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Pens, paper and panic: Contamination OCD

Contamination OCD is commonly understood as a form of OCD wherein the obsessions and compulsions experienced by an individual orientate around catching and spreading germs and disease. It’s a commonly depicted form of OCD in the media, and compulsions resulting from these obsessions can often include excessive hand washing, cleaning, and viewing random objects or items as ‘contaminated’ and avoiding them. Some estimates suggest that contamination OCD affects around 46% of those who experience OCD, making it one of the most common forms of the condition.

When I was younger, I went through a phase where I was washing my hands nearly eighty times a day. Most days I averaged between fifty to sixty, but it could go even higher. I couldn’t touch certain surfaces in my house, with a special discomfort regarding the kitchen counter, and I wouldn’t dare touch the tables in the school canteen. Rationally, of course, I knew these surfaces weren’t dirty or contaminated, but my OCD told me that they were, and so they had to be avoided or fixed with compulsions. At the worst point of my contamination OCD, I would leave lessons regularly just so I could go wash my hands. Though my experience of contamination OCD was not as severe as some others, with some individuals prevented from even going outside because of their fear of contracting illness, it was still an incredibly debilitating experience.

The worst of my contamination OCD passed a few years ago now, not through the exposure therapy often used to treat such forms of the condition but through more talking therapy techniques. However, just as many others with OCD also found, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted how much and how often I felt these forms of obsessions and led to the development of new compulsions, as well as the return of older ones I had such as the excessive handwashing. It is fairly natural, I think, that a time in which we were told to be constantly aware of a virus and to do everything in our ability to prevent ourselves and others from contracting it led to the resurfacing of many compulsions designed, to a person with OCD, to do just that, no matter how irrational they actually were. COVID-19 has been recognised by many mental health charities including Mind – and several medical professionals – as a significant trigger for OCD.

At home, it had been much easier to keep safe from the virus. Although my town is fairly large, we lived slightly on the outskirts and therefore could mostly stay away from people if needed. However, coming to university and to live in a city in which thousands of students live in close proximity was a completely different ballpark. I physically, and also for the sake of my mental health and social life, couldn’t prevent contact with other people, and I also naturally didn’t want to. As I write this, COVID cases have been rising significantly across the university, which has been a source of great anxiety for myself and others I know with OCD. In such close quarters to a virus, compulsions can spiral out of control and patterns of behaviours long established can worsen.

A particular problem was caused by nightlife. To someone with OCD, as much as I love dancing and enjoying music, a club can feel like a hellscape of disease and germs, especially when you’re in such close proximity to everyone around you. Trying to enjoy any form of nightlife when your brain is telling you that it’ll make you contract an illness requires an almost rewiring of the brain that I think I was only really able to achieve having thankfully been able to access years of counselling and therapy for my condition. 

The most useful thing I have found in regards to allowing myself to enjoy nightlife with contamination OCD is knowing when I need to take a break or go outside, and having a friend who knows about what I’ll be experiencing and who will support me with that break. I find that I can become very overwhelmed in these situations, which is why I find being able to go outside and take a break so important. It also prevents the arising of compulsions such as handwashing, as I remove myself from a situation, at least temporarily wherein I may be triggered.

Contamination OCD and breaking the cycle of compulsions relating to it is something I am still dealing with on a daily basis, but over the years, as is the case with OCD, understanding my condition and working on breaking this mental process has helped to lessen some of the symptoms I have relating to it. 

In my next column, I will continue my focus on my experiences of OCD at university, looking into the actual academic encounters I have and how that interacts with my condition.

Image Credit: Ivabalk via Pixabay

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