The concerns and fears around germophobia are very real for those suffering from that condition.
Mysophobia, germophobia. There are many names to describe the fear of germs. We’ve all known individuals who appear to be particularly concerned with germs and the possibility of getting sick. We may see them at the grocery store wiping down shopping carts with antibacterial wipes, or in the public restroom opening the door with a paper towel covering their hand.
Taking care to sneeze into the crux of one’s arm is not uncommon, nor is it disruptive to one’s daily living, but there is an extent to which a concern with germs may become excessive, causing great distress and impairment in one’s life.
A clinically significant fear of germs and/or contamination manifests itself as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which occurs in approximately 2-3 percent of the population. OCD is a psychiatric disorder, which involves both obsessions (recurrent, persistent, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that cause anxiety or distress) and compulsions (repetitive behaviors or mental acts that are aimed at neutralizing or reducing anxiety or distress, or preventing a feared outcome).
Concerns regarding germs/disease/contamination are among the most common obsessions in OCD. Individuals experiencing this type of obsession find themselves besieged by thoughts, worries and fears about the potential dangers they perceive in their environment — the many ways in which they believe one could become sick, contaminated or infected by germs with which one may come in contact.
This causes sufferers a great deal of anxiety and distress. In an attempt to neutralize or reduce their distress, they are driven to carry out mental acts or behaviors they believe may minimize the danger they perceive and keep themselves and/or others safe. For example, someone who is concerned that shaking another’s hand may transmit germs experiences anxiety when faced with a handshake greeting. He or she may feel the need to wash their hands or use antibacterial gel as soon as possible after shaking hands may refrain from touching anything until they are able to do so. They may also choose to minimize their perceived risk by avoiding that which they deem to be potentially dangerous or provokes anxiety.
Unfortunately, the more often one carries out compulsions in response to distress caused by obsessions, the more this fear and the pattern of behavior becomes reinforced. In other words, carrying out compulsive behaviors strengthens the drive to do so when concerns for potential for danger arises. Thus, individuals can find themselves consumed by persistent fears about germs and efforts to feel better and stay safe. This can significantly impact all facets of their lives, preventing them from carrying out daily activities and causing strained relationships.
When a loved one is struggling with OCD, individuals often want to help, but find themselves unsure of what they can do. Below are tips to help a loved one deal with OCD and provide them with support:
- Educate yourself about OCD. Knowledge is power.
- Resist the urge to accommodate (enable) OCD symptoms. For example, avoid providing reassurance, carrying out behaviors for the individual, assisting in avoidance, or changing daily routines or activities to make them feel better or decrease their distress.
- Help your loved one find the right treatment.
Research indicates that the most effective treatments for OCD include a specific type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP or EX/RP), and/or psychopharmacological treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs). To learn more about OCD and its treatment or find a treatment provider, visit the International OCD Foundation online at iocdf.org.
Marla W. Deibler, Psy.D., MSCP, is a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally-recognized expert in anxiety disorders and obsessive compulsive and related disorders, including OCD, trichotillomania, excoriation (skin picking) disorder, and hoarding disorder. She is the founder and executive director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia (Cherry Hill and Princeton, NJ). She has appeared on the Dr. Oz Show, A&E’s Hoarders, TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive, CBS News, ABC News, FOX News and CBS’s Swift Justice with Nancy Grace.