Even as pandemic fades, concerns OCD behaviors will remain prevalent

The pandemic continues to take a toll on everyone’s psyche and that’s why Boston 25 is getting real about its impact on mental health.

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a diagnosis of being unable to tolerate uncertainty. It’s often exacerbated by a concern of being unable to keep a loved one safe.

The circumstances created by COVID-19 really created a perfect storm for OCD in many ways.

One woman told Boston 25 News, “Whenever I feel anything on my hands, I need to wash my hands right away. I’ve never had COVID-19 so I’m a little scared of that.”

Washing hands over and over again was one of the first public health messages associated with the coronavirus.

When asked if he was still washing his hands frequently, one man laughed and said, “Yea, I still do. Pretty much before after everywhere I go.”

Sanitizing and trying to stay germ free became and obsession for many people

Often, the rules changed from day to day on things like whether groceries needed to be wiped down and cleaned.

“All of that uncertainty is really unsettling and fueling an individual who already has some difficulties with OCD and challenges with uncertainty,” said Julie Ryan, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical psychology at William James College in Newton.

About 2.5% of Americans are clinically diagnosed with OCD in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. About a quarter of the general population can exhibit behaviors associated with OCD.

“It is a diagnosis of being unable to tolerate uncertainty,” said Professor Ryan. “Most people who have OCD try to neutralize those thoughts and images that just pop into their mind by doing some repetitive or ritualistic behaviors, and we call those compulsions.”

Professor Ryan isn’t surprised many OCD patients reported worsening symptoms over the past two years or that they’re also now more prevalent among the public.

Manifestations of OCD aren’t just about cleanliness. They can also be about order like focusing on how magazines are arranged on a table for example.

“I think this is the piece of the pandemic that we’re going to still need to keep working on, even once the virus seems under control,” said Ryan.

Mental health experts are now considering what will happen as the pandemic winds down. “I wouldn’t say that it’s like a light switch that you can just turn back off,” explained Ryan. “It’s more that there’s some underlying vulnerabilities that some people will have and if OCD has been activated.”

Another woman in downtown Boston said she thinks she will definitely continue to “wash, sanitize, keep spaces clean and be aware of her surroundings.”

When we asked her how she’ll make sure it doesn’t become obsessive, she laughed and said, “So that’s a good question!”

Professor Ryan says a person crosses a line when a behavior becomes overly time consuming or precludes participation in other

activities that were previously enjoyable. She says that’s when it’s probably time to get professional help.

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