Breaking Through the Holding Pattern: Navigating Uncertainty During a Pandemic
By Julie Bishop
One year ago, I wrote about my experience with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) during the beginning of the COVID pandemic and how my knowledge of public health and exposure to the healthcare field was a gamechanger in my daily attitude. While I was lucky to be able to work from home with my husband during this difficult time of uncertainty, we held hope that after a couple weeks of quarantine we’d be back to the office resuming our normal lives since this was how infections were controlled in my public health textbooks. I knew there would be waves, but I figured it wasn’t going to last long term. Because this didn’t happen, it was necessary for me to find ways to cope with the monotony of seclusion and learn how to thrive in uncertainty.
As you might remember, in the beginning we were unaware of prevention and transmission methods. We started without the mask recommendation then it shifted from one to two masks at any given time. We didn’t know if we should leave our groceries outside for three days or use the last of our Clorox wipes to clean them before bringing them inside. We were glued to our TVs and phones trying to put sense into this science experiment we were living through. It was messy because there were no definitive answers, especially about medications that could alleviate symptoms and save lives. We have been used to science being presented to us with significant research and data to back it up, but as the recommendations changed, we had to be patient and adapt as needed.
Control is an Illusion
My OCD started at the age of eight after a concussion from a hiking accident that I felt like I should have had control over. In hindsight, that was lot of responsibility to put on myself at such a young age and it caused me much undue pain. It manifested itself as excessive handwashing and has skipped throughout different themes and compulsions throughout my life presenting very intensely during times of extreme stress. I did not have proper mental health care at the time hence my recovery journey has been a long, drawn-out process. However, I have evolved with it and am almost to the point where I have enough tools to handle whatever comes up.
As a very empathic person, I feel EVERYTHING. I went outside and I was hit with unbearable fear almost to the point where I couldn’t leave the house. Whenever I watched the news, my stomach hurt. I had to find a way to separate myself from the fear and hopelessness and get myself out of the groundhog-day loop we were living in with no end in sight. This is a very similar pattern of OCD and of course depression, which I have also struggled with daily since my teen years. After much self-reflection, I discovered that most of what I was feeling wasn’t even mine in the first place and I had to actively let these thoughts go. Was I personally afraid? No, but the collective energy of the planet was afraid and sad, and I felt it, but even more so when I regularly engaged with it.
The Power of Change
There are several approaches that that have helped me throughout this past year whenever I felt my OCD return. This is not to imply that my OCD ever fully goes away, but there are times when I am fearful, forget that I am not in my power, and let my thoughts to control me. When I am in this place, I continue the process of challenging my thoughts. If you allow yourself to sit with an intrusive thought, you will quickly realize that they lessen in intensity the more you give them permission to just be. When you stop judging them, you stop assigning meaning to them. A thought does not define who you are as a person and you will continue to suffer the more control you give them. I always reiterate that this is NOT EASY and certainly does not change overnight, but it’s much more difficult to constantly battle your feelings and soothe yourself with compulsions.
Even if you don’t have OCD and just feel stuck, you cannot sit around waiting for external change. You have make an effort to change your behavior or else you will continue to be in a rut. Yes, a vaccine will help change the current environment, but it’s not the entire solution. There is a huge mental component into rebuilding and moving forward after a pandemic that includes letting go of what no longer works and embracing the healing process.
Confront Your Fears
Don’t stop living. OCD loves avoidance. Challenge the need to isolate and withdraw but be smart and limit your time in settings that do not feel safe. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and follow social distancing requirements. If you leave the house projecting fear, you will only attract it. Consider focusing on the positive results of the activity instead. Is this hard? Yes, but being dominated by your thoughts is even worse!
While I personally don’t feel comfortable eating at indoor restaurants now, I have during times when the COVID cases were lower. Just seeing the measures that were taken by the restaurant staff was reassuring to me (and my OCD). And guess what? It was fine. The time connecting with co-workers was a wonderful boost for my mental health and I took so much positivity out of that interaction because I was not in fear.
Get Out of Your Bubble
Remember a time before newsfeeds and social media algorithms? You will see the same content repeated unless you actively break away from it. Just stop scrolling. I promise you that if you do not follow the news, someone will tell you what happened. My life has drastically improved since I limited my time interacting with the pain of the world. Very rarely is the news positive and non-divisive. If you can’t quit news entirely, set aside dedicated time to view it every day and then put it down.
Forget the Binge Watching
We love it when our favorite series drops a new season on Netflix. Devouring it in one sitting can be exhilarating and we can avoid the spoilers online. While some shows are uplifting, consider your mental state before you view content with heavier themes like in documentaries and crime shows. It’s no coincidence that The Office was the most streamed show in 2020. Many of us continue to gravitate to comedies, especially those we have seen before, when our worlds feel out of control.
Consider moving away from TV and finding different activities to get you out of that repetition and move toward accomplishments. Read a book. Master a new recipe. Listen to a podcast. Organize your photos. Make changes to your routine that keep your brain engaged and consider taking on creative projects to keep yourself motivated.
Self-Care Isn’t the Same for Everyone
I’ve found myself cycling indoors for many months during the pandemic. It gives me a boost of endorphins and is a great time to jam out with my music. It does not, however, get me out of my loop. I’ve found that working out inside often makes you feel like you aren’t going anywhere so I make sure to change the scenery whenever possible.
Think about how you typically wander through a grocery store. Are you used to starting on the right? Challenge your brain and start on the left side of the store instead. You will find that the different approach will allow you to experience it with a new perspective. No, this is not that beach vacation that you have been longing for during the pandemic, but it will get your neurons firing and might inspire you to try it in other areas of your life.
I personally dread the thought of meditation. No one with OCD wants to sit alone with their thoughts. Deep breathing to music might be more effective if you find yourself wanting to take a moment to balance yourself or get outside as it gets warmer and put your bare feet in the grass.
Stop the Shame Game
Stop shaming yourself. This is hard for everyone and not everyone has been their best selves. We are living through a time of tremendous grief and loss. Don’t downgrade your feelings because other people have it more challenging than you or you will end up just pushing things further and further down, which will eventually affect your physical health. Acknowledge, don’t analyze, and then let go. If you need more help, find a professional who can assist you.
If you are struggling, know that you're not alone. Learn about Pathlight Mood and Anxiety programs here.
Julie joined Eating Recovery Center with extensive experience in operations, recruiting, marketing and event/meeting planning this January. Julie earned her Bachelors in Marketing and Master of Public Health with the goal of working in health promotion. She spent much of the last decade supporting both cardiac and general thoracic surgeons, running surgical clinics, and coordinating patient care. Most recently, she worked for an international lung cancer association recruiting members and planning meetings, including the World Conference on Lung Cancer.
Julie is a Denver native who loves to travel internationally with her husband. A self-taught family photographer, she spends her weekends doing photo shoots, watching Netflix and movies, and enjoying the pool.