Dr. Laura Keyes, clinical psychologist, explains trypophobia – the fear of small, irregular holes. We discuss symptoms, food triggers, treatment & coping strategies.
What is trypophobia?
Do little irregular shaped holes in food skins or circles gathered close together make you feel queasy or anxious? If so, you might be experiencing ‘trypophobia’. While not officially recognised as a mental health difficulty and only a recent term coined in the last decade, it may be considered a specific phobia if excessive distress is experienced.
What are the key symptoms of trypophobia?
You might experience uncomfortable feelings at the sight of holes in clusters or bumps. Recent research has shown that the main feeling experienced is disgust rather than fear. Alongside this can be intense physical symptoms like skin crawling, goosebumps, sweating, racing heart, nausea, and sometimes panic. Many experience depression, generalised anxiety, and social anxiety alongside trypophobia.
What foods can trigger trypophobia?
- Natural foods are abound with irregular holes. Honeycomb, seed pods, strawberries, pomegranate, watermelon, papaya, cantaloupes, roasted garlic, corn on the cob, exotic mushrooms; even horizontally sliced pickles have this holey effect
- Plucked whole poultry
- When cooking, the bubbles in batter create little holes; think pancakes and delicious buttery crumpets
- Other triggers can include Swiss cheese, sourdough bread, the bubbles in Aero chocolate bars, even the froth in your morning coffee
- Common non-food triggers include beehives, coral, lotus seed pods, and snakes
How can trypophobia impact everyday life?
Trypophobia can impact if trying to avoid certain activities that lead to facing a feared food. You might limit the range of foods you eat, avoid dining out, and avoid going food shopping. Alongside this might be hypervigilance in looking out for these holes, further increasing feelings of anxiety.
Can trypophobia be cured?
Few theories exist with limited research about trypophobia:
- It could be part of how humans have evolved to keep ourselves safe and alert us to the presence of parasites and infectious diseases. However, our brains might struggle to distinguish between threatening clustered hole pattern such as a snake or octopus, and similar but non-threatening patterns.
- Feelings of fear and suspicion around what might be inside the holes, such as insects, can lead to discomfort that we want to avoid.
- Painful past illnesses and injuries which create these patterns (think chickenpox or measles) might mean we develop a negative association with the pattern.
While there is a limited evidence base to support a particular treatment, it would make sense to treat trypohobia as a problem based on an avoidance of difficult feelings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy could be helpful in being with the difficult feelings associated with trypophobia so they do not take over life. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy could also be helpful to challenge unhelpful thoughts and avoidance behaviours, using exposure to feared items through imaginal and real exposure.
What are good coping strategies for dealing with trypophobia?
- Identify your triggers and describe how they make you react emotionally and physically. Do you recall when it began? Is there a first negative experience or is it more about feelings of disgust?
- Consider what are your values are for wanting to address this issue. What might it help you be able to do in future? (e.g. to be able to enjoy meals out with a friend).
- Set yourself goals by listing the hole patterns that are least to most distressing. Consider working with the least distressing first. Are you willing to experience the feelings in order to move forward?
- Start with imagining the item, work towards looking at pictures, then looking at it for real. Deep breathing, relaxation, grounding yourself in the present, and using coping statements such as “I feel anxious and that’s ok. I know that there is nothing to fear here, and I am willing to let these feelings be here until they pass”.
- Change your perspective on the thing you fear. Start to learn about the food and why it has the holes it does – it will serve a useful purpose.
- Living with a phobia can be really challenging; be kind to yourself. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep will help you cope better with difficult feelings.
Dr Laura Keyes is a Clinical Psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and British Psychological Society (BPS). She runs a private practice offering psychological therapy and assessments for neurodiversity to children and adults in Bedfordshire. drlaurakeyes.com
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