Fear of Germs and Dirt – Mysophobia

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We all may have a general dislike for being dirty or of germs, but for some even the possibility of encountering germs or something contaminated can create immense distress. Recent events have made many individuals overtly cautious of germs, becoming sick and contaminated, but for some individuals they have been living with this fear already. 

Mysophobia (also known as Germaphobia) is the irrational and extreme fear of germs, dirt, and contamination. Categorized as a specific phobia, individuals with Mysophobia must meet certain criteria to be diagnosed with it.

These criteria include demonstrating symptoms and behaviors that directly affect one’s ability to live their daily lives and causes extreme distress. 

Common with all phobias, to be diagnosed with Mysophobia one cannot generally demonstrate a dislike for being dirty. To be considered a true germaphobe or someone with Mysophobia certain criteria must be met typically answered by specific questions from a healthcare provider or certified clinician. Some questions include: 

  • How do germs make you feel?
  • Do germs cause behavioral changed that affect your general well-being and daily routine?
  • Are you avoiding people or places you used to frequent and enjoy due to the fear of germs or being contaminated?

What are the symptoms of Mysophobia?

Similarly, to many psychological disorders, symptoms appear across three different areas: psychological, behavioral, and physical. While most phobias are rooted in anxiety and having an immense fear, Mysophobia is seen to have a just as equally tied connection to obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviors. Thus, not only are many of the symptoms related to anxiousness, but also compulsion. 

Psychological Symptoms

As briefly discussed above, individuals with Mysophobia demonstrate psychological symptoms related to anxiety and panic as well as obsessive or compulsive thoughts. While the anxiousness constantly has the individual on edge, the obsessiveness has the individual hyper focused on doing anything they can to prevent an occurrence of contamination or getting oneself “dirty.” Because of this we see certain behaviors. 

Behavioral Symptoms

Behavioral symptoms with this phobia can look like the common avoidant behaviors so as to avoid panic, but they can also look like typical obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviors. This can include excessive hand washing which can provide a form of comfort to the individual and alleviate overwhelming irrational thoughts. With Mysophobia, individuals may also overuse cleaning or sanitizing products as well as be seen to wear gloves in order to avoid any type of contact with something they perceive to be dirty or contaminated. 

Physical Symptoms

Lastly, physical symptoms can be present when or if the individual is in a situation in which they believe something is contaminated or is contaminated according to their standard of cleanliness. As a result, physical reactions can include shakiness, sweating, increase heartrate, and even restlessness.  

What are the causes of Mysophobia?

While there is a general understanding of being cautious about germs such as the possibility of getting sick with the common cold or flu, but you may be wondering how one develops this extreme level of caution and fear of germs. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer or cause as with many psychological disorders a combination of factors can make one more likely to develop a psychological disorder such as Mysophobia. Here, we will discuss three factors that can make increase the likelihood of developing the fear of germs. 

Genetic Factors

To start off, one’s genes can be a cause for developing this phobia. Specifically, genes related to anxiety or OCD can make one more susceptible to having this phobia. Thus, family history is something to be considered as these genes are passed down from grandparents and parents to children. It should be discussed as well that there is no single gene for these psychopathologies, rather a combination of genes plays into increasing the probability of having anxiety or OCD. 

Psychological Factors

In addition to genetic factors, there are psychological factors that can influence the development of having Mysophobia. Particularly, traumatic experiences can be a plain reason as to why someone may have this phobia. While there is no single experience that can create such a lasting impact, depending on the individual a traumatic experience related to contamination such as a pandemic or perhaps the experience of a loved one being affected by germs could result in the association of germs and fear.

Additionally, other psychological disorders such as OCD as mentioned throughout the article can also lead to the development of this phobia as well. 

Environmental Factors

The last category of factors is environmental, essentially the environments we grew up in or are just in and how those settings influence who we are and become. Typically, the most influential setting or environment is one’s home and the familial behaviors present there. For example, your family may have particular behaviors or customs that you did not believe to be uncommon until you perhaps went and had dinner at a friend’s one evening.

In the same sense, familial behaviors regarding germs and contamination may become instilled in an individual without them truly understanding why. Further down the road, once these behaviors and beliefs about the dangers of contamination have been so deeply engrained attempting to alter or change may result in great distress. 

How to cope and treat Mysophobia?

For those effected by this phobia, daily life can be incredibly difficult and general well-being can be low. Thus, treatment is crucial to lift up both of these. It is important to consider and understand that each individual with similar diagnosis by require different treatments or combination of treatments. Here, we will discuss two methods that can be helpful and effective for treating this phobia. 

Stress Reduction activities (i.e., yoga, meditation)

Although not a sole form or method for treating a phobia such as Mysophobia, stress reduction activities can be practical to help cope with one’s fear of germs and contamination. Activities such as yoga or medication incorporate relaxation techniques within their practices thus providing a method to quite one’s overactive and hypervigilant mind. With a phobia, individuals can be hyper focused or hyperaware of their surroundings in order to avoid or prepare for being exposed to a situation with the negative stimuli. These techniques provide methods to calm oneself or be rational rather than immediately jump to a devastating consequence such as contamination leading to becoming severely ill. 

Exposure therapy

This form of therapy can be effective for some individuals although it has raised ethical questions in the past. Exposure therapy, as stated in the name, exposes individuals to the triggering stimuli or situation in increments until there is no longer a strong or debilitating reaction/behavior. These increments are associated with some form of hierarchy with the least distressing form presented first and the most distressing form presented following the success of the previous stages. Typically, stages that are least distressing come in the form of images or video and the stages that follow move closer and closer to in-person confrontation. 

This form of therapy requires a licensed clinician as well as a strong and trusting relationship between client and clinician. Without these, communication may be absent or weak thus increasing the possibility for ineffective treatment and distress from the exposure. Additionally, each stage is planned and laid-out by the pair with no surprises, so that the individual is always prepared and fit to confront the negative stimuli.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, May). Fear of Germs and Dirt - Mysophobia. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/fear-of-germs-and-dirt-mysophobia/.

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