At an early age, I remember the adults in my life teaching and modelling appropriate hygienic behavior. Now I can’t say I remember potty training, but the concept of washing hands was something hygienic that was repeated by my teachers, parents, grandparents, and friends in my class. We need to use soap to kill off the germs they would say, although I remember my grandpa telling me soap helps the germs slide off your hands. I can’t say if he said that to help me better conceptualize it as a young child or if he was misinformed himself, but the importance of the washing hands was stressed, nonetheless.
It is easy to begin associating at an early age the concept that germs = bad. They shouldn’t be on our hands therefore they probably shouldn’t be anywhere. There is bacteria, viruses, and bad germs in the world that would love to use our bodies as a host for their single cell operations, which unfortunately causes harm to us. To support our own immune system, that exist to protect us from these external microorganisms, comes this idea that we must practice our own due diligence for preventive and safety measures. From sanitizer products that advertise a 99.9% kill rate of germs to cartoonish depictions of bacteria, it begins to resonate the idea that not only are germs bad, but they should be destroyed.
Beginning to unravel these microscopic pathogens that are invisible to the naked eye leads to a lot more questions concerning this uncertainty of their presence. It can feel frightful to never truly know if a sick inducing germ is finding its way into your body. Now, most of the population can learn to participate in washing hands and develop appropriate hygienic practices. (There are even some people that neglect washing their hands in a public restroom!) Either way, for many, life continues as usual, and if someone were to catch the cold or get the flu, then rest and medication until they recover. Rinse and repeat throughout life. Maybe after being sick, more appropriate precautions would take place, but generally we can become sick without giving too much thought to the germs at play.
However, there exists in people the struggle of accepting the uncertainty when it comes to germs and contamination. COVID-19 certainly put the idea of preventing the distribution of that particular virus to the forefront of people’s minds, and while social distancing, wearing a mask, and sanitation is encouraged by health organizations worldwide, it is still important to ask, what is superfluous and what is necessary when it comes to germs in general.
When thoughts begin to consume
To begin to evaluate a question such as this, let’s consider the amount of thoughts concerning germs. Are they viewed as an active threat? Is it leading to behavioral changes or inducing more stress? Are these fleeting thoughts becoming intrusive and a part of our daily experience? When feeling threatened it makes sense that we would want to reaffirm our safety. Our brains are programmed to analyze threats, remain guarded until we are feeling threatened no longer. When dealing with an invisible threat that exists in unfathomable numbers, how could you be sure that your safe?
It may start with an increase in the amount of time spent handwashing, or escalate further in frequent deep cleans, or more potent disinfectants just looking to be sure that the germ threat is neutralized. However, this could lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety that is known as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Specifically, in this case we are discussing a subset of OCD called contamination OCD. This involves a fear of contamination, or fear of germs, diseases, or being infected. It may start with the uncomfortable feeling that germs are present, so precautionary steps are taken and the anxiety is reduced. This is where the cycle of anxiety could kick in. Down the line, the feelings of fear associated with germs come back in more force, so taking the same steps to reduce the anxiety occur. Although it may start to not be enough as more and more cleaning rituals become present to keep down the anxiety, which has increased to discomforting levels.
An influx of negative thoughts and emotions surrounding the issue are consistently present, and it becomes difficult to live that carefree life that many people do. (Like those carefree non-handwashers!) You may ask, don’t they know germs are everywhere!? A sufferer of contamination OCD may be fully aware that people live an unhygienic life with little consequences, but that could still be a little concern to the experience of anxiety when thinking of the issue. Sure, on a scientific level it is known that germs, pathogens, or microbes exist and can even be helpful. They say eating yogurt is perfectly healthy, and it is cultured bacteria.
Balancing safety with reality
However, being aware that not all germs are going to lead us to an early expiration date is not necessarily the issue at hand. When experiencing intrusive thoughts about the germs that cause us distress, it leads to us needing to engage in a compulsion to reduce the anxiety. A microbiologist at that point could lay out the exact risk statistics, and it would not matter. The brain has already been transformed by the cycle to respond anxiously to the thoughts and feelings that germs give us.
Now, that sounds frightening, and it can feel uncontrollable. If washing hands brings comfort, and it comes recommended as a healthy practice to children and people worldwide, then what is the harm? It is when the fear begins to control our lives and the quality of life, we experience that we may need to consider how we could be helped. Of course, and always, there is hope. Yes, it may seem that we have been led into the vicious cycle for too long, but our brains are able to learn, readapt, and understand what an actual threat is, and what is just a fear of uncertainty. Uncertainty that something unseen can certainly be lurking and harmful despite evidence that we are safer than we may feel.
If you feel that a fear of germs is getting out of hand, then consider reaching out for help. There are evidenced based treatments designed to support and alleviate the stress associated with germs or other intrusive thoughts. You can learn more about all of our services here.