The line between the worries of people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and normal concerns can be quite fuzzy. Worries about a possible pandemic from Swine flu make the line even blurrier than usual. Advice for handling the threat varies considerably. Most of this advice is no doubt wise, especially advice that comes from reputable sources such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Be sure to stick with reliable sources for knowing what precautions to take.
For people who have any type of significant anxiety, including OCD about contamination and germs, times like these are especially difficult. You should probably consult with a mental health professional if you are not currently in treatment and feel your distress is climbing. If you are in therapy, you may want to consider making your next appointment sooner than usual. The message is that the swine flu is scary for everyone, but if you’re already a worrier, you’re likely to need some extra help.
However, if you’re currently receiving exposure and response prevention treatment for OCD, we have an important warning. In essence, exposure and response prevention involves exposing you to fears of contaminations by touching dirt, doorknobs, escalator handrails, and other surfaces. And you are asked to refrain from the compulsion to wash your hands. Normally, there are risks from exposure and response prevention, but these are extremely small. Right now, we believe the risks have risen to the point that we issue this warning:
PLEASE AVOID EXPOSURE AND RESPONSE PREVENTION TREATMENT FOR CONTAMINATION OCD IF IT INVOLVES TOUCHING SURFACES THAT HAVE BEEN TOUCHED BY MANY PEOPLE WITHOUT BEING CLEANED AND DECONTAMINATED UNTIL THE SWINE FLU CONCERNS HAVE ABATED. MOST FOLKS WITH OCD HAVE PLENTY OF OTHER TARGETS THEY CAN WORK ON IN THE MEANTIME. YOU CAN NEVER AVOID ALL RISKS, BUT THIS ONE IS UNNECESSARY AT THIS TIME.
Current conditions may even have you wondering:
- Should I wash my hands every ten minutes?
- Should I wash for at least fifteen minutes each time I wash?
- Should I use a mix of harsh bleach, alcohol, and soap each time I wash?
- Should I wear a mask everywhere I go?
- Should I confine myself to my house for the next couple of months?
As guidelines currently exist, the preceding list represents obsessive compulsive behaviors. So what are reasonable precautions to take for now? We reviewed the CDC recommendations and as of today, they suggest:
- Cover your nose when you sneeze.
- Wash your hands often, especially after sneezing.
- Use soap or alcohol based hand cleaner.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Stay away from obviously sick people.
- Stay home if you’re sick.
- Avoid unnecessary travel to Mexico.
- Call your doctor for advice if you feel sick.
Again, these guidelines could change at any time. If the flu becomes a pandemic, authorities may recommend wearing masks and avoiding schools, churches, etc. for a period of time. Check for updates, but we suggest you limit that checking to no more than once in the morning and once in the evening. Otherwise, the checking can fuel OCD.
In the meantime, take care, be safe, and be well,
Drs. Chuck & Laura