Quick. Name three mysophobic celebrities. Oh, well, then name one television character who is a severe mysophobe. Still no? Hmm. Maybe, we need to use some other synonyms. Bacillophobia? Still not ringing a bell. Let’s talk about mysophobia.
Mysophobia has been classed as a separate disorder associated with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) since 1879. Unlike its broad counterpart, mysophobia is a very focused fear. What riddles mysophobes with anxiety and petrifies them? In a word, dirt.
Dust, debris, earth…they cause pathological panic about contamination and germs from coming in contact with dirt.
Monk and More
The popular television program, starring Tony Shaloub, features a psychologically dysfunctional police detective who suffers from, among other disorders, mysophobia. Monk gave the disorder and OCD a comedic twist, but gave a sliver of view into the life of a mysophobe.
Many celebrities have or have had mysophobia:
- Michael Jackson
- Joan Crawford
- Howie Mandel
- Will Ferrell
- Kerry King
- Woody Allen
- Cameron Diaz
- Howard Hughes
- Nikola Tesla
Some on this list overcame the phobia, while others suffered until their deaths.
More than just a compulsive need to wash hands, people with more severe cases of mysophobia will only use disposable dishes or utensils, throw away clothes after wearing them, refuse to visit hospitals, resist shaking hands, shower immediately after being in public, refrain from touching their own belongings after someone else, refuse to touch animals and clean surfaces they believe to be contaminated with dirt.
They will avoid choosing food from a platter shared with others, wear disposable latex or food service gloves to cook in their own homes, ask for a disposable cup in a restaurant rather than a glass, not share bottled beverages even in separate glasses and avoid raw meats.
What makes a person fear dirt? Mysophobes have an overestimated or irrational perception of the likelihood they will contract an illness as a result of exposure to germs they believe are present on surfaces and in the air. Some causes include childhood exposure to someone who contracted a germ-bourne illness or seeing a motion picture about successful germ warfare.
Patients believe mere exposure to any pathogen will result in their contracting the disease. They also believe the pathogens are far more prevalent than is true. Even scientific evidence pathogens are not carried in dirt fails to deter the fear.
Mysophobia is commonly associated with the OCD behavior of compulsively washing hands. Germophobes will wash their hands after encounters with surfaces or objects which other people have touched because they believe pathogens are present on the objects, and those germs have transferred to their hands.
Different everyday happenings and products perpetuate the fear:
- Broadcasts about outbreaks
- Abundance of personal sanitary implements
- Hand sanitizer
- Germ-killing sprays
- Disposable germ-killing wipes
Germaphobes, a colloquial name for mysophobes, always consider themselves in high risk groups even in cases where they are not on the same continent with the outbreak. They believe any exposure at all is dangerous or threatening.
They feel they need all sanitary barriers, like latex gloves and toilet covers, to protect them. Mysophobes also think they will be the exception to the barrier’s statistics and will frequently use disinfecting wipes or sprays on surfaces and cover their mouths and noses with their hands or arms.
They believe they need excessive amounts of germ-killers to reduce the chances of contraction. Common pathogens, like streptococcus, the bacteria which causes strep throat, mutate to become immune to these killers over time.
Unfortunately, mysophobes still do not feel protected despite their efforts. They will avoid places they believe ambient germs are available, such as sporting events with large numbers of people who could breathe, cough or sneeze on them.
Mysophobia has many physical and psychological symptoms. Germaphobes feel anxiety about situations where they perceive the threat from dirt. Increased heart rate, blood pressure, agitation and sweating are all anxiety symptoms. The fear can make them feel nauseated and/or can trigger the flight response.
When patients think about the situations where they believe exposure to dirt and germs are imminent, they can become so focused on the potential outcome they can think of nothing else. The psychological basis of this obsessive thinking is mysophobes incorrectly read danger on every surface, like shopping cart handles and friend’s telephones.
More severe cases combine the physical and psychological symptoms into panic attacks. Patients rarely see the danger in the panic attack as a real threat to their health.
Cognitive behavior therapy is the most common and effective treatment for mysophobia. Germophobes are taught (cognitive) to resist the miscommunication and manifestations (behavior) by facing their fear (emotion) gradually.
For many mysophobes, the first step is shaking hands with the practitioner. The patient can watch the psychotherapist wash hands before shaking, but will not be allowed to wash his own hands for three to five minutes afterward. This reinforces the theory not every contact will result in illness.
Contacts change to touching dirt or garbage with a similar waiting period to the handshaking. Gradually, the periods between contact and cleansing behaviors is increased.
With cognitive behavior therapy, mysophobia is manageable without medication in most instances.
Are you someone or do you know anyone who has mysophobia? What other types of behavior do mysophobes exhibit? Do you know of another celebrity with mysophobia?
(c) Ann Marie Dwyer 2012
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On a personal note, thank you for all the lovely comments whilst I was driving. After I recover from the coma-like sleep derived of 12 hours of driving and have a bit of room service, I shall answer everyone…Regardless of the time you read this, Bonne nuit!