OCD and Emotional Contamination

by FrameAngel freedigitalphotos.net

by FrameAngel freedigitalphotos.net

I was in a public restroom last week and came across something I had never seen before: a toe opener. This particular one was attached to the bottom of the main door which allowed me to open it with my foot instead of my hand. My first thought was, “What a great idea,” and my second thought was, “People with contamination OCD aren’t the only ones who don’t want to touch doorknobs. They are loaded with germs.”

I think many of us without OCD can understand, to some degree, the contamination issues of those with the disorder. Just look around. There are signs in restrooms insisting we wash our hands so we don’t spread disease, and instructions as to the best way to do this. There are hand sanitizer dispensers in supermarkets and other public places. Moms now bring shopping cart covers for their babies and toddlers to sit on to avoid germs. The examples go on and on. We can relate.

But there is another type of contamination OCD that, while not uncommon, is less talked about, perhaps because it is less “acceptable” and harder for those of us without OCD to comprehend. Emotional contamination involves fearing that certain people (or places) are contaminated in some way, and therefore must be avoided at all cost. The OCD sufferer might have had a negative experience with the person in question, might feel there is something undesirable about the person that might “rub off” on them, or might not even have a specific reason for their fears. Those of you who saw the recent show about OCD on ABC News “20/20″ might remember that one of the girls with OCD could not be near either of her parents, and was living temporarily with her grandparent. I believe this is an example of emotional contamination. How heartbreaking it must be for all involved when the “contaminated person” is someone you love.

One aspect of this type of OCD that stands out to me is how quickly this magical thinking can snowball. Of course, this can be true for other subtypes of OCD, but it just seems so pronounced with emotional contamination: Fear, and subsequent avoidance, of a person might then extend to avoidance of any place that person might have been, any people who that person might have associated with, or any item that person might have touched. Before we know it, the OCD sufferer’s world has become so small that he or she might be housebound, unable to breathe the same air as the “contaminated person.” This great article gives a good explanation of emotional contamination, and details a case  study as well.

The good news, of course, is that the treatment for emotional contamination is the same as other types of OCD. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, by all accounts, works well for this type of OCD. If you suffer from emotional contamination, there is so much hope for your recovery. Please take that first step to find a competent therapist, so you can reclaim your life as soon as possible.














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23 Responses to OCD and Emotional Contamination

  1. 71 & Sunny says:

    Good post, Janet. I agree, it does seem that there is less known or talked about emotional contamination, though I suspect it is not all that uncommon. And yes, there IS hope and treatment works!!

  2. Em Jack says:

    Hello everyone –

    My dd has contamination OCD. ( germ related but mostly “essence contamination”)

    We see her avoiding certain things like our frig handle … ? She does not use public restrooms if possible. (Germ related)

    Here are some examples of the “essence contamination” OCD: sitting in certain chairs in our home as well as other places like the back seat of her dad’s car. If she is in the vicinity of someone who she perceives in a contaminated way (intoxicated, dirty, weird or their butt touches something) that this makes her dirty. For example a homeless person, classmates that bother her in some unnoticeable way to you or me, etc. She has told me her fear is that she get’s contaminated “dirty” from simply being around a certain person or that she might act like them. Her Dr called this “essence contamination”. I liked this label I feel it really hits the nail on the head for what my dd experiences.

    As you all know this is my limited explanation of what she experiences. She most commonly does not talk about the OCD. I have found when I’m explaining a situation in front of her she will roll her eyes & say – “That’s not how it works mom!” Ah well I try …

    Best wishes to all –


    • C says:

      Hey Em,
      I think there is a huge overlap between just contamination and emotional contamination. It can include not wanting to be around a certain person who is dirty who then makes us dirty just by seeing a picture of them or being around them or even reading their name. I don’t have the issue of avoiding “acting like them”, but simply being around that person can “transfer” their contamination. That is exactly what it is and it sounds like you have a good understanding of it or she is doing really well with explaining things. I wrote a post on this months ago on my blog–I think it might help you to read it, but it sounds like you hit the nail on the head as far as getting it.

  3. Hi Em,
    Thanks for sharing. I’ve never heard of essence contamination but it sounds similar (if not the same?) as emotional contamination. I feel the same way as you do about understanding my son’s OCD….. I used to have to just piece things together on my own, and didn’t always get it right. But you really sound as if you know what you are talking about :). Wishing you and your daughter all the best!

  4. I wasn’t familiar with this type of OCD, so this was very helpful for me, Janet. I read the article about it, too. I’m so glad there’s so much good information out there now about OCD. Of course, there’s still a lot of education and advocacy to do ! 🙂

  5. C says:

    This post is right on target–thanks for bringing this up on your blog today. I’m not sure why this isn’t discussed more.

    For anyone out there who is unfamiliar with this, the contamination from another person spreading their dirtiness (not germs, dirt, etc.) is just as distressing as the contamination issues dealing with real germs, like viruses, cancer, HIV, etc. and it can encompass a geographic region (just check out my blog!! I talk about this all the time and have recorded exposures through it). I’ve only heard or read about one other person who dealt with the geographic contamination. In case anyone wants to know more about this subtype of ocd– my contamination started from a guy named Marcel. It progressed to the point where I had to change the way I wrote the letter “m” so the lines did not touch each other and even worse, when I typed any word with the word “m” (for Marcel), I would have to say a ritual and delete the letter three times before typing it and moving on with my papers, etc. Also, do you know how many writers and composers there are named Marcel??!! A lot. That was a huge challenge in the college years, having to do all that.

