OCD Nation: Are We All Destined to Become OCD?

Here’s my short answer:  NO.

First of all, no one can actually be OCD, although someone can have OCD.

But let’s backtrack a bit.  What actually is OCD? OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (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.”

We tend to throw around the acronym OCD a lot.  Sometimes, we’re partially accurate in describing the low-end of the spectrum, such as when someone needs his books in perfect order on the shelf or uses hand sanitizer everytime she shakes a few hands.  Other times, we’re much less accurate, like when we say it to describe someone who always goes back to check to make sure their car door is locked. That actually has to do more with conscious memory. A lot of times when we go to lock our door, or put down our keys, we’re thinking about 10 other things and don’t consciously think about the action we’re doing. We’re so distracted that we don’t even remember doing it, so we go back and check.  Really, this is more of a lesson in staying present.  

I could go into a bit more of what qualifies as diagnosable OCD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders-5 (DSM-V), but honestly, I don’t love using the DSM-V and I don’t want to bore you.  The main thing you need to know is that what constitutes for clinical concern is when the behavior or habit negatively impacts a person’s everyday life. For example, if someone’s habit to keep his bookshelf in perfect order makes him feel better, even if it seems over-the-top to others, I’d consider it a positive or neutral coping mechanism.  On the other hand, if someone needs to switch a light on and off 7x, or clean their house all day to make sure there is not a speck of dust on any surface, even if no one is coming over, and their thoughts are telling them they have to do this even though they’d rather go spend time with a friend, then I’d probably want to work with them figure out the better coping tools and see what’s at root of their habits.

Now that we have a little bit better understanding of OCD, let’s apply this to COVID-19.  Right now, most of us are on high alert in fear we’ll come into contact with the virus. We’re washing our hands more, carefully dis-infecting our packages, keeping physical distance, covering our faces with masks, etc.  This is all important, and taking action to prevent ourselves from getting sick may actually help reduce anxiety.  But what happens when this is all done? (It will be, eventually.*)

*There may be a “new normal”, but we have the opportunity to make it a better normal.  A bit more on that topic below.

We can acknowledge the good take-a-ways.  Most of us, including myself, can afford to wash their hands a bit more and for a bit longer.  Some of us can learn to be a bit more diligent about coughing or sneezing into a tissue or their elbow rather than into open air.  

Also, a lot of us may remember from school that there’s a lot of good germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa) out there. Actually, as a nature-based therapist, I recommend digging your hand into the soil (some studies say that soil can act as an antidepressant).

So what’s going to keep us from compulsively washing and sanitizing our hands or obsessively thinking that everytime we go out we may contract a deadly virus?

Knowledge. Choice. Courage. Love.

Let me clarify, for someone who has a clinical form of OCD, it’s hardly a choice.  It is, however, a fear-based coping mechanism that has roots, often in some traumatic experience.  We also know that the symptoms of OCD can be greatly reduced with exposure and talk therapy. 

* While many people do find our current pandemic traumatic, by working with our emotions and thoughts in the now, we can limit it’s impact on our mental health.

What irks me the most when I hear others say that “we’re all going to be OCD after this…” (besides the “be” vs. “have” part) is that it ignores human resilience.  By saying everyone is destined to be OCD removes our ability to choose our paths forward. Sure, there are some things beyond our control, but whether it is by our actions, attitudes, or responses, we always have a choice.  As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankle said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

For us, if we can step away from our fear for a moment, we have the ability to look at our options for the future.  To step back from our fear, we must first realize what it is: a natural and primal response to a threat. It activates our flight, fight, freeze response, which is a great response if we’re being attacked by a large predator, not so much if for an invisible-to-the-human-eye virus. In the brain, intense reactions to fear stem from the amygdala, while our prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational part of our brain, goes offline. In order to get back into a prefrontal cortex, we often need to do an activity that helps us relax.  There’s a ton of options, but physical exercise, deep breathing, going outside, and journaling are the tools I most often share with clients.

When we give ourselves this space, we can then start asking ourselves questions like: What does the science say about the spread of germs?  How do we want to live our life and what is important to us? What behaviors are helpful, and what behaviors keep us from truly living? Collectively, are there any actions we can take to mitigate another pandemic or similar event? (Ex: Vote!)

That fear may still be there.  It may not leave for a while. But remember, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).

If the fear and anxiety seem like too much right now, it also takes courage to ask for help.  Actually, asking for help may be the most courageous act of all, so I encourage you to talk to a friend or seek out a therapist. 

To end, my friends, wash your hands (20-30 seconds is just fine!), but remember to take the courage with you that lives deep inside your hearts.   

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Trying to keep your house nearly dust free with a dog, especially when you live on a dirt hill= impossible!

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