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Germ Phobia

Germ Phobia Treatments: Helping You Overcome Your Fear

Phobias tend to be unreasonable or excessive compared to standard fears. This obsession may be from either a traumatic childhood event or a chemical imbalance. Germ phobia may be mild to severe, from just a general paranoia of germs to looking for them and fearing them constantly in every place, eventually not wanting to leave the house. 

Germ phobia, in part stems from the excessive need to be 100% certain about our safety. However, the person needs to accept that uncertainty is part of life. A person needs to review how this fear of germs interferes with the things that the individual wants to accomplish in life, relationships, and arrive to a reasonable deal.

Where does germaphobia stem from? 
Germs exist everywhere and for the most part they even help our immune system. Germaphobia is an exaggerated fear of contamination by germs, usually it is associated with OCD. As such, fear of contamination is characterized by intrusive thoughts of contamination and catastrophic consequences such as illness or death. These anxiety provoking thoughts about germ contamination lead to excessive measures to get rid of this anxiety by compulsive washing, disinfecting or avoidance. 

Some germaphobia examples are entering medical offices or coming in contact, even if remote, with bodily secretions such as saliva, sweat, faeces, sperm or urine. Someone that has germaphobia may avoid social situations such as use of public bathrooms, medical procedures, being intimate with a spouse, eating in restaurants, staying in hotels and traveling by airplanes. 

Germaphobia tends to be a subtype of OCD and like other OCD subtypes (checkers, repeaters, pure obsessionals, etc) it is thought to be a neurobehavioral disorder caused by multiple factors. One cause appears to be neurochemical. The imbalance in the brain of neurochemical substances such as serotonin might be involved; another cause might be a communication problem between different brain areas (e.g. frontal cortex and deeper structures of the brain and the amygdala). 

Finally, another important cause is a behavioural and learning component, lying most importantly in the relationship between the distress caused by thoughts of danger relating to germs and the decrease of anxiety by excessive washing or use of disinfectants such as alcohol and soaps. The repetitive habit of getting rid of the anxiety by avoidance or washing becomes inherently associated with relief and never allows the person to realize that life would go on without the ritual of avoidance or washing.

The emotional and psychological symptoms of germaphobia include: 

  • intense terror or fear of germs
  • anxiety, worries, or nervousness related to exposure to germs 
  • thoughts of germ exposure resulting in an illnesses or other negative consequence
  • thoughts of being overcome with fear in situations when germs are present 
  • trying to distract yourself from thoughts about germs or situations that involve germs
  • feeling powerless to control a fear of germs that you recognize as unreasonable or extreme

The behavioural symptoms of germaphobia include: 

  • avoiding or leaving situations perceived to result in germ exposure
  • spending an excessive amount of time thinking about, preparing for, or putting off situations that might involve germs
  • difficulty functioning at home, work, or school because of fear of germs (for example, the need to excessively wash your hands may limit your productivity in places where you perceive there to be many germs)
  • People with this fear might go to great lengths to avoid actions that could result in contamination, such as eating out at a restaurant or having sex.
  • Sometimes, this anxiety leads to compulsive behaviours. E.g. Frequent washing their hands, showering, or wiping surfaces clean. 

While these repeated actions might reduce the risk of contamination, they can be all-consuming, making it difficult to focus on anything else. 

The physical symptoms of germaphobia are similar to those of other anxiety disorders and can occur during both thoughts of germs and situations that involve germs.They include: 

  • rapid heartbeat
  • sweating or chills
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness or pain
  • light-headedness
  • tingling
  • shaking or tremors 
  • muscle tension
  • restlessness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • headache
  • difficulty relaxing 

Children who have a fear of germs can also experience the symptoms listed above. Depending on their age, they may experience additional symptoms, such as: 

  • tantrums, crying, or screaming
  • clinging to or refusing to leave parents
  • difficulty sleeping
  • nervous movements 
  • self-esteem issues

It makes sense to take precautions to avoid common illnesses, such as colds and the flu. 

In fact, it’s a good idea to take certain steps to lower your risk of contracting a contagious illness and potentially passing it on to others: E.g. Getting a seasonal flu shot and washing your hands on a regular basis.

Concern for germs becomes unhealthy when the amount of distress it causes outweighs the distress it prevents. There is only so much you can do to avoid germs. 

Signs that your fear of germs is harmful to you and that you may need help.  

  • If your worries about germs put significant limitations on what you do, where you go, and who you see.
  • If you’re aware that your fear of germs is irrational but feel powerless to stop it.
  • If the routines and rituals you feel compelled to carry out to avoid contamination leave you feeling ashamed or mentally unwell.

In all cases seek help from a doctor or therapist. Luckily, like any phobia, there are treatments.

  1. Be mindful of the language/ words you use and adjust your perception of germs based on your language choices.
  1. Energy and alternate exercise/therapyare very good to couple with more traditional therapies. Yoga, acupuncture, Tai chi, and even traditional exercise can release endorphins and relax muscles which helps to ease your mind.
  1. A hypnotherapist can ease a fear of germs by implanting positive messages. These include NLP and CBT.
  1. Medically prescribed OCD medicationcan alleviate some symptoms of germ phobia immediately. Medications known as SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) which interact with serotonin (a brain chemical), are the primary antidepressant medications shown to be effective in the treatment of OCD. SSRI medications include: Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), Sertraline (Zoloft), Clomipramine (Anafranil). Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) affect two important brain chemicals — serotonin and norepinephrine may be an effective form of treatment for people who’ve had unsuccessful treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs only work on one chemical messenger, serotonin. SNRIs may also be a good choice for people with anxiety.

Serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter, is responsible for mood, anxiety and depression. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) are medications that block the re-absorption of serotonin. When the reuptake of serotonin is inhibited, there is a reduction in anxiety, depression and an overall improvement in mood. SSRI’s do take several weeks before they are completely effective or before results are noticed by the person taking the medication.

Dealing with stress, fear and phobia

In a world that is increasingly uncertain and volatile, and is driven by factors outside our control, we can find ourselves stuck on a roller coaster of emotions as we react to each of the futures our mind constructs. For some of us, this might begin to lead to a sense of overwhelm, exhaustion, grief and despair. Consequently, our mind can “see” a future disappointment, and pushes us to seek greater control to avert it. This push typically takes the form of anxiety – discomfort associated with anticipating shame, disappointment, loss or other threat. Sometimes our mind is so focused on the future we can become distracted from the present, including the things and people that are important to us right now. 

Coping Strategies

  1. The act of writing your thoughts down allows your mind to acknowledge the feelings and concerns in those thoughts, and potentially hold them a little lighter. Importantly, by giving your thoughts and feelings a form and some edges, you may find they aren’t as scary as they feel when they are in your head. Be aware that at first there may be an initial spike in anxiety, as your attention settles on your scary 

expectations. However, this typically passes as you stick to the task. Perhaps set a timer for five minutes and track your discomfort as you write and see what happens. 

  1. Focus on what is, the present here and now. Your mind travels. Remind yourself that your thoughts are constructions of your mind, rather than reality. The more you do this, the better you get at noticing when you are reacting to thoughts like they are reality.
  1. Intentionally take varied perspectives. When it generates a scary expectation, your mind will tighten its grip on that expectation and that perspective. The thought will feel sticky and intrusive. This is a survival strategy. Your mind is driving you to act to avoid that future. However, when we are uncertain about our ability to control the future, we can feel stuck and helpless. We can then become preoccupied by worry and futile rumination.

The antidote to this rigidity of perspective is to intentionally take multiple perspectives on the same situation. You might shift yourself in time, “How will I look back on this situation in my retirement?” or “What would my 5-year-old self have seen as important in this situation?” You might shift along the optimism spectrum from, “What is the worst-case scenario?” through to, “What does the best case look like?” You might look at it through the eyes of people around you―colleagues, friends, workmates. The capacity to shift perspective on a stressful situation predicts a number of long-term wellbeing outcomes. The more perspectives you are able to take, the more you realise no single perspective reflects all of the reality, and this reduces your emotional reaction.

  1. Establish a “present-moment anchor”. Training a verbal or behavioural prompt to bring your awareness back to the present moment can be useful. With practice, you can train your mind to step out of prediction and expectation mode and bring your awareness to what is in front of you. The specific phrase or action is less important than that it makes sense for you. It might be the act of a slow, deep breath out, or counting to five in your head. Either way, have a cue that signals letting go of expectations, good or bad, and coming back to the moment so you can focus on something you can control in the here and now.
  1. Label expectations as what they are: hopes and worries. Notice how the thought, “I had expected to be able to hug my friends on Thursday” feels different from “I had hoped to be able to hug my friends on Thursday.” One brings frustration and anger, the other brings a tone of self-compassion. Expectations feel rigid and punitive, hopes link to our values and imply uncertainty. Similarly, label your worries. When you notice yourself reacting to a scary future, try adding the phrase, “I notice the worry that…”to the front of your prediction and see how this changes your reaction to it. For example, “I’m going to contract the flu” becomes “I notice the worry that I’m going to contract the flu”. This small act can have a noticeable effect on your emotional response to it. 

The human mind is a prediction engine that is predisposed to orient and fixate on scary or negative expectations. In times of volatility and uncertainty, this can lead to a sense of helplessness and overwhelm. Practising the skill of noticing when your mind is doing this, and intentionally responding differently, can enable you to be both happier and more effective in the face of that uncertainty. 

Developing New Habits

  1. Break your desired habit down into its most simple behaviour, something you can do in less than five minutes from start to finish.
  2. The first steps of establishing a new habit can be challenging so do something really easy, that requires so little effort that your brain doesn’t put up any resistance when you start it, and you can feel successful for completing it. The idea is to create a habit that doesn’t depend on effort or willpower. It is about initiating the neural pathway—starting to form the groove.
  3. Once you have a routine or resolution that is so easy you have no excuse not to do it, You will be able to do your routine when you are exhausted, have no time, are a little under the weather, and when you really feel like staying on the couch.
  4. Expand this routine if you want to do more, and only if the increase still feels easy. If at any time you feel any resistance to your routine, you’ll know it isn’t yet easy enough.
  5. Remember that when you are first building a new habit, any action is better than none. Once you’ve started, there use tricks to help you stay on track—little things that make your effort feel rewarding.
    1. When you finish doing what you intend to do, congratulate yourself
    2. Really relish the positive emotions that your new habit elicits.
    3. Add something to your new habit that you’ll look forward to when you think about it.

About Spectrum Health & Wellbeing

Spectrum Health & Wellbeing Myotherapy, Reflexology and Reiki is located in Rowville, near Knox, Boronia, Bayswater, Ferntree Gully and Scoresby. We provide specialised integrative solutions for children, teens and adults using Myotherapy, Reflexology and Reiki.

CEO and Principal Therapist Derek Miglietti, has been working in Health and Fitness since 1988 as a therapist, instructor, lecturer (16 years) and consultant. As a specialist Integrative Therapist Derek has worked in nursing homes, with children, the AFL, elite athletes, state-sporting teams and in the corporate sector.