Trypophobia: Triggers, Symptoms, Diagnosis, And Treatment

Trypophobia is a fear of a collection of holes, bumps, or patterns. When a person sees such a cluster, they feel fear and disgust and experience other unpleasant symptoms.

Since bumps, patterns, and holes exist in everyday life, suffering from this phobia can be challenging.

From nausea to panic attacks, living with the symptoms of trypophobia can reduce your quality of life. Thankfully, it's possible to treat this condition and manage its symptoms. Let's take a closer look at the fear of holes and how to battle it.

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What is trypophobia?

Trypophobia is a combination of two Ancient Greek words: Trypos (holes) and phobos (fear). However, trypophobia isn't just a fear of holes. It's a fear of clusters of holes, bumps, or patterns.

For example, people with this condition may experience symptoms when they see sponges, honeycombs, skin pores, or goosebumps.

While it may have ancient roots, an online forum first recognized trypophobia as a problem in 2005. Today, researchers know very little about this condition. Some people don't even believe that it's a real phobia.

In reality, many people suffer from this problem, making their everyday lives miserable.

According to a study¹ conducted in 2013, about 16% of the participants had this phobia. Even those who didn't have any common phobia symptoms reported slight discomfort when looking at photos with clusters of holes and bumps.

Is trypophobia real?

While underresearched, trypophobia is surprisingly common. Scientists call it "the most common phobia you've never heard of."

One of the reasons why trypophobia may not get sufficient attention is that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) doesn't recognize it as a disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). 

Symptoms of trypophobia

The symptoms of trypophobia are similar to symptoms of other phobias. People generally feel fear and disgust along with:

  • Dry mouth

  • Chills

  • Nausea

  • Trembling

  • Sweating

  • Fast breathing

  • Quickened heart rate

  • Terror

  • Pale skin

If not addressed, the symptoms of trypophobia may worsen. Eventually, they may lead to further mental health complications that include:

  • Depression

  • High stress

  • High irritability

  • Sleep problems

  • Panic attacks

People with extreme trypophobia may find it hard to participate in everyday activities, such as working, studying, and doing chores. Others may have trouble socializing.

Causes of trypophobia

The causes of trypophobia are currently unknown. While researchers need to study this condition more, several theories exist.

Natural selection

Psychologists A. Wilkins and G. Cole from the University of Essex in England theorized¹ that trypophobia is a consequence of natural selection. It developed in humans as a reaction to dangers posed by their environment.

For example, many venomous snakes, spiders, and dangerous reptiles have patterns, bumps, and circular markings on their bodies. Ancient humans who feared these patterns, holes, and bumps would run away when they saw these animals and insects.

The instinct kept them alive and allowed them to produce offspring and evolve. These humans passed the fear to the later generations.

Evolutionary survival

A similar theory² came from University of Kent scientists Tom Kupfer and An Trong Dinh Le.They elaborated on the above idea and theorized that the phobia appeared in response to skin diseases (measles, chickenpox, rubella) and circular parasites, such as ticks.

Those who chose to stay away from parasites and people with infectious diseases managed to survive, produce offspring, and pass their genetic memories to the later generations.

Brain oxygenation

Another theory³ states that your brain may need more energy and oxygen when seeing hole clusters and patterns. Your brain processes the patterns as hidden mathematical principles, using extra energy to look for them. People may try to avoid looking at these elements to prevent the need for extra oxygenation.

Common trypophobia triggers

Trypophobia occurs when a person sees a cluster of holes, bumps, or patterns. These include:

  • Bread with seeds

  • Cheese with holes

  • Fruits that have seeds (strawberries, kiwis, pomegranates)

  • Honeycombs

  • Sunflowers

  • Lotus seed pods

  • Soles of shoes

  • Sponges

  • Reptile skin

  • Soap bubbles

  • Corals

  • Beehives

  • Insects with numerous eyes

Once a person with trypophobia encounters a trigger, they start exhibiting symptoms. A 2017 study⁴ showed that some people experienced significant psychological distress and impairment.

