There’s a difference between being cautious and being compulsive.

“Sam,” my boyfriend says quietly. “Life still has to go on. And we need food.”

I know that they’re right. We’d held out in self-quarantine for as long as we could. Now, staring down nearly empty cupboards, it was time to put some social distancing into practice and restock.

Except the idea of leaving our car during a pandemic felt like literal torture.

“I’d rather starve, honestly,” I groan.

I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) most of my life, but it’s reached a fever pitch (pun not intended) during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Touching anything feels like willingly placing my hand over a stove burner. Breathing the same air as anyone near me feels like inhaling a death sentence.

And I’m not just afraid of other people, either. Because carriers of the virus can appear asymptomatic, I’m even more fearful of unknowingly spreading it to someone’s beloved Nana or immunocompromised friend.

With something as serious as a pandemic, my OCD being activated right now makes a lot of sense.

In a way, it’s like my brain is trying to protect me.

The trouble is, it’s not actually helpful to — for example — avoid touching a door in the same place twice, or refuse to sign a receipt because I’m convinced the pen will kill me.

And it’s definitely not helpful to insist on starving rather than buying more food.

Like my boyfriend said, life still has to go on.

And while we should absolutely follow shelter-in-place orders, wash our hands, and practice social distancing, I think they were onto something when they said, “Sam, picking up your medication is not optional.”

In other words, there’s a difference between being cautious and being disordered.

These days, it can be difficult to tell which of my panic attacks are “reasonable” and which ones are just an extension of my OCD. But for now, the most important thing is to find ways of coping with my anxiety regardless.

Here’s how I’m keeping my OCD panic at bay:

The best way I know of to fortify my health — both mentally and physically — is to keep myself fed, hydrated, and rested. While this seems obvious, I’m continually surprised by how much the basics fall to the wayside when a crisis pops up.

If you’re struggling to keep up with your basic human maintenance, I have some tips for you:

  • Are you remembering to eat? Consistency is important. Personally, I aim to eat every 3 hours (so, 3 snacks and 3 meals each day — this is pretty standard for anyone who struggles with disordered eating, like I do). I use a timer on my phone and each time I eat, I reset it for another 3 hours to simplify the process.
  • Are you remembering to drink water? I have a glass of water with every meal and snack. That way, I don’t have to remember water separately — my food timer then also serves as a water reminder.
  • Are you sleeping enough? Sleep can be super hard, especially when anxiety is high. I’ve been using the podcast Sleep With Me to ease into a more restful state. But really, you can’t go wrong with a quick refresher on sleep hygiene.

And if you find yourself stressed and stuck during the day and aren’t sure what to do? This interactive quiz is a lifesaver (bookmark it!).

If you have OCD — particularly if you have some self-isolating tendencies — it can be very tempting to “cope” with your anxiety by not going outside.

However, this can be detrimental to your mental health, and can reinforce maladaptive coping strategies that could make your anxiety worse in the long run.

As long as you maintain 6 feet of distance between yourself and others, it’s perfectly safe to take a walk around your neighborhood.

Trying to incorporate some amount of time outdoors has been tricky for me (I’ve dealt with agoraphobia in the past), but it’s been a really important “reset” button for my brain nonetheless.

Isolation is never the answer when you’re struggling with your mental health. So whenever possible, make time for a breath of fresh air, even if you can’t go very far.

This is probably the hardest on the list for me. I work at a health media company, so being informed about COVID-19 on some level is literally part of my job.

However, keeping “up to date” quickly became a compulsion for me — at one point, I was checking the global database of confirmed cases dozens of times per day… which was clearly not serving me or my anxious brain.

I know logically that I don’t need to be checking the news or monitoring for symptoms as often as my OCD makes me feel compelled to (or anywhere close to it). But as with anything compulsive, it can be hard to refrain.

That’s why I try to set strict boundaries around when and how often I engage with those conversations or behaviors.

Rather than obsessively checking my temperature or the latest news, I’ve shifted my focus on staying connected to the people that I love. Could I record a video message for a loved one instead? Maybe I could set up a virtual Netflix party with a bestie to keep my mind occupied.

I also let my loved ones know when I’m struggling with the news cycle, and I commit to letting them “take the reigns.”

I trust that if there’s new information I need to know, there are people that will reach out and tell me.

If my OCD had its way, we would wear gloves at all times, never breathe the same air as anyone else, and not leave the apartment for the next 2 years minimum.

When my boyfriend goes to the grocery store, we’d have them in a hazmat suit, and as an extra precaution, we would fill a swimming pool with disinfectant and sleep in it every night.

But this is why OCD isn’t making the rules around here. Instead, I stick to the CDC’s recommendations:

  • Practice social distancing, which means keeping 6 feet of space between yourself and others.
  • Avoid large gatherings and nonessential travel where the virus is more likely to spread.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds after you’ve been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces once per day (tables, door knobs, light switches, countertops, desks, phones, toilets, faucets, sinks).

The key here is to follow these guidelines and nothing more. OCD or anxiety might want you to go overboard, but that’s when you might fall into compulsive territory.

So no, unless you just came home from the store or you’ve just sneezed or something, you don’t need to wash your hands again.

Similarly, it can be tempting to rigorously shower multiple times a day and bleach your entire home… but you’re more likely to heighten your anxiety if you become obsessive about cleanliness.

A disinfecting wipe hitting the surfaces that you touch most often is more than enough as far as being cautious goes.

Remember that OCD is a huge detriment to your health, too, and as such, balance is critical to staying well.

OCD really dislikes uncertainty. But the truth is, much of what we go through in life is uncertain — and this virus is no exception. You could take every conceivable precaution, and you still may end up getting ill to no fault of your own.

I practice accepting this fact every single day.

I’ve learned that radically accepting uncertainty, as uncomfortable as that may be, is my best defense against obsessing. In the case of COVID-19, I know that there’s only so much I can do to keep myself healthy.

One of the best ways to fortify our health is to manage our stress. And when I’m sitting with the discomfort of uncertainty? I remind myself that each time I challenge my OCD, I’m giving myself the best possible chance at staying healthy, focused, and prepared.

And when you think about it, doing that work will benefit me in the long term in ways a hazmat suit never will. Just saying.


Sam Dylan Finch is an editor, writer, and digital media strategist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the lead editor of mental health & chronic conditions at Healthline. Find him on Twitter and Instagram, and learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.