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Managing Compulsivity During Quarantine 

 This blog is for anyone who struggles with compulsivity. Being quarantined without the usual stimulations and coping strategies available to you, can actually bring about compulsive behaviors even if you didn’t experience them before! I was just talking with a friend of mine recently who said she was struggling with the “add to cart syndrome,” meaning that she finds herself buying things she didn’t really need off of Amazon, simply because there is not much else to do right now.

To be clear, people can struggle with compulsive behavior even if it doesn’t manifest as a fullblown addiction or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that wreaks havoc on their lives. Whether you are struggling with new compulsions or longstanding addictions during quarantine, you will find this blog full of helpful tips and information. It’s important to note that the circumstances related to COVID-19 can trigger relapse in people who had previously felt a strong control of and ability to manage addiction.

What is Compulsivity?

Unfortunately, there is not one clear-cut and widely agreed upon definition of compulsivity. Compulsivity typically entails repetitive thoughts or behaviors that aren’t necessarily healthy and don’t serve you well. These behaviors are often used as a form of emotional regulation or to self soothe. Using the shopping example, you get a little rush after you purchase something, which can help you forget about stress in your life for even a brief moment. You might find yourself scrolling your favorite stores websites for hours when stressed.

It is important to remember that everyone can experience these types of behaviors and urges, but that it really only becomes problematic across time if you continue to engage in the behavior or substance use despite negative consequences. Remember, there is a spectrum. Engaging in compulsive behaviors in times of extreme stress (like stress eating) doesn’t necessarily qualify you for an addiction. It does however add complications to life and can lead you into a pattern of unhealthy coping over time.

What Does Compulsivity Look Like?

Compulsivity can manifest in a lot of ways. Remember that it usually entails a sense of urgency to do something that can be hard to shake, and hard to stop doing the activity once you start!

Examples of compulsive behavior during quarantine
  • Stress/binge eating
  • Impulsive buys/online shopping
  • Substance use/addiction
  • Engaging in physical or mental rituals that ease stress/anxiety temporarily
  • Checking behaviors
  • Hoarding
  • Spending long amounts of time with video games
  • Cleaning/rearranging things
  • Being overly self-critical of your appearance/comparing yourself to others
  • Viewing pornography/masturbation
  • Losing time on the Internet/dissociation
  • Obsessively checking social media
  • Gambling
  • Picking/scratching behaviors

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that could qualify as compulsive behaviors and it is important to remember that we are not covering OCD in this blog, rather generally how compulsive behaviors can manifest in times of stress…and can lead to more stress. This seems sort of counter-intuitive because they may seem to ease stress or anxiety for the time being—but ultimately these things do not bring about wellbeing. One key to remember is that sense of urgency to do them. Feeling compelled to do them, as if it is hard to resist. Quarantine can certainly exacerbate stressful circumstances that can lead compulsive behavior (and obsessive thoughts) to surface, but not necessarily to a diagnosable “clinical” level.

Managing Compulsivity During Quarantine  

Because some of the ways you may normally manage compulsive behaviors aren’t as readily available to you— like the gym, you are likely going to have to put in more (and creative) effort to manage compulsive tendencies. The quarantine 15 may sound like a fun quip or joke, but there is truth behind it— humans who are under stress with little to do often turn to food! It’s relatively normal, so normal that is has become an everyday meme. Add to that the boredom level of feeling ‘stuck at home’ and you can make more trips to the fridge a day then you can count. So, what can you do to help take care of your health and sanity during quarantine to help manage or decrease compulsive behaviors?

Starter tips to manage compulsive behaviors
  • Get curious about your own stress
  • Learn relaxation
  • Make a list of healthy distractions
  • Set and follow a schedule; even at home
  • Remain connected
Get curious about your own stress

It may sound simplistic, but truly knowing what specifically causes you stress can really aid you in managing it. We know uncomfortable feelings when we’re in the midst of them. However, knowing the situations that cause us the most stress can help us to plan for stress (when possible) and subsequently lessen the intensity.

What causes you stress?

Are there some unhelpful thought patterns that you need to change?

How do you take care of yourself when you know you are likely to encounter something or someone that causes you stress?

Learn Relaxation

A logical next step is learn healthy relaxation. What truly allows you to relax? Can you create those circumstances for yourself even for just a few minutes a day? Invest time in yourself to find out what actually helps you to relax and be calm. For some people this is quiet solitude in nature and for others it is sharing with others. Seek to get to know yourself well enough to have a few relaxation techniques that work well for you.

Make a list of healthy distractions

Have a physical list of healthy distraction behaviors that you will plan to do BEFORE engaging in a compulsive behavior. This may look like well, I really want to buy makeup I don’t need online right now…but first I’ll go through my list of healthy distractions. This might look like using your relaxation techniques, doing an emotional checkin with yourself, calling a friend, attending a 12step meeting, listening to soothing music, taking a hot shower, interacting with your pet, etc.

Make the list as long as it needs to be to help curb any compulsive behaviors you are trying to decrease or eliminate. Since we are very aware that coming up with ideas for relaxation or healthy distraction can in itself become a stress factor, here is a link to one of our favorite pleasant adult activities list. There are 176 things on this list; pick 5 to try this week. If it helps, GREAT! Keep it on your list. If it stresses you out more, scratch a line through it and move on to the next logical options. Please keep in mind that any outlet can turn unhealthy if done in excess or in the wrong way.

Set and follow a schedule

Make sure to set a schedule for yourself. A large trigger for compulsive behaviors is unattended time and a feeling of being lost with how to occupy yourself. Stick to a wake and bed time, plan out your meals, pick a time for reading, hygiene, getting outside, etc. We function best with predictability so create that for yourself and hold yourself to it. This also helps kids & teens better regulate their emotions and behaviors, make sure to give them choices in how that scheduel is arranged. 

Remain Connected

And finally, put in the effort to stay connected with other people. You may not be used to initiating phone calls or Zoom hang-out sessions, but try to challenge yourself to try something new. The more connected you are, the more emotionally fulfilled you are, the less intense urges for compulsive behaviors are likely to be.

Pick your supports wisely, if you know a certain friend or support would encourage or trigger your compulsive behaviors, don’t use them as your go to resource. Pick people that help you feel more positive, grounded and confident. Remaining connected also includes continuing to work on your own unique spirituality. This means different things to different people, but it boils down to feeling connected to the world and finding your inner peace. This may involve religion or a God or it might not. Figure out what resonates with you. Keep in mind that many churches of all denominations have moved their services online, you can view a ton of different services on YouTube and really pick a pastor or faith leader that you can connect with.

Ongoing Help

Angelus therapists are here to support you in managing or diminishing compulsive behaviors during quarantine. It’s important to try to be as patient with yourself as possible because stressful circumstances understandably bring about stress responses for people. If you are struggling with compulsive behavior it is likely because you are trying to manage your stress levels or some other unpleasant feeling. Working with a therapist can help you move through your emotions and not cover them up with compulsive behaviors. Make an appointment with Angelus today to get started.

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services

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