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I have a fear of chemicals and microbes, and anything that might harm my health. Is it rational? If not, how do I get over it?
November 8, 2012 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I have a fear of chemicals and microbes, and anything that might harm my health. Is it rational? If not, how do I get over it?

I have a problem: I have a fear of microbes and chemicals.

• I rarely eat anything with artificial flavors or preservatives, for fear that there is some long-term health effect related to them that we don't know about yet.

• I'm scared of the chemicals in shampoo and shower gel and other personal care products, because of the crazy amount of artificial ingredients like parabens and stuff in it. The recent public scare about the harmful chemicals in cosmetics and shampoos contributed.

• I rarely eat with my hands, unless I've washed them and the soap is completely washed off of my hands. (If I don't, I'd be eating the fragrance added to the soap and other stuff in it, and that could be harmful.) If I'm eating bread at a restaurant or chips or something, I pick it up with a napkin or a fork.

This is because I know my hands get dirty during the day — maybe I used hair gel and didn't wash it off my hands, or I rode the subway and my hands touched the handhold, or I used my phone. If I eat those chemicals, I feel like

• I wash pots and pans very thoroughly. I think that if there's still dish liquid on them, if heating those chemicals doesn't affect me, 

• If I eat outside, if my food has been in the vicinity of cigarette smoke or motorcycle exhaust or something like that, I throw it away. Similarly, yesterday I cooked some food and it turns out a bit of the colored paper and aluminum carton from a sauce fell in there. Since I cooked my meal with that the entire time, I threw the food away. Same with Teflon non-stick pans: I do not use them, and I fear plastic bottles for the possibility of BPA. 

• I'm scared of swimming because I don't want to expose whatever stuff is in the pool or the ocean to my eyes.

• I find that the comfort that something won't harm me is more important to me than doing what I want to do and potentially facing harm. For example, I'm much happier knowing that I'm better off not eating that food that was contaminated with car exhaust and being safe, and maybe losing some money but not health, than eating it.

I think that people who aren't like me, who aren't reducing the probability of harm to health, like by washing soap off dishes completely or holding my breath while walking by a cigarette smoker, are setting themselves up for negative health effects later on, by the accumulation of these potentially harmful things.

This all stems from the realization that my body and my health are the most important things I can take care of, and that I only get one. I know that the body is incredibly resilient, but I also know that we are being exposed to more and more artificial things that our body cannot handle and those things just stay in the body.

But I also know that there's something wrong here. How can I live without worrying about this stuff, *and* not think that reducing my obsession with cleanliness won't eventually kill me down the line? Or is this the rational thing to do, given the proliferation of artificial materials and the lack of long-term studies done on most things?
posted by suburbs to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sorry about the unfinished sentences (wish you could edit). Accidentally forgot to finish them while writing, but I think you get the idea.
posted by suburbs at 9:52 AM on November 8, 2012


You gut and skin are full of microbes. Your body and everything you eat are made of chemicals. And your irrational fear is more harmful that whatever it is you're trying to avoid.

Educate yourself - go to a community college class on chemistry or something.
posted by exogenous at 9:53 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it would be good to see a therapist or psychiatrist for an evaluation. I am not a mental health professional, but it sounds like your symptoms are interfering with your quality of life - that's a sign that it's time for an evaluation.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:54 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


But I also know that there's something wrong here. How can I live without worrying about this stuff, *and* not think that reducing my obsession with cleanliness won't eventually kill me down the line?

Some of this is perfectly rational and some of it, as you know, is over the line between 'feeling sketched out about microwaving spaghetti in a plastic container' and things like feeling your clean hands aren't clean enough, or throwing out food 'contaminated' by car exhaust.

A lot of us might be sketched out by a few of these things, but you're sketched out by all of it, and that has got to be exhausting. The sum total of this sounds like an obsession that's interfering with your life, and it's time for a chat with your doctor.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:55 AM on November 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Any of these concerns is valid. I, too, try to minimize the number of artificial ingredients etc. that I consume. But you are taking it to an extreme level that is radically affecting your life, and that is not healthy.

I honestly would take this list to a psychiatrist; I am not a mental health professional and you can't diagnose over the internet, but some of your statements remind me of those made by family members who had anxiety and compulsion disorders. In those cases, their burdens eased enormously once they had tools to deal with their fears.
posted by KathrynT at 9:57 AM on November 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


exogenous — Yeah, I'm quite familiar with the fact that everything has (well, better put, is) chemicals. This whole thing was partly caused my taking many biology and chemistry classes in university, and realizing what harmful chemicals could do. So I thought I'd better try my best to avoid those harmful ones.

insectosaurus + A Terrible Llama + KathrynT — Yes, this is interfering with my quality of life. I wish I could live life back a few years ago when I didn't think twice about eating soup from a styrofoam container, but I know I can't—not without convincing myself that it's fine.

You're probably right that this should be looked at my mental health folks. I'm overseas at the moment and will be for a very long time, and I don't have health insurance, but I will try to find a way to get in contact with one.
posted by suburbs at 10:01 AM on November 8, 2012


You have taken a number of potentially valid health concerns and catastrophized them all into a big ball of all-consuming fear that is affecting your quality of life. I too am going to recommend that you speak to someone therapeutically about this.
posted by elizardbits at 10:01 AM on November 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


You are not acting rationally. Go roll in some dirt, it'll be good for you :) (Or go see a therapist if you can't handle the thought).
posted by wrok at 10:03 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


You need to speak to a mental health professional. There are things on your list that are reasonable (BPA is of concern for lots of people), but most of this list is not typical. And even the things that are typical, you take to an extreme level. I am not a doctor, but this reads like a compulsion disorder and you should speak to a doctor to find out if that's really the case.

As you said in your update this is interferring with your life and how could it not so the only thing I'm comfortable recommending is treatment. If you have insurance, contact them to see who they can refer you to while you are overseas. Sometimes, you can even speak to someone on Skype if there's no one where you are who can assist you.
posted by GilvearSt at 10:04 AM on November 8, 2012


"Germs" actually do a lot of good things. They teach your immune system how to adapt. I suggest you read about your immune system and about the hygiene hypothesis.

If after you read those things you are still feeling Howie Mandel-ish (Mysophobia), see a mental health provider because clearly this issue is causing you some difficulties.
posted by Dansaman at 10:04 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


GilvearSt — thanks for the answer. That's what I was afraid of, but I guess that's better that I know. I made an edit to the comment that I don't currently have health insurance (and I have no idea how Obamacare works) but I will find a way to find professional help.

Thank you all so far.

