OCD in the Time of COVID-19
You’re obsessed with germs. It’s all you think about. At least, it’s the first thing you think about all the time. You can’t relax or think about anything else until you do everything in your power to avoid catching the germ. So you’re compelled to take constant action against the threat. You compulsively wash your hands, wipe down anything where germs could reside, and keep your distance from other people. And not just from sick people, but all people. You never know who might be a carrier.
In most eras, you’d exemplify a classic case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. You’ve got the obsessive thoughts and the compulsive behaviors. But now, in the time of COVID-19, your obsessive-compulsive pattern is not disordered but admirable.
You see, OCD is a fear-based condition. Those who suffer from it live with the constant dread of bad outcomes that await in an uncertain and dangerous world. In order to mitigate the risk, they vigorously control what they can. When these fears are deemed irrational or otherwise out of proportion to the actual threat, the person is diagnosed and labelled.
Yet what if the threat is real and the consequences catastrophic? Such is the case for generals, flight engineers, and anesthesiologists. And it’s why “a bit of OCD” is a desirable quality for data security professionals and lab technicians. It’s also why, during this pandemic of a highly contagious and deadly virus, our government and health leaders are encouraging everyone to behave in ways that, in typical times, would be considered OCD, and labelling those who don’t as “irresponsible” or “foolish.”
I’ve written previously that extreme responsibility can become anxiety, and OCD has long been considered an Anxiety Disorder (despite getting its own category in the DSM-5). During a pandemic, when our daily decisions have life-or-death consequences, acting responsibly at all times trumps enjoyment, economic prosperity, and ease of mind. The script gets flipped in a crisis. As Victor Frankl writes, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
Which brings me to a key takeaway from these strange times, and that is to avoid judging another person’s behavior when you haven’t walked in their shoes. So often we (mental health professionals included) are quick to label others as disordered or irrational, when the truth is that their behavior, thoughts, and feelings make perfect sense in the context of their life history or current circumstances.
Per the aforementioned DSM, an individual cannot be diagnosed with a Personality Disorder without considering the expectations of their culture. Similarly, we all should avoid passing judgment on someone whose situation and lived experiences are unknown to us. When you really take the time to learn about someone, you realize that even a so-called “disordered person’s” way operating makes logical sense.
For all of us navigating the COVID-19 era and taking it seriously, we now have a perspective from which to understand what it’s like to live with OCD. Ideally, we’ll come out of this being more understanding overall – not just towards those with obsessions and compulsions, but towards anyone dealing with behavioral issues. A little less judgment and a bit more empathy would be a couple of positive outcomes from these challenging times.