In the early part of the year, before the crisis over a certain virus began, most people just lived their lives with cleanliness being important but not something that the majority of us obsessed about. Hygiene was seen as something you kept up, but it didn’t impact on people’s lives too much beyond keeping things generally clean, and people’s minds were more likely to turn to their work, family or interests when given a few minutes to relax. But after the virus hit and governments around the world put everyone into lockdown, there were calls people to take more and more precautions when it came to cleanliness. Everyone is now encouraged to wash their hands regularly, sanitise their hands before and after touching anything considered ‘dirty’ and all surfaces have to be wiped down before another person uses it. But is this new obsession with cleaning really that good for us? Or could we be creating a nation of people with lowered immunity to even basic viruses and causing unknown long-term mental health problems for all?
The importance of being clean
Nobody would dispute that being clean and hygienic isn’t important. In fact compared to life back in the Victorian era or even further back, the medieval era, our cleanliness standards are much higher today, and unlike our ancestors, today we know that keeping surfaces and ourselves clean does halt the spread of many pathogens including bacteria and viruses. Our shoppping baskets today are filled with hygiene products for the home and ourselves. We wipe down kitchen surfaces, have strong cleaners for the bathroom and, most of us, stay clean with a daily bath or shower and wash our hands whenever necessary.
A good sense of hygiene is achieved by most people in daily life and until recently most of us were not too bothered if we touched the same handle as someone else to open a door, or if we walked into the same space that someone else had just been in, even though all sorts of cold and flu viruses already existed in these places. However recently, since the new virus broke out and the government began telling us how to behave (rather than believing ourselves intelligent enough to be be aware and clean ourselves) it seeme that everybody is now starting to obsess with just how hygeinic any surface is, and people are becoming afraid of going to places they used to frequent. And many are afraid of touching things that others have been near or touched themselves. But while being clean is something that as a nation we’ve managed with very well, are we now slipping down the path of being overly so?
Life with OCD
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD as it’s better known, is a very debilitating form of mental illness. It affects people’s daily lives and encroaches on every aspect of a person’s life. Living with contamination OCD (where you want everything and yourself to be clean) is something I’ve struggled with for years and it’s such a horrible mental health issue that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Life with OCD transforms your days into an endless and painful ritual of routines and cleaning as well as dark obsessive thoughts about what surfaces are clean and worries that things haven’t been cleaned properly or that something will contaminate you.
My own daily OCD (which you can read about more here) at its worse, is filled with not only daily habits of things like cleaning surfaces and constant hand washing (and in my case body washing if I’ve felt myself contaminated), but it’s also something that affects the mind in a much more damaging way. Contamination OCD sufferers, constantly think about how clean surfaces are and are plagued by constant thoughts of things being unclean. These thoughts don’t leave the mind even after a surface is wiped and they constantly repeat in the mind causing the sufferer to reapeat the cleaning actions, wiping and cleaning surfaces and hands again and again in an effort to finally feel the relief of being clean. However the relief is short lived and sometimes is never felt as the sufferer continues these daily rituals and repeated routines. People with OCD do truly suffer at the hands of this horrible mental health condition and it is one that nobody would ever wish their friends, family and especially not their children to get.
Living with any form of OCD not only causes someone to obsess about themselves and their life, but it can lead those people to become isolated from loved ones as they battle to keep others away, scared of being contaminated by them or worse, worried that they will cause the death of someone by not cleaning something properly. Or in the case of other forms of OCD, not doing a certain ritual properly (in the right order,the right number of times, etc.) can result in the death of a loved one too.
Discouraging obsessive behaviour
OCD is a life changing and debilitating illness, and it’s not something that should be actively encouraged, at least that’s what doctors have always said in the past. In the past doctors wanted to help their OCD patients try to get rid of their OCD or at least lessen it to a degree where it doesn’t impact on somebody’s entire day and did this in a number of different ways including some radical methods such as getting OCD people to not clean for a time or to touch a ‘dirty’ surface to prove to themselves that they would be fine. OCD sufferes can and do get better. I have done myself by being put in a situation where I felt ‘unclean’ and where I was forced to live without being able to feel fully ‘clean’ all of the time. Being forced into a situation that tested my assumptions on what was really clean I was, in a way, cured of my OCD.
But if medical doctors feel that OCD is a terrible mental health condition, then why are most of them, and most of us now actively encouraging ourselves, our children and future generations to become future sufferers of this debilitating and mentally damaging illness?