Dansaman — having studied a good bit of biology, I do get that bacteria helps immunity, and I fear that these practices are likely to make myself less able to deal with bacteria due to less built-uP immunity. At the same time, I don't know how to let in bacteria that won't be harmful while keeping out stuff that could be.

One thing I want to ask is: is any of this medically rational? Does it make sense to be scared of eating chemicals in my hair gel residue on my hands? Or does the body have a way to flush this stuff out?
posted by suburbs at 10:16 AM on November 8, 2012


How can I live without worrying about this stuff, *and* not think that reducing my obsession with cleanliness won't eventually kill me down the line? Or is this the rational thing to do, given the proliferation of artificial materials and the lack of long-term studies done on most things?

Something will eventually kill you down the line. The rational thing to do, given that you understand that there is a "lack of long-term studies done on most things", is to make decisions based on the best evidence you have available, not assume the worst about everything.

While avoiding carcinogens is a good thing where possible (note: not all artificial chemicals are carcinogens or unhealthy in any way), everyone is exposed to them in small doses just by the air we breath, the food we eat, the sun we are exposed to, and the earth we walk on. (as a cancer researcher,) Cancer is typically caused by an accumulation of mutations over time, and is not something that you can prevent by being overly paranoid about trace amounts of chemicals. The best things you can do to improve your health are already well known - exercise, lots of fruit and vegetables, no tanning, no smoking, etc. Very few other things have been shown to affect your health (especially cancer wise), and if they do, it's usually very very minor. Your body is very good at repairing damage, in general. There's also a TON of random chance as well as genetics involved in who gets sick and who stays well.

On the other hand, it's absolutely proven that stress, anxiety, etc. have negative effects on your health and even lifespan. On that note, looking after your mental health is likely to align better with your goals here than worrying so much about things that are unlikely to have much if any impact on your health.
posted by randomnity at 10:19 AM on November 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


It doesn't seem so much like your fear is of germs, but of chemicals. So you wash your hands to avoid germs, which is pretty normal, but then freak out about the chemicals in soap which is sort of not so normal. Chemophobe, not germaphobe?

It's certainly sounding extreme and worthy of some mental health professional work. I think it's normal to worry about chemicals - we are exposed to many more of them than ever - but it's the level of exposure that is out of line. Holding your breath walking by a smoker once a week isn't really a thing that helps, but not living with one would. Not regularly eating heating up your food in aluminum containers might make sense, but throwing a whole pot of something out because a small piece of foil was in there for a half an hour is too much. The scale of your reactions is was isn't rational.
posted by marylynn at 10:23 AM on November 8, 2012


A lot of this is medically rational, in that no risk is maybe better than a potential risk. But! It's not medically-based in that hair gel is likely to have few toxic components, and often those components aren't bioavailable or get metabolized into something harmless.

As a person who works a lot with human health risk assessment, I know where you're coming from. It's hard to work with calculations on increased cancer from contaminants all day, then go on with the normal living in a city, which involves a Lot of those chemicals. Coming in to this field I was often Shocked by the things that seem more dangerous than I realized (lead paint, or dry-cleaning chemicals), and the ones that seem less risky than I thought (say, radiation). As you acknowledge, avoiding risk can become such a problem that it, in itself, makes you take risks with your health.

Given your update, it makes sense to treat this As If it's an anxiety disorder, and try to work with yourself on having these things bother you less for now. If you can get help from a mental health professional soon, all the better - I credit therapy with improving my life immeasurably after I realized how anxious it was.

One of the things CBT does (not my usual prefered mode, but a good one) is notice what you are telling yourself, and come up with new mental scripts. So in your case, for now, if one of these issues is going to seriously disrupt your life, try coming up with something else to tell yourself. Something like, "millions of people eat food near car exhaust every day, and have for the last almost hundred years, and yet life expectancy has increased during that time". Something sort of scientific and reasonable that will root you in reality. There are a lot of good CBT workbooks and resources on the web that may help you with this.

One last idea: maybe turn this in to a research project for yourself. Find the behaviors that make the most difference (not smoking, eating fruits and veggies, having a well-ventilated home) and focus on doing those things. Each time you're compelled to take it further, remind yourself that no, your job is to focus on the Big Behaviors that make a difference.
posted by ldthomps at 10:25 AM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


One thing I want to ask is: is any of this medically rational?

Yeah probably but the damage you're doing to your health obsessing about it probably cancels out the minute advantage you might get from things like avoiding swimming (plus, in that case, you're avoiding exercise). And the rest of this stuff -- missed social opportunities, difficulty forming connections to others (it's got to be hard to socialize when your mind is on this) -- social connections have health benefits too, and they are far from negligible. Add to that the difficulty of eating some foods that would be a net good if your car exhaust happens to blow in the direction of an otherwise health-bolstering spinach salad or something.

So I think your brain could make an argument for anything on this list, but it needs to be talked into seeing these things within a broad context of what it means to be healthy and what the habits are that actually support that because right now it's steering you away from exercise and nutrition based on potential harm that's barely even visible.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:29 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you don't have good access to traditional mental health resources, let me recommend a book called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. A good friend of mine used this book to get hold of crippling anxiety that was dramatically curtailing his life. It was recommended by his psychiatrist, and he found it very straightforward and helpful.
posted by KathrynT at 10:34 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some of that sounds super irrational to me, like the food "contaminated" by exhaust -- that sounds superstitious, almost.
posted by feets at 10:35 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


suburbs, I'm a doctor, and I routinely do things like eat stuff off the floor, or eat food in the fridge that's pretty far past the expiration date as long as it passes the sniff/taste test. As my dad used to say (when eating bread with some mold on it) "a little penicillin won't kill ya!" (I don't take it to the moldy bread level but he never seems to suffer any ill effects... :-) )

anyway, joking aside, YES, your body has tons of ways of "flushing stuff out". What your immune system and your body's 'waste management system' can do are truly incredible.

Immune system - you've got innate immunity, and you've got adaptive immunity - that means you have a first line of defense that can activate to fight off any "foreign" protein that you are exposed to, plus you've got this amazing array of bazillions of T cells that are designed just to fly around your body, identifying what proteins are part of your body and which ones aren't - and attacking the ones that aren't supposed to be there. They manufacture antibodies to tons of different pathogens and have a 'memory' that can last a lifetime in some cases - meaning once you've been exposed to a virus or some bacteria, you can be better at fighting it off the next time, or in some cases, you can't ever get it again!

