What Is Trypophobia? Definitions, Signs and Treatments

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD
Updated on February 14, 2021

Arachnophobia and claustrophobia are common phobias that you probably recognize. There are other common phobias, such as trypophobia, that you might not have heard of. In Greek, “trypa” means “hole” or “drilling.” Put simply, trypophobia is disgust or fear of small holes or bumps – like the holes in sliced bread, a cheese grater, strawberry seeds, honeycombs, skin problems, spotted animals, showerheads, even some flowers.

Strawberries

Sufferers report feeling anxiety or panic-like symptoms, including difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, nausea, itching, and sweating, when they are exposed to a pattern of holes.

Despite its fairly common occurrence, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not recognize trypophobia in its volume of mental illnesses (DSM–5). Why? Extensive research on the subject is lacking, but most phobias are considered to arouse fear rather than disgust. In trypophobia, however, disgust is the prevalent reaction.

What Causes Trypophobia?

Researchers debate whether those with trypophobia are afraid of the holes themselves or rather associate the cluster of holes with “venomous organisms.” A product of evolution is that people are wired to fear that which they perceive to be harmful. Therefore, looking at holes might trigger a fear of disease-ridden skin issues that people may want to have an aversion to in order to keep themselves safe.

Some believe that trypophobia has nothing to do with evolution but rather that images of hole-like patterns elicit a negative reaction in people. This theory supports the idea that rather than being a phobia, the intense discomfort is caused by a response to visual stimuli. Others believe that the cause is social anxiety, with the circles resembling eyes or faces, which can be unnerving if you are uncomfortable in social situations.

Whatever the cause, trypophobia is considered to be more common in women than in men and it might also be more prevalent in individuals who suffer from migraines or epilepsy.

Can You Treat Trypophobia?

While there is no specific treatment for trypophobia, it is worthwhile trying treatments that are proven to be effective in reducing symptoms of other phobias.

  • Exposure Therapy: This form of therapy involves gradually exposing a person to the source of their fear, in the hope that over time, the fear will decrease.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT requires working with a therapist to counter the negative ideas and behaviors that trigger the phobia and replace them with more reasonable thoughts that will combat the fear.
  • Relaxation Strategies: Deep breathing, visualization, and listening to calming music are all strategies that can reduce feelings of fear and disgust. When encountering their phobia, people can visualize calming images or situations. Distraction can be a powerful strategy.
  • Medications: Anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication can be effective in treating a person with trypophobia, especially if that person also suffers from depression and anxiety. Medication can be used together with other treatment strategies.

While psychologists continue to debate whether trypophobia is considered to be a genuine phobia, the condition is fairly common and continues to cause significant distress to those who are afflicted with it. Hopefully, as more research is conducted in the future, there will be greater awareness and knowledge of trypophobia along with specific treatment strategies.

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD

Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events