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Trypophobia: A 'hole' lot of cracks

Trypophobia - the fear of clusters of holes or bumps

An irrational fear towards something is common. A lot of people suffer from different phobias and sometimes an unexpected traumatic incident would then result to this emotion.  This unlikely condition is real. According to research, almost 15% of the world’s population suffers from trypophobia with possibly many more are undiagnosed as well as untreated.  

The term, trypophobia, which is also spelled as tropophobia, is not designated as an official medical terminology and very little research exist regarding this condition. In fact, scientists have even referred it as “the most common phobia you have never heard of”.

For trypophobes, seeing just a glimpse of clusters of holes arranged in different formations can already cause intense psychological or even physical reactions.

When they are exposed to hole patterns or bumps, a person may suffer from these symptoms which include panic attack, body shakes, nausea, sweating - among others. Hence, most of these symptoms vary to a person regardless of how severe the induced fear has experienced.

Trypophobia involves having discomfort to holes, and it could also be related to the fear of asymmetry.

Those who suffer from this phobia often experience itchiness, difficulty in breathing, and even fainting. Some people might actually experience a weird sensation of something in their skin or even try to think that a crawling object is within their bodies.

An experiment done by Tom Kupfer and his colleagues at the University of Kent, made an analysis involving 600 people.  They were shown a group of images such as diseases, holes in objects, and photos of plants. He then ranked levels of discomfort each participant had experienced when viewing each image. The authors concluded that trypophobia might provide as means for depicting 'roughly circular objects' as a signal of danger from disease or parasites.

Some of the most deadly sea creatures and insects have small holes and irregular patterns on them. People even suggest that trypophobia might also be related to the fear of deadly animals.

Phobias can be based on anything, including past experiences or observations of situations involving other people. You could see people being afraid of almost everything, from dogs to water – even hair.

“It wasn't until recently that I knew the name of my fear. As a kid, I had seemingly random fits when I would go outside and see these weird holes and lines in the sidewalk or in a plant. This emotion I felt is better described as disgust or rage and it would make me completely stop whatever I was doing”, says trypophobe Camille Eddy.

Masai Andrews, who trypophobes call ‘pioneer’ had started a Facebook group and a now defunct website called Trypophobia.com, which made him realize that a lot of people also suffer from this fear just like him.

In 2009, he also tried to put up the first Wikipedia page on trypophobia but it was kept on being taken down according to a PopSci article. Andrews credits the term trypophobia to an Irish blogger who joined the Greek words for 'boring holes' and 'fear'.

Holey moley

This fear of holes had spanned a variety of images on the internet and even conducted dares or challenges on how people would handle this condition.  

Even though this phobia has not been officially recognized by any medical society and is rarely used in research, there is some speculation among scientists who will consider the phenomenon.

A study from the University of Essex had found out that this disorder is frequently documented on the internet which made them experiment of trypophobic objects. They discovered that these items exhibit rarely high contrast energy specifically on frequencies that are midrange.

According to National Geographic, trypophobia is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and mental health experts does not consider this term as a ‘true phobia’ but rather labeling it as an idiosyncratic or unusual behavior.

Even though the verdict is still unclear on whether it is a true phobia, the struggle is real for many who suffer from it. Tarryn Temmers, a self-diagnosed trypophobe says the phobia has been present for most of her life.

“I constantly feel nauseous, like experiencing a sensation where things are crawling on my skin and my head itches,” says Tarryn. “I get extremely anxious when I catch a glimpse of an image with a cluster full of holes; I immediately look away. The fear comes over me like a wave of discomfort as soon as I am forced to look at it.”

Tarryn thinks the condition should be recognized as a clinically diagnosed phobia. Looking at a view from a patient's perspective, this would likely provide more research on this disorder and having official funding for this will most definitely improve the quality of treatment.

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 (the fear of open spaces) and social phobia (fear of social situations) are covered in these criteria.

Due to a lack of research it is unsure how many people exactly are suffering from the disorder, but looking at it, its prevalence is actually more than what most phobias have in general.

Why it happens

Researchers from the University of Kent say it is unclear why this condition exists, however they managed to formulate some reason regarding this phobia.

Two of the theories being offered by scientists are:

1. Trypophobia is an evolutionary response to clusters which resemble presence of parasites or infectious diseases. It reminds sufferers of diseases and sometimes lets patients see images of diseased people.

“This survival account is based on the notion that humans have the ability to notice poisonous organisms through Darwinian principles of selection,” 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 anything that may resemble these lethal animals.

“We found that a range of potentially dangerous animals also possess this spectral characteristic,” said Cole.

Certain objects also elicit similar features that involve holes or bumps and people on social media started to share images of these various things ranging from pomegranates, sponges, to skin patterns and polka dots.

Arnold Wilkins and Geoff Cole are hoping to change medical professionals’ perception on trypophobia as a mental disorder.

In 2009, Wilkins introduced the idea of trypophobia to his psychology students during his classes. He did an experiment where he showed two separate images on a screen at the same time—one of a wooded landscape and the other of a lotus flower with small holes on it. Wilkins, who is an expert on visual stress, shared his findings to Geoff Cole, who both conducted scientific investigations behind the fear of holes, patterns, and bumpy surfaces. They were able to share what they learned during the research process, even causing one of their lab assistants to exhibit disgust at one of the images of a blue octopus. This happens to be a very significant experiment to provide further researches regarding this disorder.

Treatment

Since very little research exists on trypophobia, there are no treatment options available. Experts do, however, suggest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

CBT focuses 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 even though it is still very experimental.

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