There is actually an easy way to sort out the ways in which you can keep out the 'bad' things but not take your actions to the extreme - and that's to modify your behavior to what is recommended based on evidence and research for your health. For example, washing your hands before you cook, eat, or after you use the bathroom. Or more frequently if they are visibly soiled or you know you have been exposed to something. But not swimming in pools or the ocean - that's not based on any medical or scientific evidence, so it doesn't make sense. This would be a logic based approach, but the problem is your thought processes aren't all based in logic (for example, your thought that "I better avoid this because maybe there's something bad in it that hasn't been researched or discovered yet!")

Also I want to return to the 'waste management system' your body has. Aside from your immune system, you've also got your gastrointestinal tract, your liver, and your kidneys. All of these are amazing, complex filtration and purification systems that help your body to extract the useful things (like nutrition, or medicine) that you ingest from the harmful or less useful things. Most medications that you take are processed by the systems in the liver and kidneys, or the GI tract, and the waste products are eliminated in your urine and bowel movements, or chemically turned into something that's benign or that your body can use.

Because you have this amazing waste management system on the INSIDE, you don't have to be so closely obsessed with what happens on the outside. For example, there is no reason to believe that soap residue will harm you. Most everything in the world that you can ingest is toxic if you take too much of it, and not if you are only exposed to a little of it. That's why it's OK if there's an infinitesimally small amount of arsenic in drinking water, or if there is a residue of soap on your hands, clothes, or pots and pans.

Counseling (cognitive behavioral therapy) specifically could be hugely helpful, potentially, with these thoughts - I hope that you can find someone to talk to!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:37 AM on November 8, 2012 [16 favorites]


One thing I want to ask is: is any of this medically rational? Does it make sense to be scared of eating chemicals in my hair gel residue on my hands? Or does the body have a way to flush this stuff out?

Sort of? I mean, I wouldn't spread my hair goop on toast and eat it. But I'm not going to worry about eating my sandwich after I've touched my hair.

If you live in a urban area, all of your food that's seen air has exhaust on it. Sorry. Just because you didn't see it doesn't mean it's not there. And there's nothing you can do about it unless you move somewhere with no exhaust and/or live in a bubble with an air scrubber.

That's not comforting, is it? This is why a certain amount of denial is necessary to function. Please see someone about this, because the symptoms point to a larger problem, and it's interfering with your life and the enjoyment of it.
posted by rtha at 10:50 AM on November 8, 2012


You sound a lot like me. I have obsessive compulsive disorder. Maybe you do, too, or maybe you don't. But no, none of this is normal. After a fair amount of therapy and medical intervention, I'm doing much better than I used to do, although I'm definitely not perfect.

If you're like me, rolling around in dirt, taking it easy, reading about hygeine hypothesis stuff? It won't help you very much without the correct therapy. You need psychiatric intervention. Memail me if you want to talk about this stuff.
posted by Coatlicue at 10:56 AM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


One thing I want to ask is: is any of this medically rational? Does it make sense to be scared of eating chemicals in my hair gel residue on my hands?

I wouldn't say that it makes sense to be scared of it, no. We're talking about hair gel residue which contains chemicals which would only pose a risk of harm in very large quantities, and you're worried about residue from it transferring from your hands to the food you eat and then transferring from the food to you.

It is not medically rational to miss meals based on the idea that some paper and aluminum touched your food. The risk of harm from the chemicals in these things is so tiny as to be basically nonexistent. The risk of harm to you from developing ritual-based eating habits - becoming orthorexic, basically - is pretty huge. I mean, you've already said you're happier throwing away perfectly good food than you would be if you ate food that had been exposed to cigarette smoke at some point. That's a problem.

A lot of people who develop compulsions and rituals for their eating habits are convinced their reasons are sound, and indeed in some cases they're founded in some part of reality (that you should avoid egregious exposure to carcinogens), but are extended out to a degree that becomes an unreasonable obsession (a terror of trace amounts of chemicals in or near your food or eyes).

The rituals you describe sound very much like OCD-style superstitions. You worry about trace chemicals on your hands (because you can't be certain you've washed your hands enough), so you pick up food at a restaurant with a napkin or fork. Both of these things are washed with chemicals, or chemicals are used in their creation if they're disposable napkins. In short, you're worried about risks that aren't really much of a risk at all, and you're using solutions that don't reduce that risk in any way. What calms your brain is the feeling that you're avoiding behaviors or items that you think of as unclean, or just generally bad.

I think that people who aren't like me, who aren't reducing the probability of harm to health, like by washing soap off dishes completely or holding my breath while walking by a cigarette smoker, are setting themselves up for negative health effects later on, by the accumulation of these potentially harmful things.


I worked at a Wal-Mart when I was younger. There was one woman who used to come in, and what she'd do was, she would wear latex gloves everywhere she went, and instead of touching money (germs and microbes, see), she would take her bills and lay them in the middle of her shopping cart, on the mesh. I know she also believed that she was reducing health risks, and that people who weren't doing what she did were setting themselves up. It wouldn't matter what I told her; that was what she believed. I'd think the same thing if I went out to eat and I saw someone picking up each individual chip with a napkin.

The good news is, you can still do something about it.

But I also know that there's something wrong here. How can I live without worrying about this stuff, *and* not think that reducing my obsession with cleanliness won't eventually kill me down the line?

I think your obsession will probably have some serious health effects if you let it go unchecked. For starters, you're already missing meals and avoiding activities. For an idea of where it might wind up, take a look at Howard Hughes.

I think this is definitely something you're going to want to talk to a therapist about.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:13 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


One thing I want to ask is: is any of this medically rational? Does it make sense to be scared of eating chemicals in my hair gel residue on my hands? Or does the body have a way to flush this stuff out?

Here's something I ask myself about when concerns like this come up: if it's potentially killing people, why aren't more people talking about it? There are plenty of groups out there that always need a good cause; why isn't anyone advocating for this actively and making some sort of a platform out of it? Millions of people use the things you are mentioning.

The fact that there isn't anyone suggests to me that there isn't a genuine fear to be found for these kinds of concerns, at this point. Now, it could be that there are dangers that have not yet been discovered, but I would think that for as long as plastic, styrofoam, and exhaust have been around, there would be some good scientific data to be found for the kinds of concerns that you are expressing. In the absence of what would be a statistical likelihood if it were the case (namely, more smart people talking about it), perhaps it's more rational to not think this way.

There is a point in which you can judge community wisdom trustworthy, especially when the scientific community is as large as it actually is. To be overly concerned about this kind of thing, in the absence of more discussion, is to say that pretty much everyone else in the known world is being duped by eating food with exhaust and styrofoam particles, which seems unlikely to me. So, it's actually rational at this point to not be overly concerned, but to direct your concern at things in which we actually have some scientific knowledge about.

