How to Overcome Mysophobia 

[Fear of Germs]

A bead of sweat rolls down your neck as you contemplate the business meeting you’re about to walk into. Social norms dictate that you must shake hands with each person, which leaves you petrified. The plethora of germs that accompany each handshake leaves you questioning how stealthily you can pull the hand-sanitizer from your pocket and apply it. 


You breathe a sigh of relief once the meeting is over as you dart to the restroom, aiming to spend the foreseeable future scrubbing every inch of your hands. It will likely eat into your work hours, but you vow you’ll make up the time later. While this is an extreme example, many of us are often ‘grossed out’ by the cleanliness standards of others. Do you fall into that category?


What is Mysophobia [The Fear of Germs]?

hand sanitizer and gloves on work desk

Mysophobia (pronounced [mee-soh-fo-bee-ah]) can be characterized as a fear of germs, or being infected by a pathogen, or becoming contaminated or unclean. It is often referred to as:

  • Germophobia
  • Bacillophobia
  • Bacteriophobia

In the DSM-5 it is often classified under ‘Specific Phobia’ (300.29). To be diagnosed with this specific phobia, you must fit at least 3 of the below criteria:

  • Duration of 6 months or longer
  •  A severe reaction that is excessive
  • An immediate anxiety reaction when faced with a trigger
  • Extreme avoidance—to the point you cannot carry out intended activity
  • Impacts your ability to function (hold down a job, eat, sleep, etc.)

Are You a Germaphobe? Here Are Some Symptoms

Woman washing hands

Do you exhibit any of these disconcerting symptoms? Here they are: 

  • You feel compelled to wash hands repeatedly and excessively
  • Meticulous, immaculate, and repeated cleaning of the surrounding environment
  • Inability to shake hands, hug, or otherwise seek out physical contact of any kind
  • Avoidance of public places that are heavily populated; refusal to leave home
  • Refusal to go anywhere germs may be prevalent—including a clinic or hospital for necessary medical attention
  • An inability to focus on tasks; thoughts about germs that overwhelm your rational thought process

While this is not an exhaustive list of possible manifestations of symptoms, it should be able to give you a general sense of where you fall in the spectrum. If you believe you could be diagnosed with mysophobia, seek out professional help. Licensed therapists will help you discern if you have a true diagnosis versus a general and normal fear. 


What Causes Mysophobia?

Often, a fear of germs is related to an event or circumstance in which you were directly affected by microbes. 

Dealing with Illness

Child in hospital bed with mask on

 If you’re anything like me, you’ve dealt with multiple illnesses directly related to a virus, bacteria, fungus, etc. that leaves you especially anxious about ‘catching’ another illness. Or you struggle with severe allergies to things directly in your environment. If you have an immune disease or you have to be especially careful what you’re exposed to. Those who have had a bone marrow or organ transplants HAVE to be careful they aren’t exposed to germs or fall ill before, during, and after transplant. All of these factors can leave you obsessed with protecting yourself at all costs—and can lead to a phobia. 


Misunderstanding Microbes

Did you know the human body contains trillions of microorganisms and that their count outnumbers human cells 10 to 1? This is what is referred to as the ‘Human Microbiome’. Healthy adults can be colonized by over 10,000 species of microorganisms. Fascinating, right? What you may not realize is that they play a vital role in our survival. Some bacteria work to help us digest our food, AKA Probiotics (1). 


According to the Human Microbiome Project, these microorganisms “Produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes (2). 


Various bacteria, eukaryotes, archaea, bacteria, and viruses actually work to help us function in our daily lives. An acute misunderstanding of the symbiotic relationship is one reason why we’ve become so fearful. 


The Coronavirus: How Global Pandemics Impact Us

Woman Wearing Mask

COVID-19 is running rampant around the globe, leaving thousands dead and even more seriously ill. The impact of global pandemics like the one we are currently living in inflate our fear exponentially. We are all likely embracing our inner germaphobe in a mere hope for survival. The media claims their goal is to educate and inform, but they often leave us feeling fearful and out of control.


Viruses are one of the few microorganisms that we cannot adequately treat. Influenza is one of the most common illnesses out there that we can get a vaccine for, but it is not guaranteed to prevent the illness. Viruses constantly mutate and adapt leaving us wondering—how do WE adapt and survive? Make sure to read the self-help treatment section below to hear my thoughts on coping with this seemingly necessary fear. 


The Connection Between Mysophobia and OCD

The DSM-5 states that one of the main parameters of OCD is “Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive, unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress” (3).


According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 19 million adults—8.7% of the U.S. population—deal with a specific phobia and it is commonly associated with OCD, Anxiety disorders, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Women are affected twice as often as men, with average onset of symptoms at the age of 7 (4). 


TV Detective Adrian Monk

Did you know?

TV detective Adrian Monk is an extreme example of someone who deals with mysophobia—with extreme OCD. Howie Mandel is also famous for being a germaphobe (and he 100% admits it).


How to Overcome Your Fear of Germs

I get it, in this day and age of “shelter-at-home” and “self-quarantine” procedures in place, you probably think that an irrational fear of germs is healthy. You are, after all, only seeking to protect yourself from an illness that may be deadly. 


But if you’ve found yourself unable to venture out for necessities such as groceries or have been sanitizing everything coming into your general vicinity BEFORE the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced—it’s time to face the facts.


Self-help treatment

Here are a few things you can do at-home to ease your concern.


Learn the Facts

Using the Coronavirus as an example, do some basic research to assuage your fears. Only seek out information from reputable sites, such as CDC.gov. Take advice from medical professionals and experts—not the media. Recognize these facts:

  • Hand sanitizer isn’t as effective as soap and water
  • Using gloves only works if you’re consistently using a new pair after each encounter with a foreign object or item
  • Wearing a mask is useless if the person who is ill isn’t wearing one; save these for medical professionals on the front-lines
  • Take necessary precautions and social-distance in public
  • Recognize that doing a few simple things can greatly lower your exposure

Follow reputable government sites and comfort yourself with the knowledge that there are treatment options available for many illnesses, included COVID-19. 


Meditation and Relaxation 

Woman meditating by the ocean

If you have anxious tendencies like I do, finding relaxation techniques can calm your anxiety and help you focus on the facts—not your feelings. You can meditate, listen to calming music, write about your thoughts and feelings, or play with your pet. There are a lot of tools out there. Find what works to calm your racing thoughts, and incorporate it at the beginning of every day—and on an as-needed basis—to ground you in reality. 


Professional Treatment Options

 

Medication

Consult a medical professional to see what they recommend to help mitigate your symptoms of anxiety. Antidepressants such as SSRI’s are often recommended. 


Therapy Modalities

Medication is most useful when accompanied by therapeutic measures that help you get to the root of the issue that’s causing the phobia and overcome thought patterns that are exacerbating your fear. The most targeted treatments include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Exposure Therapy. You can reach out to a local mental health professional that specializes in phobias or consider an online route for therapy .

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