Covid-19 Digital Research


Conducting Exposure and Response Prevention Treatment for Contamination Fears During COVID-19: The Behavioral Immune System Impact on Clinician Approaches to Treatment



Dean McKay, Charlene Minaya, Eric A. Storch, Conducting exposure and response prevention treatment for contamination fears during COVID-19: The behavioral immune system impact on clinician approaches to treatment, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Volume 74, 2020, 102270, ISSN 0887-6185,




The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic sparked significant anxiety regarding viral rates and means of transmission. Heightened concerns about contamination have prompted new hygienic strategies to vigilantly guard against infection, including hand washing immediately after touching foreign objects or suspected contaminants. This has presented a critical challenge for the delivery of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy to individuals with contamination fears due to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as providers must manage not only their clients’ attitudes and reactions but their own as well. In this investigation, self-identified anxiety and OCD treatment specialists (N = 139) provided demographic information, including their anxiety and OCD caseloads, and completed measures related to intolerance of uncertainty (IUS-SF; Carlton et al., 2007), beliefs about exposure therapy (TBES; Deacon et al., 2013), and emotional reactions to physical sensations (The Chills; Maruskin et al., 2012). We tested the hypothesis that intolerance of uncertainty and activation of the behavioral immune system (BIS; Schaller & Park, 2011), a mechanism theoretically activated by the prominent emergence of pathogens to protect against illness would predict attitudes toward exposure. The Chills Scale was used to assess BIS activation, a broad assessment of vasoconstriction responses associated with different emotional reactions, and includes a subscale (coldness) that evaluates vasoconstriction associated with defense against pathogens. Both coldness and OCD caseload, but not anxiety caseload or subscales of intolerance of uncertainty, emerged as significant predictors of clinicians’ beliefs about exposure; increases in OCD caseload were also related to decreases in negative beliefs about exposure. Findings are useful in determining methods for aiding clinicians in developing effective approaches to contamination fears during and post-pandemic that include addressing their own BIS-related concerns and mapping out means for social behavioral norms associated with engaging in exposure treatment.