Contamination OCD and Covid: I have... - My OCD Community

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Contamination OCD and Covid

Anonymous_Sam profile image

I have contamination OCD which has gotten VERY bad due to the pandemic. I’m fearful of touching just about everything. Even in my home. My wife and son are much less vigilant and touch things like the mail and groceries and other things outside the house and then touch things in the home, and then I’m fearful of touching things in my own home. Many experts are saying it’s just about impossible to get the virus by touching things but they’re not saying there’s a 0 chance. So, I’m afraid and very anxious. Afraid to touch things in my own home. Is anyone else like this?

10 Replies

I would like to invite you to the OCD Support Network.

We are here to help and offer hope.

We are in this together.

Anonymous_Sam profile image
Anonymous_Sam in reply to

You said “I would like to invite you to the OCD Support Network“ - do you mean this site or are you talking about another site? If the latter, could you send me a link to the site? Thanks!

in reply to Anonymous_Sam

I would like to invite you to the OCD Support Network, refers to this site.

Remember there's rarely a 0 chance regarding anything. As long as you treat remote possibilities as significant concerns, you will be miserable, because you can never get absolute certainty and feel satisfied.

As someone who has some contamination OCD myself (though not bad regarding Covid), I've had to accept that I just have to live with some uncertainty, because the alternative is to spend my life worrying, cleaning, avoiding, and driving myself and my family nuts.

It's helped me tremendously to realize that most of my concerns are not valid but are instead the product of a malfunctioning alarm system in my brain. The alarms feel real and scary whether they are about genuine concerns or remote possibilities. We can't rely on our feelings; we have to use our rational sides to sort out whether something is a significant danger.

Of course just knowing that your worries are not rational is not enough to get rid of your anxiety. The primitive part of your brain that is sending out alarm signals doesn't understand that everything is okay just because you say that it is -- you have to DEMONSTRATE that it is. After labeling a worry as fake, you have to resist doing the compulsions that might make you feel better in the short term (cleaning, avoiding, worrying, ruminating, or whatever). This will cause you to feel very anxious at first, but the more you do it the more you will SHOW your anxious brain that its alarms are unnecessary. Eventually it will "recalibrate" itself and the alarms will become quieter and easier to ignore.

If you've never done ERP therapy for your contamination OCD, do some reading on it and try to start applying it to areas where you have trouble. It's been very effective for me. Good luck!

Thanks so much for your thorough response. I have done ERP in the past, a long time ago. I was able to do it for touching things because my fear of touching things (e.g., “I can’t touch that phone because other people have touched it and I could catch some illness by touching it”) was largely irrational and certainly did not involve something that was life-threatening. My problem now is dealing with something that IS potentially life-threatening! I’m afraid to touch things because they may have coronavirus on them and I could get infected with covid. I don’t know how to do ERP in this situation. If I do ERP and, for example, don’t wash my hands after touching mail/packages, am I doing something stupid and risking my life? Is the worry fake in this case?

Thanks in advance if you choose to respond.

For what it's worth, we try to wash our hands after handling mail and groceries at our house, so I understand where you're coming from.

I think I also understand your difficulties with determining risk about real threats when OCD is muddying the waters. I've been doing ERP for an obsession about a deadly disease (not Covid) since the beginning of the year. When I think rationally, I know that my odds of contracting this disease are really, really slim. But when I'm triggered and obsessing, my OCD seems to say, "Why not do the compulsions and make the odds really, really, REALLY slim? After all, it's a real disease, and it's deadly! It only takes a few minutes to check, or decontaminate, or ruminate, and isn't it worth making the risk as minimal as possible? Isn't safety paramount?"

I struggled with this for awhile until I realized I don't apply this logic to non-OCD areas of life. For example, my family and I recently took a (socially-distanced!) trip to the beach for a few days, and it was about a 5-hour drive on the interstate. Now, it would have been undeniably safer if we had driven back roads at 25 mph, perhaps even taking two cars so if one was involved in a fatal collision, at least the other family members would survive. But we put ourselves all into one car and traveled at highway speeds without even thinking about it. We took it for granted that getting to the beach in a reasonable time as a group was worth the slightly increased risk of traveling faster in one car.

