Getting Through The Lockdown – Dealing With Obsessive Traits

When hand cleaning is no longer useful

Lucía Largo and Miriam Mower share some thoughts on dealing with obsessive traits.

George (fictional name) was telling me the other day how nerve-wracking the current situation that we are undergoing is. “For the past years I’ve been pushing away irrational thoughts about germs, trying my best to not wash my hands unnecessarily, and now I am suddenly meant to welcome them again! How do I know what’s ‘normal’ and what’s irrational?!”

And this is a very good point. We are currently going through what might possibly be for some people one of the biggest strains on our mental health. Our sense of safety and predictability have been crashed and situations we could only imagine in our worst nightmares are now being front page in the news. Isolation in itself can make everyone’s vulnerabilities come out- be it depression, general anxiety, excessive exercise and food restriction, or even OCD. But particularly in a time when we are constantly being reminded of the importance of washing our hands- and not in a simple manner, but ensuring to rinse every inch, spending at least the length of singing ‘Happy Birthday’ from beginning to end twice- can start to trigger certain fears. And it’s not just isolation that is taking a toll on us; it’s the uncertainty of the situation, the fear of what’s to come, and the sense of panic and hopelessness that we get daily when reading the news. This is a completely new situation for most of us, and we’ve never been taught how to deal with this.

‘Thinking ahead’ is one of the human mind’s most useful abilities to help us figure out, for example, what we need to do to reach our objectives. However, in times when fear is dominating us, it can be tricky to distinguish when we are worrying about a real problem and when we are focusing on potential threat situations that are not happening now. Why don’t you start paying close attention to your thoughts and ask yourself: ‘Am I worrying about something that is an actual problem and I can put into practice health habits (i.e. washing hands, social distancing) to  prevent it?’ or ‘Am I jumping into worst case scenarios (what psychologists call castastrophising) and making conclusions about health symptoms I’m not currently experiencing?’ So bearing in mind this context, if you have a tendency to worry, then it makes sense that you now might be falling into old habits that might be going a step further than scrubbing your hands, such as disinfecting your clothes or obsessively searching for updates on the news about coronavirus, new symptoms, new ways of avoiding getting infected, etc. But why, why do we do this?

Our brains are wired to fix problems. In times of uncertainty, sometimes our way of coping is to focus on those things that we feel that we can control, such as washing our hands or checking our symptoms- all this gives us a false sense of control, as if we are actively doing something about it which might actually keep the danger away. However, this false sense of control is very short-termed. In the long-term, we will just need more and more rituals in order to feel better, because ultimately, it isn’t in our hands to actually solve this situation. This solution is actually the problem, the source of our distress.

Top 5 Tips: 

  1.  First of all, have you noticed how you feel whenever there’s a notification on your phone with news about the increase of cases of coronavirus? It makes sense that a first step might be to now decide when and how you want to read about these updates on the pandemia. Sometimes choosing the moment of the day to read the news and be informed of the changes can help us gain some sense of control by being mentally prepared to hear about this. Have you thought of unsubscribing to updates in your social media related to coronavirus?
  2. Now more than ever it is very important to choose to only be exposed to news from reliable sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO), updates from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or guidelines from the government and the Department of Health and Social Care in your country. Our mind tends to ruminate, that is, overthink, when we have too much free time, so try to establish a routine that can help you ground yourself to the present moment. Why not include in your daily routine time to exercise, time to connect online with friends and family through a video chat, or maybe even practise meditation?
  3. This is a moment of change for all of us and with every crisis come new beginnings. Have you thought of how you would like to come out of this lockdown? This could be a good moment to reassess your values and figure out what is important for you in your life. Some people have told us that the silver lining from this experience has been to realise that it had actually been ages since they had found time to bake or read with their kids; others were horrified to realise that they couldn’t remember when they had last focused on their self-care. Give this some thought, and based on what is important to you, maybe start to strengthen your family relationships, rethink and plan where you would like to be in a year’s time, find time to learn that recipe that you’ve always wanted to know, etc.
  4. Do things that bring joy to your life! Sometimes we are so trapped inside our minds and worries that we forget how we all are- fortunately or unfortunately- in the same situation.  The purpose of the excessive cleanliness is genuine; we want to prevent more people from getting sick. However, taken to an extreme, it is no longer functional and, in fact, is an added stressor. Helping each other and showing our gratitude can be a powerful boost to our mood. Brainstorm how else you can help your community in these difficult times. Maybe we can connect with this value on health and social responsibility in another way, such as engaging in social movements that send letters of encouragement to patients in hospitals, showing your support to health workers or donating to NGOs that work with vulnerable populations during this pandemia.
  5. Lastly, remember that this new situation has been really sudden, so it’s completely normal to have ups and downs whilst processing what’s going on. Nonetheless, if you’re finding it hard to adjust and feel overwhelmed at times, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Most practitioners have the option of online therapy, ours is You’re not alone and there are many professionals willing to guide and support you through these difficult times.
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