The Hellish Side of Handwashing

Washing your hands is important. Please do it.

In the morning, one of my school friends, Aranjit commented casually on our WhatsApp group that coronavirus may leave many of us a prisoner of OCD — obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The rapid spread of the new coronavirus has health officials scrambling to educate the public on good hygiene and best practices. All of this is taking its toll on people’s mental health, particularly those already living with conditions like anxiety and OCD.

The single most important piece of advice health experts can give to help us stay safe from COVID-19 is this one: Wash your hands. Wash them when you cough, when you sneeze, before you eat, after you eat and any time you touch your mouth or nose. Just keep washing them… but not excessively

Thanks to the newfound importance of good hand washing and other virus transmission-reduction practices, the coronavirus outbreak has even carefree people suddenly pushing open doors with their feet, grabbing door levers with their sleeve, hitting elevator buttons with a pen and scrubbing in before meals like surgeons. While these are all considered responsible practices today, prior to the arrival of coronavirus, this sort of hyper-vigilance around germs was considered something quite the opposite: A symptom of debilitating anxiety.

A story on social media that has become viral reflects the situation, on the lighter side.

I went to the bathroom at a restaurant. I washed my hands, opened the door with an elbow, I raised the toilet seat with my foot, I switched the water faucet with a tissue then opened the bathroom door to leave with my elbow and when I returned to the table I realized… I forgot to pull up the pants.

For some OCD patients, not washing their hands is part of their treatment. So guidance to do so regularly is reviving their anxieties – and triggering them in others. Handwashing guidance issued to tackle the spread of the coronavirus may lead to an increase in obsessive-compulsive disorder-type behavior, Jackson, a psychologist in England has warned.

Professor Craig Jackson, from Birmingham City University, raised concerns that advice issued by Public Health England could inadvertently reinforce OCD-type behavior in susceptible patients. “There is a possible danger that Covid-19 could make things worse for those with obsessive-type conditions,” he said.

“We all have the power to be rational and think what we want, what we want to behave like, what things will upset us and what we can do when we are upset to feel better quickly. When we panic we lose the ability to take control. Replace doubt and uncertainty caused by worry with knowledge and fact.” The professor of occupational health psychology advised anyone feeling overwhelmed by coverage of coronavirus to take a break from reading or watching the news.

The coronavirus epidemic is causing increased stress and anxiety. Coronavirus gives rise to lots of uncertainty, and this has particular resonance with people who suffer from anxiety.

“The fear of getting sick is larger than the actual risk,” Whiteside says of OCD patients. “They spend a lot of time being very scared and nervous about getting sick. They spend a lot of time washing their hands. And they feel pretty miserable about it. It’s impairing and really disruptive to their lives.” Dr. Stephen Whiteside is a clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic and a national authority on the treatment of OCD in the United States.

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its list of best practices for preventing COVID-19, my first thought was that my normal routine of hygiene is enough for the impending apocalypse. But as the weeks have passed and the virus has spread, with deniers on one side of the spectrum and alarmists on the other, it’s been difficult to ignore just how much the confidence has been exacerbated by the intense media coverage and the social media.

WHO has already acknowledged that the outbreak is causing the public increased levels of anxiety. In recently published guidance, the health body advised people who were feeling stressed to avoid reading, watching and listening to news excessively. ​

The potential benefits of extra precautionary efforts need to be weighed carefully against the possible psychological costs. Limit the news and be careful what you read. Have breaks from social media and stay connected with people.

11 thoughts on “The Hellish Side of Handwashing

  1. Nilanjana Moitra

    Yes, because of the media and social media, coronavirus may ultimately go away leaving behind may patients of OCD and paranoia!. Nice post, Indrajit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The constant barrage of dos and don’t make you believe that if you don’t wash hands, you will certainly get infected with Covid. Unfortunately, it is not just Covid, the influence of media and SM in many ways creates adverse impact as mentioned here by your post. People should also use their brains and not overreact.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I would just comment on the social media specifically… The more we dive in it, the worse it will be since almost 95 percent of what we hear from social media is either exaggerated or false…. Nice post. Thank you and have a nice day🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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