a person who has an abnormal fear of germs or contamination: one affected with germophobia*
I may be completely wrong, but I have a sneaking suspicion that people who live with anxiety have a disaster movie always playing on loop in their heads. The theme of my movie is “Don’t touch that, you don’t know where it’s been”. I am not a textbook germophobe, but I’m definitely on the spectrum.
Germaphobia (or germophobia) is also known as acillophobia, bacteriophobia, mysophobia, or verminophobia. (Verminophobia! Vermin! Really? Who the hell doesn’t have an aversion to vermin?)
Having an anxiety disorder can increase your risk of developing a phobia at some point in your life. Negative experiences, family history, environmental factors and brain factors can all contribute to the development of a phobia.
I think there were a combination of things that led to me developing this particular phobia.
For starters, I was a dental hygienist for 17 years, sticking my fingers in people’s mouths on a daily basis. I knew a lot about germs. As the years went by and nastier germs kept showing up, and we kept learning more about cross-contamination, I started to realize that I knew more about the nasty stuff out there than is wise for the average person to know.
Then, my husband and I decided to back-pack in Europe for our honeymoon. (Can you imagine me, Susie-needs-to-know-everything-in-advance, who had never really travelled, deciding it was a good idea to go to a foreign country and play it by ear? Go with the flow? All I can say in my defence is that I was not as self-aware as I am now.) Because it was not a well-planned trip, and we were naïve and way too nice, we ended up staying in some pretty disgusting hotel rooms. By the time I got home, I was ready to become a devotee to all things anti-bacterial.
I also don’t like to touch things that other people touch. Now, people that I know and love can hand me anything, and I wouldn’t think twice about it. Unless it’s something that is genuinely gross. Ewww. Or if they’re handing me something that is not theirs and they don’t have the origin story for it, i.e. I made this vs. I found this on the street. Ok, so maybe I’m not ok with everything that my peeps hand me.
But my germaphobia is really more pronounced when unknown people and their unknown, possibly unsanitary habits start handing me things. That’s when I get freaked out, link my hands behind my back and say ‘No thanks’.
For example, when I was a kid and we used to shake hands in church, I would put out my hand gladly, happy to wish peace upon all in my vicinity. But as I got older and it would get closer to the time when I would have to reach out my hand, I would find myself paying close attention to those very people around me to whom I would soon wish peace. Did that guy behind me just cough into his hand? Did he blow his nose? Would it be obvious if I didn’t shake his hand? Sometimes I would fake my own coughing so I would appear to have a cold and could avoid shaking hands completely. If unavoidable, shaking hands in church became one of those things that I put in the box in my head and slammed the lid on tight. Let’s not think about it. Just say “Peace of Christ” and move on. (Right about the time I stopped going to church, they stopped this practice, and as far as I know, it hasn’t been revived.)
Germaphobia for some people can be debilitating. It affects every aspect of their life and there isn’t a box in their head big enough to hold their fears.
Professional help is their only avenue to find relief. Cognitive and behavioral therapies, calming techniques and meditative therapy, and medications are just some of the tools used by professionals to help their clients live a better and more productive life.
Germaphobia, in my case, is (according to me) mild. It does not really interfere with my life on a daily basis. Simple coping strategies work just fine most of the time.
And on the upside, I don’t catch a lot of colds and flus.