We learned from a young age to take care of ourselves; to maintain squeaky clean personal hygiene and of course, wash our hands when we touch gross objects and before eating. The thing is this is a good practice and essential for healthy living; however, some individuals have over the course of their life become terribly obsessive with this seemingly normal practice as germophobia.
They are plaque by an irrational fear of contamination, germs, and get panicky when confronted with situations that expose them to dirt. The psychological need for cleaning and sanitizing their environment is rubbing them from going about their daily life without being worried about germs and getting infected.
This fear inadvertently impacts on their life, relationships, and in extreme cases their career because of the undue persistent anxiety they are experiencing. Such individuals are suffering from a phobia known as germophobia. However, before diving into what this is; let’s first understand what a phobia is and how to identify the symptoms.
What is a phobia?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that results in an excessive, irrational sense of danger or fear of harm about a situation, place, object, or a living creature.
In most instances, these fears are unfounded and literally exist only in the head of the patient. An individual suffering from a phobia always tends to organize their life in such a manner as to avoid their phobia or its triggers.
This is so because, when faced with the source of their phobia, they usually experience intense distress that’s dilapidating and often result in panic attacks.
One thing about phobias is that even though the individuals are aware their fears are exaggerated and irrational, they feel powerless, and seem to lose control over how they react to the fear. This, I believe, is why Psychologists now agree that phobia is closely related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
It’s rather startling that people can develop phobia for different things; from the extreme fear of germs, to concerns about height, and even to phobia of being in a crowd.
Take a look at how the daily life of a germaphobe looks like:
Symptoms of phobias
No matter the kind of phobia an individual suffers from, there are general tell-tale signs that cut across the whole spectrum and which is an excellent indicator that one has an extreme aversion to something.
It’s important also to note that, one doesn’t necessarily have to be exposed to the source of phobia to exhibit these symptoms; by merely thinking about the feared object these symptoms are triggered.
- Increased heart rate, trembling, and feeling of dizziness
- Breathlessness, nausea, and a sense of unreality.
- Irrational fear of dying, preoccupied with the thoughts of feared object.
- Sweating, chest pains and tingling pins and needles sensations
Other symptoms include:
- The acknowledgment that the fear is irrational yet powerless to control it.
- An overpowering feeling to get away from the source of the phobia
- Unable to function properly when exposed to phobia source.
One type of phobia afflicting a significant number of US adult populations is germophobia. In this article, we’ll examine what this phobia is and present actionable tips to overcome it.
What is Germophobia?
Germophobia also spelled germaphobia, or mysophobia or bacteriophobia is a specific type of phobia that causes an excessive, persistent fear of contamination or getting infected. It’s simply an irrational fear of germs.
This irrational fear drives the germophobes to extreme personal hygiene, compulsive cleaning and washing of hands, and of course, avoiding situations they think could expose them to germs.
How prevalent is germophobia?
The thing is this phobia cuts across the social strata with famous, wealthy and even celebrities coming out to say they are germophobes. One thing these notable people Donald Trump, Michael Jackson, Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, and so many others have in common is their excessive fear of germs.
In fact, according to a 2014 study by researchers, between 4 to 13 percent of Americans are germophobia which in raw numbers mean that there are about 13 to 36 million individuals with fear of germs.
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What are the symptoms of mysophobia?
Some of the common symptoms of germophobia include:
- Excessive and compulsive washing. This most times is followed by an elaborate ritual to wash off the imagined germs. Which include excessive washing of hands.
- Obsession with contamination and getting infected.
- Hyper reaction to the news of flu or any disease outbreak.
- Inability to function properly at work due to fear of contaminating germs.
- Irrational fear of sharing personal items with others.
- Avoiding physical contacts such as shaking for fear of getting infected.
- Avoiding places with lots of people.
Once the individual is exposed to a place they perceived as germ-filled; they experience physical anxiety like increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, dizziness, etc.
What causes germophobia?
There are several reasons why an individual may develop a phobia for germs. They include:
- Traumatic health scare: An individual is more likely to develop an irrational fear of germs or of falling sick after experiencing a traumatic health event. It might even be just by witnessing a loved one go through a health scare that leaves them with deep scars.
- Genetic disposition: It is believed that genes also influence an individual’s predisposition to exhibit germophobic tendencies. A history of depression, anxiety, and or other OCD disorders running in a person’s family, increases their odds of becoming mysophobes.
- Nurturing: Growing up in an environment where there’s too much focus on germs could also lead the child to become extremely scared of bugs. This supports the claim that being germophobic can be learned.
- Excessive promotion of anti-bacterial products: Scaremongering ads also play a vital role in conditioning people to see germs on almost every surface.
These campaigns promote the excessive use of anti-bacterial products which, in certain situations are beneficial like using in hospitals and health centers. However, using at short and constant intervals is a precursor to becoming germophobic.
Is germophobia treatable?
Thankfully, just like other OCD disorders, mysophobia can be diagnosed and treated. In most cases, they are treated using a combination of medication, psychotherapy, exposure treatment. For an effective treatment, medication in addition to either of the other treatments is combined.
An exposure treatment involves a strategic exposure of the individual to triggers in a safe controlled environment. It’s a gentle easing in of the patient back to normal life by exposing them gradually to the object of fear until they’re able to overcome their anxiety.
In a typical session, after bringing the patient into contact with surfaces, they’re trained to delay their response; gradually the length of delay time is increased until they stopped feeling the anxiety to carry out their cleaning ritual.
Psychotherapy in addition to cognitive behavioral therapy is used to help the individual understand and reverse the underlying feelings that are responsible for the compulsive actions.
Apart from these treatments listed above, other actionable tips to take include:
Educate yourself about germs.
A crucial step in the fight to stop being a germophobe is getting adequate and correct information about the beneficial roles of germs and bacteria in our environment. It also enables you to compare personal hygiene notes between what’s recommended by a doctor and your daily routine.
Ask for help.
The truth is there are millions of other Americans going through the same challenges as you. Hence, reaching out, joining groups, the sense of community, camaraderie, and support could be an encouraging force to manage and overcome your own anxiety about germs.
Overcoming germophobe is challenging and overpowering; however, with the right information, support and treatment you can begin to learn how to manage your fears about germs and infections.