No matter how many times you wash your hands, you can’t seem to get them clean. You worry about contaminants on the surfaces you touch, going back to the sink to wash your hands again and again. Even if you’re running late or have other things to do, you have to stay and scrub until you get it just right. Or maybe you’ve seen or thought of something that bothers you, and now you can’t get it out of your head – it keeps coming back, invading your headspace, making you feel unclean.

Washing handsIf this sounds familiar, you may be facing contamination fears. These are some of the most common thoughts and related actions among people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They are also some of the best understood and best treated OCD symptoms. Psych Central explains, “This is the one variant of OCD that receives the most publicity, and optimistically, it is also among the most ‘treatable’ forms of OCD.”1 So you aren’t alone in your fears of contamination, and you don’t have to be trapped by them.

What Are Contamination Fears?

Contamination fears may be triggered by things in the physical world such as touching a doorknob in a bathroom. Other physical contamination fears can include fear of the following:

  • Dirt, dust or grime
  • Sticky or oily substances that can cling to the skin and spread to other objects with touch
  • Chemicals like household cleansers, preservatives in food and pesticides
  • Environmental toxins like asbestos, lead paint, mold and radiation
  • Human secretions such as blood, saliva, feces, urine, semen or sweat
  • Animals, especially those that lick, shed, crawl or bite
  • Crowds or densely populated places

Contamination fears can also occur on a mental level, plaguing the mind with repellent thoughts. This is called mental contamination. It affects about 44 percent of people with OCD according to research in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.2 Mental contamination fears can include the following:

  • Feeling harmed or irreversibly changed by exposure to the wrong ideas
  • Feeling like you might lose your sense of self or transform into a different person
  • Feeling like seeing a particular sign or stimulus might force you to do an unwanted behavior, like commit a crime
  • Feeling like another person has made you “feel like dirt” with critical or negative comments
  • Feeling invaded by impure or unclean thoughts, such as sexual or religious imagery
  • Fears of ill omens or bad luck

These types of OCD are fear-based. Fears can be addressed through types of therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). A form of CBT called exposure and response prevention gradually exposes clients to the sources of their fears in a safe, supported way. This lets them learn to control their anxiety, negative thoughts, and worries and to begin to interact with themselves and the world without fear. CBT is just one of many positive and encouraging forms of treatment for OCD.

You or your loved one can find health, healing and relief. You don’t have to work through this alone. At Black Bear Lodge, we offer specialized therapies to help you regain control over your life. Call us today to learn more about what we have to offer.


1 McCay, Dean. “OCD: Symptoms of Contamination.” Psych Central. 17 Jul. 2016.

2 Coughtrey, Anna, et al. “Mental Contamination in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. Oct. 2012.