The Impact of COVID-19 on Teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by repetitive, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that often intrude upon a person’s day-to-day life. This anxiety disorder is a common psychiatric disorder for adolescents. Evidence shows that between one and three percent of children and teens struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Some common types of obsession include worrying about something bad happening or worries about becoming sick or dying. Teens with OCD may show constant concern about germs and getting contaminated.

Which, obviously, may present a problem during COVID-19.

With this global pandemic sparking government public health mandates, stay-at-home orders, and closures of schools and businesses, many people wonder what the effect all this has had on adolescents and teens with OCD.

Coronavirus and OCD

With its high mortality rate and spread of infection, the coronavirus has turned everyone’s lives upside down.

The pandemic has normalized certain health and safety measures that, in usual circumstances, would be considered absurd or over-the-top. Wearing a facemask when you leave the house isn’t just for overly cautious residents. It’s now mandatory in many states, including California. Washing hands frequently and after touching any common area is not only ideal but recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as the best possible way of preventing the spread of the virus. Keeping a physical distance between yourself and others, not shaking other people’s hands, and avoiding high-traffic public areas are now good things. Constantly applying hand sanitizer is normal.

So, has this pandemic made it easier or harder for teens with OCD?

Of course, there’s no blanket answer. Experts say that every individual is different. But surprisingly, what some teens with OCD might see as a set of rules and practices that exacerbate their symptoms, might actually improve them.

Teens with OCD During Coronavirus

“The pandemic has actualized OCD teens’ fears,” says Elise Guthmann, LMFT, Clinical Program Director of Evolve Residential Treatment Center in Ojai, California.

“So yes, COVID might have intensified their symptoms, or it could have validated them,” she explains. “Teens with OCD could be thinking: ‘You guys told me I’m being crazy, but see how I was right all along?’ I can understand how it can be a very validating experience.”

For this reason, Elise explains, obsessive-compulsive teens might experience less anxiety at this point.

“They’re more prepared for this. They’ve been rehearsing for it all their lives. It’s very likely that some teens are basking in their new roles: they’re the experts now.”

That’s why COVID might help these teens’ symptoms in the long run, even after the pandemic eases up. “They’re seeing that in certain situations, their over-the-top reactions are actually justified, and in other situations, they’re not. So in certain cases, their anxiety has protected them.”

How to Handle OCD During the Pandemic

When treating a teen with OCD, Elise recommends instilling this message: while anxiety protects us from harm in certain situations, balance is key.

“The trick is to keep their anxiety in the protective range, not the damaging range. Because when it gets too high it can simultaneously get harmful. For example, if I buy out the entire stock of hand sanitizer then I might actually be damaging my community. I’m not leaving any for other people, including my neighbors, which could actually hasten the spread of infection.”

Another example: if you scrub your hands too hard until they’re cracked and bleeding, that’s also damaging – because open wounds and sores are ripe for contamination. Sometimes, too much of a good thing is counterproductive.

Dr. Robyn Koslowitz, PhD, director of the Targeted Parenting Institute, agrees. She describes how she counseled an adolescent client with OCD, during this pandemic:

“I remind[ed] him that Mr. OCD has his roots in a reasonable fear: none of us want to die a horrible death, especially a preventable one. So, we do have to take reasonable precautions, like using hand sanitizer and washing hands thoroughly when we come indoors. But right now, we don’t have to take unreasonable ones, like taking three-hour showers…or wearing gloves and facemasks even while we’re asleep.”

Your takeaway from article?

Elise Guthmann from Evolve Treatment Centers says it perfectly:

Anxiety is okay until you damage others or damage yourself.”