Anxiety comes in various forms, and each one finds a troubling way to manifest during hard times. However, when it comes to the pandemic itself - spreading germs - two specific types of anxiety are particularly insidious.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, and hypochondria.
OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “OCD” thrown around. These days it is broadly overused. In fact “OCD” is commonly used to describe someone’s fastidiousness. But OCD is more than just a tendency for detail - it is a disorder that affects over two million adults in the US alone. Children can also suffer from the disorder.
The reason why OCD is so problematic right now is because the disorder often involves fear or germs and contamination. Given the current state of affairs, people are being asked to do things that an OCD sufferer might do: frequent hand washing, stay far from other people, carry hand sanitizer and/or gloves, etc.
These precautions are necessary, but an OCD sufferer is driven to the point of excess. Someone with OCD may repeat themselves because of an overbearing need to do it “just right.” For example, instead of washing their hands one time they may wash several times- always fearing they missed a spot. The result is wasted time and damaged skin.
OCD sufferers also tend to ruminate. “Did I do something wrong?” “ Did I wash my hands long enough?” “ Will I be safe shopping for groceries?” These questions don’t just come up once; they nag at the mind of an OCD afflicted person.
There is a lot of rumination going on these days, and it is also the hallmark of another tricky disorder: hypochondria.
Hypochondria (also known as “health anxiety disorder”) is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with one’s health - constantly worrying about having a serious illness. A hypochondriac often assumes the worst about bodily aches and pains, or other symptoms. An itchy nose might automatically trigger thoughts of Covid-19, pneumonia, or other diseases.
Hypochondriacs spend a disproportionate amount of time online, researching possible health concerns and suspected illnesses.
Like most anxiety disorders hypochondria affects sufferers for long stretches of time. For some people, it may be a lifelong disorder. It fluctuates in intensity, sometimes being triggered by aging or stressful life events. It’s no mystery that hypochondriacs are struggling right now. As coronavirus spreads, no one wants to realize that they have become infected.
Many times, sufferers of hypochondria were affected during childhood by either parents or siblings who obsessed about health matters. A sickly childhood also contributes to the causes of this unsettling disorder.
OCD and Hypochondria: What can I do?
Both of these disorders can decrease our quality of life, cause us to be lost in rumination instead of enjoying the present moment, drive wedges into our relationships, and even make it hard to function in the workplace. Constant worrying and compulsive behaviors take time away from what we love. Instead, we become stuck on overblown assumptions and trying to handle exaggerated realities.
Anxiety disorders play with our body’s natural defense mechanisms. The fight-or-flight reaction once used to escape danger in nature, becomes overactive when dealing with day-to-day problems. Of course, covid-19 warrants a fair share of precaution. However, staying safe does not mean you have to obsess until your life is suffering.
Recognizing irrational fears and stressful mental states is the first step on the road to recovery. It may feel impossible when there is a pandemic still out there, but even now sufferers of OCD and hypochondria can take control of life.
One way to do this is by taking the precautions outlined by health organizations, and trusting that it will be enough to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
But dealing with these issues can be extremely tricky due to the way they prey upon our legitimate concerns, and cause us to catastrophize. They have always been tough disorders to handle - recently they have gotten a lot tougher.
If you feel like the constant paranoia of illness is starting to ruin your enjoyment of life and your relationships, it is time to reach out. Professional help is often necessary to treat OCD and hypochondria. Certain forms of talk therapy like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure-response prevention (ERP) have proven quite effective against anxiety disorders. Sometimes, medication may be added to the treatment plan.
Bregman Medical Group has years of experience helping patients through various anxiety disorders and other prevalent mental illnesses. If you feel like life is spiraling out of control, reach out for a helping hand. We offer online psychiatry and therapy right to your smartphone or computer! Schedule an appointment at www.bregmanmd.com/appointment/ or call 305-740-3340.