Elizabeth Sanchez wrote to the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper about what it’s like to be a germaphobe. “I cannot begin to count the number of times someone has said this [quit being a germaphobe] to me as I set about to do something rational,” she says, adding that she is simply “a rational person with a few oddities.”
She explains: “OK, so I don’t share makeup because I don’t want to get conjunctivitis. I don’t share food or drink for fear that someone else’s illness may enter my system. I wear flip-flops to the pool to avoid athlete’s foot. I wash my hands frequently to avoid sickness. And I shower every day because I don’t want to smell or have greasy hair. Be it a common cold or foot fungus, I simply do not want to become sick. This all makes perfect sense to me, so why doesn’t anyone else understand it?”
In today’s post, we take a look at the criteria to be a so-called “germaphobe” and explore a few things that’ll make life easier for you if you happen to be one.
What is a germaphobe?
The clinical name for a germaphobe is “mysophobia” — which translates to “a pathological fear of contamination and germs.”
The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders outlines seven criteria for specific phobias, like mysophobia:
1. You must display a marked and enduring fear when you encounter the phobic stimulus.
2. You must experience a panic attack (like crying, freezing, fleeing, or shutting down) in the presence of the stimulus.
3. You must be able recognize that the fear is unreasonable and disproportionate to the situation.
4. You go out of your way to avoid the phobic stimulus or endure it with deep distress and anxiety.
5. The phobia causes impairment in everyday life.
6. The phobia has been present for at least six months.
7. There are no better disorders to account for the feelings or behaviors.
Symptoms of mysophobia, in particular, may include:
– A strong fear of dirt, germs, bacteria, fungus, and viruses.
– The need to avoid places that may be contaminated with germs, especially hospitals.
– The urge to avoid social situations where dirt and germs may be an issue.
– Paranoia about touching objects or people who may be infected.
– Panic attacks when contamination is believed to have occurred.
Also, Buzzfeed has compiled a humorous list of 19 ways to tell you’re a germaphobe.
The History of Mysophobia
The term “mysophobia” was first coined by U.S. Army Civil War surgeon general and founder of the American Neurological Association William Hammond (1828-1900). One of his psychiatric treatises described “a young lady, aged eighteen” who sought treatment from him in 1879.
He says she became convinced that she could not escape sources of contamination. “She spent ours every day in minutely examining and cleansing her combs and brushes,” he said. She washed her hands over 200 times a day and spent most of her day dusting the furniture.
Despite admitting to the absurdity of her ideas, the woman could not stop her compulsive behaviors, which today might be classified as “obsessive compulsive disorder.” Although, Henry Stack Sullivan differentiated mysophobia from OCD by explaining that germaphobes wash their hands to sanitize them and get rid of germs, whereas people with OCD wash their hands as a habitual motion they feel they simply “must do.”
What to Do about Mysophobia
The Calm Clinic recommends seeking professional help with exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, and relaxation training. Over a period of time, patients come to realize that coming into contact with germs does not immediately cause illness. They may spend some time writing about their fears and questioning their own beliefs. Breathing exercises, visualization, and other relaxation techniques will prove helpful in situations that would normally cause panic attacks. Educating oneself and understanding that not all germs are harmful is an important step toward overcoming germaphobia as well.
If cognitive behavioral therapies do not prove successful, a doctor can also prescribe a low dose of Klonopin, Xanax, Zoloft, or Paxil to increase motivation to complete treatment, while lowering overall anxiety.
It may also make you feel better to have products in your home that offer reasonable ways of sanitizing your surroundings, without being considered “overboard.” The SteriShoe UV Shoe Sanitizer, for instance, kills 99.9% of all microbes living in your shoes within one 45-minute cycle. Just use once a day for fresher, cleaner, and fully sanitized footwear. Free yourself of fear from athlete’s foot, toenail fungus, and foot infections. Buy one here.