Life Wellbeing ‘It’s like your brain is eating itself’: Battling anxiety in the age of COVID-19
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‘It’s like your brain is eating itself’: Battling anxiety in the age of COVID-19

People living with obsessive compulsive disorder say the coronavirus pandemic is making their lives, and recovery, harder. Photo: Getty
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As the world retreats indoors, people living with obsessive compulsive disorder are fighting a battle on two fronts.

The bid to bring COVID-19 under control means fear and hyper cleanliness are the new norm, and it’s threatening to send some OCD sufferers backwards.

“My mind always goes to the worst-case scenario, which is what we are living these days,” Jennifer, from Canberra, told AAP.

So it’s almost like the rest of the world is now living with the level of anxiety that used to make me an outcast.’’

Stringent measures including social distancing appear to be helping Australia get the upper hand on the spread of the coronavirus.

But experts say the pandemic can be a double whammy for people who live with or have a history of obsessive thoughts and compulsions.

“The ongoing reinforcement of risk of infection, and either catching it yourself or then being a conduit to spread it, that is definitely likely to increase their levels of anxiety,” Monash University psychology associate professor Marie Yap said.

“(It) can be really quite unsettling for those who … might have reached a point where they’re starting to stabilise.”

Laura, in Melbourne, helps run a Facebook group for people with OCD.

They’re feeling like they’re going backwards with their treatment, with all the messaging about hyper-vigilance and safety,’’ she said.

Despite pop culture depictions, obsessive compulsive disorder isn’t just about hand washing or cleanliness.

It involves intrusive and recurring thoughts, with sufferers performing rituals, either mental or physical, in a bid to ward off the anxiety.

“(People) think it’s about being ‘oh, you like neatness’,” said Fiona, a student in Melbourne.

“That’s not always the intrusive thought that a person with OCD might have. It might actually be something really terrifying like ‘I’m scared my mother is going to die if don’t do these things’.

It’s like your brain is eating itself.’’

Fiona’s anxiety centres around her home and she repeatedly checks locks and windows to make sure it’s secure.

“The isolation particularly is going to be really hard for a lot of people … The home is not always a great place for someone to be.”

Professor Yap has urged people struggling with anxiety amid the coronavirus to remain connected to family, friends and their support network online or over the phone as much as possible.

“Over the past few weeks, a lot of the focus was obviously on reducing the spread and (flattening) that curve,” she said.

“But I think when the dust started to settle, then people started to be aware that actually in the midst of all this upheaval, mental health is the next crisis that’s coming up.”

*All names have been changed

-AAP