Germaphobia in America -- The Fear That
Unites Us
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Last updated August 10, 2017, originally published June 29, 2016
By S. Callahan, Contributing Columnist

Recently, two people from seemingly disconnected worlds collided on
twitter -- Jermaine Jackson and Donald Trump.  These two rather
dissimilar men were at odds over a comment that Trump had made
referencing Michael Jackson.   Though Jackson occupies a position
closer to the left-artistic end of the political spectrum and Trump is
somewhere closer to the right end of that spectrum, it struck me then
that these two twitter titans share something else in common -- they
are germaphobes.

Jermaine Jackson is reported to be so afraid of germs that he gets up
at 6:30 in the mornings to vacuum and only wears clothes once. Donald
Trump is also a die
-hard germaphobe.  In fact, many famous people are
or were also germaphobes: billionaire Howard Hughes, Prince, Michael
Jackson (remember the hospital mask he wore when he was outside),
Howey Mandell (who doesn't shake people's hands f
or fear of getting
germed up, and on and on.

Germaphobia, technically called "mysophobia" but I think germaphobia
just captures the essential "ickiness" that these people must feel
toward the rest of the world.

What causes germaphobia?  Is it a new phenomenon? Is it on the rise
in America?

What Causes Germaphobia?

Psychologists now believe that germaphobia is a form of obsessive
compulsive behavior (OCD).  While someone may have an initial
reasonable belief that a behavior or a particular source can expose
them to sickness from germs, over time the avoidance of germs turns
into a generalized fear of germs from any source outside of themselves.

Howard Hughes' mother, for example, started his obsession with germs
by making his hyper-aware of the dangers of polio when he was a
child, according to Dr. Raymond D. Fowler, who was commissioned to
perform a "pyschological autopsy" of Howard Hughes by his estate.

Over time, this initially rational fear became irrational and
overwhelming. It slipped into mental illness, taking over Hughes life. At
the end of his life, he rarely bathed and slept in the dark in the middle
of his bed, a zone he considered "germ free". When he did get up, he
walked around in tissue boxes on his feet to avoid germs on the floor.

Others who suffer from germaphobia report taking an entire day to
prepare for a shower, so intricate are the steps they go through to
avoid touching surfaces that may be "contaminated".

Symptoms of Germaphobia

Some of the common symptoms of germaphobia may sound familiar to
those who have studies OCD behaviors:

  • excessive hand washing

  • being terrified of getting sick

  • avoiding physical contact with others for fear of germ transmission

  • being unable to function in a job or have a normal social life
    because of fear of germ transmission

  • overreacting to media reports of new diseases or illnesses

  • the phobia has lasted a significant period of time

Is Germaphobia More Common in America?

There are not many reliable statistics of the prevalence of germaphobia
in the US. In fact, there are few studies worldwide of the condition. In
2014, a study of phobias affecting women was conducted by scientists
in the  Department of Statistics, Kinnaird College for Women

From that study, the scientists estimated that the incidence of al
l phobias which lasted at least one month in the United States is be
tween 4% and 11%, with women being twice as likely as men to su
ffer from any phobia.
These means that from 13 million to 36 million of
us are germaphobes.

Early trauma appears to be a major factor in causing germaphobia.

Is Germaphobia Treatable?

Germaphobia is believed to be treatable by cognitive therapy.  But, the
problem is that most people who suffer form germaphobia may also
have a fear of losing control, which complicates their ability to
"surrender" to psychotherapy.

One therapy which has had some success is gradual exposure to the
source of the fear. For example, if the fear is getting germs from
shaking hands, you might gradually overcome this fear by choosing to
shake hands with your gloves on. Eventually, you may try shaking
hands with very thin gloves and finally with no gloves with certain
people only.

Extremely gradual and minute exposure to the feared source of the
germs will help in many cases to lower the panic you feel when faced
with a germ source.

This technique, it bears underscoring, will not work with everyone.
OCD behaviors are sometimes extremely difficult to dislodge.

Why Are So Many Famous People Germaphobes?

My first reaction to the long list of the rich ans famous who are
germaphobes was irritation --- what, do they think they're too good to
shake hands with the great unwashed mass of the rest of us?

Howard Hughes, Howard Stern, Howie Mandel --- yes, there are a lot of
men named Howard who are germaphobes --- Jermaine Jackson.
Michael Jackson, Donald Trump, to name a few, all are in the
Germaphobe Hall of Fame. All were or are rich. Is germaphobia a
disease of the 1%, another way for them to separate from the crowds

Then, I thought more about it.  You and I may have to shake hands
with fewer than 3 people a day. But if you're Donald Trump or Howey
Mandel, you may have to shake hands with dozens or even hundreds of
people a day.   Faced with that many physical touches, maybe it's
actually rational to become hyper-finicky, since the amount of microbes
you can pick up are multiplied by perhaps a 1000-fold.

Though there has never been a specific scientific study on the relation
between germaphobia and income, it appears that excessive
fastidiousness about one's hygiene is not confined to the 1%. Nor is it
more prevalent among one race than others. At last, it appears that in
these times when we are finding it increasingly hard to find anything
that unites us, we may just have stumbled across it.  In America, we
are indeed united in our stand against and our obsession with germs.


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