I have a freshman requirement as a science student for at least 3 core science classes, and I picked physics as often as I could. However, I must choose either chem or bio as my third. I chose bio.

The thing is, I'm deathly afraid of chemicals. I don't know when it started, but I can hardly touch household cleaning products without obsessively washing my hands afterward. I broke down crying a few times in high school bio, to my embarrassment. Oh yeah, and I'm also pretty much a hypochondriac. It's not something I can control.

I'm afraid that my grades will be hurt because of my phobia. There are several hands-on labs in the course, though I am not sure if we are working with very hazardous chemicals. The exact course name is cell and molecular biology. How should I approach the course, and does anyone have any advice for avoiding chemicals in the lab? I wish I could opt out of a class due to fear, but alas.

What should I do? Thanks in advance.

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    Answers in comments, tangentail suggestions, etc. have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 8, 2019 at 11:28
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    Can you get a lab syllabus and post it here? We should be able to tell you exactly which chemicals you would be likely to encounter.
    – Chelonian
    Jan 8, 2019 at 15:37
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    @Chelonian: That would go beyond the scope of this site. I also doubt that it would help.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 9, 2019 at 9:47
  • Does wearing gloves help? (Which you should be doing anyway, in a lab.)
    – Alexander
    Jan 14, 2019 at 2:20
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    Do you fear chemicals in general or there is specific reason (fear of explosion, fear of eyesight loss)? For example while I do not fear working with super glue in general I fear super glue will spatter into my eye(f.e. when opening sealed lid).
    – Piro
    Jan 14, 2019 at 6:28

8 Answers 8


To further echo one of the comments:

Seek professional help. This may be a trained psychologist, or even just a general medical practitioner, who may be able to direct you to another institution if necessary. You may have access to mental healthcare through your institution if you do not otherwise have access. Specific phobias are treatable. Formally addressing this will do two things for you:

  • It may or may not help you overcome your fear. This may not be necessary just because of a single bio class alone, but it sounds like your condition is limiting your life in other ways, and this just may be a good trigger for you to seek a treatment that may improve your life in general going forward.
  • However, even if the treatment is not successful, or takes too long to help you much with your class (treating phobias can be a long-term project, from my limited understanding), your condition is now on record, which allows you to approach whatever office in your university is responsible for handling special needs students. They should be able to convince the teacher to find alternative ways for you to do the class without handling chemicals, but they will almost certainly not act unless you have documentation from a qualified medical professional.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ff524
    Jan 25, 2019 at 15:21

(This answer supposed the OP is an American; which turns out to be true, but they are attending school in Canada, so while the general thrust of the answer remains valid some of the US-specific aspects are obviously not immediately relevant)

Phobias can potentially fall under mental disabilities, which may then subsequently be covered and protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (this would be determined by the particulars of your case). I suggest contacting your university's disability office for help and guidance.

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    This is reasonable advice. However, be prepared for the likelihood that they may require you to consult a professional for a formal diagnosis and accommodation plan. Jan 7, 2019 at 6:50
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    @NateEldredge In my university in Sweden, FUNKA (our special needs office) is very clear on the fact that they don't do anything without proper documentation (but then they act very forcefully).
    – xLeitix
    Jan 7, 2019 at 10:26
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    One of the most frustrating thing about this SE site is that a majority typically assumes an American viewpoint.
    – Szabolcs
    Jan 7, 2019 at 11:10
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    @Szabolcs Have other countries adopted the American system of required non-major electives? The OP's language usage and the university's elective system overwhelmingly indicate to me that they are in the US. It's always possible I'm mistaken, but it hardly seems an unreasonable deduction. Jan 7, 2019 at 18:16
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    I am attending a university in Canada, though I do not want to get more specific. I am also unsure about how to navigate health care here as I am a US citizen.
    – Greta
    Jan 7, 2019 at 19:41

I realize that rational arguments do not help phobias. Dealing with a phobia will require therapy as suggested by the other answers.

Sometimes understanding better the things you fear can help you cope with the fear. Sometimes not. If this is a case where understanding might help, you should realize that pretty much everything is a chemical (the only tangible exception I can think of is light). You are made of many different chemicals (water, salts, sugars, fats, minerals, polypeptides, polynucleotides). Everything you touch, eat, smell, and taste is made up of chemicals. You might argue: "Sure, but those are natural chemicals. I have a fear of artificial chemicals." My response to this is that natural and artificial have no clear definitions. Many chemicals made industrially can be found in nature and in living things. Many natural compounds (including things you can find in the woods, such as mushrooms) can be as hazardous as any cleaning agents that you have. The most toxic compound (in nanograms of toxin per kilogram of body weight), botulinum toxin, is natural.

