“There is no specific recent time when I’ve experienced a fear of germs, it’s just a constant hum in the back of my head. Even if I’m not actively thinking about it, the hum at the back of my head warning me of the dangers of touching [germs] is always there, constantly recalculating the degree of risk…” —Lisa, 52
From a young age, we are encouraged to have a healthy fear of germs for both our personal hygiene and well-being. However, for some people, germs can cause severe anxiety that can interfere with their daily life. Fear of germs, also known as mysophobia, is a type of obsessive disorder, says Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., psychotherapist in New York City, and this fear has definitely become more prevalent in recent years due to the pandemic.
The impact of mysophobia on your life varies, says Patrick Porter, Ph.D., neuroscience expert and founder of BrainTap. Mild cases of mysophobia might mean that you feel compelled to wash your hands several times after being in a particularly germ-y environment. Or it might mean that you avoid germ-filled places entirely, such as public bathrooms, restaurants, or buses. In more severe cases, just the thought of germs may consistently disrupt your daily life. This may mean avoiding social situations, even when they include loved ones. Or it might mean that you regularly wash your hands for an unreasonable amount of time.
Treatment options for germophobia
A key strategy in managing mysophobia is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps people understand and deal with their fears, says Porter. CBT typically includes a series of coping skills that you can apply in situations when your fear of germs becomes overwhelming.
What you can do at home:
It’s natural to wash your hands when you come home, but it’s not natural to do so for 30 minutes, says Dr. Sperling. Establish a reasonable cleaning routine that doesn’t exacerbate your fears, she says. Set a timer to limit how long you hand wash and bathe. If you find yourself lingering on thoughts of germs for an excessive amount of time, remember that germs do serve a purpose—keeping your immunity strong.
What you can do in public:
Shaking hands, taking public transportation, or using public bathrooms can be especially difficult for those with a fear of germs. Carry around hand sanitizer or wipes if it makes you feel better, but note when you are using these excessively. Create checks for yourself by acknowledging your fear; this awareness can help you avoid spiraling.
What you can do anywhere:
Learn how to deactivate the threat response and remain in the present when fear-based, germ-related anxiety develops, says William Snyder, L.P.C., provider partner for Grow Therapy. It may help to develop a consistent mindfulness practice—letting thoughts go by coming back to a focal point—15 minutes per day through deep breathing, sounds, movements, or guided meditation. In a stressful moment, try diaphragmatic breathing—pulling air into the lungs by using the diaphragm rather than the ribcage. If we stay in the present while practicing this type of breathing, we can turn off that fear-based reaction within a minute or two.
How to find help for a fear of germs
When a fear of germs starts to affect your daily life and relationships, consider seeking out professional help and treatment options. Keeping up your own self care is also essential—getting enough sleep, eating healthy, practicing mindfulness, as well as anything that relaxes you.
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