Do sponges make you afraid, anxious or disgusted? How about a honeycomb? Or strawberries?
If so, you may have trypophobia, the fear of clusters of small holes. Although rare as far as phobias go, this particular one can still be seriously debilitating, causing some people to avoid any situations where they might encounter patterns of small circles. Sarah Paulson played a woman struggling with trypophobia in the 2017 film American Horror Story: The Cult.
“To be a phobia, it has to significantly interfere with your functioning, and the person usually knows it doesn’t make sense,” says Philip Pierce, a licensed clinical psychologist who has treated clients with trypophobia. “It’s a real fear, and they’re not faking it or anything, and it’s very uncomfortable, and it can affect someone’s life in a lot of significant ways.”
What’s so scary about groups of holes?
As with other phobias, psychologists believe that trypophobia may have evolutionary origins.
“There’s a view that these things come from some evolutionary fears, like the fear of heights being a real danger,” says Philip. “Here, the repeating patterns can be of lizards and snakes and things like that, which can be poisonous and dangerous.”
Other natural hazards involving clusters of holes include beehives and poisonous berries.
Kevin Chapman, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Kentucky, says up to 19% of people struggle with a phobia. Less than about 2%, he estimates, have trypophobia, which is rare.
However, trypophobia can wreak havoc on the lives of those who have it. Philip recalls treating a client with trypophobia who refused to go outside for fear of encountering lizards or snakes. Another client with trypophobia could not stand being around strawberries or raspberries, which became a problem in restaurants.
Something doesn’t have to scare you to be a phobia; it can also cause disgust.
“In the case of this phobia, there’s fear, there’s anxiety, and often there’s disgust,” Chapman says. “Disgust is a very important emotional experience that people often forget about with certain types of phobias.”
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How to treat trypophobia
If you’re struggling with trypophobia to the point where it’s taking a significant toll on your life and well-being, Chapman and Pierce recommend seeing a qualified therapist.
One method used by mental health professionals to treat phobias is exposure therapy.
“Treatment often involves doing things you don’t want to do, so it’s helpful to get a professional involved,” says Philip.
By gradually adapting someone to their phobia, exposure therapy aims to show the client that the thing that is causing them distress is actually harmless.
“The gold standard treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, especially exposure therapy, so I want people to know there is hope,” Chapman says. “Exposure requires us to create a menu of situations involving a set of little holes, and we face those images, the sensations in our body that are connected to it, the places where it happens.
If you struggle with trypophobia, or any other phobia, know that you are not alone.
“Fifty percent of the population experiences what we call subclinical fear, so it’s very common to experience these reactions,” says Chapman. “Be very compassionate and empathetic to people who have this phobia, but also encourage them that there is help out there.”
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