A phobia is an irrational and persistent fear of certain objects or situations. Some people have an intense fear of snakes and others can’t stand the thought of public speaking.
But a small number of people have a fear of something quite unique: holes. It’s known as trypophobia and very little research exists on the condition. In fact, some researchers are referring to it as “the most common phobia you have never heard of”.
What is trypophobia?
For trypophobes, the sight of clusters of holes arranged in different formations can cause intense psychological or even physical reactions.
A 2013 study from the University of Essex found the disorder is widely documented by sufferers on the internet and that “the trypophobic objects had relatively high contrast energy at midrange spatial frequencies”.
According to National Geographic the term is not recognised by the American Psychiatric Association, and “mental health experts debate whether or not the affliction is a true phobia, with some opting more frequently to label it an idiosyncrasy, or unusual behaviour”.
‘A wave of discomfort’
Even though the verdict is still out on whether it is a true phobia, the struggle is real for many sufferers. Tarryn Temmers, a content producer at Health24, is a self-diagnosed trypophobe. She says the phobia has been present for most of her life.
“I feel nauseous, a sensation that things are crawling on my skin and my head itches,” says Tarryn. “I feel extremely anxious when I get a glimpse of an image of a cluster of holes; I immediately have to look away. The fear comes over me like a wave of discomfort as soon as I am forced to look at the image.”
Tarryn thinks the condition should be recognised as a clinically diagnosable phobia. From a patient's perspective this would mean that the condition will likely be covered by medical aids, more research will be done and official funding will improve the quality of treatment.
“Professionals should be on board as this feels real and has real consequences.” A 'clinically diagnosable' condition means psychologists and psychiatrists can officially diagnose a patient with it using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM). Currently phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of open spaces and social phobia (fear of social situations) are covered in the criteria mentioned in the DSM
Due to a lack of research it is unsure how many people in South Africa are suffering from the disorder, but anecdotally looking at the prevalence of phobias in general, Tarryn is one of many South Africans suffering from trypophobia.
Why it happens
Researchers from the University of Kent say it is unclear why the condition exists, given the harmless nature of typical eliciting stimuli. Two of the theories being offered by scientists are:
1. Trypophobia is an evolutionary response to clusters that resemble the presence of parasites or infectious diseases. It reminds sufferers of diseases such as smallpox and measles and conjures up images of diseased people.
“This survival account is based on the notion that humans have been selected, via Darwinian principles, for their ability to notice poisonous organisms,” says Dr Geoff Cole who co-authored the University of Essex study.
2. Potentially deadly animals such as spiders, snakes and scorpions have similar markings. For sufferers it’s natural to avoid any structures that resemble these lethal animals.
“We found that a range of potentially dangerous animals also possess this spectral characteristic,” said Cole.
“We argue that although sufferers are not conscious of the association, the phobia arises in part because the inducing stimuli share basic visual characteristics with dangerous organisms, characteristics that are low level and easily computed, and therefore facilitate a rapid nonconscious response.”
Since there’s very little research on trypophobia, standardised treatment options are not available. Experts do, however, suggest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
CBT focused on abnormal and irrational thought patterns and is often used in treating other types of phobias. The study from the University of Kent suggests that CBT might also be effective in this case, even though it is still very experimental.
Not for sensitive readers:
More images of what would typically illicit a sense of anxiety in somebody suffering from trypophobia can be found here.