What Is Trypophobia?
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.
The symptoms of trypophobia look a lot like a panic attack. You might have:
- Shortness of breath
- A fast heartbeat
- Itching, goosebumps, or a feeling like your skin is crawling
People with trypophobia may get these symptoms several times a week or every day. Sometimes, the fear of holes never goes away.
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
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.
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:
- Major depression
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Social anxiety
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Bipolar disorder
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.
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.
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.