Sometimes, though, these concerns come from a place other than rationality. For example, if we doubt the testimony of those around us on important matters, a lack of scientific discussion might not be persuasive. Things like trust issues that affect our day-to-day living are worth talking out with someone, I would think.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:13 AM on November 8, 2012


My husband and I had a sudden freak-out about this when we had small children and a particular health scare was on the news (arsenic in applejuice or something? I can't even remember.). Anyway, we had a discussion with our pediatrician about environmental chemical exposure, risks, and common sense approaches, and it really helped us relax about it and feel more comfortable. And this is a totally normal conversation to have with your doctor, it turns out! So now we take some simple, common-sense precautions that reduce our family's exposure (shoes off at the door -- lead is an issue where we live -- don't microwave things in plastic, use less-toxic cleaning products) without taking up a lot of time or energy, and then we don't worry about it. If the local diner uses super-chemical-y dishwasher detergent, oh well; our exposure to it is infrequent and incidental. We know that we're all still getting exposed to environmental toxins, but we know that we've cut our exposure considerably compared to the "average" and that it's unavoidable to get some. You can't remove all risks in life, just take common-sense, proportional steps to reduce them, like wearing a seat belt or getting vaccinated.

So I think if you can talk to a doctor (or some other expert) about this and figure out some common-sense steps and then feel comfortable you've done the reasonable things to reduce your risk and exposure, you should do that and that's great, and maybe having an expert reassure you and help you decide what's necessary and what isn't will stop the unreasoning worries. If, however, you continue to make UNreasonable accommodation for your fears, then it's definitely time to talk to a mental health professional.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:37 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Re-reading your question, you sound a lot more like me that I even though at first. I have had identical worries to some of yours (the dish soap thing, fear of swimming, refusing to eat with your hands, throwing away food that might be suspicious maybe).

This is your third health-anxious question, according to your posting history. Now go check out my posting history -- three health-anxious questions, and one that's mostly about my OCD, but also about the health fear that was worrying me at the time. I think I understand what you are going through quite well.

I am not a therapist by any means. I only know my own experience with OCD and health anxiety. Like I said, you may or may not have OCD yourself -- but your worries really are beyond the pale and need to be dealth with professionally. As mentioned above, look into cognitive behavioural therapy. I signed up for a study at UNC to receive CBT for free, and it has made a remarkable difference in my life. I am not totally well, and may never be a Normal Person, but life is much easier to enjoy now. Good luck. I'm sorry you are going through this.
posted by Coatlicue at 11:38 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoa, this is a lot to respond to. I'll go one-by-one.

randomnity → "While avoiding carcinogens is a good thing where possible (note: not all artificial chemicals are carcinogens or unhealthy in any way), everyone is exposed to them in small doses just by the air we breath, the food we eat, the sun we are exposed to, and the earth we walk on. (as a cancer researcher,) Cancer is typically caused by an accumulation of mutations over time, and is not something that you can prevent by being overly paranoid about trace amounts of chemicals. The best things you can do to improve your health are already well known - exercise, lots of fruit and vegetables, no tanning, no smoking, etc. Very few other things have been shown to affect your health (especially cancer wise), and if they do, it's usually very very minor. Your body is very good at repairing damage, in general. There's also a TON of random chance as well as genetics involved in who gets sick and who stays well.

On the other hand, it's absolutely proven that stress, anxiety, etc. have negative effects on your health and even lifespan. On that note, looking after your mental health is likely to align better with your goals here than worrying so much about things that are unlikely to have much if any impact on your health.
"

Wow, thank you very much for your qualified answer. The idea that the stress and anxiety that results from this behavior, the purpose of which is to reduce harm to my health, actually might be harming my health more than these potential threats... well, that's a pretty serious reality check right there, and it makes a lot of sense.

Regarding causes of cancer: I'm not looking to argue or something of the sort, but to give you an idea of my thought process behind this so you might be able to understand how I perceive this: if cancer is "typically caused by an accumulation of mutations over time," then I want to reduce the probability that I'll develop something that might develop into this kind of mutation—like cooking with aluminum or touching receipts tainted with BPA.

But I think I know what you might say to this: there's 1) no way that I can avoid everything that might cause cancer, and 2) the only thing I can do is make an informed decision (like you said) with the right balance of risk. So, maybe it might make sense to prefer water bottles labeled with BPA-free, but maybe it doesn't make sense to never drink from water bottles that aren't labeled BPA-free.

Thanks again.



marylynn → "It doesn't seem so much like your fear is of germs, but of chemicals. So you wash your hands to avoid germs, which is pretty normal, but then freak out about the chemicals in soap which is sort of not so normal. Chemophobe, not germaphobe?

It's certainly sounding extreme and worthy of some mental health professional work. I think it's normal to worry about chemicals - we are exposed to many more of them than ever - but it's the level of exposure that is out of line. Holding your breath walking by a smoker once a week isn't really a thing that helps, but not living with one would. Not regularly eating heating up your food in aluminum containers might make sense, but throwing a whole pot of something out because a small piece of foil was in there for a half an hour is too much. The scale of your reactions is was isn't rational.
"

Chemophobe for sure, though I know that everything is chemical in nature, and I'm only afraid of the "bad ones". And I'm convincing myself that I have a decent idea of what "bad chemicals" are and I want to reduce my exposure to them.

Regarding the scale of my reactions: that's an interesting way to look at it, that some of my decisions might be rational but on the wrong scale. I wrote directly above about the balance of risk. Maybe a possible path to recovery is to react on smaller scales—maybe next time I'll pick the aluminum out of my food and make myself keep eating, and use the fact that I (hopefully) didn't die as evidence for supporting future behavior.



ldthomps → "A lot of this is medically rational, in that no risk is maybe better than a potential risk. But! It's not medically-based in that hair gel is likely to have few toxic components, and often those components aren't bioavailable or get metabolized into something harmless.

As a person who works a lot with human health risk assessment, I know where you're coming from. It's hard to work with calculations on increased cancer from contaminants all day, then go on with the normal living in a city, which involves a Lot of those chemicals. Coming in to this field I was often Shocked by the things that seem more dangerous than I realized (lead paint, or dry-cleaning chemicals), and the ones that seem less risky than I thought (say, radiation). As you acknowledge, avoiding risk can become such a problem that it, in itself, makes you take risks with your health.
"

That must have been incredibly difficult to deal with, since you actually had the data about those contaminants and their effects, and you had no other choice but to live in an environment that exposed you to those very contaminants. Can I ask how you were able to reconcile your fear, for which you had evidence for, and decide that it was rational to live in the environment without that fear consuming you?

