After the turbulence of the past few years, it’s encouraging to see more positive news, particularly regarding the waning threat of COVID. Most of us look forward to resuming normal activities as the virus transitions from the pandemic to the endemic phase. However, anyone suffering from an anxiety disorder — particularly OCD — may find that transitioning back to normal life has its own set of challenges.
In Living with COVID as the Pandemic Subsides, I explored why the transition from the pandemic might prove to be a unique trigger for OCD sufferers. Today I want to share some proactive advice on how to deal with OCD during this transition.
Contact your treatment provider
Rather than trying to make the transition on your own, consult your therapist and/or doctor and create a plan to help you confront and overcome your unhealthy fear while avoiding legitimate dangers.
One of the greatest challenges of the pandemic has been that it has made the most effective therapy for OCD essentially impossible. OCD is typically treated with exposure-response prevention therapy (ERP): With the help of a therapist, the sufferer confronts a trigger for their symptoms, but consciously resists the use of protective rituals. This gradually teaches them to manage their anxiety without resorting to compulsive behaviors. So, for example, if you become obsessed with contracting a deadly virus and compulsively wash your hands, your ERP might involve touching a toilet seat and then making a conscious choice not to wash your hands.
You can see why the pandemic would pose a major problem for OCD sufferers. When the pandemic hit and everything turned upside down, high-fear, low-risk ERP exercises weren’t possible—suddenly they were justifiably dangerous. So when the world returns to normal, you need to consult with a doctor and a therapist on how to strike a healthy balance between minimizing ongoing risks and resuming your ERP exercises.
Develop a plan and stick to it
I must stress that expert advice is crucial here. OCD makes it very difficult to objectively determine risks and appropriate management strategies. It exaggerates risk and encourages rumination and circular thinking about decisive action. If you’re trying to come up with a plan on your own, your OCD can tempt you to waste an hour looking up up-to-date statistics on vaccination rates and new variants in your community, just to determine whether or not you should be wearing vaccinations and wearing rubber gloves to the grocery store a Thursday. The moment you start questioning yourself, giving in to your fear of insecurity, you are giving your OCD the opportunity to take over and derail the whole process.
You can avoid all of this by creating a plan with health professionals you trust and then committing to it. If your OCD is trying to get you to reconsider this plan, remember that your treatment providers know a lot more about COVID and OCD than you do, and their recommendations represent a wiser course of action than anything you can think of on your own. Having a plan that you know you can stick to, especially in moments of extreme anxiety, will make it easier to avoid getting caught up in obsessions.
Watch your internet usage
A tactical recommendation is to carefully monitor your internet usage to reduce your calm-seeking, procrastination, and avoidance behaviors.
Ironically, while quarantine protected us from viral infections, it exposed us to a never-ending vector of toxic misinformation. I’m sure you know how powerful the internet is for your mental health, but people don’t talk enough about how it can increase compulsive thinking.
If you’re worried about the state of the world, the first thing you do is watch the news to see if things are getting better or (more likely, you suspect) getting worse. Instead of providing concrete answers, the internet is compounding your sense of insecurity and fear with vague comments and unsourced articles; In the meantime, each new page carries the promise and/or threat of a world-changing story with just another click of that refresh button. Like most OCD rituals, this form of pathological web surfing purports to offer a solution to anxiety, when in fact it aggravates it, increasing circulation with each repetition.
Unlike OCD, the internet is no fluke of human psychology, and many websites are maliciously designed to put you in a sustained fugue state of engagement and emotional arousal. The Skinner box mechanic that many sites exploit and encourage sustained engagement through occasional rewards can feed directly into the quest for OCD calming, which rewards repetitive behavior with occasional anxiety reduction.
Getting back to normal post-COVID life is already a big undertaking, even without bad habits holding you back. If you’re climbing Mt. Everest, leave the cigarettes at home; and when you’re treating OCD symptoms in a time of global uncertainty, turn off the anxiety box. Some strategies include:
- Use your smartphone’s “Screen Time” features to limit your web browsing;
- Download an app to block access to your favorite websites;
- If all else fails, smash every screen in your house with a sledgehammer, then buy a clamshell phone.
Internet addiction is a handicap you cannot afford on this difficult path.
Creating and following a customized plan to manage your personal challenges can help manage potential OCD as COVID wears off.
Copyright Fletcher Wortmann, 2022. Please credit the original author, Fletcher Wortmann, and Psychology Today.
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