Trypophobia: symptoms, causes, treatments

Do you feel disgusted when you look at a honeycomb?  Does just looking at an object with many small holes that are close together make you nauseous? 

Then maybe you have trypophobia, a fairly common phobia in humans, although it’s not very well-known.  To learn a little more about trypophobia and its possible treatments, please read on.

Trypophobia

What is Trypophobia Exactly?

It is fear or repulsion caused by any pattern of geometric figures that are very close together, particularly small holes, although it could also be small rectangles or convex circles.

While trypophobia is not listed in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association, thousands of people claim to feel revulsion or symptoms of anxiety upon viewing patterns of small holes clustered together.

Some of the objects that can cause this sensation are coral, honeycombs, soap bubbles, clothing with polka dots, a bunch of stacked logs, or an aerated chocolate bar.

Causes of Trypophobia

Most phobias are caused by traumatic experiences or are learned culturally.

However, this is not the case for trypophobia, according to research completed by the University of Essex, whose results were recently published in Psychological Science magazine.

According to Geoff Cole, one of the expert researchers in the science of vision, the visual patterns that trigger symptoms for people with trypophobia are similar to those that are seen in different poisonous animals. 

Some of the most deadly animals in the world, such as the blue-ringed octopus, king cobra, some scorpions and many spiders, have patterns of spots on their surfaces.

Keeping this in mind, it could be inferred that trypophobia has a simple evolutionary explanation: people who are repulsed by observing these patterns keep their distance from dangerous animals, which helps their survival.

In this way, it’s not strange that even today many people experience symptoms of anxiety when observing patterns of spots or holes that resemble those that are seen on the most poisonous animals of the world. 

It would be reminiscent of a fear that once helped many humans survive.

What Else Does Science Know About Trypophobia?

On many internet forums, thousands of people who have self-diagnosed trypophobia share their experiences. 

The medical field still has not admitted trypophobia as a defined disease, it’s not in the dictionary, and it wasn’t on Wikipedia until just recently. 

Even so, scientists Arnold Wilkins and Geoff Cole from the University of Essex decided to find out more about this phobia of certain geometric patterns, and they conducted several experiments. 

In one experiment, they showed a series of images to 286 people chosen at random.  These images alternated between the holes in a piece of cheese, a lotus seed pod (full of holes), and different natural landscapes. 

The participants had to indicate whether the images caused them any type of discomfort. 

About 16% of the people tested stated they felt disgusted by looking at images with holes or geometric patterns, while the remaining 84% stated that they didn’t feel anything particular upon viewing any of the images. 

Wilkins and Cole analyzed the characteristics of the images that caused unpleasant sensations and they found something common among all of them:  the spectral analysis of the trypophobic images showed high-contrast energy in the midrange spatial frequencies, which makes them visually striking. 

Although it’s not known why these images cause unpleasant sensations in some people and not in others, the scientists are certain that trypophobia does not have a cultural origin, as triskaidekaphobia does, for example. 

And in the majority of cases, trypophobia also does not have a traumatic origin.

Researchers believe that the humans could have used these triggers to stay away from certain poisonous animals, which have patterns on their skin with characteristics similar to those in the trypophobia study.

For some people, these triggers continue to function, and for this reason, they experience anxiety and adrenaline enters their bloodstream when they observe certain patterns. 

In another experiment, the same researchers showed images of geometric patterns to people and they observed their brain activity using magnetic resonance equipment. 

The images of poisonous snakes, which have geometric patterns on their skin, caused an elevated brain response in certain people, who we now know are trypophobic.  A similar result was produced when these people observed other similar patterns. 

However, there is another theory about the origin of trypophobia.  Some believe that it’s just a collective manifestation of disgust toward certain images. 

The aversion to holes in an organic material could be easily explained since these are images which are frequently associated with diseases, states Martin Antony, psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, author of a book about controlling anxiety. 

In any case, people with trypophobia continue to join together on different internet forums, and they even have a Facebook group with more than six thousand members, while science attempts to explain the origin of its symptoms. 

Is Trypophobia a True Phobia?

There are those who believe that trypophobia is a mere psychological curiosity.  There could be as many phobias as there are people in the world, because people can fear anything. 

A traumatic experience could cause a phobia to an infinite amount of objects or situations. 

But the question is if trypophobia can really cause symptoms that are so intense that they interfere with a person’s daily life.  If this were truly the case, trypophobia would be real problem to resolve.

Many people say that they have intense symptoms after viewing images with geometric patterns, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, cold sweats, increased heart rate and others. 

