How do you feel when you look at a honeycomb, a spotted animal, an open pomegranate, or the little bubbles that form in your morning latte? For most of us, we feel nothing in particular. But for someone with trypophobia, a specific phobia of small holes, images that contain tightly clustered holes may elicit strong feelings of fear, disgust, or panic.
What Is Trypophobia?
According to Popular Science, the term came to popularity when a college student named Masai Andrews started a trypophobe support group on Facebook and founded Trypophobia.com. As of now, trypophobia is one of the most common phobias, but is not a mental health condition recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, nor is it listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
However, it is recognized as a common condition by many mental health professionals, and certainly feels real — and sometimes quite troubling — to anyone who experiences it. While it’s difficult to determine exactly how common trypophobia is, a study published in Psychological Science found that 16% of participants surveyed exhibited feelings of fear, visual discomfort, aversion, and disgust while looking at a cluster of holes, such as those in a lotus seed pod or other trypophobic stimuli.
What Are The Symptoms of Trypophobia?
Trypophobia is triggered primarily by images, and many people experience symptoms within seconds of viewing these images. Again, it’s images of tightly clustered holes that usually cause symptoms, but some people report symptoms based on any image that contains holes or spotted patterns.
Here are some of the most common trypophobia triggers:
- Insect eyes
- Lotus seed pods
- Clusters of eyes
- Spotted animal skin
- Water condensation
Usually, people who have trypophobia experience strong reactions when viewing these images, though there is a wide range of feelings associated with the condition. Here are some of the most common emotional and physical reactions reported by people who have trypophobia:
- Panic and panic attacks
- Increased heartbeat
- Itching and “creepy crawly” skin sensations
- Shortness of breath
What Causes Trypophobia?
Experts have not been able to definitively pin down what causes this phobia of tiny holes, but there are some theories, most having to do with human evolution and adaptation. Coined by Dr. Geoff Cole and Prof. Arnold Wilkins, the idea is that images of tightly packed holes are reminiscent of things that humans have understandably feared (dangerous animals, infectious diseases) and that viewing images that look similar to these elicit uncomfortable feelings in people who have trypophobia.
For example, according to research published in Cognition and Emotion, trypophobia may be related to the fear of parasites and infectious diseases, which often present in patterns of closely clustered together holes (boils, the measles rash, insect bites, a body covered in flies, etc.).
“We suggest that aversion to clusters is an evolutionarily prepared response towards a class of stimuli that resemble cues to the presence of parasites and infectious disease,” the researchers explain. “Trypophobia may be an exaggerated and overgeneralised version of this normally adaptive response.”
Some researchers have surmised that a phobia of holes is related to a fear of dangerous animals. However, other researchers found that there was no correlation between images of venomous animals and trypophobia, but simply that trypophobic images and visual patterns are inherently scary for some people.
Treatments For Trypophobia
If you experience a phobia of holes, you may feel embarrassed to share how you feel. You should know that there is nothing wrong with you. Trypophobia is more common than most realize, it’s one of those things that has more to do with how you are wired than anything else. Some of us are more sensitive to these images than others. That said, you shouldn’t have to just “grin and bear it” if you feel that an irrational fear of little holes is making it difficult to function or enjoy your day-to-day life. Trypophobia is associated with increased rates of anxiety and depression, so if you are struggling with those along with a phobia of holes, it may be time to seek therapeutic help.
Types of therapy that may be helpful for trypophobia, include exposure therapy (used effectively for many types of phobias) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Sometimes medication may be appropriate to help you manage your anxiety or depression symptoms. Utilizing meditation and relaxation techniques, eating well, exercising, and practicing good sleep hygiene can also help mitigate your symptoms.
Anyone who has experienced trypophobia knows that it’s a very real condition, and can be uncomfortable, even terrifying at times. Suffering through it doesn’t have to be your reality. Help is out there, and you deserve to feel better so that you can live a full and happy life.
1. Abbasi J. Is Trypophobia a Real Phobia? Popular Science. Published July 25, 2011. https://www.popsci.com/trypophobia/
2. Cole GG, Wilkins AJ. Fear of Holes. Psychological Science. 2013;24(10):1980-1985. doi:10.1177/0956797613484937
3. Kupfer TR, Le ATD. Disgusting clusters: trypophobia as an overgeneralised disease avoidance response. Cognition & emotion. 2018;32(4):729-741. doi:10.1080/02699931.2017.1345721
4. Can W, Zhuoran Z, Zheng J. Is Trypophobia a Phobia? Psychological Reports. 2017;120(2):206-218. doi:10.1177/00332941166872985. Vlok-Barnard M, Stein DJ. Trypophobia: an investigation of clinical features. Revista Brasileira De Psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil: 1999). 2017;39(4):337-341. doi:10.1590/1516-4446-2016-2079