Obsessive disorders, the new normal for coronavirus

He obsessive compulsive disorder Housekeeping (TOC) is the most common today. Those who suffer from it wash their hands above average, some up to 60 times a day, or even more. Before touching the door handle, they disinfect it and seek to always keep an adequate distance from their colleagues. All this in an attempt to protect yourself from supposed dangers such as bacteria, viruses or dirt.

Before the coronavirus, such behaviors were often considered strange, abnormal, or bizarre. Today the situation has changed.

From abnormal to the new normal

Currently, we are all asked to wash our hands as often as possible, whether we have touched foreign objects, traveled in public transport or pushed a supermarket cart. What was considered unusual before the coronavirus is now practically normal. This irritates some of the people who suffer from OCD, says Antonia Peters of the German Society for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders.

"It's incomprehensible to these people that suddenly almost everyone is walking around with gloves and face masks. Some people think, 'That's my normal and now everyone is doing it," says Peters.

Long treatment

According to Peters, in several people with cleanliness and order OCD, their degree of compulsion has been heightened due to the coronavirus. "They wash more often and hardly dare to go out. It also happens that people who suffer from obsessive control disorder develop compulsive cleaning."

In any case, treating obsessive-compulsive disorder is a long process. And then the virus came: "If patients had already worked on themselves quite successfully in therapy, now they have the feeling that they have to start all over again and that all their progress is for nothing," says Peters.


For her part, Lena Jelinek, from the Hamburg Eppendorf University Medical Center (UKE), examined the influence of the coronavirus and the new fears and limitations associated with patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders. "We conducted an online survey in which we evaluated the responses of almost 400 people. We wanted to know how people with OCD are doing in this pandemic and if their situation has worsened or improved."

Scientists who participated in the study, which has not yet been published, were interested, among other things, to find out if there were differences between people with cleaning compulsivity and people with other obsessive tendencies. Among them are, for example, the obsession with control. "More than two-thirds of those surveyed said they noticed a worsening of their compulsive symptoms; among those with an obsession with cleaning, the deterioration was even more severe," explains Jelinek.

Hand washing has become a ritual, often reducing anxiety and fear, but only for a short time: in a first evaluation of the study in Hamburg, scientists found that compulsive symptoms only decreased by less than seven percent of the participants.

The fear is, among other things, that many people develop a compulsion, for example, for obsessive cleaning.

Nothing special

About two million people in Germany suffer from one of the many obsessive-compulsive disorders that exist, and the number of undeclared cases is high. Some have the obsession of counting the steps every time they climb the stairs, others of compulsively maintaining order.

Whether this is a whim or pathological behavior depends more on quantity than quality, says Jelinek. "The decisive factor is how long a day you are exposed to obsessive behaviors, but also if you experience anxiety or discomfort when you do not perform an action or it is done in a different way than usual."


Obsessive-compulsive disorders remain taboo. Many of those affected are ashamed of having them and hide them. It does not matter what kind of compulsive behavior it is. For example, people obsessed with order and control make sure over and over again that the stove is actually off or that the front door is closed.

"There is no real danger," he explains. Jelinek. "People know that they have turned off the stove, but often they no longer trust their own perception. There may be a patient who comes with their toaster in their backpack and says, 'I wasn't sure if it was really off or not.'

OCD: the triggers

OCD develops gradually, and many factors combine. This includes, among other things, a family predisposition: about a quarter of all obsessive-compulsive conditions arise in childhood. Critical experiences, an unusual situation, or a difficult stage in life can be the first trigger for OCD. "Perhaps the separation of parents, or the death of a close relative. Education can also influence their appearance," he explains. Peters.

Source: Gudrun Heise for DW