How to diagnose trypophobia

Since APA doesn't recognize trypophobia as a disorder, it doesn't provide criteria for diagnosing it. However, several ways to diagnose this condition are available.  

The simplest way to diagnose trypophobia is to look at images containing holes, bumps, and patterns. If you suspect you have trypophobia, contact your healthcare service provider.

Your doctor is likely to ask a series of questions. Researchers developed a trypophobia questionnaire⁵ for diagnosing the condition. You may also need to look at a few pictures to check your reaction to common trypophobia triggers.  

It's possible to take a trypophobia test online⁶, but these are just educational and not diagnostic. If you have severe reactions to trypophobia triggers, you shouldn't take a test without a doctor.

If your trypophobia interferes with your quality of life, your physician may refer you to a psychiatrist for treatment.

How to treat trypophobia

Your therapist can help you find the most effective way to treat trypophobia. Here are a few of the common options.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT involves sessions with a therapist to change the underlying thoughts and actions causing trypophobia symptoms.

You can change thinking patterns through several strategies:

  • Learning how your thoughts contribute to the problem and reevaluating them with facts

  • Gaining a better sense of confidence in your ability to deal with the phobia

During therapy, you will also work on changing your behavioral patterns:

  • Exposure therapy: Facing the fear of holes (e.g., viewing photos, visualizing triggers, and using props) instead of trying to avoid it

  • Stress-relieving techniques: Specific strategies for your mind and body to counter the symptoms of trypophobia

With a therapist's assistance, you will learn to replace fearful and disgusting thoughts with positive ones. This technique is called desensitization, and it can eliminate phobia.

The main goal of CBT for trypophobia is to help you become your own therapist. If the treatment is successful, you'll learn how to alleviate symptoms or prevent them without ongoing professional assistance.

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can help you manage the panic and anxiety when facing trypophobia triggers. Your therapist is likely to recommend some of these techniques to improve the treatment process.

Some common options are:

  • Breathing exercises

  • Physical exercises

  • Visualization

Focusing on breathing, senses, and positive visualization can prevent panic attacks and manage other trypophobia symptoms.

Support groups

If you have trypophobia, you aren't alone. While scientists are looking for causes and arguing about its existence, millions of people are living with it.

Part of the treatment can include speaking with people with the same problem. You may want to consider joining social media groups and becoming part of the trypophobia community.

Medication

If your trypophobia symptoms are severe and hard to manage with therapy, your psychiatrist may prescribe medication, including:

  • Antidepressants (SSRIs): These drugs help you avoid a severe reaction to trypophobia triggers.

  • Benzodiazepines: These drugs help you relax and reduce the anxiety that interferes with your regular activities. These are generally only prescribed for a short period as they risk addiction. 

  • Beta-blockers: These drugs block the effects of adrenaline that causes some of the severe trypophobia symptoms.

CBT and exposure therapy are usually highly effective against phobias. Psychiatrists usually try these methods before recommending any medication.

Is there a cure for trypophobia?

While the above treatments can be highly effective, they can't cure trypophobia. However, when you learn to control your symptoms, this condition can stop affecting your quality of life.

When to call a doctor

If you think you have trypophobia, consider speaking to your physician. Even if the symptoms are mild, you can learn simple techniques to improve your quality of life.

If your symptoms are severe, don't wait. Speak to a therapist about CBT or exposure therapy as soon as possible.

The lowdown

If you are experiencing anxiety, chills, panic attacks, and other adverse reactions in response to clusters of holes, bumps, and patterns, you may have trypophobia. Even though this condition deserves further research, it's surprisingly common.

While there isn't a cure, trypophobia is highly treatable. You don't have to live with unpleasant phobia symptoms. Call your doctor to discuss treatment options.

Have you considered clinical trials for Mental health?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Mental health, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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