Myso is the Greek word for germs and Phobos means fear. Thus, Mysophobia is the excessive and often irrational fear of microbes or getting contaminated with germs. Mysophobia is also known as germophobia.
People with an excessive fear of germs believe the world to be a ‘filthy place’ and may develop obsessive-compulsive disorders. As a result, they are always washing or cleaning well beyond a concern with cleanliness. They are known to spend major parts of their day doing these activities over and over.
Mysophobics may also spend vast amounts of money on buying cleaning products and exposing themselves more than necessary to the harmful chemicals which many of them contain.
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It is important to note the difference between ‘being tidy/orderly’ to being a Mysophobe. A Mysophobic individual is mainly concerned with contamination and sterilization as unlike a tidy person who would only clean surfaces to ensure there is no dust.
Many people with the extreme fear of germs also tend to think about microbes all the time. They fear getting contaminated from dirt, dust, grime or people who are sneezing or coughing. The more often a Mysophobe falls sick, the likelier s/he is bound to believe the need to clean. This can severely impact one’s daily functioning.
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Causes of the fear of germs phobia
- Mysophobia usually stems from an Obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD. The sufferer feels the need to wash his/her hands frequently, which is one of the characteristics of OCD. Naturally, in case of Mysophobia, the motivation to frequently wash stems from the fear of microbes unlike that in the OCD where it is more of a matter of following routine. That being said; most patients are known to suffer from both conditions. A thorough medical evaluation is hence necessary to determine if it is Mysophobia or OCD.
- Heredity and genetics are believed to have a strong link to the fear of germs phobia. Children with an obsessive-compulsive parent or caregiver are more likely to become Mysophobes.
- Additionally, a traumatic (personal or witnessed) event in the past or sometimes even a random event can trigger Mysophobia.
- Media, learning about germs at school or getting sick after coming in contact with germs can reinforce one’s belief’s about microbes to the extent that the individual learns to excessively fear germs.
Symptoms of Mysophobia
Depending on the level of fear, different symptoms may be seen in the individual:
Physical symptoms of a panic attack (in what is perceived to be the presence of germs) such as shaking, dry mouth, sweating, nausea, rapid and irregular heartbeat etc are seen in people suffering from the excessive fear of germs. The patient is also likely to indulge in unreasonable behavior or actions like:
- Washing frequently and excessively.
- Refusing to use public bathrooms.
- Avoiding all kinds of social activities or places that include coming in contact with ‘germy’ people or animals.
- Refusing to share personal items like combs, brushes, or food with anyone.
Gradually, the individual may impose many restrictions upon himself including refusing to touch the doorknobs directly or shaking hands with anyone, as well as constantly using products like hand sanitizers or soaps, which, in large quantities, are (paradoxically) known to make one more prone to infections. Thus, Mysophobia can severely impact one’s occupational, social and familial activities.
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Treatment for fear of germs
- A combination of therapies is recommended for treating phobias like Mysophobia and anxiety disorders like OCD. These include drugs, cognitive behavior therapy, exposure and gradual desensitization therapies as well as relaxation training.
- Exposure therapy consists of helping the phobic relearn how to encounter germs gradually until he is able to refrain from washing his hands. The individuals also learn to focus on calming techniques and develop the ability to remain in a ‘contaminated environment’ without having a panic attack.
- Cognitive behavior therapies help the person with a fear of germs change his attitude and thoughts about them. This involves writing down negative and positive thoughts such as “I fear I will die from germs” to “Germs are sometimes healthy and useful to us” and so on. The patients are then asked to decide on beliefs that are healthier and useful to them.
Germs are a necessary part of our lives and for a person with excessive fear of germs; life can be very stressful and complicated. However, there is hope and many treatment options that can help one heal completely from Mysophobia.