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Do you have such a strong fear of bacteria that it causes you to avoid certain situations and affects the way you wash and clean? You may suffer from mysophobia. Here we take a look at what it is and the treatment available.

What is mysophobia?

Mysophobia is a phobia of dirt and germs. People suffering from mysophobia can become extremely worried about being infected or contaminated by germs, and this can lead to excessive hand washing, cleaning and avoiding situations where they might come into contact with dirt or germs. Mysophobia is related to other anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and can significantly affect a person’s daily life and well-being, but it is treatable.

What causes mysophobia?

The causes of mysophobia, like other phobias, can be due to several different factors and vary from person to person. A predisposition to anxiety disorders, including phobias, can be hereditary, meaning that people with a family history of anxiety disorders may have an increased risk of developing mysophobia.

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Traumatic events involving dirt or germs, such as a serious illness or an unpleasant event related to dirt, can trigger mysophobia in some individuals. Even experiential learning, such as observing others’ fear or aversion to dirt and germs, can contribute to the development of mysophobia.

Overexposure to information about germs, diseases and infection risks, especially in the media, can increase the fear of dirt and lead to mysophobia. This may be particularly relevant in times of health crises or epidemics, where information and warnings about infection risks are widespread.

Psychological factors, such as having other anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or general anxiety, can also make a person more prone to developing mysophobia. It is important to understand that mysophobia, like other phobias, is a valid and treatable anxiety issue, and effective treatment methods, including therapy and medication, can help individuals manage their fears and improve their quality of life.

How common are phobias?

Phobias affect about 10 million people in the UK so they are a fairly common anxiety disorder. These can range from common phobias such as fear of heights and social phobia to lesser known ones such as ‘phobia of holes’ (trypophobia).

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Symptoms of mysophobia

The symptoms of mysophobia can vary in severity from mild to severe symptoms, but often include both physical and emotional reactions typical of anxiety disorders. Here are some of the most common symptoms of mysophobia:

  • Excessive fear or anxiety when thinking about dirt, germs or being contaminated.
  • Avoidance behaviour, where the sufferer goes to great lengths to avoid places, situations or objects that they think may be dirty or contaminated.
  • Compulsive behaviours, such as excessive hand washing, cleaning, or using hand sanitisers to try to eliminate or reduce contact with germs.
  • Physical symptoms of anxiety, including heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, or a feeling of suffocation.
  • Panic attacks, which can occur at the thought of or upon exposure to dirt or germs.
  • Emotional stress or anxiety that affects daily functioning, work, school or social interactions.
  • Rational or irrational beliefs about being in danger or at risk of illness from dirt or bacteria, which can lead to significant anxiety or stress.

The symptoms can become so severe that they affect a person’s work, school and social life, limiting their ability to function normally in everyday life. If you recognize these symptoms, it is important to seek professional help to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Mysophobia in children

Mysophobia can also develop in children, manifesting as a fear of dirt and germs, which can lead to excessive hand washing, avoidance of playgrounds, and anxiety. It is important to identify and manage mysophobia early on to prevent negative impacts on the child’s life.

To address mysophobia in children, professional help from child psychologists, tailored cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and possibly exposure therapy, where the child is gradually exposed to their fears, are recommended. Parents play an important role by offering support and creating a supportive environment at home. Education about germs and hygiene in a child-friendly way can also be helpful.

Early intervention and collaboration between therapists, parents, and children is essential to help the child overcome their fears and live a more balanced life.

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Treatment for mysophobia

Treatment for mysophobia aims to reduce the person’s fear and anxiety and to help them manage their symptoms. One of the most effective forms of treatment for mysophobia is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which focuses on identifying and challenging negative thoughts about dirt and germs and replacing them with more realistic and balanced ways of thinking. CBT may include exposure therapy, where the person is gradually and in a controlled way exposed to what they fear, in this case dirt and germs, to reduce fear over time.

For some people, medication may be prescribed to help manage symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and anti-anxiety medications can be helpful. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques, including meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises, can help individuals manage anxiety in the moment and reduce overall stress levels.

