mysophobia - washing hands in sink

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What is Mysophobia

Mysophobia is an extreme fear of germs, otherwise called ‘germophobia.’ It is an irrational fear of contamination by germs or dirt. Individuals with mysophobia go out of their way to avoid situations with a real or imagined threat of contamination. 

Individuals with mysophobia may find themselves having obsessive and overwhelming thoughts surrounding the fear of contamination that may lead to repetitive behaviors such as handwashing or cleaning. Mysophobia may limit a person's daily functioning significantly and in extreme cases, may require professional help to overcome the phobia. 

How Does Mysophobia Develop

Individuals with conditions such as depression and anxiety, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are at a higher risk for developing mysophobia. The phobia is often a symptom of OCD. Approximately 12.5% of the U.S. population struggle with a specific phobia according to the National Institute of Mental Health, with mysophobia being more common among women. 

A genetic predisposition to mysophobia or other anxiety-related disorders is a risk factor in developing the phobia. Traumatic events including sicknesses can lead to ‘protective behaviors’ where the individual fears the event recurring and engages in extreme cleanliness as a protective measure. 

With universal access to the internet, the limitless availability of information has compounded the fears surrounding germs and contamination, especially since the pandemic. This fear has limited social interactions and travel extensively, and for some, substantiated a preexisting fear of danger associated with the phobia. 

A person's environment particularly during childhood may influence the development of the phobia. Caregivers' perceptions and habits surrounding cleanliness set the stage for individuals' views, which impact their openness to exposure. 

Signs and Triggers of Mysophobia

The signs of mysophobia manifest themselves similarly to that of an anxiety attack when an individual feels they have been exposed to contamination. The general signs according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders include four (or more) of the following:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying
  • Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensation)
  • Chills or hot flushes.

Individuals may also find themselves having compulsions to engage in cleansing behaviors such as;

  • Repeated washing of hands or contaminated area
  • Over-sanitizing of contaminated bodies or items
  • Avoidance of physical contact or threatening environments
  • Engaging in using items to protect self (masks, gloves, etc)

Mysophobia and Air Travel

Symptoms of mysophobia are more prominent in environments that appear threatening, like enclosed, crowded spaces, and public restrooms. Being on an aircraft could seem particularly threatening to those struggling with the phobia as it has all the elements of a potential ‘contamination’. 

Individuals may feel afraid of contracting an illness, or germs, or may feel dirty from being in an encapsulated environment for an extended period. The first and most important step in gaining control of irrational thoughts is to not feed into them. 

Below are some ways to prepare for and manage symptoms of phobias. 

Managing Mysophobia

Preparation is Key

Before your upcoming journey, prepare yourself for possible triggers and ways you could manage the symptoms of anxiety. Stay away from media and information that feed into your fears, and instead test your perception of the situation and what a ‘worst case scenario’ would mean. Typically, fears tend to exaggerate and distort reality. 

Master Relaxation Techniques

Stress reduction is vital in managing symptoms of anxiety. Try making a routine of meditation or daily yoga ahead of traveling that will lower your baseline stress level. Mindfulness meditation could also help be aware of rising stress so you could engage in symptom management before it gets out of control.

Other relaxation techniques could include visualization of a ‘happy place,’ color breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation. 

Color breathing is a relaxation grounding technique in which you visualize a ‘color balloon’ in your abdomen expanding throughout your body as you breathe. It helps in being aware and controlling physiological sensations while being able to bring yourself to the here and now. 

Progressive muscle relaxation is a great technique to gain awareness of and actively relax your body. This skill progressively targets muscle groups tensing and relaxing parts of your body from head to toe, while maintaining rhythmic breathing. 

Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Medication

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective solution-focused therapeutic approach used to treat different phobias. Particularly, exposure therapy has been found to have long-lasting curative effects in maintaining progress. 

As you anticipate an upcoming flight, engaging in exposure therapy with professional help, or self-learning may help you better prepare for your journey. Exposure therapy consists of skills designed to gradually desensitize your fears and anxieties toward a trigger, which would be in this case, being in an airplane. 

Another consideration could be to talk to your doctor about anti-anxiety medications. Particularly beta-blockers and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that treat the symptoms of OCD. 

A long-lasting cure for mysophobia and other phobias is a combination of medication and therapy. The recommendation to engage in this combination of treatments is due to the independent skills you would acquire to eventually manage distressing symptoms without dependence on medication. 


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Written by
Shenella Karunaratne, Staff Writer

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