If you would like to know if your case of trypophobia is really a phobia that needs treatment, it must meet the following conditions:

  • The fear must be persistent, excessive, and irrational, and it must be triggered by the presence of or anticipation of a stimulus, in this case, observing a specific geometric pattern.
  • Exposure to the stimulus must invariably elicit a response of intense anxiety or a panic attack.
  • You avoid situations which cause these symptoms, or you barely tolerate them, always with an intense feeling of discomfort or anxiety.
  • These avoidance behaviors and anxiety symptoms (which appear even when you are only thinking about a honeycomb) interfere with your daily life: your work, your studies, your social life, and your normal routine.

If you feel like you identify with the situations described above, then your trypophobia is really a true phobia and it would be a good idea to seek help so that your symptoms don’t interfere with your life. 

Treatments for Trypophobia

As with all phobias, there are many possible treatments, including different psychological therapies and some medications:

Exposure Therapy

In this type of treatment, the therapist will gradually expose you to the stimulus that causes your symptoms, helping you to control your anxiety using different tools. 

The gradual and repeated exposure over time will make you feel less anxiety so then you will be able to control the situation when you see patterns of small holes. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

This therapy also includes gradual exposure to the stimulus, but it is combined with other techniques that will help you deal with situations that cause you anxiety in different ways.  It will also change your beliefs about your phobia and the impact it has on your life. 

Medications

Medications should be prescribed by a psychiatric doctor.  To treat some phobias, antidepressant medications, tranquilizers, or beta blockers are prescribed. 

Beta blockers are medications that neutralize the effects of adrenaline in the body.  They reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduce tremors. 

The antidepressants that are usually prescribed for severe phobia cases are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.  It may be possible that doctors prescribe another type of antidepressant to control symptoms, depending on the case. 

Finally, a certain type of tranquilizer drugs called benzodiazepines can help to control the anxiety experienced by people with different types of phobias.  They should be used with caution because they can have adverse side effects and many contraindications. 

It should be noted that in most cases medication is used to when the symptoms of a phobia are really uncontrollable and interfere with a person’s daily life, preventing the person from completing normal activities. 

For other cases, it’s recommended to use psychological therapies and any other method that helps to control anxiety, such as yoga or meditation.

Living with Trypophobia: A True Story

Here is an example of what life is like for a person with trypophobia, according to the real testimony of a patient:

“It all started when I was about ten years old.  My father loved to fish and we often went together.  When we caught something big, we kept the skeleton or the teeth from the fish as a trophy.

One time, on the edge of the kitchen window there appeared a long, flat bone, full of thousands of little holes, one next to the other; surely it was a bone from some prey. 

This object really repulsed me and when my father realized that, he made me touch it.  Obviously, I cried and I think that in it was in that moment that my phobia started.

My father, intending to cure me, exposed me to anything that had little holes or hollows: a piece of coral or a honeycomb.  When the waves receded into the sea leaving many holes in the sand, he made me walk on them. 

My symptoms got worse over the years and I began feeling nausea, dizziness and panic attacks that I could barely control. 

When I got older, I sought information and found four methods to overcome this type of phobias, and I used the four methods to develop the tools that I use today that allow me to control my anxiety in certain situations.

The first method is to gradually expose yourself to images with groups of tiny holes

The second is to seek out information about the phobia in question to try to reason about it and banish the fear in that way.

The third is to use to confront the object using your imagination without actually having the object, and the fourth is the shock method: a prolonged and forced exposure until the point of controlling your anxiety. 

After my first shock experience, I thought my trypophobia was cured.  A few months later, on a trip to the Caribbean, I signed up for a scuba diving trip, without realizing that below the ocean there are millions of plants and animals full of little holes. 

So I suddenly found myself hyperventilating while wearing an oxygen mask as the instructor took my hand, trying to help me touch an orange coral with thousands of tiny and horrifying holes on its surface. 

I couldn’t even scream.  When we finally reached the surface, I thought: if I could do that, I can do anything. 

After that experience, every time I find myself in front of a pattern of holes, I try to breathe deeply and use reason.  If I manage to control the anxiety in this first moment, I can continue almost as normal. 

But I don’t always manage it.  It seems that I will always have a phobia, although I have periods of hypersensitivity where I get scared of the pores on my face, and at other times, the symptoms lessen and I can buy a jar of honey with a honeycomb drawn on the label.”

As you can see, trypophobia seems to be totally real phobia.  The study conducted at the University of Essex showed that 16% of the population shows symptoms of trypophobia when they viewed images full of small holes or geometric patterns. 

So if it is the case that you also have this phobia, you are not alone, and most of the people manage their symptoms, so can also.  If you can’t manage your anxiety alone, please consult a professional.

And what symptoms of trypophobia do you have?  How have you tried to overcome it?

References

  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/phobia-about-holes-is-not-officially-recognized-but-uk-scientists-look-into-it/2012/10/01/c1797a8c-dff0-11e1-a421-8bf0f0e5aa11_story.html
  2. http://www.popsci.com/trypophobia.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-you-afraid-of-holes/.
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23982244.
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25635930.
  5. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130903091036.htm.
  6. Image source.

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