What Is Trypophobia?

Overview

Picture of Lotus Flower with a Cluster of Seeds or Holes
Lotus flowers form seeds in holes. This is a prime example of an image that may cause discomfort in someone with trypophobia.

If dish sponges and honeycombs give you the creeps, you may have trypophobia. That’s the fear or intense dislike of holes -- especially small, repeating patterns or clusters of holes.

If small holes bother you, you’re not alone. Roughly one in six people finds images of small holes “uncomfortable” or “repulsive.” Experts think trypophobia may have something to do with the way the human brain spots threats.

What Is Trypophobia?

People who have trypophobia may feel afraid or grossed out when they look at the seed head of a lotus flower, an open pomegranate, or soap suds. Triggers can be:

  • Holes, especially clusters of small holes
  • Patterns that repeat over and over
  • Things that stick out in bunches or groups
  • Rows or clusters of bumps
  • Circles

People with the condition say they have to see holes to feel the fear or discomfort. This is different from other fears. For example, people who have a fear of cats feel afraid even when they can’t see a cat but know one is nearby. People with trypophobia usually feel fear or discomfort only when they can see the thing that bothers them.

Symptoms of Trypophobia

People who have trypophobia say it can cause:

Is Trypophobia Real?

It’s not in the book that doctors use to diagnose fear disorders. In fact, doctors haven’t studied trypophobia very much. But it seems to be common. Roughly 15% of people say pictures of small holes freak them out or disgust them.

Trypophobia turns up more in women than men. It’s also more common in people who are quick to feel disgust. In fact, some research shows that trypophobia triggers disgust more than fear.

Why Do People Have This Fear?

Researchers have a few theories.

Some deadly viruses and infections cause skin to break out in clusters of round sores. Fear of disease may have trained the human brain to dislike things that look like illness. So the brain may not like seeing clusters of holes or other things that look like diseased skin.

Researchers have also found that poisonous animals have skin or eyes that look like clusters of holes. Some examples are octopuses and spiders. Again, fear may have wired the human brain to dislike images that remind it of these threats.

It’s possible that the way holey things look -- the light and shadows made by their circles or patterns -- remind the human brain of stuff it finds dangerous.

Ways to Cope

Some kinds of therapy can help. Specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can improve symptoms in some people with trypophobia.

CBT is a kind of talk therapy that aims to change the way you think about the stuff that freaks you out. It involves practicing and planning for a run-in with whatever makes you uncomfortable. It also includes rehearsing new ways to think about the source of your fear.

If fear of holes is interfering with your life, it might help to learn how others like you cope with it. You can find support groups online.

References
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Frontiers in Psychiatry: “Trypophobia: What Do We Know So Far? A Case Report and Comprehensive Review of the Literature.”

Psychological Science: “Fear of holes.”

The Quarterly Journal of American Psychology: “Assessment of trypophobia and an analysis of its visual precipitation.” PeerJ—Life & Environment: “Pupillometry reveals the physiological underpinnings of the aversion to holes.” MayoClinic: “Cognitive behavioral therapy.”