Trypophobia is a condition I’ve had since I can remember. In a nutshell it is a nervous, flesh crawling response to particular patterns and textures, typically organic and often involving small holes. It’s especially bad when associated with skin. It’s a known condition (although obviously I’ve never Googled it, lest I turn inside out), however it’s not recognised in the DSM. This is probably because of the large pool of possible triggers which are different for each person. So, it’s not like being deathly afraid of a single thing, say, snakes or cotton wool, And this is one of the particularly awful things about it – you never really know when you might come across a trigger. They often come out of the blue, you might come across something in the street or scrolling through images online and completely by accident trigger yourself.
My Mum has it too, although because I also have anxiety and depression it can be much more acute for me. If I see something particularly bad, it can put me out for two weeks or more. So that’s like 2 weeks of prickling skin, adrenaline rushes, flesh crawling sensations, obsessively imagining the trigger (where my mind very helpfully transposes the pattern onto my skin because why not?), panic attacks etc. I only know one other person who has symptoms like mine and who experiences it so acutely. But it’s really hard to talk about because even talking about it can be triggering! There doesn’t seem to be any specific treatment for it, other than anxiety management.
Having spoken to few people, I get the feeling that lots of people have this condition to some degree or another, it’s just that my symptoms are really severe. I spent most of my life not knowing it was even a condition with a name, I came across it through a friend when I was about 26. Before then I just assumed it was a weird quirk that just me and my Mum had.
I have two distinct memories of trypophobia as a child. The very first was at a natural history exhibition, I was very small, maybe only 4 or 5. There were pictures and information about a species of frog whose female incubates and carries it’s young inside it’s back. I remember seeing a picture of it and feeling immediately terrified. Prickles ran up and down my spine and it felt as if my flesh was crawling off my bones. My Mum leaned over and asked me, “Does that picture look a bit weird-y to you?” weird-y was the word my Mum always used to describe her trypophobia triggers and now we both knew this was a shared experience.
The second and more acute attack from my childhood was on a camping holiday in Spain with my parents and some of our close family friends. My Dad was explaining to me how taste buds worked and what happened when they ot burned (I must have burned my tongue) and his description of them as little pots with lids just sent me into this insane flesh crawly, panicked state. I remember telling my Mum that his description had upset me – it wasn’t my Dad’s fault, how could he have known? – and she reminded him that I too was afflicted with the ‘weird-y’ disease and to be careful. Unfortunately, it was too late. the entire 2 weeks we were away on that holiday I woke up and went to bed feeling panicked, my skin tingling and being utterly unable to stop thinking about this trigger as my mind festered on it and bent it into all sorts of things. After initially telling my Mum that it was upsetting, I don’t think I said anything else. I don’t think anyone had a clue what was going on in my mind and my nervous system that holiday.
It’s only in the last 6 years that I’ve had the word trypophobia in my vocabulary. As you can imagine, the idea of trying to research this bizarre quirk is less than appealing, both online or in books. I have no doubt that any information would be associated with triggering images. By chance, a friend of mine who had experienced one or two very minor triggers had looked it up online and discovered there was a name for it. It felt good to finally have a real name for it and to know that someone else at some point had recognised it as a state of mind. Being able to label any illness is immediately less isolating.
Phobic spells, some lasting only a few hours and others lasting for up to two weeks, occurred sporadically throughout my teens. Trypophobia triggers are like literal tigers in the bush, pouncing on you from out of nowhere when you’re minding your own business. Looking back on it, I think my acute reaction to these triggers and my inability to stop obsessing about them were probably the first signs that I suffered with anxiety, but nobody was really thinking about these things in the late 1980s.
As an adult I’ve suffered on and off. As I become better at general anxiety management, I can deal with the triggers more proactively. The last time I had a really acute attack was about 7 ago. I was dealing with a string of panic attacks around Christmas 2010 and completely by accident saw one of the worst triggers I’ve ever experienced. The panic attacks, which were already causing visual distortions because they were so acute, became enmeshed with this trigger and I completely fell off the edge. For a few days I couldn’t even leave the house because more and more everyday patterns were becoming triggering for me. Brickwork on the side of buildings was the worst – living in London means you can’t walk down the street without seeing brickwork. Luckily I was able to get some emergency Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which helped to reduce the intensity of the panic attacks and the trypophobic responses became less difficult to handle and eventually dissipated. My sensitivity to triggers is definitely increased when my general anxiety levels are up, so the two are certainly intrinsically linked.
I would love to know if there’s anyone out there researching this phenomenon and to understand more about the mechanism underlying it. I have a few evolutionary-developmental theories of my own, but for now this is just another brain quirk I have to manage as and when it comes. I hope that anyone experiencing these symptoms can find comfort in this shared experience and to know that CBT and other anxiety management tools can help to reduce the response.
This blog was featured as a guest blog for the Mental Illness Happy Hour.