Navigating COVID with OCD

Mandurah Mail journalist Samantha Ferguson is battling with intensified symptoms of her obsessive-compulsive disorder triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. New research shows that this is the case for many people with OCD.

Ms Ferguson was diagnosed with OCD when she was 12, but said she was in a good place mentally before the WA State Government’s introduction of COVID-19 restrictions in early 2020.

Samantha looks towards the camera with a poignant expression.
Samantha Ferguson started medication recently to help manage her OCD symptoms. Photo: Seamus Harrison.

She said the world’s minimal understanding of COVID at the time amplified her pre-existing obsessions – recurrent intrusive thoughts – and led her to develop a form of the disorder known as contamination OCD.

Clinical psychologist Stephen Roberts said contamination OCD was an intense fear reaction to a perceived or genuine exposure to substances or germs.

“As a result of the extreme fear, a person will avoid exposure to a substance out of fear of contamination and the consequence to them or someone else,” he said.

For Ms Ferguson, this meant she experienced obsessions related to catching and spreading COVID.

“You’ve got the ‘I don’t want to catch it’ and the ‘I don’t want to die’ and then you’ve got the ‘I don’t want to give it to someone’,” she said.

“You think: ‘What if I give it to my partner’s grandparents? What if I kill them?’”

To ease anxiety brought on by these obsessions, Ms Ferguson developed compulsions – repetitive behaviours – such as repeated hand washing and surface sanitation.

“There was a while when I wouldn’t eat anything from the fridge unless I had sprayed the fridge with Glen 20 that day,” she said.

“At one point, I couldn’t eat anything unless I had gone out to buy it for that moment.”

Samantha shows her hands. The skin is dry and cracked at the surface. Her left hand has a cut from over-washing her hands.
Ms Ferguson’s hands were so dry from repeated washing they were cracked and sometimes bled. Photo: Seamus Harrison.

Ms Ferguson’s intensified symptoms in 2020 led her to seek help from her psychologist for the first time in two years.

“You think: ‘What if I give it to my partner’s grandparents? What if I kill them?’”

Samantha Ferguson

While seeking professional assistance again helped work through her escalated pre-existing symptoms, she said her OCD’s attachment to the ongoing threat of COVID had been difficult to overcome even three years into the pandemic.

“My contamination OCD got so bad that I’ve recently started a new medication,” she said.

“Combining therapy with the right medication has really helped.”

Ms Ferguson’s experience reflected the findings of a global literature review published this year in the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society’s journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

Led by Dr Jon Grant, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Chicago, the review found about 20–65 per cent of OCD patients experienced a worsening of symptoms during the pandemic.

Mr Roberts said the COVID-19 pandemic intensified some people’s OCD symptoms because they were observant of things they touched and sensitive to the potential contamination of different objects and places.

He said the general population’s sensitivity to contamination was also heightened during the pandemic.

“In this sense there would be an overlap between OCD-related sensitivity and observance and a COVID-19 sensitivity and observance,” he said.

“In some cases, this could result in a compounding effect.”