Lifestyle changes, including regular physical activity, a healthy diet and adequate sleep, can also help reduce anxiety and improve overall well-being. It is important that treatment is tailored to the individual, as everyone experiences their phobia and its symptoms differently, and a mental health professional can offer guidance and support in finding the most appropriate treatment plan.

How therapy can improve your life

Seeking professional help can significantly improve your quality of life as it gives you effective tools to manage phobias and change the pattern you have developed that causes anxiety. Seeking help for psychological problems can be embarrassing, but talking to a psychologist can be incredibly liberating and helpful if you are living with a phobia that hinders your daily life.

Take the first step by booking a therapy session

Life is too short to let phobias limit you. Therapy is a step in the right direction to help you live a full and rich life. If you or someone you know is living with phobias, professional therapy can make a real difference. Our therapists and psychologists offer a confidential and safe environment to explore and treat your phobias.

12 frequently asked questions about mysophobia

What is mysophobia?

Mysophobia is a phobia of dirt and germs.

How are phobias different from ordinary fears?

Ordinary fear is a natural reaction to an actual danger, while a phobia is an exaggerated fear that has no rational explanation. Phobias can be triggered even when there is no actual risk.

Are phobias common?

Yes, phobias are one of the most common forms of mental health problems. It is estimated that a significant proportion of the population suffers from at least one form of phobia.

What are the symptoms of mysophobia?

People suffering from mysophobia may become extremely worried about being infected or contaminated by germs, and this can lead to excessive hand washing, cleaning and avoiding situations where they may come into contact with dirt or germs.

What causes mysophobia?

The causes of mysophobia, like other phobias, can be due to several different factors and vary from person to person. Environmental, hereditary and individual factors interact.

Is it possible to get rid of a phobia?

Yes, with the right treatment and support, phobic symptoms can be treated. However, it usually requires the help of a licensed psychologist or therapist.

How does treatment work?

Treatment can vary but often involves cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with exposure and medication if necessary.

What is cognitive behavioural therapy?

CBT is an active evidence-based treatment method that works with thoughts, feelings and behaviours in different situations to improve quality of life and overcome certain symptoms.

Can children get mysophobia?

Children can also be affected and it is important to seek help from a child psychologist for proper treatment.

Can I get treatment online?

Online treatment is available through Lavendla for many phobias, but for specific phobias, it is better to meet in person as the treatment can be intensive but short-term.

I have a fear of germs after Covid, what should I do?

If you have a strong fear of viruses, which is common after a pandemic, and you feel it is affecting your everyday life, seek help from a psychologist or doctor for an assessment.

Where can I turn if I need help?

At Lavendla, we have experienced psychologists and therapists who work with CBT and who can help you feel better if you have mild to moderate symptoms. If you have more severe symptoms, you can contact your GP for a referral to a specialist psychiatrist. In the case of an acute mental health crisis, call 111 or visit 111.nhs.uk immediately.

What does treatment for mysophobia involve?

Seeking help is a big step towards better health, it’s a positive thing to decide to take control of how you feel. Here is an overview of the steps typically involved in CBT treatment.

Step 1: An initial assessment session

The first meeting with your psychologist or therapist is an assessment to review your mental and physical health. You may be asked questions about your life situation, feelings, thoughts and behaviours. You may also be asked to complete assessment forms.

Step 2: Goal setting

This is where you and your therapist set concrete goals for the therapy, both short and long term.
It can define which areas of your life are most affected by your well-being and how you would like to change them.

Step 4: Treatment with different techniques and tools

This is the start of the actual treatment phase, which involves exercises aimed at giving you tools to overcome and work through the problem you are suffering from.

Step 5: Monitoring and evaluation

Treatment is monitored regularly to see how well the therapy is working. If necessary, the treatment plan can be adjusted or renewed.

Step 6: Ending and looking ahead

As the therapy comes to an end, it is time to reflect on the progress made. You will also receive a maintenance plan for how to use the tools and strategies you have learned. It is important to monitor the results over time.

If you or someone close to you is seeking professional help, do not hesitate to book a session with one of our licensed psychologists or therapists.

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Written by dominic

Dominic is a Cape Town-based copywriter and editor with a background in psychology.