Trypophobia: The Crippling Fear Of Tiny Holes

Published May 23, 2019
Published May 23, 2019

Is trypophobia real, and is there a cure?

Trypophobia Lotus Pod

Wikimedia CommonsA lotus seed pod, one of the most common images associated with trypophobia.

Have you ever witnessed a small cluster of tightly packed holes and felt a chilling sense of dread creep over you? Or seen the seeds popping out of the deep, dark crevices of a lotus seed pod and felt your heartbeat quicken?

If you answered yes to these questions, you may have a peculiar condition called trypophobia. And, along with the rest of the internet, you may be wondering exactly what that is, why it happens, and what you can do about it.

What Is Trypophobia?

In short, trypophobia is the fear of (or aversion to — more on that distinction later) clusters of small holes or bumps.

The topic of whether trypophobia is a “fear” remains hotly debated. One study found that 11 percent of males and 18 percent of females found an image of a lotus seed pod uncomfortable and repulsive.

But to be defined as a true fear or phobia something must incite a reaction in the autonomic nervous system, such as heart palpitations, sweating, increased breathing, or even fainting. In short, some sort of physical distress, rather than just distaste or disgust, must be exhibited in reaction to the phobia in question.

Although trypophobia may elicit some of these reactions, it is typically associated with much milder symptoms such as goosebumps or a feeling of disgust.

Trypophobia Shell

Wikimedia CommonsA shell covered in clustered holes that is commonly used to induce trypophobia.

Phobias also must persist for more than six months — essentially, fear can be fleeting but a phobia will stick around. As there are dozens, if not hundreds, of legitimate phobias, they are divided into three categories: specific phobias, social phobias, and agoraphobia.

Specific phobias involve the fear of specific situations, like a fear of heights. Social phobias cause extreme anxiety in social or public situations. And agoraphobia involves the fear of being in a place or situation from which it might be difficult or embarrassing to escape.

Trypophobia would fit into the specific phobia category. However, since little medical inquiry has been done on the effects of trypophobia on the human body, some scientists are reluctant to call it a phobia, and rather refer to it as the “aversion” to small holes, rather than the “fear of” them.

What Causes Trypophobia?

As far as scientists know, most fears and phobias are not useless — in fact, they are likely evolutionary responses programmed into our brains to ensure our survival. Take the fear of heights, for example; without it, humans may have never learned to stay away from dangerous cliffs or edges. Or take the fear of spiders and other insects; many scientists believe this common fear helps deter interaction with poisonous creatures.

So how would the fear of tiny clustered holes help us survive?

Some believe that trypophobia could be a “reflex reaction” based on “biological revulsion.” Many animals, particularly snakes, frogs, and insects have skin or exoskeletons that are covered in patterns that include small clustered dots.

Trypophobic Frog

Wikimedia CommonsThe so-called “trypophobic frog,” the Surinam toad.

The Surinam toad, for example, gives birth to its babies through a layer of holey skin on its back in which eggs are embedded and later hatch, releasing baby toads through the holes.

Videos of the toad’s reproductive cycle have circled the internet, and even earned the toad the nickname of “trypophobic frog.” Reactions like these could work in the frog’s favor, as it makes them less likely to be bothered by humans.

The same response works in humans’ favor as well. If some animals covered in these spots are poisonous, for example, their appearance would drive people away and thus ensure they do not come in contact with the life-threatening venom. The blue-ringed octopus is one example of a very poisonous creature with trypophobic characteristics.

Blue Ringed Octopus

Wikimedia CommonsThe blue-ringed octopus, a highly poisonous animal with a trypophobic pattern on its skin.

Another theory that made the rounds a few years ago posits that people with trypophobia on’t like looking at images with small, tightly packed circles because the brain requires more oxygen to process them. An aversion to these images could be the brain’s way of avoiding over-exertion.

A Way To Avoid Infectious Disease

In addition, some biologists believe that trypophobia could act as a cue to infectious disease. Many visible infectious diseases — like chickenpox and some parasitic infections — leave small clusters of holes or bumps on the skin. An aversion to these could act as a warning sign to stay away from the infected or seek help for oneself.

Having said that, these explanations remain purely hypothetical. Since trypophobia has not been studied as extensively as other common fears, little is known about how it happens, how common it is, and other pressing questions.

The Trypophobia Test

Those who claim to suffer from trypophobia report various reactions to seeing trypophobic imagery, such as feeling physically ill, experiencing an increase in heart rate, or being completely disgusted.

For those hoping to find out if they suffer from this odd fear, look no further than a quick Google search — for the past decade or so, trypophobia has become a wildly popular topic on social media and photo listicles. There are entire pages dedicated to the subject, including “trypophobic images” meant to induce trypophobia and test those who may have it.

Some of the most popular images include the previously mentioned “trypophobic frog,” various holey foods like strawberries, English muffins, or honeycomb, and the most rampant of all, the lotus flower. While many of the images are real, some are altered, like the common picture of a lotus seed pod photoshopped on human skin.

As far as having trypophobia, there is no official diagnosis. The only way to see if you may suffer from this strange condition is to test yourself by looking at trypophobic images.

How To Treat The Tiny Hole Phobia

Honeycomb

Karunakar Rayker/FlickrHoneycombs are another common trypophobic image.

Experts suggest that the ideal treatment for trypophobia is a common clinical technique called exposure therapy.

In this method, sufferers slowly expose themselves to the things that trigger their condition — in this case, trypophobic images. By confronting your fear in this controlled manner, you slowly build a tolerance to the stimuli and realize that there is nothing to be afraid of.

So there you have it! If you find yourself disgusted, physically ill, or totally repulsed by the image of tiny clustered holes, you’re not alone. There are many people out there just like you, who have to close the computer when they come across a photo of a honeycomb during their online surfing. The best news is, your fears may be legitimate.

The bad news is, it seems the only way to get over them is to continue Googling those terrifying images.


Can’t get enough of funky phobias? Check out this list of the 25 weirdest phobias out there. Then, read about five of the most unusual disorders ever reported, from natural drunkenness to “Exploding Head Syndrome.”

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.