A young girl with blonde hair looks into the distance as she grapples with thoughts related to emotional contamination OCD.

Are You Worried About Vibes or Is It Emotional Contamination OCD?

March 15, 2024

5 min.

It’s normal to be aware of the emotions of those around you, but constantly worrying about their emotions rubbing off on you (or vice versa) may be a sign of a mental health condition.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Learn more about our Clinical Review Process


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Emotions can, in fact, “rub off” on you—take, for instance, the experience of feeling happier after spending time with a cheerful friend or feeling down after a conversation with someone who is sad. While typically harmless, this phenomenon can be incredibly anxiety-inducing for people with a specific subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Known as emotional contamination OCD, this mental health condition involves an intense fear that emotions, like a contagion, can spread and contaminate oneself or others. In daily life, the impact of emotional contamination OCD is tangible. Simple activities like spending time with a co-worker or friend can become weighed down by obsessive fear and anxiety about emotional contaminants, leading people to avoid interactions. 

With proper treatment, though, it’s possible to improve emotional contamination OCD symptoms and live a fulfilling life. Keep reading to learn more about the signs and symptoms of emotional contamination OCD and how to seek help if you think you’re experiencing this condition.

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What is emotional contamination OCD?

At its core, emotional contamination OCD (also referred to as mental contamination OCD or metaphysical contamination OCD) revolves around the belief that emotions or thoughts can spread like a virus, contaminating oneself or others. Unlike other types of OCD that focus on specific triggers like cleanliness or orderliness, emotional contamination OCD is more subtle, focusing on beliefs about different people, places, and things. 

For example, a person may become overwhelmed with the fear of becoming like a sibling they dislike. This fear can lead to obsessions (intrusive thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors) to ease their anxiety. They might start by avoiding their sibling, but as their fear intensifies, they may also avoid anything related to their sibling, like TV shows that depict similar sibling dynamics or hobbies that their sibling enjoys. 

The above is an example of someone concerned with becoming contaminated by another person’s negative energy, but common obsessions within this subtype of OCD may also revolve around fears of causing harm or being responsible for negative emotions in others.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Emotional contamination OCD

A mental health condition marked by recurring, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) aimed at reducing anxiety or perceived harm.

A subtype of OCD characterized by obsessions and compulsions related to fears of being emotionally “infected” or contaminated by others’ negative emotions.

Signs and symptoms of emotional contamination OCD

The signs and symptoms of this OCD subtype revolve around obsessions about emotional contamination and actions taken to avoid or deal with this perceived contamination. It’s worth noting that emotional contamination OCD symptom severity can vary, and symptoms may overlap with other forms of OCD or an anxiety disorder. That said, here are some common signs and symptoms of emotional contamination OCD: 

  • Persistent worry about being emotionally “infected” by others
  • Avoiding people, places, or situations perceived as emotionally contaminating
  • Engaging in rituals or compulsive behaviors (repeated washing, changing clothes, etc.) 
  • Excessive guilt or self-blame for perceived emotional contamination
  • Strained relationships 
  • Constant reassurance seeking
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches 

What causes emotional contamination OCD?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the exact cause of developing OCD and its various subtypes, including emotional contamination OCD, remains unknown. Yet, several risk factors are known to increase the likelihood of developing this mental health condition. That said, a person may develop the disorder without having any obvious risk factors.


Having a first-degree relative with OCD, such as a parent or sibling, is associated with an increased risk of developing the disorder. 


Researchers have found that individuals who suffer from various forms of OCD, such as emotional contamination OCD, show marked differences in the structure of the areas of the brain that control emotional and behavioral regulation. 


Individuals who exhibit more reserved behavior, express negative emotions and show signs of anxiety and depression as children are at increased risk of developing OCD and its various subtypes, such as emotional contamination OCD, later in life. 

Childhood trauma

Research has established a strong correlation between the experience of childhood trauma and a person’s vulnerability to developing anxiety-related disorders, such as emotional contamination OCD, later in life. 

Environmental triggers 

Emotional contamination OCD symptoms can be caused (or triggered) by situations with increased vulnerability or a lack of control, including stressful life events, uncertain or ambiguous situations, or personal mistakes. 

Treatment for emotional contamination OCD

Treating emotional contamination OCD requires a comprehensive and individualized approach. Commonly used treatment modalities focus on alleviating distressing symptoms, disrupting obsessive-compulsive patterns, and empowering individuals to regain control over their emotional experiences. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is a cornerstone in the treatment of emotional contamination OCD. Therapists work collaboratively with people to identify and challenge distorted thought patterns associated with emotional contamination fears. Through cognitive restructuring, individuals learn to modify irrational beliefs, reducing the impact of obsessive thoughts.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP)

ERP is particularly effective in targeting the compulsive behaviors linked to emotional contamination OCD. It involves controlled exposure to anxiety-inducing situations related to emotional contamination, allowing individuals to confront their fears. With response prevention treatment, repeated exposure over a period of time diminishes the anxiety response, breaking the cycle of avoidance and compulsive rituals.

Mindfulness and acceptance-based strategies

Incorporating mindfulness techniques helps people cultivate awareness of their emotional experiences without judgment. Acceptance-based strategies encourage a non-reactive stance towards intrusive thoughts and emotions, fostering a healthier relationship with uncertainty.

Family and social support

Involving family members and close friends in the treatment process can enhance the quality of a person’s support network. Educating loved ones about emotional contamination OCD fosters understanding and empathy, creating an environment conducive to recovery. Engaging in peer support groups or family therapy can help people suffering from emotional contamination OCD share more openly about their experiences in a more controlled, nonjudgmental space. 


In certain cases, medication may be considered as part of the treatment plan. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other psychiatric medications can help regulate neurotransmitters, reducing the severity of emotional contamination OCD symptoms. Medication is often used in conjunction with psychotherapy for a more comprehensive approach to treating the symptoms of emotional contamination OCD.

A person in a blue shirt sits in a therapy session and listens to his therapist talk about emotional contamination OCD.

How Charlie Health can help

If you or a loved one are struggling with emotional contamination OCD, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for dealing with complex mental health conditions, including emotional contamination OCD, and other anxiety disorders. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group therapy. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing distressing thoughts and compulsive behavior is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today. 

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