"Given your update, it makes sense to treat this As If it's an anxiety disorder, and try to work with yourself on having these things bother you less for now. If you can get help from a mental health professional soon, all the better - I credit therapy with improving my life immeasurably after I realized how anxious it was.

One of the things CBT does (not my usual prefered mode, but a good one) is notice what you are telling yourself, and come up with new mental scripts. So in your case, for now, if one of these issues is going to seriously disrupt your life, try coming up with something else to tell yourself. Something like, "millions of people eat food near car exhaust every day, and have for the last almost hundred years, and yet life expectancy has increased during that time". Something sort of scientific and reasonable that will root you in reality. There are a lot of good CBT workbooks and resources on the web that may help you with this.

One last idea: maybe turn this in to a research project for yourself. Find the behaviors that make the most difference (not smoking, eating fruits and veggies, having a well-ventilated home) and focus on doing those things. Each time you're compelled to take it further, remind yourself that no, your job is to focus on the Big Behaviors that make a difference.
"

That's an excellent idea, and while I hear it's not easy to do CBT on yourself, it's probably the best way to start for myself. I'll try to replace some of my mental scripts with some like you mentioned and give myself reasons for the contrary. I do want to again present what my brain automatically says to this statement. Given your example:

Event: A motorcycle passes by while I'm eating something on the street and its exhaust fills the air.

Old mental script: "throw the food away, because it's been contaminated with exhaust. Lose a few dollars (insignificant), but I won't be exposed to the potentially ill health effects of the exhaust."

New mental script: "millions of people eat food near car exhaust every day, and have for the last almost hundred years, and yet life expectancy has increased during that time."

Response to that mental script: "but maybe life expectancy has increased despite the effects of car exhaust. Maybe car exhaust is still causing cancer, and maybe if I didn't eat this food covered in car exhaust, I will protect myself from a potential carcinogen while others are exposed to it unknowingly."

If you couldn't already tell, this mindset is extremely difficult to reason with, partly because it is so reasoned. And I will say that it is a toxic mindset.



A Terrible Llama → "One thing I want to ask is: is any of this medically rational?

Yeah probably but the damage you're doing to your health obsessing about it probably cancels out the minute advantage you might get from things like avoiding swimming (plus, in that case, you're avoiding exercise). And the rest of this stuff -- missed social opportunities, difficulty forming connections to others (it's got to be hard to socialize when your mind is on this) -- social connections have health benefits too, and they are far from negligible. Add to that the difficulty of eating some foods that would be a net good if your car exhaust happens to blow in the direction of an otherwise health-bolstering spinach salad or something.

So I think your brain could make an argument for anything on this list, but it needs to be talked into seeing these things within a broad context of what it means to be healthy and what the habits are that actually support that because right now it's steering you away from exercise and nutrition based on potential harm that's barely even visible.
"

That could very well be true. I absolutely believe that the effects of this behavior are making my life worse, and now, thanks to this thread, I'm realizing that it could actually be making my health worse, ironically.



KathrynT → "If you don't have good access to traditional mental health resources, let me recommend a book called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. A good friend of mine used this book to get hold of crippling anxiety that was dramatically curtailing his life. It was recommended by his psychiatrist, and he found it very straightforward and helpful."

Thank you for this recommendation, this should be very useful. I'll try to use this in conjunction with professional advice. It's also, thankfully, on Kindle, so I can get it even though I'm expatting somewhere without Amazon!



treehorn+bunny → "suburbs, I'm a doctor, and I routinely do things like eat stuff off the floor, or eat food in the fridge that's pretty far past the expiration date as long as it passes the sniff/taste test. As my dad used to say (when eating bread with some mold on it) "a little penicillin won't kill ya!" (I don't take it to the moldy bread level but he never seems to suffer any ill effects... :-) )

anyway, joking aside, YES, your body has tons of ways of "flushing stuff out". What your immune system and your body's 'waste management system' can do are truly incredible.

[snip]
"

Again, I'm very, very thankful to hear the thoughts of qualified folks, and I'm happier to hear that, even though you are aware of whatever risks might be present, you're not fazed by the things that I'm terrified of given less knowledge of the situation.

I think one of the roots of the problem is that I think I know that some things are toxic, but I have no scientific knowledge that they are. I think that soap residue might be toxic, but I don't know whether or not they are toxic at the level of "I can smell a faint smell of the apple fragrance of the soap in this pan" or "the hair gel I had on my hands I had an hour ago that I washed off but maybe not fully". So, I play on the safe side and avoid it, but maybe you're right that the trace amount of chemicals in these cases present no real risk at all.

And my mind is constantly blown by how intricate and amazing the body is. The waste management system you mentioned makes me feel a lot better. (I never touched upon it much in my biology reading and I've always wondered about it.) Thanks again.



rtha → "Sort of? I mean, I wouldn't spread my hair goop on toast and eat it. But I'm not going to worry about eating my sandwich after I've touched my hair.

If you live in a urban area, all of your food that's seen air has exhaust on it. Sorry. Just because you didn't see it doesn't mean it's not there. And there's nothing you can do about it unless you move somewhere with no exhaust and/or live in a bubble with an air scrubber.

That's not comforting, is it? This is why a certain amount of denial is necessary to function. Please see someone about this, because the symptoms point to a larger problem, and it's interfering with your life and the enjoyment of it.
"

Thanks for this. I'm aware that I'm not able to eliminate everything, but what I am doing is trying my best to modify my behavior to avoid the things that I'm pretty sure are bad. Eating on the street is going to get exhaust on my food, for sure. But if a motorcycle passes by and then there's a ton of exhaust that just touched my food, that's over the line for me. I think the problem is that I have a certain level of denial, but it is far different than others (and probably outside what is rational—but the thing I'm trying to convince myself of is how to be comfortable with a higher level of denial.)



Coatlicue → "You sound a lot like me. I have obsessive compulsive disorder. Maybe you do, too, or maybe you don't. But no, none of this is normal. After a fair amount of therapy and medical intervention, I'm doing much better than I used to do, although I'm definitely not perfect.

If you're like me, rolling around in dirt, taking it easy, reading about hygeine hypothesis stuff? It won't help you very much without the correct therapy. You need psychiatric intervention. Memail me if you want to talk about this stuff.
"

Thanks very much, and I'm glad to hear from someone who has gone through this before. I'll definitely MeMail you to talk further about how you started to recover.