Here's another one. Years ago, the adult daughter of some family friends died alone at home by choking to death on a peanut butter sandwich. Such tragedies are rare, but they happen. Should we eat only pureed foods, or maybe eat only when supervised by people trained in first aid and CPR? The answer is yes, if you want to eliminate as much risk from choking as you possibly can. But is that much safety really worth it?

The point is that you cannot eliminate all risk from your life and still have a life worth living. Those of us with OCD would spend huge chunks of our time doing compulsions for things that are unlikely to ever happen. Those compulsions are not without cost, as OCD would have us believe -- they take the enjoyment out of things that we love, they threaten our marriages and relationships, and they fuel the constant anxiety that wears us down.

Obviously that is not a reason to do irresponsible, reckless things or to treat diseases like Covid lightly, but it does mean you have to give up on having absolute certainty, even when there are real risks. You have to think rationally about the risks, and take the precautions that normal, responsible people take, guided by advice from experts who know what they're talking about, without going down the OCD "what if, what if" rabbit hole.

Regarding your Covid worries, it might help to talk with your local health department if your specific concerns are not answered clearly online. Don't do it obsessively, but just establish a baseline for reasonable behavior for someone in your region and with your risk level. The Covid guidelines for "surface contamination" seem to have changed somewhat since the start of the pandemic, and a healthcare professional could probably give you the most current advice. (It would probably be appropriate to tell them you have OCD about Covid, so they know you already have a proper respect for the disease!) In the end you may well decide it's prudent for your family to wash their hands after handling mail and groceries fresh from "the outside." But if you find yourself decontaminating over and over until it feels right, or going way beyond health department protocols "just in case," or coming up with convoluted exposure scenarios that no doctor would ever think of, you know you're likely dealing with OCD -- the equivalent of driving everywhere at 25 mph.

Thank you for your brilliant replies. I don't suffer with OCD myself but my daughter does. Reading this has given me lots of things I can talk through with her to help her control her anxieties. Thank you x

Hi there! I too live with contamination OCD, and to say this pandemic has kicked it up a notch would be an understatement. I completely understand what you are saying about this being more... “real” or “likely” than some other things OCD has us believe.

I read an article a while back that said something along the lines of, is the compulsion you’re doing a reasonable response to COVID, or are you entering OCD territory? For example, compulsive hand washing. With COVID, it has become a greater reality, especially for me. However, all the recommendations are to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, not to repeatedly do it over and over. So the reasonable response is to wash them once before I eat, for example if my brain starts setting off alarms to do it repeatedly in case I wasn’t thorough, or did I miscount, etc, well that’s easy to identify as an OCD thought, so I should modify my behavior accordingly.

I know this is a really rough time, and for those of us with this disorder, it’s elevated times ten. Take comfort in the fact that EVERYONE is in this together, and all you can do is your best to prevent the spread. No ones perfect. Hope that helps!

I get unpleasent bursts of anger whenever my family touch things outside and then wander around inside. It makes me want to cry each time. At the same time i cant control them or their actions. For me resignation helps with my distress. "I get covid" i have it, then what? What's the worst that could happen? A lot of things, and possible death. But i could die from slipping in water and hitting my head as well. The aspect of covid that makes us more distressed is that its "preventable" but being stuck on just this aspect of it is debilitating and unfair. There aren't 0 chances of not getting it from objects, but there are also not 0 chances of recovering once you get any sort of infectious disease. You can't let yourself lose hope before anything has even happened. You've survived with this sort of handicap for (assuming) a long part of your life. We fight monsters that people haven't been able to see or sympathize with for years. For us, it's not just a "mental" illness as our relationship with our physical world is fractured. And looking at this post, I can say you're doing a great job so far. I think as long as you're following the guidelines set by the health care system, you're doing your best, and in any case, that's the most you can do. If what your family is doing is not following the rules, then you have every right to feel uncomfortable, and you should open a conversation with them. However you can't let your ocd take the wheel and dictate how you should feel and how you should communicate. It feels like ocd is there to protect you, but all this while you're the one who has been protecting yourself. So hold onto your sense of self and do your best.

I live alone, but I struggle with that, too, especially when I'm visiting my parents, who aren't so diligent about mail, groceries, etc. It's just something we have to get through, I suppose. I do what's in my control--clean my hands after touching things that others have touched, for example, and try to let go of the rest, the best I can. The previous responses to this thread--wow--some very helpful insight and advice, which will be helpful for a lot of people, I think.

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