Most people experience some form of irrational fear or anxiety, and many are concerned about germs and disease in particular. Amid a flurry of films and media reports about antibiotic-resistant infections and life-threatening flu strains, it’s easy to understand why some people actively worry about what they touch and breathe.
While concern about germs can motivate people to make health-conscious decisions such as frequently washing their hands, a serious germ phobia can drastically alter how a person functions and engages with society. Even actor and television host Howie Mandel concedes he has been unable to shake the grip of mysophobia—the technical term for fear of germs. Phobias are differentiated from general fears by degree. A person who is concerned about germs might wash his or her hands or get a flu shot, but a germ phobia can interfere with every area of life. Phobias are treatable, and people experiencing them should seek medical or psychological assistance.
The primary symptom of mysophobia is an irrational fear of germs. This can manifest differently in different people. One person, for example, might be fixated on a specific germ or disease, while another person might be afraid of germs and dirt in general. Common behaviors associated with mysophobia include:
- Compulsive hand washing
- Excessive use of disinfectants and antibacterial soap
- Fear of physical contact with others
- Extreme fear of getting sick
- Reacting with extreme fear to media reports of new diseases
- Fear of certain locations, such as doctor’s offices and airplanes, where germs or sick people might be present or confined
Mysophobia doesn’t simply inspire fear and avoidance. The phobia can be all-encompassing and life-altering. While people with mysophobia often recognize that their reactions are irrational, they can’t control them. They may avoid going out in public, developing intimate relationships, or eating food they did not cook. Because mysophobia affects so much of a person’s life, it can lead to other mental health issues such as depression, social isolation, and anxiety. Complete avoidance of germs can actually contribute to the development of health problems. Overuse of antibacterial and disinfectant products has been implicated in the spread of new, resistant infections, and children who are not exposed to germs are more likely to develop allergies.
No one knows exactly why people develop phobias, but mental health experts have developed a few theories. Some believe that people are more likely to develop phobias that protect from danger. These phobias include germ phobias, fear of large animals, and fear of heights. People who develop phobias may take these natural fears too far and react with extreme anxiety, placing them in danger they are believed to be trying to avoid.
Early experiences also can make a person more likely to develop a phobia. Childhood illness, the death of a parent, or painful medical procedures can condition a person to be extremely fearful of germs and to take extreme measures to avoid them. Phobias also tend to run in families; they may be genetic or simply learned from parents.
Phobias are highly treatable and often require only a few sessions with a qualified mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people to reframe intrusive and phobic thoughts, can be extremely beneficial. Desensitization, a process whereby a person is slowly exposed to a frightening stimulus, also is highly effective. Some doctors may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help people with mysophobia cope with their fears during treatment or to enable them to function in public. Some clients also experience success with hypnotherapy, often in only two or three sessions.
- Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G., Byers, B. E. (2008). Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Overcoming your Fear of Germs. (n.d.). Fear of Germs. Retrieved from http://www.fearofgerms.com/
- Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Phobias. (n.d.). U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/phobias.html
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