An important guideline in toxicology is: the dose makes the poison. For instance, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide are well-known to be "toxic chemicals" and exposure can be fatal. However, your body produces both of these chemicals in small quantities as a normal part of metabolism. Despite its toxicity in relatively large doses, your body produces hydrogen sulfide to send signals and it plays an important role in blood flow. Your body is perfectly capable of detoxifying small amounts of many "toxic" compounds and does this all the time as a normal part of metabolism.

Since you are interested in science, I heartily recommend that you study chemistry and toxicology. This will allow you to better understand the risks and nuances of toxic substances.

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    Sorry but this seems completely unhelpful. We all know that people use the word "chemical" in an informal, imprecise way; drawing attention to this is pointless. Telling somebody that their fear is irrational does nothing to help them. Your answer just comes across as "The way you use the word 'chemical' is wrong. Your fear is wrong. Learn to stop being wrong." Jan 7, 2019 at 19:31
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    Sometimes understanding better the things that you fear can help you cope with the fear. Sometimes not. I realize that it doesn't work for all fears and for all people. As I stated in my first line, therapy is probably more likely to be successful for a severe phobia. I've edited the post to make my intention clearer. Jan 7, 2019 at 19:50
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    And I'll second WaterMolecule's. A standard treatment for phobias is exposure therapy, where the patient deliberately confronts their fear. Making a point to learn about the subject of the phobia is one way of doing so. And as the OP expressed specific concern about hazardous chemicals, learning which chemicals are not hazardous, and the situations in which others are and aren't, can help to address the part of the fear that is rational. (For however much an anecdote is worth, learning as much as I could about the topic is exactly how I got my fear of spiders under control.)
    – Ray
    Jan 8, 2019 at 2:13
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    I will also second WaterMolecule's answer.
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 8, 2019 at 7:20
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    I think Ray's comment brings up a good point. Exposure therapy is proven effective. However, that proof holds for professional therapy of phobias. If this is a real medical phobia, see the accepted answer Seek professional help. Do not attempt exposure therapy on your own; it can backfire.
    – MSalters
    Jan 10, 2019 at 16:01

Talk to your professor

As the other answers have said, professional help is important for your overall quality of life. But it's also a long term solution, and you also have to deal with your labs this semester. Talk to your professor about how you can be successful in your current labs while you seek professional help.

Be prepared for your professor to be dismissive of your concerns

While there are many wonderful and empathetic professors out there, not all of them are such, and there's no guarantee that you have one of the good ones. An unfortunately large percentage of the population is dismissive of any emotional stresses that they do not personally feel. As an experienced biologist or chemist, your professor is probably very comfortable with dealing with hazardous chemicals, and may not remember that not everyone feels the same way. On the other hand, they're also a teacher who has likely dealt with all manner of students in the past, and may very well have helped other students with similar phobias to yours in the past.

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Focus on your reactions to your fear, not the fear itself

The truth of the matter is that many of the chemicals used in labs are hazardous when mishandled. A healthy respect for chemicals is something that most professors are going to want to encourage, not discourage. The problem lies not with your fears, but in how your phobia causes you to react - shaking, holding your breath, making mistakes, etc.

Frame this as a safety issue (which it is) - your phobia makes it unsafe for you to handle chemicals. This moves the discussion away from "how are you mastering your phobia" and "is your fear rational" (which are issues for you and your professional help) and into the realm of "How will you participate in labs safely while you are mastering your phobia." Don't let your professor side track you into a discussion of the whys and hows of your phobia. Focus on the practical effects that your phobia causes, and how those make it dangerous for you to work in the lab.

Also, lab safety is a serious concern, and gives you grounds to escalate the issue if your professor tries to dismiss your concerns. (Not that you wouldn't have grounds anyways, but lab safety gets a lot more respect than mental health, and your escalation is more likely to be taken seriously)

Consider solutions ahead of time

Before you talk to your professor, brainstorm for ways that you might be able to make the class manageable. Maybe you get a lab partner (or two, if the labs are designed for two bodies) who can managed the chemicals while you make observations from a safer distance. Maybe you act as an observer to all the students doing labs, and don't participate yourself. Try and come up with as many possible solutions as you can, and consider how effective you think each one would be, and why.

This will help prepare you to discuss these solutions with your professor, and find one that's workable.

If you do manage to find professional help before the beginning of classes, talk to them about how to best approach your professor - they'll probably have better advice for you than some random person on the internet.

On the flip side, your school probably has some resources to help you find the professional help you need. Your chemistry and bio departments may even have experience with very similar phobias to what you currently face.

