Over a decade ago, in 2009, we were faced with SFA, swine flu anxiety. Today, it’s COVID-19 angst. On Friday, Governor Cuomo warned that another global pandemic “will happen again…bank on it.”

Whether you call it “mysophobia,” “germophobia,” “bacillophobia,” or “bacteriophobia,” pandemic fever has got lots of people just plain scared of contact with dirt, germs, and others are fearful of touching even their own hands.  These particular pathological fears are commonly associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, today in 2020 or at any time, including 2009 when I first began writing about pandemics. It seems if anxiety or depression run in families, people are more likely to experience these unhealthy fears.

Monk, the fictional police detective, Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, Megan Fox, the late Howard Hughes, President Donald Trump, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lawrence are some famed people who share in being popularized germophobes.  But you, your next-door neighbor and millions of Americans have joined the club of concerned Lysol and Clorox appliers (and bathers!) and are taking a hard, fretful look at kitchen sponges, computer keyboards, dirty laundry, exercise equipment, shopping carts, elevator buttons, and grocery check-out line counters. 

What should you look for to know if you’re simply having a healthy concern about catching the current bug or have a case of mysophobia?

  • avoiding places perceived as germ-filled
  • spending excessive time cleaning and decontaminating
  • washing hands obsessively
  • refusing to share personal items
  • avoiding physical contact with others
  • fearing contamination of children
  • avoiding crowds or animals

Those with mysophobia may encounter feelings of panic, increased heart rate, nausea, shortness of breath and sweating. Further, this fear of germs interferes significantly with daily life and relationships. If that’s you, you know it, and so do others around you.

From HIV beginning in the 1980s, claiming the lives of 37.9 million people  to the swine flu pandemic between April 2009 and April 2010 affecting 60.8 million people with about 12,469 deaths, to cholera reaching pandemic proportions seven times over the past two centuries, with the most recent being between 1961 and 1975 with about 4,000 deaths, to the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1920 killing 50 million worldwide, to SARS infecting about 8,000 people in 29 countries with a 10% mortality rate, and of course there was the Black Death in the 1300’s killing about 75-200 million people, we ought to be experts in understanding that pandemics end, that there will always be another one, that physical distancing and quarantine measures work and that we are better equipped to deal with widespread illnesses than ever before.

Microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa have risen to the top of many of our minds as we stare in panic at objects in our lives, especially people.  Admit it, you are more frequently using your elbows, covered of course, to touch anything.  In fact, if you look up hand sanitizers on Google, you’ll be deluged with 63,100,000 sites. 

For people who live with any type of significant anxiety, including OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) about contamination and germs, times like these are especially difficult.  When I say, “times like these,” I’m quoting from an article I wrote in 2009 about Swine Flu! What’s changed? The line between the worries of people with OCD and everyday concerns can be quite fuzzy. Worries about a possible pandemic from COVID-19 make the line even blurrier than usual.

Current conditions may have you wondering:

  • Should I wash my hands every ten minutes?
  • Should I wash for at least twenty minutes each time I wash?
  • Should I use a mix of harsh bleach, alcohol, and soap each time I wash?
  • Should I wear a mask everywhere I go?
  • Should I confine myself to my house for the next couple of months?

Folks, those questions came from 2009! What’s changed? 

I reviewed the CDC recommendations back in the Swine Flu days and found these recommendations:

  • Cover your nose when you sneeze.
  • Wash your hands often, especially after sneezing.
  • Use soap or alcohol-based hand cleaner.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth prior to washing your hands or using sanitizer.
  • Stay away from obviously sick people.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Call your doctor for advice if you feel sick.

Today, the CDC suggests the following to protect yourself against COVID-19. What’s different? Here are the CDC’s suggestions for our 2020 pandemic:

Clean your hands often:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

Avoid close contact:

Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others:

  • You could spread COVID-19 to others even if you do not feel sick.
  • Everyone should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public, for example to the grocery store or to pick up other necessities.
    • Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.
  • The cloth face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected.
  • Do NOT use a facemask meant for a healthcare worker.
  • Continue to keep about 6 feet between yourself and others. The cloth face cover is not a substitute for social distancing.

Cover coughs and sneezes:

  • If you are in a private setting and do not have on your cloth face covering, remember to always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Throw used tissues in the trash.
  • Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, clean your hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Clean and disinfect:

So if all of this swine flu talk, I mean COVID-19, has raised your anxiety, there’s always humor – not that anyone contracting an illness is something to laugh about, especially when it may lead to death.  There used to be an iPhone app of swine flu jokes at a site called appshopper.com. It’s no longer available. Who wants to develop help to reduce anxiety over COVID-19? 

Anxiety is a “going to” disorder. It’s quite unlikely that anyone will feel anxiety, fear, worry or concern without thinking something is “going to” happen, and believe that what is “going to” happen will be “terrible, horrible and awful.” Perhaps questioning that “going to” prediction (“Am I certain it will happen?”), perhaps reframing the predicted “awful” outcome to something that’s “just bad” or “inconvenient,” that’s “a hassle, but not really a horror,” to one that’s not necessarily “horrible,” will also help. Assuring yourself that you can tolerate it, can bear it, can deal with it even though you may not prefer doing so, will also go a long way in reducing these unhealthy negative emotions and move them into the range of healthy negative emotions.

After all, New York’s Governor urged, “Let’s not put our heads in the sand and think this is the only pandemic we’ll ever have.” COVID-19 isn’t over and already we’re anticipating another round of this disease, and new ones to come. 

Stay healthy, hopeful and thinking well!