Confessions of a Trypophobe

This post may make many of you question a) my sanity and b) why you are friends with me or read my blog. But in all seriousness it is a real thing, and is as absolutely insane and weird as it sounds.

I’m not sure when it started but my earliest memory of it was a rather vivid nightmare I had as a child. I probably was about 12 or 13 years old at the time. In the dream, I had this disease spreading all over my body – it was a rash except it looked exactly like mussel shells were sprouting from my skin all lined up together in a patch on my arm and spreading. The edges were razor sharp and called (appropriately) cutters. I don’t believe there was a cure.

I’m not sure what triggered this graphic subconscious image, but I have a hunch it was around the time my Grandfather got herpes. We had had a death in the family and during one of the religious rituals his skin made contact with some contaminated water, and he became very ill. Regardless of cause, the REM-induced image of the outbreak on my skin is forever etched in my memory.

After this nightmare I didn’t give it much thought. I knew that staring at, for instance beehives and honeycomb patterns or anthills made me uneasy but I attributed that to a general aversion towards insects. There were other things over the years, but they were few and far between. But a year or two ago, I picked up a piece of scrap paper while cleaning up my apartment. An ex-boyfriend had doodled his signature on it multiple times in straight symmetrical lines across and down the page, and weirdly, it made me really uneasy.

I have always teetered towards the anxious end of the spectrum. I have a few other phobias that I think  are quite normal (read: socially acceptable). I’m afraid of heights and afraid of pigeons (because they are gross) and the general spider/bug/insect category.

Over the years I had a vague awareness that repetitive patterns, including but not limited to clusters of holes, bothered me. Beehives, anthills, the hundreds of leftover staples on those wooden posts on the street corners of Toronto – if I looked at these things they made me want to grit my teeth, to dig my nails into my skin, to destroy whatever it was that was in front of me. It agitated me until I could find something to take my mind off it.

This, and my fear of ivy branches (when there are no leaves – they look like blood capillaries about to burst out of someone’s skin to me) have been a source of much amusement to my friends and family. Rightfully so, because lets face it – when you’re afraid of heights or poisonous insects there is a definite link between your aversion and subsequent doom that would follow if these fears were ignored. But what exactly is a bunch of tiny holes are going to do to me (or the ivy)? Especially in photograph form?

So anyway, faced with this weird sensation, I did what any other high-strung paranoid person would do: I googled. This was, as I quickly learned, a mistake as the page populated with images full of things that just made things worse. That is the biggest challenge for trypophobes – finding out information without seeing the very images that make their skin crawl.

With a  clenched jaw I soldiered through till I found out more. I definitely wasn’t the only one – an estimated 16% of people report having these types of reactions. I had Trypophobia, which is defined as a fear of clusters of holes but covers a wider spectrum of imagery.

I discovered a few websites and a Facebook support group for people that want to share their experiences. Posting and commenting on photos is strictly prohibited which makes it a good space to share experiences and/or comments. As it turns out, everyone experiences it differently. Two trypophobes could look at the exact same thing, and while one may react, the other one will not.

Some don’t like mesh or certain types of shoes that are excessively studded or have certain patterns on them. Mine, for the most part, is limited to anything (included fake photoshopped images) that is part of the natural world, especially stuff on people’s skin.

Yesterday while scrolling through my Facebook feed  there was a video about the dangers about using Dove shampoo. The image included someone’s head, neck and back and something that can only be described as some sort of growth with tiny holes with something inside them. I panicked.

I haven’t had a reaction like that in a long time, as I don’t really encounter such images on a regular basis. Although it turned out to be a hoax (also done with Head & Shoulders shampoo), I could not stop thinking about it. I spent the evening before I went to sleep googling the silliest youtube videos I know just to make myself forget. I was able to sleep, but today it’s on my mind again.

As it turns out there is some interesting research on where this comes from. According to an article in The Atlantic there was some research done on images that typically induced trypophobic reactions. It was discovered they often had “high contrast at midrange spacial frequencies.”

Sooooo I really don’t know what that means. If somebody else does, please feel free to explain in the comments.

However, the interesting part is these types of patterns mirror those found on poisonous animals such as octopus, deathstalker scorpions, and select poisonous snakes and spiders. So it could be that this reaction is instinctual and biological rather than completely in one’s head. For me I know, the direct link is to that childhood nightmare and to the feeling of being diseased. Like the Chicken Pox on steroids.

It is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as it does not interfere “significantly with the person’s normal routine.” I agree with this statement at least when it comes to my own experiences, as I have not been hindered in any way in life by this aversion. I think we can get a little carried away and make this into an affliction, and allow ourselves to be crippled by it which is defeatist and incredibly self-indulgent.

From my own experience it’s been a personal anecdote that I use to make my friends and family laugh (‘Guess who’s afraid of geometric patterns ?!?’) and that’s about it. I tend not to think about it on a regular basis though I do figure that one of these days I should put myself to task about getting over it.

I’ve seen options of both cognitive and behavioural therapy to treat the affliction by changing the way you think about the offensive images. How this would work I’m not quite sure though I do certainly harbour some comic mental images of a pavlovian strategy that pairs lotus pods with positive things such as ice-cream, chocolate and/or alcohol.

From asking around it certainly sounds like nobody particularly enjoys looking at the photos that cause some of us to feel like scratching our eyeballs out. What’s interesting however is the range of reactions you see. I was still able to sleep (after some humorous Youtube therapy), but I know others in the group who weren’t. Whatever the solution is, it’s there and it is very real, even if it is a little weird. Everyone has their own quirks, and I suppose this one is all mine.

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Trypophobe

  1. Interesting take on phobias Mira. Some of us have phobias we are unable to even articulate, and you have done this well. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks 🙂 What’s strange is how strong my reaction is to seeing some of the images. But I did go back and look at the thing. It is the image of a lotus pod poorly photoshopped into someone’s skin and is a credit card or some other type of scam. I forced myself to stare at it and to understand it was fake and something clicked and it doesn’t bother me as much.

      I think there is a very definite psychological link for me between this fear and fear of diseases especially after Papa got herpes, which is weird because I only put two and two together recently. I think that’s why the image bothered me so much is because it was on someone’s skin.Once I could see it was not real it somehow made it okay.

  2. I am really amazed by going through it and how well you have illustrated the topic. We all have some kind of phobias but to recognize and pen it is something incredible. One has to go inside his/her own brain to decipher those feelings (good or bad) and then to pen it. Thanks for sharing it with me.

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