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What is OCDOCD SubtypesFear of food poisoning

Fear of food poisoning

5 min read
Sara Anderson, LPC

By Sara Anderson, LPC

Sep 30, 2022

Possibly related to:

If you find yourself worrying about food poisoning frequently, it could be a sign that you are suffering from Food Poisoning related OCD. OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, involves obsessions (or intrusive/unwanted thoughts, urges and images) that are most often followed by compulsions (repetitive behaviors or mental acts done to neutralize an obsession, decrease distress caused by an obsession, or prevent a feared outcome). 

Individuals with obsessions centered on food poisoning may worry a lot about whether their food could be contaminated in some way, might contain insects, or might contain fecal matter and/or other types of germs or bacteria that could ultimately make them sick. Some individuals may experience mental images of them becoming sick after eating food. Some might find themselves questioning physical sensations and mistaking them for signs of food poisoning, such as mild forms of nausea, stomach discomfort, looser stools. etc. 

As a result, people suffering from OCD fear of food poisoning may find themselves in the doctor’s office more frequently than normal, or may find themselves avoiding the doctor altogether. They may wash or clean their food in a particular way, throw out any food they feel might be contaminated, find themselves ruminating about contaminated food and how their food might become contaminated, and may also struggle with others handling their food. A person with this presentation of OCD might find themself asking for a lot of reassurance from others, researching food poisoning symptoms, monitoring food recalls excessively and may avoid going to restaurants and other’s homes to avoid others handling, prepping, or cooking their food.

  • Did someone poison my food?
  • Did my food somehow become contaminated? (i.e. fecal matter, unknown contaminant, chemicals, bacteria, etc. )
  • Is my food spoiled? Is it out of date?
  • Is there mold on my food?
  • What if I get food poisoning?
  • Is this feeling a sign of food poisoning?

Common triggers

People with Food Poisoning OCD may become triggered by eating out in restaurants, eating at other’s homes, having others eat at their home, cooking their own food, and using chemicals in the kitchen where food is prepared. Some may be triggered by minor discomfort in their bodies, as it can be interpreted as a sign of food poisoning.

Triggers for people with OCD fear of food poisoning include:

  • Going to restaurants
  • Eating in others’ homes
  • Sharing groceries with roommates or family members
  • Eating with utensils or dinnerware that are not first sanitized or checked for contaminants
  • Having a stomachache or feeling nauseated
  • Using chemical cleaners in their kitchen

How can I tell if it’s OCD, and not anxiety or food poisoning?

Some may wonder how to determine whether they are experiencing CCD or just taking reasonable precautions to prevent food poisoning. In food poisoning OCD the obsessions and compulsions are not proportional to the actual threat or danger of food poisoning. Someone with OCD will likely overestimate the likelihood of them experiencing food poisoning, or they will overestimate danger or distress they would be in if they were to contract food poisoning.  

Someone with food poisoning OCD will likely spend much more time thinking about and engaging in behaviors to prevent food poisoning than the vast majority of people. Someone with OCD might notice that if they do not engage in compulsions, their anxiety will increase temporarily, and their thoughts about food poisoning will become more intense. Additionally, someone with food poisoning OCD will experience distress and impairment in their day to day lives due to their obsessions and compulsions.

Common compulsions

Compulsions may come in various forms with this type of OCD. Individuals who struggle with Food Poisoning OCD might find themselves frantically researching the expiration dates or recommended storage temperatures for food items. They might find themselves researching signs and symptoms of food poisoning. They may avoid social gatherings that involve food or even avoid attending holiday gatherings, like Thanksgiving, that are centered on food.

Individuals struggling from this type of OCD might become hyper-aware of minor discomfort in their bodies that might be interpreted as a sign of food poisoning. They may seek medical care out of fear of having food poisoning, or might even avoid medical care altogether to avoid a diagnosis of food poisoning. Another common compulsion involves throwing out food in their kitchen due to a guest coming over or after it has been in storage for a certain period of time, despite following safe storage recommendations. Those with Food Poisoning OCD may also find themselves engaging in ritualistic prepping or cleaning protocols in an effort to avoid any potential accidental contamination or poisoning.

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with OCD food poisoning fears include:

  • Seeking Reassurance
  • Googling/Researching
  • Avoidance of restaurants, dinner parties, holidays centered around food
  • Avoidance of having others over to their house
  • Throwing out food before its expiration date
  • Ritualistic prepping or cleaning behaviors to prepare food/cook food 

How to treat fear of food poisoning

If OCD related to food poisoning is impacting your life, treatment can help. OCD symptoms can be managed using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is recognized as the gold standard treatment for OCD, backed by decades of research. 

ERP involves identifying fearful situations related to obsessions, then engaging in these scenarios without doing compulsions in an effort to teach our brain that what we fear will happen might not actually happen, may not be as bad as expected, and that we are able to tolerate feelings of uncertainty. These exposures are done gradually—you will engage in situations that produce less anxiety first, then work your way up to the ones that produce more anxiety. 

Little by little, you can break the cycle of OCD. This occurs because in OCD, our compulsions reinforce our obsessions—every time we encounter a feared situation, our brain is telling us we cannot engage in this feared situation without the safety of our compulsions. The more we use compulsions like avoidance and other safety behaviors, the more our brain believes that they kept us safe from danger, even when there was no real threat. 

As exposures are repeated, individuals begin to notice the intensity of their discomfort and anxiety decreases each time they encounter the feared scenario. This approach tends to provide long-lasting results in building tolerance and significantly reducing distress in scenarios that may have once felt debilitating.

If you’re struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free 15-minute call today with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

We look forward to working with you.

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