I washed my hands many many times each day during the Coronavirus outbreak. Do I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

As suggested by microbiologist and infection control experts, we need to wash our hand vigorously and frequently to prevent being infected by the new Coronavirus. It is also advisable that we wear facemasks when going out and close the toilet lid when flushing. As the general public have an impression that people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) wash their hands very frequently, some people asked me if they will gradually become a person suffering from OCD if they continue to have frequent hand washing behaviour.

What is OCD? To be diagnosed to suffer from OCD, a person has obsessions, or compulsions, or both. An obsession is a recurrent, intruded, and unwanted thought, urge or impulse that causes significant anxiety. Since this causes anxiety, the person tends to suppress or neutralise it. For example, a patient of mine has persistent intrusive thoughts of being contaminated by germs whenever she touches anything. These thoughts are very anxiety-provoking to her, so she tends to suppress them.

A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental acts in response to the obsession. The compulsion is also exhibited in order to prevent or reduce the anxiety or to prevent a negative outcome. The patient who has persistent intrusive thoughts of being contaminated by germs may wash her hands for more than 50 times a day. The duration of hand washing is 20 minutes each time.

How to differentiate normal strategies for prevention of an infectious disease from pathological rituals of OCD? First of all, the hand washing ritual for people who suffer from OCD is mainly related to reducing their high level of anxiety. For normal strategies, we exhibit them mainly for infection control.

Secondly, their hand-washing ritual is time-consuming. As suggested by expert, we only need to wash our hands for 20 seconds with soap normally.  However, some patients with OCD may wash their hands for more than 10 to 20 minutes each time with repeated cycles of lathering, rubbing and rinsing.

Thirdly, the hand-washing rituals will cause significant distress for the person with OCD and it will also impair one’s social, occupational or other functioning.   Despite the fact that we need a little bit more time for engaging in the strategies for preventing being infected by Coronavirus, those prevention strategies should not impair our normal functioning.

It is beyond dispute that we need to pay more attention and effort to prevent being infected by the new Coronavirus. Those strategies for infection control are necessary and normal in this critical time. We don’t have to worry about developing OCD gradually due to practice of these important infection control strategies. If you or your significant others are suffering from high level of anxiety and engaging in compulsive hand washing as in OCD, please seek professional help.

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