What Is Trypophobia?

Does the sight of a honeycomb, sea sponges, or soap bubbles make you shaky and sick to your stomach? You could have trypophobia -- a fear of holes.

The name for this problem comes from the Greek words "trypta," which means hole, and "phobos," which means fear. But the term doesn't date back to ancient Greece. "Trypophobia" reportedly first appeared on a web forum in 2005.

Since then, it has popped up on social networks and blogs. It's one of many quirky fears of harmless things -- like chaetophobia, a fear of hair, or microphobia, a fear of small things.

People with trypophobia have an intense physical and emotional reaction whenever they see patterns made up of holes. The bigger the cluster of circles, the more uncomfortable trypophobes feel.

It's hard to gauge how many people feel this way. But one trypophobia page on Facebook has 13,000 members. Another support group page has more than 3,000 members.

Is Trypophobia Real?

True phobias need to cause enough fear and worry to interfere with a person's normal routine, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Trypophobia doesn't qualify.

The APA does not officially recognize this disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) -- a large volume of all known mental illnesses and their symptoms. Experts say trypophobia is more likely disgust than fear.

What Are the Symptoms?

The symptoms of trypophobia look a lot like a panic attack. The sight of holes can trigger things like:

People with trypophobia get these symptoms several times a week or every day. Sometimes the fear of holes never goes away.

How Do Doctors Diagnose It?

Doctors don't know a lot about trypophobia, and it can be hard to diagnose. A psychologist or primary care doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and how they affect your everyday life.

One group of researchers created a list of 17 questions called the trypophobia questionnaire. It asks people to rate symptoms like anxiety or fear on a scale from 1 ("Not at all") to 5 ("Extremely") when they see pictures of holes.

A few self-tests are available online, including the Implicit Trypophobia Measure 0.5a. Before you click on one of these tests, you should know that the images could be disturbing, even to people who don't have trypophobia.

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What Causes It?

Researchers have come up with a few possible explanations for trypophobia.

The intense reaction might be a way to protect yourself from danger. Some of the most poisonous animals on the planet -- like the king cobra, puffer fish, and poison dart frog -- have hole-like patterns on their skin. Those patterns are like the ones that bother people who have trypophobia.

Deadly diseases such as measles and smallpox cause circular skin rashes. Trypophobia could be a reaction that humans have developed to avoid getting sick.

It's also possible that the images themselves trigger fear. Some people may be more sensitive to the mix of light and dark in pictures of holes. Researchers say that hole-like patterns produce a type of visual energy that can cause an unpleasant reaction.

Other researchers believe the fear of holes comes from social anxiety. Circles look a little bit like clusters of eyes or faces staring at you, which can be upsetting if you get nervous in social settings.

Who Gets Trypophobia?

Trypophobia is more common in women than in men. It also runs in families. In one study, about 25% of people who had trypophobia also had a close relative with the condition.

Some people who are afraid of hole patterns also have other mental disorders, such as:

What Is the Treatment?

Because trypophobia isn't a true disorder, no real treatment for it exists. Some studies show that an antidepressant like sertraline (Zoloft) plus a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is helpful. CBT tries to change the negative ideas that cause fear or stress.

If images of circular patterns bother you, it can help to talk with other people who share your fear. You'll find support groups for people with trypophobia online.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on May 30, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: "Perception of high and low spatial frequency information in pigeons and people."

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Specific Phobias."

BMC Research Notes: "Rasch analysis of the trypophobia questionnaire."

Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry: "Trypophobia: an investigation of clinical features."

Cognition & Emotion: "Disgusting clusters: trypophobia as an overgeneralized disease avoidance response.”

DSM-IV: "DSM-IV to DSM-5 Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Disorder Comparison."

DSM-V: "Table of Contents."

Frontiers in Psychiatry: "Trypophobia: What do we know so far? A case report and comprehensive review of the literature.

Open-Source Psychometrics Project: "Implicit Trypophobia Measure 0.5a."

Peer J: "Fear of eyes: triadic relation among social anxiety, trypophobia, and discomfort for eye cluster."

Psychological Reports: "Is trypophobia a phobia?"

Psychological Science: "Fear of holes."

Trypophobia.com: "Is Trypophobia a Real Phobia?"

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