Thank you all so much. I'm hoping to change my behavior and I'm glad I posted this, since you guys have been extremely helpful.
posted by suburbs at 11:40 AM on November 8, 2012


I am not a doctor, but I think that you are probably diagnosable with some disorder, although very likely treatable. I recommend that you seek professional help, as have others. If this is OCD, there are some effective medical treatments.

Also, a fear of chemicals does not makes sense because everything is a chemical element, compound, or mixture. Water is a chemical compound. Air is a chemical mixture.

Similarly, it does not make sense to fear that which is artificial. Just because something is "natural" does not make it beneficial, good, or even safe. Rattlesnake venom is natural.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:47 AM on November 8, 2012


One clarification that might help - because your body has the ability to repair damage, the accumulation of mutations that I mentioned is not nearly as straightforward as "1 molecule of Bad Chemical = 1 mutation" and then "76534 mutations = cancer". All evidence shows that exposure to most (all?) chemicals below a certain threshold has no effect at all. It's only when the chemicals are sufficient to overwhelm the body's "defenses" that you see anything happening. Some things also have completely opposite effects at lower doses.

While it's true that some chemicals might have very subtle long-term harmful effects, particularly many repeated doses over a lifetime, I don't think it's rational to assume that this is the case regardless of the evidence - you could just as easily say that they might protect against cancer over your lifetime, and either way any effect is going to be very, very small, and indistinguishable from the noise of random chance.

Even really, really, horribly toxic things won't do anything to you in small enough doses. Things that we don't even know to be toxic at all are vanishingly unlikely to do anything to you at the trace amounts you're talking about. And even less likely for short-term exposure or isolated incidents.
posted by randomnity at 11:58 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you are thinking of harmful as a binary question rather than a probabilistic one. What's missing is a sense of proportion. We are constantly exposed to substances that have a miniscule chance of giving us cancer. I mean, sunlight. The air we breathe.

It would be helpful to consider both sides of the equation. How much risk are you willing to accept for how much anxiety? Is it worth throwing out a sandwich because it could give you cancer far less often than a lottery ticket would win you a million dollars?

What happens if you spend your whole life vigilant about the tiniest risks and then get cancer anyway?

I nth the recommendation for a therapist. This does not sound rational or healthy.
posted by callmejay at 12:04 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


FAMOUS MONSTER → "The rituals you describe sound very much like OCD-style superstitions. You worry about trace chemicals on your hands (because you can't be certain you've washed your hands enough), so you pick up food at a restaurant with a napkin or fork. Both of these things are washed with chemicals, or chemicals are used in their creation if they're disposable napkins. In short, you're worried about risks that aren't really much of a risk at all, and you're using solutions that don't reduce that risk in any way. What calms your brain is the feeling that you're avoiding behaviors or items that you think of as unclean, or just generally bad. "

Thank you for your answer. I've highlighted this bit since it seems significant, that my behaviors sound like they're based in superstitions like those that are believed by individuals with OCD. I think that one big thing that makes me continue this behavior is the set of beliefs that I have about what might be harmful and why. I'm going to read more on how people with OCD make them believe things, since that might allow me to gain some valuable insight. Thanks!



SpacemanStix → "One thing I want to ask is: is any of this medically rational? Does it make sense to be scared of eating chemicals in my hair gel residue on my hands? Or does the body have a way to flush this stuff out?

Here's something I ask myself about when concerns like this come up: if it's potentially killing people, why aren't more people talking about it? There are plenty of groups out there that always need a good cause; why isn't anyone advocating for this actively and making some sort of a platform out of it? Millions of people use the things you are mentioning.

The fact that there isn't anyone suggests to me that there isn't a genuine fear to be found for these kinds of concerns, at this point. Now, it could be that there are dangers that have not yet been discovered, but I would think that for as long as plastic, styrofoam, and exhaust have been around, there would be some good scientific data to be found for the kinds of concerns that you are expressing. In the absence of what would be a statistical likelihood if it were the case (namely, more smart people talking about it), perhaps it's more rational to not think this way.

There is a point in which you can judge community wisdom trustworthy, especially when the scientific community is as large as it actually is. To be overly concerned about this kind of thing, in the absence of more discussion, is to say that pretty much everyone else in the known world is being duped by eating food with exhaust and styrofoam particles, which seems unlikely to me. So, it's actually rational at this point to not be overly concerned, but to direct your concern at things in which we actually have some scientific knowledge about.

Sometimes, though, these concerns come from a place other than rationality. For example, if we doubt the testimony of those around us on important matters, a lack of scientific discussion might not be persuasive. Things like trust issues that affect our day-to-day living are worth talking out with someone, I would think.
"

That's an excellent perspective on the issue. If I may frame your answer a different way (and let me know if I'm wrong): we have

A) it's harmful because there's scientific evidence that it's harmful (e.g. "eating soap") and

B) it's harmful because there is no scientific research or evidence that it is harmful, so there's a chance—a small chance, but a chance—that it might be harmful (e.g. "eating off a plate that might still have soap on it").

While cases falling under A make sense to worry about, it is absolutely impossible to deal with the possibilities falling under B. The fact that there is virtually zero general concern that "eating off a plate that might have soap on it might cause negative health effects" for as long as soap has been used to clean plates suggests that the chance that it does cause negative health effects is statistically insignificant. It might be there, but the probability is most likely somewhere close to zero. Does that do your answer justice?

That's a very good way of reasoning against this issue, especially since one of the biggest things that I have to get over is the thought that "it might be harmful, we just don't know it yet".



Coatlicue → "Re-reading your question, you sound a lot more like me that I even though at first. I have had identical worries to some of yours (the dish soap thing, fear of swimming, refusing to eat with your hands, throwing away food that might be suspicious maybe).

This is your third health-anxious question, according to your posting history. Now go check out my posting history -- three health-anxious questions, and one that's mostly about my OCD, but also about the health fear that was worrying me at the time. I think I understand what you are going through quite well.

I am not a therapist by any means. I only know my own experience with OCD and health anxiety. Like I said, you may or may not have OCD yourself -- but your worries really are beyond the pale and need to be dealth with professionally. As mentioned above, look into cognitive behavioural therapy. I signed up for a study at UNC to receive CBT for free, and it has made a remarkable difference in my life. I am not totally well, and may never be a Normal Person, but life is much easier to enjoy now. Good luck. I'm sorry you are going through this.
"

Wow, that's crazy. It's a bit morbid to say, but it is a bit reassuring that there are others out there, somewhere out there, who have had the same thought patterns and fears as me regarding this. Thank you for your help, and I'll MeMail you as soon as I get through a ton of reading about this that this thread has led me to. I'm glad you're starting to get through it.



randomnity → "One clarification that might help - because your body has the ability to repair damage, the accumulation of mutations that I mentioned is not nearly as straightforward as "1 molecule of Bad Chemical = 1 mutation" and then "76534 mutations = cancer". All evidence shows that exposure to most (all?) chemicals below a certain threshold has no effect at all. It's only when the chemicals are sufficient to overwhelm the body's "defenses" that you see anything happening. Some things also have completely opposite effects at lower doses.

