What is Emotional Contamination?


– Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC


“Contamination” is frequently associated with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). So much so that people mistakenly assume that all individuals with OCD struggle with germophobia or compulsive cleaning. While this is most certainly true for some people, but there are also numerous subtypes of OCD that have nothing to do with cleanliness at all.

Common subtypes of OCD include:


In this blog post, we will present another form of OCD related to contamination, but distinct from the more commonly known type.


What is Emotional Contamination?

Emotional contamination OCD is a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that involves feelings of being contaminated by emotions rather than physical substances. While it might seem a bit complicated at first, the reality is that almost everyone has probably felt it in some way.

Here is a simple example:

  • One day, you put on a certain shirt and then have the worst day ever. You avoid wearing that shirt again because it feels “contaminated” by the negative experience. A part of your brain believes that if you wear it again, you will be absorbing negative emotions or be more likely to have another bad day.

This example illustrates how people without OCD can have similar thoughts and feelings as those with OCD. The key difference, however, lies in the degree of distress and impaired functioning these thoughts and emotions cause.


Symptoms of Emotional Contamination


People with this kind of OCD often experience significantly troubling thoughts and obsessions about emotional contamination. To ease their anxiety, they engage in compulsive, repetitive behaviors and rituals. Unfortunately, they discover that these disturbing thoughts don’t go away over time; instead, they become more intense. Let’s look at some examples of obsessions and compulsions involved in the emotional contamination OCD subtype.


For people with emotional contamination OCD, the fear is centered around the perceived contamination of emotions, leading to distress and discomfort.

Obsessions such as these can manifest in various ways, such as:

  • the fear of getting negative feelings like guilt, shame, or disgust from others or certain things
  • excessive worries about transferring these negative emotions into an object they deem as “uncontaminated” (e.g. if my contaminated sweater touches the bed, I will have to wash all the bedding or sleep on the couch).
  • the fear that coming into contact with an emotionally “contaminated” object or place will revert them back to a negative point in time (e.g. The last time I was at my aunt’s house, my eating disorder was at its worst. If I go back to my aunt’s house, I will automatically relapse and lose all the progress I’ve made).
  • intrusive thoughts or mental images related to emotional contamination, which can be distressing and difficult to control.



To neutralize the anxiety and distress caused by these obsessions, individuals with emotional contamination OCD typically engage in compulsive behaviors or rituals.  However, these behaviors provide only temporary relief and only serve perpetuate the cycle of obsessive thoughts in the long run.

Compulsions may include:

  • excessive cleaning or washing: individuals may engage in repetitive and lengthy cleaning or washing routines, often using specific techniques or products to remove perceived contamination.
  • avoidance behaviors: people with emotional contamination OCD may avoid certain people, places or things, worried about absorbing bad feelings
  • compulsively thinking a “positive” thought to neutralize every “negative” thought
  • feeling the need to shower in order to get rid of emotional contamination.
  • compulsively checking and examining objects or clothing to ensure no sign of emotional contamination is visible to others (ex. “I don’t want anyone to know that the last time I wore this shirt, I got into a fight with my partner”).
  • seeking reassurance from others


It’s crucial to understand that OCD includes irrational thoughts and fears. The fear of emotional contamination, in particular, isn’t supported by scientific evidence. People with OCD usually know that that their thoughts are excessive or irrational, but the anxiety and distress associated with these obsessions makes it extremely difficult to not engage in compulsive behaviors.




If someone is going through emotional contamination OCD symptoms, it’s important for them to get help from mental health professionals like psychologists or psychiatrists. They can provide the right diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment for emotional contamination OCD typically involves a combination of talk-therapy and, in some cases, medication.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)

  • ERP exposes a person to a stimulus (i.e. person, person, thought or memory) that produces anxiety or discomfort. Throughout the exposure process, the individual is encouraged to actively resist engaging in their typical response to that trigger. This allows people to learn that their feelings of discomfort and doubts naturally subside on their own without them doing anything about it.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

  • ACT is an additional treatment modality that can be incorporated into OCD presentation. The intolerance of uncertainty is very common for people struggling with OCD, and acceptance can be an integral part of treatment by learning how to tolerate feelings and thoughts that may have once seemed unmanageable. Instead of trying to fight off compulsions with rituals, ACT helps guide the person towards acceptance of thoughts and feelings as part of the experience of life. ACT works to help teach the individual that these compulsions can come and go rather than getting stuck.


  • Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be prescribed to help manage anxiety and obsessive thoughts.





Seeking Mental Health Support


Emotional contamination OCD is a real and valid mental health condition, and seeking help from a qualified mental health professional is essential for managing symptoms and improving overall well-being. If you or someone you know is struggling with emotional contamination OCD, consider scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center to meet with our therapists who specialize in treating the condition.  Meet our team to learn more!





Leave a Reply