During this time of heightened public awareness about the threat of COVID-19, some people may experience intense fears of germs that cause significant distress and affect their daily functioning. “Germaphobia,” also known as “mysophobia,” is a diagnosable fear of germs, bacteria, contamination and infection which usually can be treated effectively with therapy alone (and in more severe cases, may require medication also).
Having a phobia of germs is distressing at any time, but can be overwhelming in this current climate. Know that you are not alone— especially right now. Here are some steps for coping with germaphobia, along with related tips, at a time when germs are on everyone’s mind.
Step #1: Follow the WHO and CDC’s recommendations for protecting yourself from COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detailed the appropriate steps that individuals should take to protect themselves from the Coronavirus: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after you’ve been in a public place, or after you’ve blown your nose, coughed or sneezed; Use hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol when handwashing isn’t an option; and avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. (See more such steps here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html.)
Step #2: Try to discern when you’re indulging in overblown fears of germs and related thoughts and behaviors.
In a climate where everyone is much more aware of germs, this determination isn’t always so easy to make. One way to gauge whether fears of germs are unreasonable and overblown is to evaluate the degree of disruption that these fears (and related thoughts and behaviors) are causing in daily life. For starters, certain types of reactions are universal to all phobias, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Here are some other questions you can ask yourself:
- Are you finding it hard to concentrate on work because of recurring, intrusive thoughts about germs?
- Are you avoiding certain necessary tasks, like going to the grocery store or filling up the gas tank, because of intense worries about germs?
- Do you go to great lengths to avoid shaking hands when meeting new people (a behavior that reportedly describes President Trump)?
- Do you find yourself catastrophizing about what might happen if you tough a dirty surface?
If “yes” is an answer, fears of germs may be overtaking your life.
Step #3: Rather than pretending they are not there or repressing them, allow yourself to experience any fearful feelings about germs as they arise— without judging or shaming yourself.
While it can be tempting to want to avoid the uncomfortable sensations of germaphobia and the hyper-anxious thoughts and feelings that can precede certain rituals or compulsive actions, judging or repressing these thoughts and feelings usually doesn’t help. Instead, greater acceptance and release of these thoughts and feelings can reduce their perceived intensity and the associated mental distress.
One helpful coping tool for cultivating greater acceptance and release of germ-fixated thoughts and feelings is a simple exercise in breathing meditation (also called “mindfulness meditation”):
- Find a quiet space where you can sit uninterrupted for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Sit with your back straight and your feet touching the ground (in a chair) or your legs crossed (on the floor).
- Begin to take some deep cleansing breaths in and out. As you do, take some time to gently observe your surroundings and the sounds around you. Breathe all the way in and then breathe all the way out.
- After several of these deep breaths, close your eyes on an exhale and begin to breathe normally again.
- Begin to focus on the rise and fall of your breath and where that motion occurs in your body. Do you feel it more in your chest, your belly or both?
- As you focus on listening to the rise and fall of your breath, uncomfortable thoughts and anxieties may only naturally come and go: “Oh no, I’m running out of hand sanitizer.” “What if the Amazon delivery man had the Coronavirus?” “Did I wash my hands enough just now?” You can simply acknowledge the thought (whatever it might be) and then gently return to your breath.
- After 10-15 minutes of simple attention to the breath as it rises and falls, those thoughts and sensations that seemed so distressing will have lessened in severity.
With time, a regular practice of breathing meditation (just 10 minutes daily) will help reinforce the awareness that even the most panicky thought or sensation about germs or the Coronavirus is purely temporary and fleeting, like all thoughts, feelings and sensations. These thankfully come and go, whereas the breath (and its constant rise and fall) is a permanent anchor.
Multiple studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can successfully relieve anxiety (whatever its cause), so consider breathing meditation as a first-line coping tool for germaphobia. If you need a little, extra help getting started with meditation, consider a free trial of the “Headspace” app or check out the many free breathing meditation resources on YouTube.
Step # 4: If a phobia of germs is causing you to avoid a certain task or activity, (which has been deemed safe by the CDC), try breaking it down into smaller and more doable steps or parts. Focusing on just one step at a time is less overwhelming. When you complete one step, celebrate your accomplishment and go on to the next step. This is one form of exposure therapy: doing the thing that scares you and discovering in the process that it’s not as scary as you thought.
With exposure comes greater desensitization to triggering situations, and with greater desensitization you can learn to manage and even overcome exaggerated fears of germs. This process will require some courage at the outset. Making a list of the particular situations that trigger your fears of germs is a good start. From there—and maybe with the help of an able counselor who has experience with germaphobia and anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—you can begin to tackle the specific situations and thoughts and feelings they trigger, one at a time.
Step #5: Consult a mental health professional to determine whether your fears of germs may be an indication of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Germaphobia commonly co-occurs with OCD, which, when left untreated, can be debilitating and significantly disrupt daily function and quality of life. Start by consulting your doctor. They should be able to refer you to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional who is qualified to give you a diagnosis. If OCD is contributing to germaphobia, treatment of the OCD could be a highly effective way to cope with the germaphobia.
Never try to self-diagnose. Self-diagnosing can often make matters worse. While these steps and tips are intended as helpful coping tools, they should never be a substitute for getting a professional diagnosis and treatment. If you have concerns about pursuing OCD treatment during a pandemic, these six reasons to seek treatment now will give you peace of mind.