Mysophobia and the dirty truth of irrational fear

mysophobia

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I’m sure it’s of no surprise to you that ever since COVID has been announced, there has been a huge spike in people experiencing a high level of anxiety when they think about germs. But at what point should we ask ourselves…. is my fear of germs healthy? And, what is mysophobia?

Healthy vs unhealthy levels of fear

Some one who has a healthy level of concern would essentially take precautions to avoid the probability of bringing disease or germs upon themselves.

For instance, you might wash your hands more often or avoid places where a lot of people are present.

Other preventative measures would likely be to have a seasonal flu shot or taking more vitamins and dietary supplements to better support the immune system.

Overall, people typically take a lot more action but they don’t end up really thinking too much about it. There is no worry or negative emotion associated with it. They just do the behavior and then they move on to the next thing.

Versus someone who has mysophobia, more often called germaphobia, there’s a plethora of differences with three main red flags, in which we will cover today.

This level of fear and concern puts a drastic limitation on what the person will do or where they will go.

What is a phobia?

We have all likely heard of one phobia or another at some point in our lives. Many of us have experienced those extreme and often irrational fears of things like spiders, clowns, or small spaces.

But, phobias are much more than just large fears without reason. 

Phobias refer to a type of diagnosable anxiety disorder, involving the experience of extreme and irrational fears about situations, living things, places, or objects.

These fears can be related to anything and the person experiencing the phobia often shapes their life around this fear, making it so they never come across or interact with whatever induces this terror.

What is mysophobia or germaphobia?

As of 2017, an estimated 12.5% of adults in the U.S. will experience phobia in their lifetime. One of the more common phobias being our long time friend…… germaphobia, the fear of germs and contamination.

mysophobia

Mysophobia is a distress causing fear related to any microorganism that is known to cause disease. This can be anything along the lines of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Symptoms of germaphobia / mysophobia

Like most phobias, mysophobia (germaphobia) causes emotional, behavioral, and physical side effects including but not limited to:

Most common emotional symptoms

  • Intense fear of germs 
  • Anxiety or nervousness relating to exposure to germs
  • Thoughts of exposure leading to negative consequences, such as illness
  • Trying to distract self from thoughts about germs
  • Feelings of powerlessness to control fear, even though fear is recognized as extreme or irrational 

Behavioral symptoms

  •  Avoiding or removing oneself from situations involving germ exposure
  •  Excessive thoughts and preparation for germ-involved situations    

Physical symptoms

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Becoming light-headed
  • Shaking or tremors
  • Restlessness  

The 3 red flags of mysophobia

Now, the symptoms listed above are common side effects of the germaphobia, but they are also common side effects of simple fear which can happen only once.

Mysophobia will be taken to another level and there are 3 common red flags to look out for when determining whether intervention is necessary.

  1. The person suffering will end up staying home a lot and will probably leave only if they really have to.
  2. They will eventually, hopefully, get to a place where they have this realization that this fear is irrational. Unfortunately, they will also feel like there is nothing that they can do to change it. They will feel completely powerless over it and will assume anxiety when they think about the germs, bacteria, or what have you.
  3. The third red flag would be establishing some form of routine. If they’re not able to successfully fulfill the routine or if the routine gets cut off, there’s going to be a huge spike of anxiety. They’re going to feel very out of control and will typically end up feeling worse off.

These red flags are serious and should be addressed. Please do not wait. Wellness Centers like Makin Wellness in Pennsylvania are readily available to help diagnose and treat issues such as this.

Mysophobia treatments and therapy

Treatment for mysophobia is similar to that of most other phobias; through exposure therapy and/ or cognitive behavioral therapy.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy aims to gradually introduce anxiety causing situations by creating a safe space in which to reduce anxiety and avoidance.

This type of therapy takes 3 forms:

  1. Imaginal exposure consists of mental confrontation of the anxiety inducer, involving mental picturing of the object or situation.
  2. In vivo exposure moves forward to in-person confrontation of the fear.
  3. Virtual reality combines both imaginal and in vivo techniques.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT] is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on limiting distorted and disproportionate thinking.

The goal is changing reactions to situations that trigger anxiety, replacing negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones.

CBT consists of four steps: 

  1. Assessment- analyzing and understanding causes for anxiety
  2. Cognitive restructuring- learning to identify thought responsible for anxiety
  3. Mindfulness training- learning to focus on the present
  4. Systematic exposure- Putting oneself into anxiety causing situtations while applying the mentioned learned mindfulness and cognitive skills.

Steps to lowering anxiety caused by mysophobia right now

The outbreak of coronavirus and the uncertainty surrounding it has made many of us feel anxious about our surroundings and current situation.

Here are some tips to help relieve some of the anxiety from mysophobia. These skills can also be found helpful for obsessive compulsive disorders.

  1.  Limit Exposure to Information About Coronavirus  Nowadays, it is begginning to feel like the news about covid will never end. We hear good things. We hear bad things. It’s enough to drive anyone mad. Try taking a step back.
  2.  Do Things That Mitigate Anxiety  We all have activities that act as sure ways to calm us down. It can be exercise, art, watching a movie, walking, talking, or whatever makes you feel relaxed.
  3. Indulge in Distractions Make time for relaxing activities and don’t be afraid to branch out to discover new things. Any thing that can distract you from the prior anxiety is a win. It will give your mind and body a moment to relax and remember how organic and healthy that feeling is.
  4. Keep Up a Daily Routine
  5. Monitor Alcohol Intake Alcohol always seems like a great idea when we are drinking it, but it hinders our true abilities to cope. Try limiting the number of drinks you consume and utilize other skills to deal when you are heavy with anxiety.
  6. Consider Counseling If other methods seem to fail at helping with your anxiety and distress, counseling may be ideal for you. 

If you, a friend, or family member has a heightened level of anxiety around germs, there are alternatives to suffering.

Click here for more information and counseling options.

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

All articles are written in conjunction with the Makin Wellness Research Team

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