What Is Trypophobia?

What We Know About the Fear of Clustered Patterns

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Trypophobia is an intense and disproportionate fear towards repetitive or clustered patterns of holes, bumps, or protrusions (such as might be seen in a honeycomb or lotus seed pod). Trypophobia is not classified as a mental disorder. However, it can meet the criteria for a phobia if the sight of clustered patterns causes sudden fear and anxiety.

Researchers remain conflicted on whether trypophobia meets the clinical definition of a specific phobia. Still, people who exhibit severe symptoms may be treated with therapies commonly used for anxiety disorders, such as exposure therapy.

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What Is Trypophobia?

Trypophobia wasn’t well known until recently. It is believed that the term trypophobia was first coined in 2005, when participants in an online forum claimed to have an unreasonable fear or disgust toward objects with closely packed holes.

Since then, thousands of people have come forward claiming to be affected. This has led some experts to question whether trypophobia is a legitimate condition, or simply a socially influenced disorder, similar to Morgellons disease.

Usually, experts can determine a phobia according to the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Edition 5 (DSM-5). However, it’s been difficult to determine if trypophobia meets these conditions for a specific phobia, because researchers interpret the condition differently. 

For example, one study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2018 reported that many people claiming to have trypophobia exhibited disgust upon seeing clustered patterns, but not fear. These researchers ruled against classifying it as a phobia, since fear is a defining feature.

In contrast, the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry published a report that stated trypophobia is indeed a specific phobia. This was determined by the persistence of the symptoms, paired with the psychological stress and impairment that study participants experienced.

Other researchers believe the initial disgust a person feels toward clustered patterns may begin as a fear, but with negative reinforcement and continued avoidance, can evolve into a phobia over time.

While there is limited research to determine the existence of trypophobia, any object or situation that consistently triggers extreme, irrational fear can reasonably be regarded as a phobia.

Symptoms

Trypophobia can be triggered by a range of objects and patterns. For example, lotus seed pods, honeycombs, and pomegranates have large, clustered holes that may cause fear and anxiety. 

Insect eyes, sea sponges, coral reefs, and condensation on a surface may also trigger aversion and disgust. People with a fear of holes may also become triggered at the sight of man-made products, like bubble wrap or graphic patterns, that appear to have holes.

Every phobia manifests with both a psychological response and an autonomic nervous system response. These reactions accelerate a person’s negative experience because extreme emotions spawn physical symptoms and vice versa.

People with trypophobia may experience some or all of the following physical and psychological symptoms:

  • Panic attacks
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Choking
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Faintness
  • Numbness
  • Dry mouth
  • Confusion

People with phobias tend to avoid the object or experience that triggers symptoms, which can make it more difficult to function in ordinary circumstances.

Diagnosis

Trypophobia isn't clearly defined as a phobia or a condition. It is challenging to diagnose because many researchers suggest that trypophobia can coexist with other psychiatric disorders (such as major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder), which causes an overlap in symptoms.

However, trypophobia can be diagnosed if the symptoms meet the criteria for specific phobia, as outlined in the DSM-5.

These criteria include:

Causes

Phobias don’t have a specific cause. Instead, they can result from any number or combination of complex factors, including genetics, prior trauma, learned responses early in life, and long-term anxiety or depression.

With trypophobia, some scientists believe the cause may be evolutionary. Rather than being caused by trauma or anxiety, researchers at the University of Amsterdam suggest that trypophobia may simply be an “exaggerated and overgeneralized version of a natural adaptive response” to patterns in nature we inherently view as dangerous.

For instance, a person may subconsciously associate a bumpy object with rashes or blisters, such as those seen in smallpox. Clusters of holes may be interpreted as parasitic infestations of the skin, and certain patterns can mimic the appearance of venomous snakes.

Similarly, a person may fear clustered patterns on food and other organic matter because it mimics the appearance of maggots, which could make food dangerous to eat. 

Other scientists are less supportive of the hypothesis. In a 2017 study, preschoolers exhibited an immediate aversion to colored photos of venomous snakes, but not to characteristic patterns associated with snakes. This suggests that any response to such patterns may be learned, rather than instinctual. It also raises doubt about whether or not trypophobia is a legitimate phobia.

Treatment

Trypophobia isn’t a specific condition, so there aren’t any recommended treatments. However, people diagnosed with a specific phobia are typically treated with psychotherapy and, if needed, medications. 

Treatments include:

  • Exposure therapy, which can reduce a person's response to fear by exposing them gradually to the thing they avoid and are afraid of.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people address the negative thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that arise when they are exposed to their phobia, then replace them with feelings of safety and positivity.
  • Anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medications), can decrease the anxious symptoms associated with a phobia, including panic, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath.
  • Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants that can be used to relax someone who is experiencing stress, anxiety, and panic in response to a phobia.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) help phobias by regulating serotonin, a brain chemical that plays a role in mood and anxiety.
  • Beta blockers can counteract the anxious effects of phobias by blocking the beta receptors. This slows the heart rate and helps lower blood pressure to reduce symptoms of anxiety.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety or a phobia, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


A Word From Verywell

Regardless of whether trypophobia is real or not, it can be detrimental to daily life. Any overactive response to an object or situation that is persistent and triggers avoidant behaviors should not be ignored or minimized. You can get help by seeking a therapist or doctor who specializes in treating phobias and anxiety disorders. 

A professional can help you discover different coping tools and treatments to find the one that’s right for you. It’s also important to remember that experiencing symptoms of a phobia doesn’t mean that you’re “mentally ill.”

Many people have phobias and irrational fears, and are able to overcome them with the right care regimen. Talking openly with your loved ones about how you feel can make your fears less intense, and can ensure you have support in your healing journey.

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