Fear of being touched or haphephobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by the fear of being touched. Other names for haphephobia include chiraptophobia, aphenphosmphobia, and homophobia. Being touched by strangers or without consent can make many people uncomfortable. However, if the fear is intense, it appears even when handled by family or friends, and if it causes significant distress, it may be haphephobia.
This condition is different from hypersensitivity to touch, which is called allodynia. A person with allodynia can also avoid being touched but does so because it makes them feel pain rather than fear.
Reassuring hand on the back. Haphephobia is an intense fear of being touched. The fear of being touched is considered a phobia when the fear arises almost every time the person is connected, persists for more than six months, and affects relationships or work life.
The following symptoms may indicate haphephobia:
- Immediate fear or anxiety when touched or at the thought of being touched
- Panic attacks can include an increased heart rate, sweating, hot flashes, tingling, and chills.
- Avoid situations where a person can be touched
- The awareness that fear is irrational and disproportionate
- General anxiety, depression, and poor quality of life result from the phobia.
- Children can show the following symptoms when they are touched:
- Freezing in position
- Hold on to your caregiver
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Causes of fear of being touched
An anxious young woman surrounded by people. Haphephobia can be related to acrophobia, which is the fear of crowds; it can be caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event that involves being touched. People may not remember the event that triggered the phobia, especially if they were very young.
Phobias can also be inherited. A person can learn to be touched by observing a loved one expressing fear or avoiding being felt. Although haphephobia can sometimes occur independently, it can also be related to other conditions. These include
A fear of germs (misophobia): A person may avoid being touched for fear of contamination or impurity.
Fear of crowds (ochlophobia): A person with acrophobia may feel anxious about being touched by strangers in groups.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): A person with OCD may fear certain situations outside their control, such as being touched by other people.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Fear of being touched can stem from a previous traumatic experience that involved being felt, such as witnessing or experiencing sexual assault or abuse.
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Phobias are relatively common. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) estimates that 12.5 percent of adults in the United States experience a phobia at some point in their lives.
The following factors can make haphephobia more likely:
- Negative past experiences of being touched.
- Family history of haphephobia or other anxiety disorders. The fears can be learned through observation. There may also be genetic factors that make people more prone to developing anxiety or phobic disorders.
- Other phobias. According to DSM-5, about 75 percent of people with a specific phobic disorder will have more than one phobia.
- Other mental health conditions include OCD, PTSD, or general anxiety disorder.
- Gender. Situational phobias like haphephobia are twice as likely to occur in women as in men.
- Personality type. A neurotic personality or a tendency to inhibit behavior can risk developing anxiety and phobic disorders.
Treatment and coping
One of the biggest obstacles to overcoming a phobia is avoiding the situation that causes fear. The goal of treatments is to help people cope with anxiety related to their fear and gradually overcome it.
Effective treatments for phobias include:
- Psychotherapies or talk therapies
- Young woman in a therapy session
- People with haphephobia may find CBT helpful in treating their anxiety.
- Many types of treatment are available to help a person control or overcome phobias. These include
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can teach a person new behaviors and thought processes to help them cope with the anxiety they feel when being touched.
- Exposure therapy is when a person is gradually exposed to their fear in a safe and controlled environment over weeks or months. This can start with the imagination of being touched and progress to being physically connected or standing in a crowded space.
- Virtual reality exposure therapy allows safe and controlled exposure to phobic objects or situations without the risk of being near the thing or in the case. One review found that it can be a valuable treatment for phobias.
Medications such as beta-blockers or antidepressants can help relieve immediate symptoms of anxiety and panic. These medications are often used in combination with psychotherapies.
Breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques help manage anxiety and panic attacks. Focusing on taking long, deep breaths can reduce immediate symptoms of anxiety when a person is touched.
Practicing mindfulness can help people understand their thought processes and behaviors and develop better ways to cope with anxiety. A recent review found that mindfulness effectively treats and prevents anxiety and depression.
Exercise, taking time to relax and getting enough sleep are powerful ways to promote overall mental health. Self-care is often used to reduce anxiety and panic and help people cope with their phobias.
When to see a doctor
Specific fears can be extreme, particularly in children, but they often disappear without medical treatment.
Being touched is a brutal fear due to cultural and social expectations around touch.
If this fear persists for more than 6 months, leads to intense avoidance of everyday situations, and gets in the way of personal or work life, the person should contact their doctor.
Specific phobias respond very well to treatment. Using daily coping mechanisms can reduce the impact of a phobia on a person’s life and help them overcome the dread in the long run.
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