THE BLOG
11/04/2014 09:28 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Ebola and the Anxious Mind

Google "can I get Ebola" and many questions immediately arise: "Can I get Ebola from a bowling ball?" "Can I get Ebola from shaking hands?" "Can I get Ebola from mosquitoes?" and the queries go on and on.

If you read the expert responses to these questions, they all say "it is extremely unlikely" somewhere in the text. Why aren't the words "extremely unlikely" reassuring enough? Why can't you breathe a sigh of relief knowing there's only a teeny tiny chance of a negative outcome? Because for those living with anxiety, it's not enough to hear about a low probability. What an anxious mind yearns to hear is a guarantee of safety.

Anxiety disdains uncertainty. And what feels more uncertain than the transmission of germs? They can't be seen, tasted, smelled, or felt. They're invisible invaders who can strike at any time. They're biological terrorists that we can't be protected from all the time. We can take all the appropriate precautions and do all the right things, and still they may find an entry point. This is why germ phobia is such popular terrain for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and related conditions to inhabit.

A client recently talked about her Ebola fears, wishing instead they were about discrete catastrophic events, like armed gunmen or natural disasters. Then she could tell if a dreaded event was happening. There's no uncertainty to assess when a lion is eating your face. There's no need for complicated analysis and scenario planning if you're on fire. And there's certainly no room for questions ("Should I be doing more to protect myself?") when facing an immediate threat.

Also triggering Ebola for the anxious mind is the idea of quarantine: being separated from loved ones, trapped behind plastic sheets. I don't think there's a more terrifying concept for the human mind than being in isolation, out of reach of the warmth and affection of others. In fact, the core fear for many of my clients is "dying alone."

Ebola provides the perfect storm for anxiety triggers. First, safety cannot be "guaranteed." Second, there are no clear rules of the road, no absolute guarantees of safety. Third, Ebola brings to mind images of isolation. And its near-constant news coverage provides nonstop updates on this devastating disease.

Here are some warning signs that contamination and germ-related fears are entering the zone of an anxiety disorder:

- Frequent thoughts about germs and contamination leave you feeling anxious and distressed.

- Frequent thoughts about germs and contamination affect your functioning and make it difficult to complete required life tasks.

- You spend an excessive amount of time thinking about germs and contamination and engaging in behaviors to prevent the spread of germs. (Excessive is relative, but if you spend an hour or more each day on germ prevention and you don't work for the CDC, you are probably in the anxiety disorder zone).

Although we can't protect ourselves from Ebola and other infectious diseases with 100 percent certainty, we can protect ourselves from living a life plagued with anxiety and despair. If your contamination and germ-related fears are becoming excessive and negatively affecting your satisfaction in life, you can find effective treatment out there to get you "unstuck" from these thoughts and back into your life.

Screen yourself for OCD.

Listen to a podcast about health anxiety.

Find a therapist near you.