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‘You are not alone in this’: living with OCD during a pandemic

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Bron on the beach with palm trees and the ocean behind her

For SANE Peer Ambassador Bron, the pandemic caused her contamination fears to increase significantly. Marking OCD Awareness Week, Bron shares some of her hard work to connect, get support and give herself a break during this challenging time.  

What is living with OCD like for you?   

There is a massive myth that OCD is obsessive cleanliness or feeling uncomfortable with irregularities.

People often say, “Oh, I’m so OCD about that”. What they mean is they have a strong preference for how they feel things should be. It can be hard when people use the label OCD in a casual way, because people don’t realise that OCD is actually a serious type of anxiety. 

There are many types of OCD. I have a kind of OCD where I have extreme anxiety about any type of contamination and worries of any chance of it occurring. I specifically worry about food poisoning, surface germs and illness. There are specific compulsive things I will do to avoid it or fix it. All the compulsive things I do are to avoid illness.  

How has the pandemic affected your OCD? 

 Prior to the pandemic, I felt as though my OCD was under control to a level that it wasn’t affecting my life anymore. Occasionally I would have problems but most of the time I was ok.

When the pandemic started, I noticed my anxiety was very difficult to control. All my OCD symptoms returned with a new worry: COVID germs flying through the air.  

With all my other OCD symptoms I had some control over it, but with no control over my worries of the spread of COVID I had to learn to not overuse hygiene practices - to use sanitizer regularly but not overuse it. 

My thoughts about COVID germs flying through the air became so obsessional that I thought about cases of COVID being able to spread from one side of the country to the other in just a few minutes. 

What has helped you cope with these OCD symptoms? 

I saw my Dr and felt able to talk to her about my thoughts. She emphasised the importance of focusing on the facts. She spoke about how this was a good way to control some of the fears I felt. We came up with an idea that I would stop watching the news and unfollow the news and opinion pages on Facebook.  

I did however need to get accurate information about COVID so the only information I watched or read was the health department’s advice and press conferences. 

What helps you find support or connection during the pandemic and lockdown? 

I find it helpful to make sure I am connected to others. The pandemic means we have had to be creative in our connecting. I find Zoom, online games and chatting on Facebook to be really helpful. 

I have found that reaching out to others to check in with them helps me feel connected, as they will then reach out to me down the track. I’ve found it helpful to be able to book phone appointments with my GP, because sometimes it was quicker than an in-person appointment.  

I had already been seeing a counsellor before the pandemic, so I have continued to do so. She helped me to share some of my biggest fears about the pandemic and helped me to find ways to cope.

I would recommend counselling to anyone who may need some professional support to get them through the pandemic. 

Is there anything health services could do better to support people struggling with OCD in the pandemic? 

Health services during the pandemic should communicate regularly with the people accessing their services and ask how they are coping with lockdowns, or ask if they are coping.

Health services shouldn’t shy away from these discussions as it may be the first time someone experiences mental health issues, and they might not understand what is happening. If someone starts the conversation it makes it easier to talk about. 

If GPs see someone who is experiencing anxiety and depression, they should consider referring people to counselling or psychology appointments.  

What advice do you have for others living with OCD in the pandemic? 

Please know that you are not alone in this. 

I would recommend that you try what I did and focus on the facts where possible. Also know that there are many people who worry about COVID that aren’t going through any mental health issues. So, what you are worrying about may be completely normal. 

Talk about what you are experiencing with someone you trust. Remember to connect with others, and that it’s ok to get support.  

Things I’ve tried to help me cope with the pandemic so far are going for a walk in the park and focusing on my surroundings. This gives me a short break from my thoughts. 

I found that when I was experiencing some of the worst parts of my anxiety, I tried some breathing exercises and some of them helped, some didn’t. But it was important to persist with it, as it has ended up being something that really helps. 

Sometimes I know I need to give myself a break, do something fun and watch Netflix for a while.  

The best thing to know is that you’re not alone. Remember that your GP can be a great first person to talk to if you are experiencing any kind of anxiety. If you feel alone remember you can always ring the SANE helpline and when you do, you will find someone who will understand and show empathy.  

Where to from here? 

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