While it's true that some chemicals might have very subtle long-term harmful effects, particularly many repeated doses over a lifetime, I don't think it's rational to assume that this is the case regardless of the evidence - you could just as easily say that they might protect against cancer over your lifetime, and either way any effect is going to be very, very small, and indistinguishable from the noise of random chance.

Even really, really, horribly toxic things won't do anything to you in small enough doses. Things that we don't even know to be toxic at all are vanishingly unlikely to do anything to you at the trace amounts you're talking about. And even less likely for short-term exposure or isolated incidents.
"

Emph: "All evidence shows that exposure to most (all?) chemicals below a certain threshold has no effect at all. It's only when the chemicals are sufficient to overwhelm the body's "defenses" that you see anything happening."

That's crazy—could you send me a link? I'm curious about this, and this might quell a LOT of my fears. Even if it's something like 50% of chemicals at low enough levels cause no effects, that can help my mind build an argument that might help me overcome this issue.

Thanks again.



callmejay → "It sounds like you are thinking of harmful as a binary question rather than a probabilistic one. What's missing is a sense of proportion. We are constantly exposed to substances that have a miniscule chance of giving us cancer. I mean, sunlight. The air we breathe.

It would be helpful to consider both sides of the equation. How much risk are you willing to accept for how much anxiety? Is it worth throwing out a sandwich because it could give you cancer far less often than a lottery ticket would win you a million dollars?

What happens if you spend your whole life vigilant about the tiniest risks and then get cancer anyway?

I nth the recommendation for a therapist. This does not sound rational or healthy.
"

Actually, you're very right. I do assign a binary value to the idea of what qualifies as "harmful", and I think that's because, like I mentioned in a previous answer, I don't have any idea of what amount of something might cause ill health effects. I mean, I've read on Wikipedia (simply a fantastic place to make myself feel better about chemicals /sarcasm) that even tiny amounts of [insert harmful chemical here] causes ill effects. What if what I ate was [harmful chemical]?

Honestly, though, it's probably statistically unsound to consider that at all. I assign a binary value to "harmful" because I don't have any idea of what the scale of a probabilistic judgment might look like (i.e. "is any amount of cigarette smoke harmful, or only if you're the one smoking?")

But you're right, I do need to seek help.
posted by suburbs at 12:32 PM on November 8, 2012


If you were responding rationally to the concern that: my body and my health are the most important things I can take care of, and that I only get one, your main priority would be addressing the fact that you don't have health insurance. In terms of your actual health outcomes, worries about car exhaust and mysterious hair gel ingredients would be way, way, way, way down at the bottom of your list compared to that. But in fact you seem not to have spent much time investigating what options might be available to you in your current location (in-country insurance policies, policies designed specifically for expats, policies in your home country that cover international care, etc.).

Instead, you're fetishizing minute environmental contaminants, some of which (e.g. "something" in ocean water) you cannot identify or prove the existence of. The purpose of the risk-avoidant behaviors you describe is not primarily to improve your life expectancy, it's to manage your fears about disease and death. Those are normal, reasonable fears to have. And just about everyone has superstitions they follow to "protect" themselves from bad outcomes. But at the point where your quality of life is impacted (because that matters, not just quantity of life) and you feel like something is wrong, it is probably time to look for alternative coping strategies that can defuse your anxiety without controlling large swaths of your behavior and limiting your activities. And that is where mental health professionals can help you.

And in response to your follow-up: this mindset is extremely difficult to reason with, partly because it is so reasoned.

Your mindset is not difficult to reason with because it is reasonable, it is difficult to reason with because it is impervious to reason. When you start treating "what if" statements cooked up by your imagination (e.g. "but maybe life expectancy has increased despite the effects of car exhaust") the same way you treat known scientific facts when making risk assessments, reason no longer has anything to do with your conclusions. And at the point where you have already accepted the risk calculus that avoiding incurring an additional (potential but unproven) 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001% of getting cancer in fifty years is worth giving up X current desire (where "X" is eating the food you ordered, going for a swim, being able to take a shower without worrying about where trace amounts of shampoo might be lingering, etc.), it becomes "reasonable" to give up anything that the anxiety deems impure. You're not going to win an argument with the anxiety by quibbling over one or two of those hypothetical zeros.
posted by unsub at 12:42 PM on November 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


But I also know that there's something wrong here. How can I live without worrying about this stuff, *and* not think that reducing my obsession with cleanliness won't eventually kill me down the line? Or is this the rational thing to do, given the proliferation of artificial materials and the lack of long-term studies done on most things?

You've only provided a bit of information here, despite the piles of text, and I am not trying to diagnose you over the internet or anything. However, you have described irrational behavior that is getting in the way of living a full life, and that appears (from this surface and limited information) to be clinically significant. That there are some rational aspects to your concerns does not change this. After all, people too scared to fly may be correct that planes sometimes crash. This does not mean that they don't have a diagnosable phobia.

The good news is two-fold: if it isn't getting in the way of living a full engaged life, and if it is not causing you distress, you don't have to do anything about it. If it is, getting assessed, diagnosed, and treated by a mental health professional is easy, relatively speedy, and cost-effective. No one's comments in this thread is likely to help you to change your mind, because the ideas you are describing are not the kinds of ideas typically open to debate.

Best of luck.
posted by OmieWise at 12:55 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


unsub → "If you were responding rationally to the concern that: my body and my health are the most important things I can take care of, and that I only get one, your main priority would be addressing the fact that you don't have health insurance. In terms of your actual health outcomes, worries about car exhaust and mysterious hair gel ingredients would be way, way, way, way down at the bottom of your list compared to that. But in fact you seem not to have spent much time investigating what options might be available to you in your current location (in-country insurance policies, policies designed specifically for expats, policies in your home country that cover international care, etc.)."

This is perhaps the most poignant and difficult-to-accept answer I've gotten. So, thank you.

Regarding health insurance: I should clarify what I mean by "I don't have health insurance"—I don't have health insurance back in the United States since I'm not working at the moment, but I do have travel insurance geared towards insuring health, for, say, if I break my leg while hiking. I'm not exactly sure if it covers

I'm perfectly happy to pay money to seek medical help in the country I'm in, but I don't think there are professionals that know English fluently to administer CBT or other kinds of help. To me, that's a bigger barrier than money.

