your intake of alcohol.
- Consider professional counseling.
1. Limit your exposure to information about the coronavirus crisis. Incessantly consuming news about the coronavirus outbreak heightens and perpetuates anxiety, Dorfman says. Rather than sitting in front of the TV or your laptop taking in coronavirus news for hours each day, pick your spots. “Define specific times of day to watch news or read updates,” she says.
2. Do things that mitigate anxiety. Exercising, meditating and journaling are all good strategies for managing your anxiety levels, Dorfman says. While you can’t engage in your favorite pickup or recreation league game or go to the gym or a yoga studio, there are still ways to exercise. You can go outside for a run or a brisk walk while maintaining physical distancing, for example. There are also a number of at-home workout routines you can do.
3. Indulge in distractions. Read a book, do a puzzle, watch a movie or play a board game, Dorfman advises. Doing these things can help take your mind off the pandemic, at least for a while.
4. Maintain a daily routine. With tens of millions of people in the U.S. ordered to stay home by government officials or their employers, chances are your typical daily regimen has been disrupted. But while you’re staying home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, develop and keep to a revised routine, Dorfman says. “Predictable schedules provide a semblance of control and can mitigate anxiety,” she says.
5. Monitor your intake of alcohol. While consuming alcohol may quell your nerves temporarily, it’s not a good long-term strategy. “Many anxiety-sufferers report surges in anxiety the day following consumption of alcohol,” Dorfman says. Limit the amount of alcohol you consume.
6. Consider professional counseling. Psychotherapy can be very helpful during times of extraordinary stress. “Having a trained third party who can help you develop goals and support you as you learn to manage your struggle is highly important,” Mayfield says. Many mental health professionals and organizations have moved their operations to a telehealth format, which means you can seek help while practicing physical distancing.