Trypophobia: The Fear of Holes

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on December 28, 2023
8 min read

Trypophobia is a fear of or aversion to tightly packed patterns of holes or other similar patterns, such as those found in honeycombs, sea sponges, or soap bubbles. If you have trypophobia, these sights might make you feel panicky, shaky, and sick.

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

Scientists still don't know much about trypophobia, and it's not yet recognized as a mental disorder.

How common is trypophobia?

It's difficult to know for sure how common trypophobia is. In one study, researchers found that 18% of adults had some degree of trypophobia. Some studies show that even some young children are disturbed by images of clustered patterns.

Like other phobias and anxiety disorders, studies show the odds of trypophobia may be slightly higher in females compared to males. However, more research is needed to know exactly how this phobia affects different genders or groups of people.

photo of trypophobia concept

Phobias that are considered “real” are those that have been well-researched and found to cause enough fear and worry that they could interfere with your everyday routine. With limited research, experts can't yet confirm if trypophobia meets that standard. The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t officially recognize this disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), a large volume of all known mental illnesses and their symptoms.

Trypophobia is more of an aversion or feeling of disgust, rather than fear. This might not have enough effect on you to be considered a disorder. But this depends on the individual. Just because it's not widely recognized as a real phobia, doesn't mean it doesn't have the potential to negatively affect your life and to be a reason to seek professional help.

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

  • Nausea
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Choking or dry mouth
  • Intense feeling of disgust, revulsion, or terror
  • Pale skin

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 such as sores, scars, and spots
  • Spotted animals
  • Shower heads
  • LEDs in traffic lights
  • Honeycombs
  • Strawberries
  • Coral
  • Seeded breads
  • Swiss cheese
  • Pomegranates
  • Sponges

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 -- such as 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, as well as infection with parasites, cause spotty skin rashes. Trypophobia could be a reaction that humans have developed to avoid getting sick.

It's also possible that the images themselves trigger trypophobia. 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.

Trypophobia is more common in people assigned female at birth than in people assigned male at birth. 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:

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 their discomfort on a scale from 1 (“not at all”) to 5 (“extremely”) when they see potentially triggering images.

A few self-tests are available online, including the Implicit Trypophobia Measure. Before you take one of these tests, remember that they include images that might be disturbing for you.

Because trypophobia isn't a true disorder, there’s no set treatment for it. And while there isn't a cure for any phobia, there are steps you can take to gain control over what triggers your stress and anxiety.

Some of the top treatments for trypophobia are:

Exposure therapy (desensitization). Not everyone can tolerate exposure therapy because it means you have to do something that upsets you. But if you have a specific phobia, there’s a good chance it’ll help you.

Here’s how it works: Your therapist gradually exposes you to whatever causes you fear or disgust. Then, they give you tools to manage anxious thoughts, feelings, or physical reactions that come up during therapy. You repeat this with multiple sessions until you feel more comfortable around your triggers.

Exposure therapy for trypophobia may include:

  • Thinking about your trypophobia triggers
  • Looking at pictures or videos with clusters of holes
  • Holding a sponge or something else with repeating patterns

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a type of talk therapy that can help you change your thoughts and perceptions about what causes your fear and aversion. You also learn healthy ways to deal with the thoughts and feelings that trypophobia triggers.

Relaxation techniques. You can learn how to calm your mind and body in stressful situations. Some tools that may help you manage trypophobia include:

  • Guided imagery or visualization
  • Deep-breathing exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Yoga or meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Biofeedback

Medication. Antidepressants or other drugs may lessen overall symptoms of anxiety or panic for some people. You may need to take medication every day or only in situations where you know you’ll be triggered.

Medications used to treat phobias include:

  • Antidepressants. Some studies show selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as sertraline (Zoloft), may ease anxiety for people who have phobias.
  • Beta-blockers. Commonly taken for stage fright, these drugs block adrenaline. That’s the fight-or-flight hormone that raises your heart rate and blood pressure when you get scared or nervous. Your doctor may give you beta-blockers to take regularly or only when you know you’ll be around something that might trigger your trypophobia.
  • Sedatives. Fast-acting drugs such as benzodiazepines can help you feel calm. But they’re not a good long-term solution to anxiety in general or for specific phobias. They can be addictive, and you shouldn’t use them if you have a history of drug and alcohol misuse.

Self-care. Talk therapy and medication can go a long way in helping you manage trypophobia. But there are other things you can do on your own to support your well-being:

  • Get enough sleep each night. For most people, that’s at least 7-9 hours a night.
  • Eat a nutritious diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Limit ultra-processed foods high in sugar. Blood sugar spikes may feel like anxiety.
  • Get regular exercise to boost serotonin and other anxiety-reducing brain chemicals.
  • Lessen caffeine if it makes you feel jittery.
  • Focus on your successes, even the small ones.
  • Ask friends and family to help you face your fears.
  • Put what you learn in therapy to good use in real life.
  • Join a support group for people with trypophobia or other phobias.

People who don’t have phobias may have a hard time grasping what you’re going through. But trypophobia symptoms can have a big impact on your well-being and how you live your life. And it could increase your risk of other problems, such as:

  • Another mood disorder. People who have phobias often have depression, anxiety, or other kind of mental health issues. Your odds of suicide may also go up.

  • Chronic stress. You may have anxiety all the time if you’re constantly trying to avoid your phobia triggers. If your child is the one with trypophobia, you may worry a lot for them or take extreme protective measures on their behalf.

  • Drug and alcohol problems. You may turn to drugs or alcohol to calm your nerves around your trypophobia triggers.

  • Sleep trouble. Insomnia or other sleep problems are common among people with anxiety, depression, or phobias.

  • Socially isolation. You may have trouble with work or relationships if you can’t engage with the world around you in a healthy way. Kids who have untreated phobias may not make friends or do well in school.

With proper treatment, you can gain control over trypophobia. There isn't one correct method of treatment, so you may need to try a few different methods, or a combination of therapy and medication to find relief. In the meantime, 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.

There’s no cure for trypophobia, but there are steps you can take to manage your symptoms. Tell your doctor if your anxiety gets in the way of daily life. With exposure therapy or other mental health treatment, you can gain control of your trypophobia triggers.

What causes trypophobia?

There’s no clear reason why some people get trypophobia and others don’t. However, researchers think evolution and biology may play a part. For example, tiny clusters of holes may mimic the eyes of a poisonous snake or spider or look a lot like certain skin diseases. Repeating patterns may also put a lot of stress on the part of your brain that processes visual stimuli.

Do trypophobia patterns really occur on the skin?

You may see a lot of pictures online that show trypophobia patterns on the skin. Most of them are fake, but some skin conditions result in bumps, sores, or scars that naturally form clusters. Most aren’t contagious, which means they don’t spread through contact.

Why is trypophobia so uncomfortable?

Tryophobia triggers a sense of fear or disgust. This can lead to emotional symptoms such as anxiety or physical symptoms such as sweating, a fast heartbeat, and feeling like you want to throw up. This is your brain’s way of telling your body to get away from the object, even if you know on a rational level it’s not dangerous.

What is the rarest phobia in the world?

More research is needed to pinpoint the least common phobia. But rarely, some people have a specific phobia of hens or chickens (alektorophobia); an excessive fear of aging or growing up (gerascophobia); or of seeing their own reflection in the mirror (eisoptrophobia).