The COVID-19 pandemic was a global crisis that permeated every facet of life. Social isolation, economic uncertainty, and the omnipresent threat of the virus took a profound toll on our mental health.
Anxiety, depression, and stress surged as people grappled with fear and uncertainty. Lockdowns disrupted routines, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and helplessness. Consequently, mental health concerns escalated, highlighting the urgent need for support and understanding in navigating this uncharted territory.
With people dutifully wiping their groceries and demanding that at least six feet separate them from another living soul, millions were engaging in safety-seeking behaviors that resemble the symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Might we be right to ask whether the stressors of the pandemic exacerbated or even induced OCD in susceptible people? Let’s dig a bit deeper.
The pandemic and mental health
Statistics and studies conducted during the pandemic reveal a sharp surge in anxiety-related disorders. The World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms worldwide. In the United States alone, surveys indicated a threefold rise in symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to pre-pandemic levels. Healthcare providers witnessed a surge in patients seeking mental health support, underscoring the pandemic’s profound impact on health issues well beyond the contagious illness at its heart.
Heightened stress and uncertainty were catalysts for exacerbating existing mental health conditions, and those already grappling with conditions like anxiety and depression faced amplified challenges. Pervasive uncertainty about the virus, along with widespread economic instability, intensified feelings of helplessness.
Characteristics of OCD
OCD is a chronic mental health condition characterized by distressing intrusive thoughts, worries, images, urges, sensations, or feelings (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) done to feel better or keep something unwanted from happening. Compulsions may ease people’s distress and anxiety for the time being, but they intensify a vicious cycle of fears and compulsive responses.
Some more well-known OCD obsessions revolve around safety doubts, needing symmetry or order, and contamination. Symptoms associated with Health Concern/Contamination OCD, a broad subtype of the condition, bear some similarities to what much of the world’s population experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic’s years-long run—even among many without the condition.
Before the pandemic, OCD was estimated to affect approximately 2.5% of the global population. However, the pandemic’s unique stressors have raised questions about whether the extraordinary circumstances may have changed this. After all, the pandemic caused many other mental disorders to skyrocket in both prevalence and intensity.
Anxiety and OCD: interplay and overlap
Anxiety and OCD share a complex relationship, often coexisting. Anxiety fuels heightened vigilance and worry, while OCD manifests as specific obsessions and compulsions, but also frequently features high anxiety levels.
Elevated stress levels, such as those experienced during the pandemic, frequently make OCD symptoms worse under any circumstances. Anxiety exacerbates one’s response to obsessive thoughts, driving people to engage in compulsive rituals to regain a sense of control and relief from distress. This heightened state of arousal further entrenches the OCD cycle, amplifying its symptoms over time.
Could the pandemic have caused me to develop OCD?
The COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented challenges prompted people to adopt coping strategies, some of which may inadvertently mirror OCD-like behaviors. Excessive cleaning, compulsive hand sanitizing, and meticulous adherence to safety protocols became fairly commonplace. For some, these behaviors provided a semblance of control in an unpredictable world. However, in susceptible people, these coping mechanisms might have evolved into entrenched rituals, blurring the line between adaptive behavior and potential OCD symptoms.
Mental health experts suggest that while coping mechanisms are crucial for managing stress, an overreliance on specific behaviors, especially in response to a perceived threat, can potentially cultivate OCD-like tendencies. The constant vigilance required during the pandemic may have inadvertently reinforced obsessive thought patterns, exacerbating anxiety and potentially leading to OCD surfacing in vulnerable people.
“While I can’t see the pandemic giving anyone OCD, I can see it being the stressor that kicks off the OCD that somebody already had within them,” says NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Patrick McGrath. “They just hadn’t had the right stressor for it to finally come out. But there could have been a different stressor that occurred that could have also done it too. That’s why I don’t like to say something gave you OCD. You have to have the genetic or environmental predispositions for it. You also need the right stressors at the right time to kick them off.”
Understanding the relationship between triggers and obsessions is pivotal in offering targeted support and interventions for those navigating stress, coping strategies, and mental health—and in the case of OCD, cataloging symptoms’ triggers is an essential part of treatment.
How is OCD treated?
A specific form of behavioral therapy known as exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is considered the gold standard treatment for OCD. It was designed to address the core mechanisms of the disorder—the anxiety-provoking obsessions and the rituals or compulsions that make obsessions worse over time. People who undergo OCD work closely with a therapist specialty trained in ERP to create a unique, structured plan and guide them through this evidence-based process.
Essentially, ERP guides you in becoming more comfortable with the situations and worries that have been causing you so much distress and anxiety, allowing you to live life on your own terms, rather than being guided by fear. Working with a trained specialist, you can gain the confidence you need to accept uncertainty and discomfort related to COVID safety, while still engaging in healthy safeguards against COVID-19 and other risks.
ERP has proven remarkably effective. Research consistently shows people experience significant reductions in OCD symptoms with this approach, along with improvements in stress and overall quality life. What’s more, research demonstrates that ERP delivered in a virtual environment is just as effective as in-person treatment, if not more so—which is well suited to the sorts of fears that tend to be related to contamination and health risks.
Start getting better today
If you think you might have OCD and are interested in learning how it’s treated with ERP, I strongly encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based, highly accessible approach to OCD treatment.
Here at NOCD, all of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. You can also get 24/7 access to personalized self-management tools built by people who have been through OCD and successfully recovered.
Your OCD symptoms may have begun or gotten worse in the past few years, but that doesn’t mean they’re here to stay. You can access expert treatment that’s been proven to help, and you can get back to living the life you want to live—not the life OCD wants you to live.