A learned behaviour
OCD isn’t a condition that anyone is born with. Although some may argue that certain people may be prone to getting OCD, no child is ever born obsessed with cleaning and obsessively fearful of germs. The drive to be extra clean and hygienic is one that is learned through observation (usually of their parents) and children are great at observing the world around them. Children will happily play in mud and will instinctively seek out fun and enjoyment when given the chance, but they don’t actively or instinctively seek out to be super clean, to wash their hands incessantly and be scared of getting sick. Parents are usually the ones who show children how important hygine is and when a child sees a parent cleaning all the time it will soon learn that this is something that it should do, especially if the act of being clean is seen as something positive.
Before the recent crisis took place, people didn’t obssess with hygiene. Sure some were more hygienic than others and we were a hygienic nation compared to our past (think those wonderful medieval times!) but we were never obsessed with being overly clean. In fact, it was a proven fact that if we cleaned too much then we would be creating future problems for ourselves and our children, that we could create new super bugs that were tougher on our immune systems. Or we would be stopping our children (and us) from injesting weaker viruses and bacteria which would be good for us to help build up our immune system to these bugs.
Creating a bleak future
I know that times like these are scary for many. The government and media are obsessed with telling us how terrible the virus is and how many people are getting sick. They dazzle us with strange figures about how fast others are getting infected, and constantly warn us about the different ways we can get ill and pass it on to others. Despite the fact that the number of deaths around the world are no where near the levels of pandemics of the past (I know it might seem so, but it’s defiitely NOT like the Black Death that caused almost half of Europe’s citizens to die), and the fact that the number of sick people around the world is similar to a very bad flu season (and remember some people might just have a flu or cold – they can sometimes cause false positive tests), the media is still obsessed with making us scared, more than we should be.
Being scared won’t solve our situation. Being overly clean to the point of obsession won’t either. We cannot become a nation that passes on OCD to their children, because as a sufferer I can tell you it is a horrific and debilitating condition. It’s not something anyone should ever suffer from and we shouldn’t be encouraging our children to be scared, especially as they are the least likely to get very sick. We should be teaching people to be clean, yes, but there’s a big difference between being clean, careful, and obsessively destroying your own immunity and sanity as a result.
A future ‘bubble’ life
At this moment I think of ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ an analogy/story I heard of when I was young. Maybe you’ve heard of it too? The idea of a boy who was protected from all germs his whole life because his parents, keen to keep him safe, kept him in a plastic bubble, never letting him out of it except maybe at home. Whenever they had to go outside with their son they’d place him in the plastic bubble (a bit like a hamster in a plastic ball!). One day the boy really wants to explore the outside world and he leaves his bubble, his protective armour. But when he left the bubble he caught a very mild and simple cold virus. It was just a cold, the type that everyone recovers from. But unfortunately this boy didn’t get better, he died from the common cold. Why did he die? Because he’d never been exposed to any virus particles beffore, not even the common cold. So his immune system was useless at defending him against it. It wasn’t the cold virus that was dangerous it was his lack of immunity. And all because he was kept in a clean bubble, a ‘safe’ place which his parents thought would protect him forever.
Our immune systems are wonderful things. They make us stay healthy and fight off so many germs. Every day we come into contact with thousands if not millions of germs – viruses and bacteria – and every day our immune systems help us to stay healthy and safe and well by creating antibodies against whatever dangers are out there. But if we stop our immune systems from being exposed to these simpler viruses (which all the hand washing and sanitising will do) we set ourselves up to get very sick when we eventually do encounter them. Those of us old enough to have built up a decent immune system might be fine against all viruses in the future, and our children who have built up some immunity might be fine too. But how many babies now will grow up without a basic immunity to simpler viruses? And how many of our children’s children will grow up obssesed with cleaning and unable to keep themselves safe from simple colds in the future?
How many ‘Boys in the Bubbles’ are we creating right now with our drive to be clean? And how many children of today will become obsessively worried in the future about their hygiene and become obsessive about cleaning, to the point of having debilitating OCD?
We may be scared of the virus that is all over the news today. Various news stories and studies will suggest all sorts of different things which other studies will counter. And yes, for some vulnerable individuals the virus is a very bad thing. These people should take precautions and we do need to be careful about keeping these people safe and well. But if those of us who are healthy are scared of catching what, in our bodies wll be a mild virus which will pass quickly (and no, despite all sorts of news stories, you can’t have a virus in your system forever, your immune system will work to get rid of it after a short time*)…what will happen to us when a real super virus appears one day? Will our bodies be able to cope because we built up our immunity, or will we all face getting very, very sick?
*Despite not scientifically or medically qualified I have studied pathology and biology for well over a year before needing to drop out of my studies due to getting diabetic and OCD related problems. (Didn’t know that about me did ya? 😉 😀 )
Have you felt yourself becoming more ‘OCD’ with everything that has happened? Do you worry about the examples we are setting our chilren and future generations? Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