    This stuff is treatable! I’m living proof: my exposures documenting this are all blogged out! 🙂

    What a great post!!

    • Thanks for sharing, C, and I know how well you’ve done with ERP therapy…….you are a real inspiration for those dealing with this type of OCD!

      • C says:

        Thanks, Janet. I was thinking about your son earlier and hope he is doing well–didn’t you say he is in his mid-twenties (like me?) Just randomly thought about him and you while driving today from my ERP appointment.

    • Hi C, It’s nice to be randomly thought of :). Thanks for letting me know! Yes, Dan turned twenty-five in May and we are so thankful he continues to do well. I also really like your last blog post about “lost time” and hope to write a post (and maybe link to yours if you don’t mind) on the same subject in the next few weeks. Hope your ERP appointment went well!

  6. Nancy P. says:

    Yes- I see this overlap with my daughter. I particularly noticed it when we shared an extended stay hotel room when she was getting help on an outpatient basis. Some of it (most of it) was straight up contamination, but I found it ironic that the maids who came in to “clean” were of course- by OCD standards- “dirty” and had to be avoided. My daughter is kindly and this presents a real dilemma for her…so she keeps areas free of contamination by others by not letting them get near her special places, so she doesn’t have to be “mean” to them and treat them as dirty. It is a snarl!

    • Thanks for sharing, Nancy, and your daughter’s OCD is a great example of this overlap, as you say. My guess is others with OCD are in the same predicament as your daughter: They are caring, kind people, and they certainly don’t want to let on to the “contaminated people” how they feel. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why this is a less talked about form of OCD?

  7. Thank you for this post and sharing the article. This sounds very similar to my daughters issues. Her fears revolve around cigarettes and anything that was touched by someone who smoked or the butts. It definitely falls into the magical thinking category because she believes there are special germs on cigarettes. At an early point with ER OCD, she went through a phase or maybe twice when she couldn’t ouch any of us, her parents and siblings. And like you describe, her world became so small last year, that she could not touch hardly anything. When I described that to people, I knew they had no idea what I really meant. It was extreme. Thanks again for your posts. She is doing much better now and yet has a ways to go but seeing this has been a big help because I hang quite seen this information on this way before.

    • Hi Gina, I’m so glad your daughter is doing a lot better……I hope she continues to go in the right direction. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like when she couldn’t touch any family members. Thank you for sharing and I wish you, your daughter, and your whole family all the best.

    • C says:

      Hi Gina,
      I’m sorry if I’m overstepping boundaries, but just wanted to post a short comment. Emotional contamination or contamination feeling where a person is “dirty” is really just so awkward for us. Explaining ocd is a huge task in itself and finding words to articulate it so people can get a correct perspective is just so hard, but telling someone you can’t touch them because they are contaminated is so many levels of awkward and I’m sure difficult to try and understand for people without ocd. We don’t want to offend or hurt anyone, so I understand why she would act that way, completely.

  8. Linda says:

    I don’t have OCD but I don’t like touching doorknobs myself, and am known to carry a kleenex or piece of paper towel with me for the purpose of touching public doorknobs. First I heard of this toe opener. I can see why many would use it, though, including myself.

    • Thanks for sharing, Linda, and I think a lot of people feel the same way as you do. I thought it was a great idea when I saw the toe opener, but when I left the restroom I totally forgot it was there and opened the door with my hand!

  9. L says:

    I stumbled upon this post after googling ” emotional OCD” because I find there is a lot of literature on standard contamination OCD but nothing on association or emotional OCD. I unfortunately am affected by emotional ocd and find myself feeling “contaminated” by people and experiences. I am now 25 years old and in Law school out of town and find that ever since I moved out of my parents house and into my own apartment my ocd has gotten significantly worse.
    I just wanted to say that this post hit the nail on the head with how my form of contamination works and made me feel better just by reading it that I am not alone in my suffering ( although I don’t believe anybody should have to go through this)
    I guess I just wanted to say thank you and all your comments and messages are very inspiring

    • Hi L, Thank you so much for sharing and for your kind words as well. I am so sorry you are suffering with emotional contamination, and I hope you have a good therapist who is experienced in treating OCD with ERP therapy. You absolutely can get better! Please keep in touch and let me know how things are going. And good luck in law school!

  10. Jass says:

    Hello janet .i want from you that you should make a new emotional contamination article with its four subtypes eg. Contamination after psychological violations ,self contamination ,morphing .i know here is lot of article on this type but every article only talk about existence of type but no article shows us how to feel like mental contamination and how contamination feeling spread to places ,objects ,persons ,even memories,and anything .you should make article by stanley rachman’s treatment of mental contamination .this is first book for this type treatment .it gives a full detail of types and treatment .also tell us that handwashing is not only compulsion to this type .mental compulsions is another compulsion for this type .handwashing compulsion gives us a idea that this type ocd is related to contamination fear but in mental contamination with mental rituals person become so confuse by saying why i feel anxiety ,what is the trigger of my anxiety. in mental contamination person may also feel disgust ,anger ,low self esteem that is why rituals not helpful .

    • Thanks for the information Jass, and for the book suggestion. I’m not sure when/if I’ll get around to reading it or writing about emotional contamination again, but if you suffer with it, I hope you will get the right help.

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