You're right in a sense, though, that given the situation "traveling around and don't have proper health insurance," the response "keep not having proper health insurance" is a completely irrational one. I'll have to do some research on what my options are.

"Instead, you're fetishizing minute environmental contaminants, some of which (e.g. "something" in ocean water) you cannot identify or prove the existence of. The purpose of the risk-avoidant behaviors you describe is not primarily to improve your life expectancy, it's to manage your fears about disease and death. Those are normal, reasonable fears to have. And just about everyone has superstitions they follow to "protect" themselves from bad outcomes. But at the point where your quality of life is impacted (because that matters, not just quantity of life) and you feel like something is wrong, it is probably time to look for alternative coping strategies that can defuse your anxiety without controlling large swaths of your behavior and limiting your activities. And that is where mental health professionals can help you."

Yeah. I undoubtedly think that it's crossed into "dramatically reducing quality of life" area. There's no way to measure it, but I'd wager that it's on my mind 5-10% of the time.

"Your mindset is not difficult to reason with because it is reasonable, it is difficult to reason with because it is impervious to reason."

Thinking about it more... yes, you're completely right. I had thought that "responding" to thoughts that could defuse the situation (in an exchange like "don't eat with dishes with soap suds" → "but people have been doing it forever" → "but maybe we don't know that it's harmful" → [reasoning] → [retort]) was acting in a reasonable way, but it is also acting in a way that defeats reason at the same time.

"And at the point where you have already accepted the risk calculus that avoiding incurring an additional (potential but unproven) 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001% of getting cancer in fifty years is worth giving up X current desire (where "X" is eating the food you ordered, going for a swim, being able to take a shower without worrying about where trace amounts of shampoo might be lingering, etc.), it becomes "reasonable" to give up anything that the anxiety deems impure. You're not going to win an argument with the anxiety by quibbling over one or two of those hypothetical zeros."

Upon further introspection, I find that "eating food that a motorcycle has recently driven by and deposited exhaust" qualifies as "harmful" for me, but "eating food in an area that cars drive around, and thus might have trace amounts of exhaust from cars driving around" doesn't qualify as "harmful" to me, so I do it (with a bit of suspicion that my hypothesis might be incorrect.)

But both of these are incorrect, because I'm only judging the two based on superstition that one is worse than the other. But I don't have any real, quantitative evidence that either of them are more harmful than the other, and yet I still make a distinction. That's completely irrational.

Well, it's time to make some serious changes. Thank you very much for playing hardball. I think I definitely needed to hear that.
posted by suburbs at 12:57 PM on November 8, 2012


OmieWise → "You've only provided a bit of information here, despite the piles of text, and I am not trying to diagnose you over the internet or anything. However, you have described irrational behavior that is getting in the way of living a full life, and that appears (from this surface and limited information) to be clinically significant. That there are some rational aspects to your concerns does not change this. After all, people too scared to fly may be correct that planes sometimes crash. This does not mean that they don't have a diagnosable phobia.

The good news is two-fold: if it isn't getting in the way of living a full engaged life, and if it is not causing you distress, you don't have to do anything about it. If it is, getting assessed, diagnosed, and treated by a mental health professional is easy, relatively speedy, and cost-effective. No one's comments in this thread is likely to help you to change your mind, because the ideas you are describing are not the kinds of ideas typically open to debate.

Best of luck.
"

Thank you very much. It turns out that this thread is starting to make me budge in terms of my beliefs (though it is very much so an uphill battle). But what it has done that is truly significant is to force me to seek to recover from this behavior, and to seek outside help for it. And I'm starting to be pretty convinced that this behavior is indeed very irrational, even though my mind keeps giving me reasons to the contrary.
posted by suburbs at 1:02 PM on November 8, 2012


[suburbs, mod here, you do not need to reply to every comment in this thread. It's fine to follow up with people over MeMail but this is a Q&A site and not a discussion forum, please only contribute follow-ups if they are necessary to getting your question answered. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 1:23 PM on November 8, 2012


I'm glad this thread has been useful for you. In terms of getting help - if you are in a country where there is a language/culture barrier, or where good mental health services are not readily available, you might consider seeking a US therapist who is willing to practice by phone or Skype, if you can afford it or find insurance that will cover it. These days lots of very competent mental health professionals (and make sure you check out someone's credentials etc. before paying them money) will provide long-distance counseling in this way. I'm sure some MeFites could offer recommendations on that another week (or there's always the MeFi Wiki), or you could call doctors you trust in the States for referrals, if you wanted to try that out.

Having travel insurance is great, and you should definitely look at the details of your policy and figure out if it meets your current needs, but if the coverage is pretty limited you might look into comprehensive insurance as well (particularly if you're going to be incurring treatment costs in the near future). If you are still a legal resident of a US state (i.e. have a mailing address, driver license, etc.) you can look for options at healthcare.gov; Obamacare may offer some new options if you've been uninsured for 6 months or longer, which should show up on that site. If you don't have a US residency, or if you want something geared more toward international coverage, you can google health insurance for expats or Americans living abroad.
posted by unsub at 1:35 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hi. I'm an epidemiologist, just to add another Voice of Authority, and I have significant anxiety issues of my own. I recognize my own tendencies in your examples, and agree with the general consensus that, no, the extent and depth of your fear is not rational, and it appears to be messing up your life.

I have the same kinds of thoughts, and I work consciously against them to try to manage my anxieties - I try very hard not to think about what's in swimming pools, for example, because, really, I'm not being substantially exposed to the disinfectants, and they do a good job against microbes, but if I dwell on the amount of hair and skin and secretions that are in the pool (guuuuuh), I will get entirely in the way of my own fun. And, realistically, the vast majority of people who go to swimming pools come away from the experience healthier - the exercise, relaxation, and fun far outweigh the risk of a cold or eyes irritated by chlorine, much less nebulous health effects years from now.

I don't argue with myself, I just reassure myself briefly and then shut down the mental discussion by refocusing: "Yup, gross, but not dangerous. Hey, look at that lady's swimsuit (or, hey, I wonder how fast I can swim my next lap, or whatever)." Likewise, yeah, okay, the smell of hot copier toner probably does mean it's kinda toxic, but it's diluted in the air, and I still have to make my copies, and I should pay attention and read the thing I'm copying now.

Anyway, tl;dr: with some practice, you can fight the crazy with the same self-talking brain that got you into the crazy.
posted by gingerest at 4:22 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


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