Three years ago, lockdown would have been everything I was hoping for. I was halfway through my second year of university, and on the edge of a mental breakdown. All I wanted to do was give up my studies, move home to my parents’ house and hide under my duvet.
It was then that I was diagnosed with OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Contrary to what many people believe, most forms of OCD don’t revolve around germs – as a mental health condition, OCD is characterised by unwanted intrusive thoughts or ‘obsessions’, which trigger huge amounts of anxiety for those of us who live with it.
My OCD is made up of a number of different obsessions, but the one which plagues me the most is a fear of harm. When I was diagnosed three years ago, I was terrified of doing emotional or physical harm to my family. This manifested in a number of different ways, from fearing that I’d suddenly become suicidal to being terrified that I didn’t love them any more.
I also feared that I was harming society – I became obsessed with being a good person and felt guilty about everything. It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. It was exhausting.
Since then, I’ve managed to get my OCD under control using a combination of antidepressants and CBT therapy, the latter of which I stopped about a year ago. But still, when I’m feeling tired, anxious or worried, those familiar obsessions begin to creep in: am I a bad person? Do I love my family enough? What if I suddenly become depressed?
When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, I was scared of bringing harm to other people, like always. While I was still working in the office, I spent every minute analysing the slightest twinge in my chest or obsessing over whether or not I had a temperature. On the outside, I was able to hide this anxiety from the people around me. But inside, the idea that I could give the virus to someone – and they could die – was the perfect fuel for my OCD to feed on, and I feared being asymptomatic and not realising I was ill.
Since we’ve been in lockdown, however, these thoughts have actually quietened as my chances of being in contact with the virus is greatly reduced. In fact, while my OCD still causes me to obsess over whether or not I’m a ‘good person’ (being too late to sign up for the NHS volunteering scheme has left me riddled with guilt), everyone else talking about their worries has made me feel less alone in mine. For example, in our daily conference calls at Stylist, where I work as a junior digital writer, the team have regularly been sharing where our minds are at and all the weird and unfamiliar feelings we’re experiencing, something we wouldn’t have considered doing pre-lockdown.
If there’s one thing I hope we’ll all take away from lockdown, it’s the ability to talk about how we’re really feeling. Now when we ask, “How are you?” we really mean it – we don’t want to hear, “I’m fine” or, “OK”, we’re interested in hearing about the human complexities of this difficult situation. For someone dealing with mental health issues, those conversations can make all the difference.
How to manage OCD in lockdown, by psychologist Dr Meg Arroll
- Explore bibliotherapy: Try Reading Well’s mental health scheme, which has a list of books-on-prescription chosen by health professionals and patients that can help with a range of mental health issues including OCD, and can be ordered online and delivered while under social restriction.
- Draw your thoughts: It’s important to separate your sense of self from your intrusive thoughts and drawing what they feel like can help. Use your imagination and think about the colour of the thought, its shape and size. Often, we try to escape obsessive thoughts but this only makes them more persistent – instead confront the repetitive cognition through artwork.
- Practise exposure therapy at home: Set aside time every day while in lockdown to specifically concentrate on your intrusive, compulsive thoughts while not acting on them. Do this during a quiet time for two minutes at first, working your way up to half an hour per day. By doing this consciously, you’ll become better at identifying and managing them when they hit out of the blue.
Coping with anxiety
If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, or seek professional advice, here’s three articles that might help.
- 4 tips for dealing with anxiety, from someone who lives with it
- Everything you need to know about seeking mental health support during the coronavirus pandemic
- How to keep your worries about coronavirus under control