Recognized as a pathological disorder less than a century ago, germaphobia (also known as mysophobia) differs from simply being precautious because it often overlaps with symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). With the COVID-19 pandemic still infecting millions of people every day, it’s justified to wear a mask in crowded places, wash your hands frequently, and disinfect surfaces. However, individuals with germaphobia go way beyond the recommended methods of preventing illness via infectious microbes. In some cases, their fear of germs can consume their thoughts and lives.
The history of germaphobia is a fascinating study of how science changed societal behavior regarding sickness. Before 1900, people attributed diseases to everything from “bad” air to demonic forces to being punished by God for committing sins. By the time the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic arrived in the U.S., people understood that viruses and bacteria were likely airborne and began wearing face coverings to mitigate its spread.
Sigmund Freud also developed an explanation for OCD in the early 20th century that described the classic symptoms of OCD: severe anxiety, inability to control obsessive thoughts, and a preoccupation with performing repetitive rituals, such as counting, hand-washing, and a compulsion to organize things symmetrically.
It’s when concerns about personal hygiene and cleanliness become unmanageable compulsions that professional help is needed. Today, individuals with germaphobia can sometimes manage their fear of germs by voluntarily participating in self-directed exposure therapy or de-stressing techniques with the help of a family member or friend they trust.
Causes of Germaphobia
When depression, anxiety disorders, or OCD runs in a person’s family, that person is at a higher risk of becoming a germaphobe. An environmentally traumatic event may also induce an abnormal fear of germs. For example, if someone is infected with COVID-19 and has to be hospitalized for a severe infection, that person might later adopt germaphobic behaviors after recovering from COVID-19.
Psychologists also theorize that the increased prevalence of toilet seat covers, hand dryers, hand sanitizers, and “touchless” doors may have contributed to the recent escalation in germaphobia. With so many post-pandemic items available that are meant to maximize cleanliness, it is easy for germaphobes to justify, defend, and adhere to their stringent rules of disinfecting anything they may come in contact with.
Symptoms of Germaphobia
Germaphobia typically begins in older teenagers and adults between 20 and 40. When germaphobia signs emerge in older adults, it is generally associated with a mental health issue such as OCD or an anxiety disorder.
Common germophobia behaviors include:
- Washing hands frequently for unusually long times
- Wearing gloves to prevent contact with surfaces
- Placing certain items in plastic bags to ensure their sterility
- Avoiding social and even family gatherings
- Never using public restrooms. Germaphobes may drive home from a restaurant during a meal just to use a bathroom they know is “clean.”
- Taking several showers a day unnecessarily
- Using hand sanitizer immediately after touching a surface, shaking hands, etc.
Those with germaphobia often experience signs of severe anxiety when they can’t wash their hands, clean items, or follow their rigorous decontamination rules. If they’re forced to use a public bathroom or can’t wash their hands as often as they want to, they may have a full-blown panic attack, start crying, or even become slightly aggressive in pursuing their compulsion to remain germ-free.
Germaphobia vs OCD: What’s the Difference?
Example of Germaphobia
Jasmine always took a shower in the morning and the evening before going to bed. She also washed her hands several times a day, wore a mask, and covered public toilet seats with layers of toilet paper when she couldn’t avoid using a public restroom. She covered her hand with disinfecting wipes when touching doorknobs and sprayed her apartment with Lysol upon returning home from work. Jasmine sometimes replayed her daily activities in her mind before going to sleep to reassure herself she took all the precautions necessary to avoid contact with germs.
Example of Germaphobia with Co-Occurring Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
In addition to performing her usual cleaning activities, Natalie wears gloves inside and outside her apartment, washes her hands exactly five times a day for 10 minutes each time, and puts socks on after drying her feet before she steps out of the shower. Natalie also spends hours repeatedly wiping all surfaces in her apartment with bleach and rubbing alcohol, refuses to eat anything she can’t wash thoroughly before cooking, and disinfects her car before and after she uses it.
Worry and anxiety over whether she is doing enough to prevent germs from infecting her keeps Natalie awake for several hours each night. Panic attacks and the overpowering fear of viruses, in particular, cause Natalie to use up all her sick days at work. Her cleaning rituals, severe anxiety, and panic attacks leave her on the verge of losing her job.
Tips for Managing Germaphobia Before It Gets Worse
The best way to begin managing germaphobia is to understand why you are anxious about germs. Were you raised by a parent who was a “clean freak”? Did a close relative pass away from an infectious disease during your childhood? Or, did you become a germophobe because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Read articles written by medical professionals about the nature of viruses, bacteria, and germs in general. Never rely on social media for authentic information about germs. Facebook or Instagram posts are often misleading and written by unverified individuals who are not qualified to offer advice. Many people don’t realize that most germs are an essential and beneficial aspect of our health and our environment. Moreover, out of the billions of germs co-existing with humans, only a handful cause common illnesses.
Try Exposure Therapy
Also called desensitization therapy, exposure therapy gradually exposes a person to what they fear the most to prove that nothing bad will happen to them. Exposure therapy for germaphobia could begin with the individual thinking or talking about germs, followed by a low-risk exposure to unsanitized surfaces. Some people may be able to engage in exposure therapy by themselves, while others need a friend to help them manage feelings of anxiety and panic.
Get Professional Help
Germaphobia that borders on or co-occurs with OCD may require other treatments like anxiety medication or cognitive behavioral therapy. When you can’t stop obsessive thoughts about germs from entering your mind and the compulsion to clean consumes much of your life, it’s time to seek help. Contact FHE today for information about our mental health services.