It started when Maria Armstrong was four, during playtime in the garden at her home. Some leaves of the ferns around her became upturned, exposing her to rows and rows of the round brown spores underneath. In an instant, a feeling of helplessness and fear set her heart racing and her stomach churning, a feeling that became seared in her mind. In that moment, Maria morphed into a trypophoia: someone with an irrational reaction to the sight of clusters of small holes, circles, or bumps.
Over the years, anytime she saw similar groupings of circles, even images of cells displayed during a biology class, she would feel a sickening discomfort. “If I am unexpectedly triggered, it might take me days to recover,” says Maria, now a 43-year-old sign language interpreter from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Although this phobia is not recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a peer-reviewed study published in the March 2015 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology estimated that 15 percent of adults (18 percent of females and 11 percent of males) experience trypophobia to some degree. (1)
Because trypophobia can produce a range of symptoms with varying degrees of intensity, from mild aversion to an immediate, intense feeling of disgust, fear, or even a full-blown panic attack, it’s likely “a natural and widely shared phenomenon that most people can experience to some degree,” says Renzo Lanfranco, a PhD student in psychology and human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh who has researched trypophobia.
Geoff Cole, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England who has also studied trypophobia, agrees. A trypophobia himself, he refers to the disorder as “the most common phobia you have never heard of.”
Celebrities Who Are Trypophobia
Celebrities are not immune to this condition, and have drawn attention to the disorder in recent years. Those who have talked publicly about their trypophobia include the actress Sarah Paulson, who is a trypophobia in real life and whose phobia was written into her role on the popular television series American Horror Story. (3)
Kendall Jenner, of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, has also outed herself as a trypophobia. “I can’t even look at little holes,” Kendall wrote in a blog post. “It gives me the worst anxiety. Who knows what’s in there?”
What Are the Symptoms of Trypophobia?
One study, based on accounts by 200 members of a trypophobia Facebook support group, divided the symptoms into three categories:
- Cognitive-related reactions, such as uneasiness, anxiety, helplessness, disgust or fear
- Skin-related reactions, such as goosebumps, itchiness, or feeling your skin crawl
- Physiological reactions, such as dizziness, trembling, shortness of breath, sweating, body shakes, racing heartbeat, headaches, nausea or vomiting (1)
What Triggers Symptoms of Trypophobia?
Some trypophobia symptoms are set off by the sight of everyday, harmless items, such as:
- Soap bubbles
- Swiss cheese
- Hair follicles
- Skin pores
- Poppy-seed bagels
Others respond only to more exotic or unusual images, such as:
- Coral reefs
- Lotus seed pods
- Surinam toad giving birth
- Photoshopped pictures, such as rows of holes or teeth embedded on an arm, shoulder or face.
In 2017, photoshopped images featuring women riddled with holes on their faces, their heads and their hands that were used to advertise the seventh season of American Horror Story set off latent trypophobia in so many people, it led to a tweetstorm of protests and warnings. (5)
More recently, trypophobia support groups have warned of several potential triggers in the movie Black Panther, including one scene in which the character Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, takes off his shirt to reveal rows of scars and dots painted on his chest in a panther pattern. (6)
Why these or any images produce such an intense response in some people and not others is not certain, but recent studies have begun to tease out intriguing possibilities.
Who Is Vulnerable to Getting Trypophobia?
In 2015, the psychologists Arnold Wilkins and Geoff Cole, of England’s University of Essex Centre for Brain Science, conducted one of the earliest scientific studies to discover who is susceptible to trypophobia and why. They theorized that trypophobia evolved through evolution by natural selection. (1)
Their reasoning goes like this: Since many of the world’s deadliest animals, including alligators and crocodiles, as well as certain venomous snakes, spiders, and insects, have repeating high-contrast bumps or holes on their skin, our ancient ancestors who were disgusted or scared by those patterns would have had a greater chance of survival in the presence of those dangers. According to this reasoning, these individuals survived to reproduce and passed those traits on to their offspring, who continued to pass it on, and the aversion continues in the gene pool to this day.
A study by the University of Kent researchers Tom Kupfer and An T.D. Le, published in the January 2017 issue of the journal Cognition and Emotion, took this idea one step further. Since the danger of poisonous animals exists, but is not generally a persistent threat, they proposed that trypophobia is more likely an exaggerated response to a natural protective tendency to avoid infectious skin diseases such as smallpox and measles, and parasites, such as scabies and ticks.