Hygiene craze: on the rise after Covid

It is an OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) that is treated in clinics and with dedicated therapies. Now there is also a book

«Even today it took me almost 2 hours to get out . Now that I think about it, 2 is a constant in my daily life: 2 hours of preparations, 2 steps of detergent and 2 of disinfectant, 2 masks, 2 pairs of gloves. The breaths I take to calm down, however, are many more. I have almost stopped counting them also because many times they seem useless to me. And I often arrive at the end of this ritual so tired that I don’t even find the strength to cross the threshold of the house ». Vittoria has a tried look, the dark circles seem a furrow. But what strikes you about this 40-year-old Milanese, a lawyer, wife and mother of 2 children aged 9 and 6, are the hands marked by too many washes . In fact, he hides them in his arms. Just as he tried to conceal theobsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that has plagued her for years and has now exploded again. “Maybe it will be the fault of the pandemic,” he whispers.

Widespread but little reported disorder

What for Vittoria is a hypothesis is becoming a certainty for specialists. “We conducted a study on a sample of 30 patients who already had a diagnosis and we noticed a severe worsening of symptoms. They are also appearing in people who were well before, ”says Davide Prestia, psychiatrist at the Policlinico San Martino in Genoa, where he is in charge of the outpatient clinic dedicated to DOC. And the phenomenon is on the rise everywhere. “We see more and more cases, especially among those who had suffered from it in the past and managed to keep the” subthreshold “problem” confirms Gabriele Melli, psychologist and psychotherapist, president of the Italian Association of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (AIDOC) and of the IPSICO Institute of Florence, author of the volumeOvercoming obsessions. Understanding and Coping with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Erickson). This pathology affects 2% of the population, like anxiety and depression, but it is much less talked about . «Most patients don’t come out into the open, they don’t know they have a problem that has a specific name, they think it’s just a question of character; then he feels a lot of shame for this “defect”, so he admits it only when it becomes disabling, or when it generates serious problems in private and working life. The disorder is characterized by recurring obsessions that lead to exaggerated and repetitive behaviors. Obsessions are about health and hygiene or tragedies and disasters:there are those who have the nightmare of contracting diseases and pass them on to others and those who are terrified of being responsible for disasters (such as thefts and fires) or causing a car accident. So, for example, he disinfects himself and his belongings for hours, checks locks and alarms hundreds of times. And it comes to not go out ».

Extreme cleansing rituals

Vittoria had never exceeded the limits. He had archived his quirks, which had appeared during university, as a part of life. “They were always there, but I managed to hide them, like you do with the dust under the carpet. Maybe friends and boyfriends would make fun of me, I was the one with the disinfectant in the disco, I glossed over. When I started living with Aldo, today my husband, he pushed me to tackle the issue. So I went to a psychologist, who associated the disorder with a period of high stress at work and gave me medicine to calm me down. It went better, but then the situation got worse with motherhood: I changed the baby’s diapers up to 15 times a day and sterilized everything they touched up to 4 years old. I didn’t sleep at night thinking about how to protect them and I avoided taking them to the nursery or enrolling them in sports courses because they seemed dangerous places to me ». Her children grow up, they seem stronger and the anxiety of enclosing them in a sterile bubble subsides. Vittoria loosens the reins even with herself. Home and days remain a temple of cleanliness but without exaggeration. Until the pandemic arrives.

The culmination with the pandemic

“At first I was even better. The world had to do what I have been doing for some time, I was no longer the madwoman in symbiosis with Amuchina “she confides. “Staying at home, with my rites and times, also gave me peace of mind. I let Aldo take care of expenses and practical matters and I went into exile for several weeks. Even if I didn’t admit it, however, the time I devoted to sanitizing and hygienic procedures increased day by day . There was nothing else for me and one night even my eldest son yelled at me that I was going crazy. And I understood that I had to change ».

The pandemic has legitimized the obsessions

This script is being staged in several Italian houses. “Lots of patients admit they were better off during the lockdown. They felt entitled to behave as usual and experienced the situation as a sort of redemption »says Gabriele Melli. “But this has crystallized and worsened the problem and, now that the quarantine is over, they are struggling to resume normal daily life: they are unable to go out, to return to the office or to have dinner with relatives, while the cleaning rituals are engulfing their days “. It is what experts call the “period of untreated illness”.

This obsession can be cured

“Unfortunately we see patients even 10-15 years after the onset of the disease” specifies Davide Prestia, psychiatrist at the San Martino Polyclinic in Genoa. «Better to intervene as soon as possible and contact an expert, who immediately reassures the person. It is an important step: it is essential to explain well what it is and to understand the normality of the situation, that is, the fact that it can be cured . The therapy involves a mix of drugs (antidepressants are used, ed) and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. In recent weeks, we have focused on telemedicine with video call checks , but personal contact is essential. And in the coming months we want to monitor those at risk, such as the children of those who already suffer from it or those who have episodes of anxiety ».

Even when she tells us about her difficulties, Vittoria’s thoughts immediately go to her children. “I have decided to cure myself for them: I don’t want them to see me suffer or, worse still, start behaving like me. I took advantage of this period to take a leave of absence from work, so much by now I was even struggling to go to court or have a meeting with colleagues since everything seemed a den of germs. Now I’m taking my first steps with a psychiatrist: I understand that, after all, it’s just one of the many challenges in life. Do you know that I also made a bet with my husband? If a second wave of Covid arrives, I will come out stronger than before and in 2021 we will celebrate both the end of the pandemic and that of my disorder “.

Psychotherapy is essential

The best weapon against OCD is cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy . «It is necessary to gradually face the fears and obsessions of the patient, trying to understand their causes and roots and working on a cognitive level on a strong moral sense and responsibility. We insist on the fact that the whole existence is made up of risks, every action entails them and we cannot eliminate them »says Gabriele Melli. «Then we propose practical exercises that simulate critical situations and train the person to face them in a functional way. For example, you touch a very dirty surface or object several times, do not wash your hands immediately and, on the contrary, touch your face. It is a long process, which can take up to a year, but in the end the results are excellent ».


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