Who’s Afraid of Germs? (Fearless February Day 11)

contagionMysophobia. The fear of being contaminated by germs.

It’s what Howard Hughes, Howie Mandell, Saddam Hussein and Joan Crawford had in common. (And probably the only thing they had in common.)

Ever since Louis Pasteur discovered the germ theory of disease, humans have cleaned up and lengthened our life spans. Doctors no longer go digging around in dead bodies and then head to the operating room to work on a live one. (It took an awfully long time to apply that theory to the use and re-use of needles, but we’re getting there.)

Pretty as a milkmaid, because dairy maids caught cow pox and built up immunities to small pox, which left other maids scarred.
Pretty as a milkmaid. (Dairy maids caught cow pox and built up immunity to small pox, which left other maids scarred.) Some germs are good for us.

It is wise to be afraid of germs. They are far more harmful than sharks, dogs, heights, spiders, darkness, or any other feared thing you can think of. Germs kill millions.

But phobias are not wise fears. They are fears that take control of your mind and induce panic even when there is absolutely no danger.

If you happen to be in a Kenyan village when Ebola breaks out, or you fall into a crevasse in Kitum Cave, or you’re handling the virus in a Biosecurity Level 4 storage area and your space suit gets a tear, you have good reason to fear. (Not to panic, but to take prompt action to protect yourself and others.) But mysophobics are not anywhere near Ebola. They’re probably not even near the common cold. They’re just alive in a germ-filled world, and they can’t stop worrying about the possibility of being contaminated.

A cold virus: you can fight off this one, never fear.
A cold virus. A drag, but you can handle it.

Mysophobia tends to worsen over time, because there is nowhere to escape from anxiety. Germs are not like spiders, which you can see and squash. They’re not like confined spaces, which you can just avoid. They’re everywhere. And, most importantly, they’re all over other people.

Mysophobics may isolate themselves to avoid the people and places harbouring germs. And they may develop an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – with frequent hand-washing, bleach spritzing, and outfit changes – to calm their intrusive thoughts and fears and give a temporary sense of control. But isolation and compulsive behaviours just strengthen the neural pathways connecting thoughts of people/germs/the-world-at-large with terror.

So basically you’re a mess. All because of some primitive sort-of-life-form that you can’t even see.

An ebola virus - with a 90% kill rate, you'd be insane not to fear it.
An ebola virus – with a 90% kill rate, you’d be insane not to fear it.

So what do you do? Get therapy. Seriously, this is a phobia that ruins lives and you may need help to beat it. Your treatment will likely include some cognitive behaviour therapy to calm yourself, expose yourself to safe places and people, and delay your rituals.

I’m not sure if reading about germs will help – I just read The Hot Zone and I wanted to get rid of all my pets, cancel my travel plans, scour the house and never let visitors in again – and I’m rather comfy around germs and disorder. So you should probably skip the library.

Good advice (from the New Mexico dept. of health)
Wash with regular soap and water. (Anti-bacterial soap may kill 99.9% of germs but it’s  the 0.1% that you need to worry about.)

Don’t worry – you’re not training to embrace contamination. You’ll always want to be cautious. Don’t sweep up a shed full of mouse poop without a mask. (I did that once and got sick immediately – it hit me like a baseball bat while I was still sweeping, it was so fast.) You’ll never have to eat off the floor of a monkey cage. You just have to get used to moving through a germ-ridden world without panicking.

You can beat this fear. Our species evolved eating roots right out of the dirt and swallowing other animals and all their germy bits whenever we could catch them. We are equipped for life amid germs. (So long as Ebola never hops on a plane, that is – in which case, keep all your mysophobic strategies handy because you’re going to need them.)

28 tricks coverIn 28 Tricks for Surviving Grade 6, Eric tries to get food poisoning to get out of the school dance and Andrew tries to get laryngitis to skip the public speaking competition. This is completely logical for those of us who are 11 and not mysophobic. Germs are no biggie compared to the social experiences we dread. (“Oh no, I have the flu, guess I can’t go to that family thing at the in-laws, darn it.”)

Leave a comment about your fears during February and you could win a copy of this March 2014 release.

(Photos: the milkmaid is by Marin from Free DigitalPhotos.com; the hand-washing poster is from the New Mexico Health Department – thanks.)

5 Comments on “Who’s Afraid of Germs? (Fearless February Day 11)

  1. Ugh, germs! — or as I’ve come to think of them, world cooties. My mysophobia doesn’t often reach the panic stage, but it does make sharing a house with people difficult, because, y’know, they touch everything. X( I have to be in the right mindset just to sit on a recently-vacated couch. It’s one reason of several I spend most of my time in my room. …and why I cringe when people rest a hand on my bed when they come in to speak with me. (Doggone it, my face sleeps over there!)

    Miraculously, I’m able to set aside a sizable percentage of my discomfort while I’m on the job at my local Renaissance Faire — a.k.a. probably the biggest germ fest in my life. Dirt and dust on everything, huge crowds of strange people from all over the place, jousting horses and a petting zoo, community Port-A-Potties, snacks shared around between hands I can only pray have been washed in the last few minutes… I honestly don’t know how I do it. I just wish I could figure out how to flip that brain switch during the other /several hundred days of the year/. It would make my everyday environment so much more habitable.

    • Ok, the bed thing? My teenage son comes into my room to chat (I have a desk in my bedroom) and he will get UNDER THE COVERS and say, “You guys have the comfiest bed.” (It’s true, we do, but that’s no reason to climb in.) It drives me nuts; I sometimes shriek at him to get out. “What?” he says. “Don’t be so uptight.” OMG, personal space, people. What’s cool when you’re an infant in onesies isn’t cool when you’re six feet tall in dirty socks and jeans. Ick.

      Other than that, I’m okay with most germs.

      Your job sounds very cool, Danielle. Worth the risk of mild contamination.

      • “Make it worth it” is more or less the faire’s motto. The day the germs outweigh the perks, I’m outta there!

  2. hi I have fear of germs even I cant touch anything in my house and also cant touch my private part and every hours I wash hand many time please tell ne what I do u tired my this type of life

    • This sounds like a debilitating phobia, and one that you need a therapist’s help to overcome. From what I know of fears like this, they can keep escalating so that your life gets narrower and narrower – unless you actively take steps to face your fear, one tiny step at a time. I would advise you to call a therapist. Start by calling a community health center if you don’t know where else to turn first. Talk to a nurse there and be honest about your phobia and ask where you can go for help. You could look for books to help you work through some things on your own, too, but there are therapists who specialize in treating fears like this and that’s the kind of experienced professional who could really help you. Many people have fears like yours – it’s not just you. It may take a long time to overcome and it won’t be easy and you may never fully get over all your fears but you can have a happier life and one that isn’t so controlled by your fear. The first step is saying, like you just did, that you don’t want to live like this anymore. Next step is to find someone qualified to help you. I wish you all the best in working through this.

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