Obsessing Over OCD in these Days of COVID-19

Children Washing Hands While Wearing Face Masks“Wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing the ‘Happy birthday’ song - twice” is the mantra of 2020, and with good reason. Not only that but also spraying packages from Amazon with Lysol and using that stuff on doorknobs and everything else metallic or cardboard or other surfaces, as well as the soles of your shoes. And don’t forget to sanitize that prescription you just picked up from the drive-through window. These acts are enough to earn the most slovenly of us a label of mildly obsessive-compulsive and push those of us already on that continuum further along it. A recent article in the New York Times addressed the serious dilemmas faced by people troubled by such OCD behavior patterns during these pandemic times. As the author of the article observes:

The cleaning and sanitizing practices that help prevent coronavirus infection are bringing people with O.C.D. into closer orbit to behaviors that are a gateway to detrimental patterns that could interfere with their ability to engage meaningfully with the world outside their homes for years to come.

In addition to the current hygienic practices of many of us blurring the lines between normal and OCD, I imagine that it also might be disconcerting to someone suffering from OCD to see personal behavior patterns for which there were at least mild societal and social punishers become not only acceptable but also necessary.

repetitive thoughts about disease lead to repetitive actions like those I described above

The acceptability and the necessity of such personal hygiene behavior patterns resonates to a familiar theme in behavior analysis: the distinction between the structural and functional definition of behavior.Monsieur Madeleine par Gustave Brion
If we focus strictly on the behavior of many of us recently, it points to a formal definition of OCD: repetitive thoughts about disease lead to repetitive actions like those I described above. Considering the present practices of personal hygiene in this time of COVID-19 as signs of OCD is, of course, silly. It is no sillier, however than treating any behavior pattern as an absolute without considering its antecedents and consequences, that is, without contextualizing the behavior. Label someone “bright,” “dumb,” “autistic,” “sensitive,” or “warped” and we create labels. Too often thereafter others and we respond not to the person but to the label. It is Jean Valjean stuck in Groundhog Day. Steal a loaf of bread and Javier will hunt you forever because you are a thief (and always will be). Never mind that the bread was stolen for a starving child, or the good Valjean did since that long-ago incident.

Now, no one seriously is likely to label the present personal cleaning patterns of most of us as OCD. The reason we don’t use such a label is that we universally recognize the context in which the behavior is occurring. That is, we contextualize the behavior. It would be constructive to consider other situations in our own lives in which we create labels for other peoples’ behavior and then react to those labels and not to the individuals so labeled.

I need to stop now and go wash my hands.


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