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Trypophobia: Do We All Have a Fear of Holes?

Current findings indicate that significant numbers of people throughout the world may have a phobia called trypophobia, which is characterized by an unusual revulsion to the visual appearance of clustered holes or hole-like shapes, such as those found in certain plant species or in groupings of soap bubbles. In a study published in August 2013 in the journal Psychological Science, a team of British researchers attempted to discover why trypophobia occurs. The members of this team concluded that the condition may have its roots in the need to recognize poisonous animals that pose an active threat to human health and that all people likely have some degree of trypophobia.

Phobia Basics

Phobias are fear- or panic-based emotional/physical reactions to a given thing or situation. Critically, these reactions don’t take place in the average person and don’t make sense in the context of a thing or situation’s ability to produce actual danger or harm. Typically, an affected individual experiences phobic reactions immediately and unconsciously. In quieter moments, most adults are aware of the unreasonable nature of their phobias; however, both adults and children may not recognize the lack of logic in their phobia-related responses. Besides fear and panic, emotions commonly associated with the activation of a phobia include anxiousness, terror and dread. Phobic people also usually experience a compelling urge to get away from the source of their reactions. Common physical changes associated with phobias include a spike in heart rate, an increased breathing rate or outright hyperventilation, loss of normal muscle or body control, general discomfort and itching or crawling sensations on the skin.

The American Psychiatric Association classifies three distinct types of phobia as officially diagnosable mental disorders: social phobia, agoraphobia and specific phobia. All of these conditions belong to a larger group of ailments called anxiety disorders. Individuals affected by social phobia experience phobic reactions to a broad range of social situations that bring them under some form of observation or scrutiny from other people. Individuals with agoraphobia experience phobic reactions when left alone in a broad range of public environments that they can’t get away from quickly or at will. Individuals with specific phobia experience phobic reactions only under fairly limited circumstances that involve exposure to specific situations, events or things. Well-known specific phobias include acrophobia (fear of heights) and germophobia (fear of germs).

Trypophobia Basics

People affected by trypophobia experience phobic reactions when they encounter objects or items that feature clusters of actual holes or patterns that resemble clusters of holes. Until recently, the notion of phobic reactions in these circumstances was viewed as something of a mental health joke or prank, just like so many other jokes and pranks circulating over the Internet or through other forms of social media. However, according to researchers at Great Britain’s University of Essex, disruptive trypophobic reactions may occur in as many as 16 percent of adults. The American Psychiatric Association makes no official references to trypophobia; however, the condition follows a pattern commonly found in people affected by various forms of specific phobia.

New Findings

In the study published in Psychological Science, University of Essex researchers examined the patterns found in 76 images capable of producing trypophobic responses in affected individuals, then compared those patterns to the patterns found in 76 other images not linked to trypophobic responses. Specifically, the researchers looked at the amount of repeating space between the individual features of each image. After completing the comparison, they concluded that the images capable of producing trypophobia in susceptible people all had a similar spacing between their visual elements.

Next, the researchers compared the visual spacing in the images associated with trypophobia to the visual spacing of the body markings of common poisonous creatures such as certain species of spiders, snakes and scorpions. After completing this comparison, they concluded that the spacing in the trypophobia-inducing test images was essentially the same as the spacing in the body markings of the poisonous creatures. As a result of this finding, they also concluded that people affected by trypophobia are quite possibly experiencing a subconscious response to certain objects’ deep visual resemblance to deadly animals from the human species’ ancestral past.

Considerations

The authors of the study in Psychological Science believe that all people likely have some degree of trypophobia, although the condition is only prominent enough to produce clearly negative effects in specific, unusually susceptible individuals. Currently, there is no established protocol for treating trypophobia. However, the study’s authors believe that repeated viewing of images known to trigger trypophobic reactions may gradually desensitize an affected person and diminish or eliminate the condition’s adverse effects.

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