The surprising truth about COVID-19 and OCD

WSLHD acting executive director of mental health services Professor Bill Brakoulias.

The COVID-19 pandemic will be a difficult time for many people, especially those prone to anxiety and obsessive behaviour.

That’s according to Professor Bill Brakoulias, acting executive director of mental health services for Western Sydney Local Health District.

Prof Brakoulias explained that about one in five people have a tendency toward compulsive behaviour, but only 1-2 per cent develop the debilitating pathological condition obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

“The surprising thing is my patients suffering from OCD are not doing any worse – in fact some of them feel better. They are always anxious and fearful of germs, so they actually feel validated by the current situation,” Prof Brakoulias said.

“There’s been no additional symptoms in the OCD patients I’ve seen so far. The change is in people who now see a threat for the first time and may become obsessively conscious. It’s similar to what we saw with hoarding – there are people taking hygiene, social isolation and other behaviours to the extreme as a way of coping with their anxiety.”

Prof Brakoulias said compulsive behaviours can occur in response to a fear or threat, but they aren’t usually a problem until they become distressing and start to interfere with people’s ability to complete tasks and go to about their everyday lives.

The warning signs for OCD include:

  • Inability to concentrate and complete tasks
  • Waking up in the night to do things (e.g. wash your hands)
  • Constantly checking for new information
  • Aversion to everyday activities such as cooking
  • Spending more than two hours a day washing and/or cleaning
  • A spike in water bills
  • Severe skin irritation

“If you recognise these signs then you need to acknowledge it’s a problem. Stop and ask yourself, ‘am I in a state of threat right now? Is my life in danger?’ Try to set the reality straight and remind yourself that you can relax,” Prof Brakoulias said.

“If that doesn’t work and the compulsive behaviour continues to impact your life, you should talk to your GP and consider therapy with a psychologist, or even medication. There are also online courses you can take through organisations such as beyondblue.

“If you recognise these signs in someone you know, don’t directly confront them by telling them they have a problem. Although they may have a serious disorder, it would be more productive to gently point out the behaviour you’ve noticed, and ask them to think about what they’re doing and reflect on the thoughts behind their actions.

“COVID-19 is a threat for everyone. It’s going to bring out the best and the worst in people. Some habits will get worse under stress, but we shouldn’t forget that people who tend to be obsessional are valuable. You would want your doctor or pilot to be someone who checks and double-checks everything – but not too much.”

For up-to-date information and advice about COVID-19, go to the NSW Health website or download the Coronavirus Australia app.