Mental contamination: What it is and how to deal with it

mental contamination image of fixing jigsaw puzzle in brain
Dr Elaine Ryan
Written by Dr Elaine Ryan Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith® Elaine obtained her Dr in Psychology from the University of Surrey and has worked in psychology for 20 years. Dr Ryan specialises in Intrusive Thoughts, OCD and anxiety-related conditions.

What is mental contamination?

Mental contamination OCD (emotional contamination) is a type of OCD where the person experiences feeling ‘dirty’ internally, and compulsions, such as washing, are triggered without coming into contact with something external to the person.

This internal feeling of being dirty is usually triggered by thinking, meeting or having memories of someone who had hurt them, violated, humiliated or abused them.

This subtype of OCD can be mistaken for the more familiar contact contamination OCD, where the person feels compelled to wash after touching something they believe is dirty or germy. Still, the motivation for performing the compulsion, in this case, washing, is different.

For example, while going through a difficult divorce, Mark felt mentally contaminated when packing up his wife’s belongings following her affair with another man. He would pick up her clothing using the tips of one finger and thumb with a feeling of disgust and repulsion, which led to frequent hand washing.

It is easy to think that Mark has contact OCD, as he feels dirty touching her clothes. But he feels dirty emotionally; he is not worried about spreading germs that could ultimately harm himself or another person, which is the cornerstone of contact OCD.

He feels disgusted and contaminated in his mind and may well shower to wash the images of her away and ease his discomfort, but this compulsion to clean is to cleanse his thoughts, not to stop the spread of germs as in contact OCD.

Mental contamination may not be picked up by the person or a therapist if not knowledgeable in all aspects of OCD. People may not recognise it in themselves, as mental contamination does not receive the same research attention in the professional community as contact contamination and does not filter down to the media or the public as easily.

However, the public or media may be aware of it more watered-down when people speak of washing away their sins or washing that person out of their hair.

In both these examples, there is no external contaminant, and the feeling of being dirty is experienced internally and not related to spreading germs.

Difference between mental contamination and contact contamination.

Contact contamination is physical and external to the person. They fear touching something and spreading germs.

Emotional contamination means no external source, and the feeling of being dirty is experienced internally.(1)

It is not about the fear of spreading something that can make another ill, the feeling of being dirty or contaminated is feeling dirty emotionally in their mind.

Mark felt internal distress packing up his wife’s belongings after her affair. He was not worried about spreading germs, his discomfort was internal, and he was emotionally contaminated by having to deal with his wife’s belongings.

Case example

Liz is a 49-year-old woman who has lived with her partner for 15 years. She would describe the past five years of the relationship as bad, as her partner secretly drinks, and his behaviour has negatively affected their relationship. He would shout, be verbally abusive and lie when drunk, and his drinking has seriously damaged the couple’s finances.

Liz notes that there is a change in her cleaning behaviour, depending on how bad the relationship is. When her partner has been drinking and verbally abusive, Liz showers, telling herself she is washing him off, even though there has been no physical contact. She cleans the house, not because he has touched anything in it. This does not bother her, but because she feels safe when everything is cleaned, it is almost like getting rid of him (her partner.)

At the start of her relationship, she did not need to do this, although she would clean after visitors, not because of dirt or germs (as in contamination OCD) but because she felt the visitors had violated her space mentally. As her relationship deteriorated, she noticed that she had now put her partner into the category of others coming into her space, making her feel emotionally uneasy. She describes it as like mind contamination.

Types of mental contamination

Physical

People who have been physically or sexually assaulted may experience mental contamination when they think of the perpetrator of the assault. Assault victims can speak of feeling dirty and try to wash away the feeling of internal dirtiness.

Psychological mental contamination

People can also experience mental contamination when there has been no physical contact. This can be seen in people who have experienced emotional abuse or have been betrayed by someone close to them.

Visual

Some people can fear taking on undesirable characteristics of others just by seeing them or making physical contact. For example, suppose a person saw someone who was considered undesirable to them, such as someone who looked scruffy or had no moral code. In that case, the person with mental contamination may fear that they will become unkempt and behave immorally.

Case example

Sarah is divorced and remarried Paul three years ago. Paul has an adult son from a previous relationship. Sarah has considerable difficulty being around Paul’s son and his girlfriend, as well as Paul’s ex-partner, as they consume considerably more alcohol than Sarah considers acceptable.

They are loud, use foul language, and behave in ways that Sarah finds repulsive.

She goes to extreme lengths to avoid them, pretending she has to work or is ill and cannot make pre-arranged outings. Sarah avoids them as she fears becoming like them and that somehow their lousy behaviour will rub off on her, that they can contaminate her in some way.

Even thinking about them makes her uncomfortable, and you can see her face screwed up when talking about them.

If she cannot find a way to avoid them, she showers when she comes home to wash them out of her. On the rare occasion they are in her house, she compulsively cleans when they leave.

Sarah cleans not because she is afraid of germs, as in contact contamination, but for the need to get rid of all traces of the people that she finds offensive.

What causes mental contamination?

Mental contamination has been documented amongst sexual assault victims, some of whom report feeling dirty and wanting to wash (2) in response to memories of the assaults.

It can also, occur after unwanted physical contact
Mental contamination can be caused by emotional violations with no physical contact., e.g. degradation, humiliation and betrayal.

Cognitive therapy can help explain what causes mental contamination in that the person misinterprets the personal significance of psychological or physical violation, such as humiliations, betrayal, or criticism carried out by another person. These misinterpretations or cognitive errors, such as believing they are seen as worthless or useless, for example, affect how the person views themselves.

Treatment

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Mental Contamination

In Coughtrey study, people received 10 to 20 sessions of CBT to treat their mental contamination. At the end of treatment, seven or the 12 participants no longer met the criteria for OCD.

The goal of CBT is for the person with mental contamination to reevaluate the cognitive errors that result in the feeling of dirtiness. For example, suppose a person believes they have inherited negative traits of others. In that case, this belief will threaten their sense of self, and it is understandable they will want to perform some compulsion if they now view themselves.

Undertaking CBT can help people correct their thinking, reduce the threat to their sense of self, and negate the need to carry out compulsions.

For example, many people with mental contamination engage in a style of thinking called magical thinking. Magical thinking is the name for a cognitive error where the person believes that by doing something, they can stop another thing from happening, e.g. by washing, I will not take on the negative characteristics of that other person.

Cognitive therapy helps people correct their thinking and, thus, their belief that another person can mentally contaminate them.

CBT also helps the person with thought-action fusion, the false belief that thinking about something might make it come true.

CBT is a helpful model to help people, as mental contamination is a cognitive problem in that many cognitive biases result in and maintain the disorder.

  1. Rachman, S., Coughtrey, A., Shafran, R., and Radomsky, A. (2015). Oxford Guide to the Treatment of Mental Contamination. London, UK: Oxford University Press
  2. Joanna K. Herba, S. Rachman,
    Vulnerability to mental contamination,
    Behaviour Research and Therapy,
    Volume 45, Issue 11,
    2007,
    Pages 2804-2812,
    ISSN 0005-7967,
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2007.07.010.

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