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    It is both appropriate and professional for a professor to dismiss 'concerns'. If you have a disability, you need to document it with the school office that handles disability services. You should not make requests for accommodations with a professor until you have done so.
    – user101106
    Jan 8, 2019 at 17:38
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    @CJ59 And to further that point, you should also get an actual recorded diagnosis from a medical professional before documenting anything with the school's office. It's not really fair the to make the professor or the school to act as a judge on the legitimacy of a student's medical problems.
    – Clay07g
    Jan 8, 2019 at 22:20
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    @CJ59 I would have to say that a professor wanting the student to take this through the correct channels is fine, but that being dismissive is not. Simply tell the student that there is a process for such issues and ask them to use it. Tell them where to find the disability office. If they want to know why you don't deal with it directly you can tell them it is for uniformity and to give their peers some assurance that variation in requirements are not being handed out willy nilly. Done and dusted without being "dismissive". Jan 10, 2019 at 14:50

First of all, you should look for professional help. If this phobia affects your life, and it sounds like it does, you should try to work on it. For most phobias, there are very good behaviour therapy approaches available which help you dealing with your phobia. Please look for a therapist!

One practical thing you can do is writing an e-mail to the course instructor asking what kind of chemicals you are about to use within the course and check out how dangerous they are.

  • I'd suggest talking to the instructor/professor up-front rather than an email, it's more believable and evokes more empathy IMO.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 13, 2019 at 21:26

I think the other answers have largely covered it, but let me put it all together. I see three main paths forward:

1. Complete the course.

  • Some combination of therapy and gloves might help you to get through it
  • Consider e-mailing the instructor to better understand what is required
  • Perhaps your lab partner would be willing to take the lead in handling the chemicals.

2. Consider a different course. It's not clear if you have any other options.

  • A dean would likely approve doing a higher-level course instead of the intro course (e.g., physical chemistry instead of chem, or anatomy instead of bio) even without mentioning your phobia. But, these courses are at a higher level and might not be appropriate for you.
  • At many universities, geology, astronomy, or computer science can fulfill a science requirement, so make sure you're correct that it has to be 2 of bio/chem/physics.

3. Seek an accommodation for your phobia.

  • If you register your phobia with the disability resource office, your university will have to give you more leeway
  • They may be willing to let you do the analysis without actually being present for the labs; or, they may offer dispensation from the requirement to do chem/bio instead of physics
  • if he's afraid at the level of phobia of handing the stuff he's likely to see in an introductory course, I seriously doubt he'll fare much better in the advanced courses which typically require the introductory course to have been completed anyway.
    – jwenting
    Jan 14, 2019 at 7:45
  • As an example, physical chemistry uses very few chemicals; it's mostly spectroscopy, that kind of thing. It's true that physical chemistry usually requires gen chem (and a lot of higher math) -- which is why I noted that such courses may or may not be appropriate, depending on OP's major and background.
    – cag51
    Jan 14, 2019 at 14:42
  • I've had physical chemistry classes, and they still required the handling of chemicals. Not to cause reactions per se, but creating titers and sampling them. If he's phobic about chemicals in general, that'd likely trigger him too.
    – jwenting
    Jan 15, 2019 at 4:36

The other answers are mostly great and I would suggest trying what you can from them - especially seeking professional help with your phobia and documentation of it for accommodations.

With that said, one element of a "chemical" phobia is often an understanding that there are a lot of active substances of unknown identity present in what we generally think of as "chemicals" (cleaning products, products and byproducts of industrial processes, etc.) and legitimate concern about an overwhemling range of possibilities of what effects they might have on your body. A low-level chem or bio class probably doesn't have a lot of situations where you have to handle such things (and hopefully you can get accommodations so that you don't have to), but what it does give you is an opportunity to learn about these substances, and (as opposed to commercial cleaning products) to know exactly what you're handling and to have a chance to learn what is and isn't known about how it reacts and what safety concerns there may be around it. This might be an opportunity for you turn take some control, through knowledge, over your phobia, especially if you make a plan to do research (thinking well-cited Wikipedia articles, science texts, and peer-reviewed science papers, not random websites) outside class to get a better understanding for yourself.


As other already say, go to see a doctor for help.

Meanwhile you can try eleventh commandment of work in laboratories: Thou shalt not work without proper protection.

Wear protective gear - lab coat, goggles, mask and nonpowdered nitril gloves. If you aren't sure you can stack them. We do use this trick to be sure our hands won't be contaminated when working with nasty stuff.

If you are not given such, you can buy gloves in drug store and all the gear can be bough in dedicated stores. If don't know how to find it, you can ask any M.D.

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    @Marzipanherz That was just a sigh about people overcautious about, usually minor, threat while happily ignoring quite serious one. Pesticides vs. GMO, nuclear vs. fossil powerplants...
    – Crowley
    Jan 10, 2019 at 21:35
  • @Marzipanherz not really. He likely has worse stuff in his kitchen at home than he's ever going to encounter in an entry level course like he's signed up for. The problem is making phobic people realise that without extending their phobia to things like laundry detergent and lime juice.
    – jwenting
    Jan 14, 2019 at 7:47

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