Trypophobia

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.

It's one of many fears of harmless things, like chaetophobia, a fear of hair, or microphobia, a fear of small things.

People with trypophobia have a strong physical and emotional reaction whenever they see patterns made up of holes or spots. The bigger the cluster of circles, the more uncomfortable they feel.

Is Trypophobia a Real Phobia?

True phobias are those that cause enough fear and worry to interfere with your everyday routine, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Trypophobia doesn't meet that standard.

The APA doesn’t 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.

Trypophobia Symptoms

The symptoms of trypophobia look a lot like a panic attack. You might have:

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

Trypophobia Triggers

Common things that can trigger trypophobia include:

  • Holes or pebbles in concrete
  • Air holes in a slice of bread
  • Patterns in the frosting of a cake or pie
  • The head of a lotus flower
  • The holes in an old hockey mask
  • Skin problems like sores, scars, and spots
  • Spotted animals
  • Shower heads
  • LEDs in traffic lights

Trypophobia Causes

Researchers have a few ideas about what causes trypophobia.

The powerful 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.

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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 have a type of visual energy that can cause an unpleasant reaction.

Other researchers believe that the fear 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.

Trypophobia Risk Factors

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:

Trypophobia Diagnosis

Doctors don't know a lot about trypophobia, and it can be hard to diagnose. A psychologist or primary care doctor will ask 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, remember that they could include images that are disturbing, even to people who don't have trypophobia.

Trypophobia Treatment

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

Trypophobia Outlook

If circular patterns bother you, it can help to talk with other people who share your fear. They might have some suggestions for ways you can manage trypophobia. Ask your doctor, or look online for support groups.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella on June 22, 2020

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?"

Motivation and Emotion: “The hole story: an event-related potential study with trypophobic stimuli.”

Dermatology Online Journal: “Trypophobia, skin, and media.”

Malaysian Journal of Psychiatry: “Understanding Trypophobia: The Fear of Holes.”

Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology: “Trypophobia Associated With Gabapentin: A Case Report.”

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