When we are faced with a problem that we know little about, that worries us greatly, and about which we need answers, we often look for information. Not just any information, but that which denies those fears we feel.
It can be clearly seen with the outbreak – clinical, media and social – of coronavirus in Spain. People, who know little about this type of situation, look for data that appeases us, that is, reassuring information.
However, many have already realized that although they read and reread about the good news on a particular issue or symptoms of the disease that they do not have, this information does not seem to calm them in any way. This leads them to have to continue reading – more and more – reassuring news, but these are less and less useful.
The reassuring information in the clinic
This is a phenomenon that psychologists have been observing, studying, and later approximate it, in numerous psychological disorders. But as we can see, this does not only occur in people with a defined clinic, that is, with a disorder.
People with excellent mental health can fall into the traps that people with OCD , hypochondria, or anxiety disorders fall into.
This is due to compulsion. In obsessive-compulsive disorder, a ritual or compulsion is a tool to reduce the anxiety that certain thoughts provoke. For example, we can talk about Luisa and her obsession with harm — a type of obsession that appears in OCD.
She, in a concrete way, is obsessed with the idea of having hurt someone since she got lost in the park and her son made a hole in his forehead. Now, Luisa is obsessed, wherever she goes, with having been able to inflict some damage on someone.
Luisa this idea causes a terrible discomfort, full of confusion, fear and anxiety. Therefore, to avoid those bad emotions, Luisa makes and redoes up to four times her way from work to home, from the cafeteria to the library, etc. This constitutes Luisa’s ritual, her tool to avoid all the anxiety that the idea of having harmed someone causes her.
Does Luisa find tranquility in her repeated walks?
We might think that the moment Luisa realizes that, in effect, she has not hurt anyone, she will calm down and her repeated walks disappear. Quite the contrary, because that reassuring information does nothing but maintain the problem, in this case the obsession.
Why is this happening? Anxiety or anguish is maintained thanks to safety behaviors. Luisa has not been exposed to the situation she fears the most: reaching her destination without “knowing” if she has hurt someone.
This grinds her down and she can’t help but use her safety behavior. But anxiety disappears through exposure to the anxiety stimulus and not through constant checking.
If Luisa does not expose herself, her safety behaviors will soon be insufficient and will even demand more of her: instead of going over her route four times, she will do it six.
The reassuring information in hypochondria
When these obsessions are medical, that is, the fear and obsession of the person is to be sick, the reassuring information is not useful either, since it is based on the same mechanisms previously exposed. This seems like a good example from the phenomenon that concerns us today: the coronavirus crisis.
The media coverage and the drastic changes in our routine can cause that this virus does not leave our heads. This constant presence can also lead us to question whether we are sick, to the point of becoming an obsession.
Several issues underlie medical obsessions. Obsessions take place because people tend, according to Martínez and Belloch (1998), to amplify benign bodily sensations and to interpret these sensations in a catastrophic way.
The fear, or the obsession, of not knowing if they are sick or not, makes these consumers subscribe to the reassuring information.
Read and reread the symptoms of the coronavirus
Let’s take the coronavirus crisis as an example, since we are currently experiencing it, and many people will be able to feel identified.
According to Martínez, Belloch and Botella (1995), in hypochondria there is a triggering stimulus —for example, exposure to information about the disease.
In the case of the coronavirus, this information is everywhere, which can exacerbate the problem: the person apprehensive of having coronavirus finds information about it on social networks, WhatsApp groups, television programs or newspaper news. The police hanging around the street reminds him that there is coronavirus, not being able to leave the house too.
The fear that the coronavirus causes in people can also lead them to changes at a physiological, cognitive and behavioral level.
The physiological arousal and its consequences can lead the person who suffers from this disease to think when its changes can be explained and not precisely through a terrible disease.
Learn to live with the possibility of being sick
According to these authors, in the face of this fear of having coronavirus, behaviors such as body self-inspection, catastrophic interpretation of physiological changes and the search for reassuring information from medical sources – and not medical ones, too – are set in motion . This does not eliminate the possibility of being sick, it only encourages anxiety about health.
This type of behavior is an obstacle for the person to learn that what they fear – in this case, being sick with coronavirus – is not happening.
On the contrary, these safety behaviors cause the person to be very focused on their body, to pay attention to their negative thoughts and their anxiety to return every time they do not check that they are not sick.
When to stop reading seemingly reassuring information?
The fear of illness is an obsession that can be triggered in situations like the one we are experiencing. Reassuring information doesn’t have to be harmful to everyone.
There are people who read the symptoms of coronavirus, verify that they do not have those symptoms and do not think about it again.
However, we can identify the existence of a problem based on the times we go to that information. Not just the one referring to physical symptoms; also to the data about the epidemic, the development of the disease, etc.
We may need to know the latest coronavirus data to be calm and constantly look for that new information – it does not have to be only related to the fact of being sick.
If this information seems to calm our obsession, but it comes back later, forcing us to read more about the coronavirus to be calm; we can suspect that there is an obsession maintained by, among others, safety behaviors.
How to beat the obsession with the coronavirus?
If this is our case, the main recommendation, of course, is to face the idea of ”having” coronavirus – most of these people will not have it – without going to that information. It is best not to seek peace of mind in new data or data that we have already read and reread.
The doubt, in addition to the fact of having this disease or its threat, is uncomfortable. But we have to live with it, because these safety behaviors can lead to more pathological ones.
Perhaps we start by reading new coronavirus data every night to calm ourselves, and then invest three or four hours each day, ending up by somehow enslaving our daily lives.
If the problem is magnified, psychological therapy is a good option. But if we really want to defeat the obsession with the coronavirus, the premise seems clear: not to verify the veracity of our judgment, it is related to the fear of getting sick, the virus spreading or the new cases having decreased. At least until our anxiety is gone.
OCD with covert rituals
OCD with covert rituals is usually made up of purely cognitive checking rituals. We explain what difficulties it presents.