Trypophobia: A fear of holes

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Updated 11:04 AM ET, Thu September 14, 2017
1 of 25
This lotus pod might look weirdly beautiful to some, but to those who suffer from trypophobia, an intense and irrational fear of holes, bumps and clusters, this image could cause a full-blown anxiety attack. Lotus pods are one of the most well-known triggers of this phobia. shutterstock
This advertisement for "American Horror Story: Cult" appears to use lotus pod imagery to create this photo-edited effect. The lead character in the series, Ally Mayfair Richards (played by Sarah Paulson), suffers from trypophobia.

"My husband and I were watching 'American Horror Story' and I didn't have any idea what the show would be about," said trypophobia sufferer Jennifer Andresen. "The piece of coral she saw freaked me out so badly that I had to tell my husband. Up to now, I've kept it to myself because it seemed so silly, so odd."
From FX
This is the "American Horror Story: Cult" photo that sent trypophobia sufferer Jennifer Andresen into a full-blown panic attack when she saw it on the side of a taxi while driving her mother and grandmother in New York.

"I had to pull over. My pulse was racing. I was so nauseous I thought I would throw up," said Andresen. "My mother and grandmother were like, 'What is wrong with you?' "
From FX
Honeycombs are another common trigger for those with trypophobia. "For me it's the organic images that are most disturbing," said Sue M. of Hampshire, England, who asked for her last name to be withheld.

"If you have a load of ball bearings, and you put them on a plate and organize them in different ways in clusters, I could cope with that," explained Sue. "But if you put a slab of honeycomb on the table, it's a different matter. A wasp's nest will send me ballistic."
Wesley Martinez Da Costa/EyeEm/Getty Images
In this advertisement for "American Horror Story: Cult," the show has photo-edited a honeycomb onto a person's head. Research shows that holes, bumps or rashes on the human body are some of the most disturbing to those with the disorder. From FX
Clusters of bubbles, like in this bubble bath, are another common source of discomfort. Trypophobia researcher An Lee began studying the disorder because of his own aversion to similar stimuli.

"I used to work during the summer as a sous chef," said Lee. "I had an instance where I overcooked a sauce. The bottom of the saucepan become burnt and bubbly, and when I looked down on the bottom of the saucepan I felt disgust. I couldn't really touch it."
Nature can be a minefield of triggers for those with trypophobia. This beautiful sunflower is filled with terrifying clusters of bumps that could easily spark reactions ranging from distaste to an attack of anxiety. Nalinratana Phiyanalinmat/EyeEm/Getty Images
Taking kids to an aquarium to see "Nemo" would be a tough task for someone with trypophobia. From brain coral to polyps, the sea is filled with recurring clusters of holes and bumps.

"When I'm with my kids, it can ruin the moment if we are doing something special," said Jennifer Andresen, who has suffered from trypophobia since she was a child herself.
"At one of the playgrounds there is a honeycomb looking thing and I can't take them to play there anymore."
Something as simple as watching a nature documentary on whales can be full of images that might trigger distaste. Shutterstock
The evenly spaced clusters of holes left by this woodpecker would be yet another disturbing image for anyone with trypophobia. If that seems odd to you, please don't be critical, says Sue M.

"People shouldn't be quick to judge," says Sue. "Look at it in the context of all of the other phobias out there. Everybody knows someone who is absolutely freaked out by balloons, clowns, spiders, or mice. This is another one of those phobias."
Even the nose and tongue of this curious cow might be a cause for distaste if a person with trypophobia was on the receiving end. Coco Gubbels/EyeEm/Getty Images
The ridges and bumps on this toad are yet more examples of a potential source of discomfort. To cope with their fears, many trypophobics suggest such techniques as deep breathing, distraction and avoidance, if possible. Shutterstock
The kitchen can be another source of distress for anyone with a fear of holes. This image is of a simple colander.

"Disgust is an aversive emotion and can be a nasty thing to experience," said Tom Kupfer, who studies disgust at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. "If you have too much disgust and it's too strong and too regular, like people with trypophobia can have day after day, it's a pretty unpleasant experience."
Kevin Schafer/Moment Mobile RF/Getty Images
Those with an extreme aversion to holes might find the drain of their shower disturbing. olaser/E+/Getty Images
Food is another real source of anxiety for those with trypophobia. Even something as simple as this holey Swiss cheese may be distasteful. Shutterstock
This head of garlic, when sliced across the top, bears a striking resemblance to the lotus pod, a notorious trigger. Shutterstock
Even an innocent grouping of donuts might disturb some who are extremely sensitive. Dijana Karaconji/Shutterstock/Shutterstock / Dijana Karaconji
Trypophobia can often interfere with daily life. "I was on holiday with my friends, and they ordered octopus," said Sue. "I couldn't bear to watch them eating, but they were very supportive and put a menu up between me and their meal." Shutterstock
"The walls of the hotel we were staying at on holiday were made of porous lava rock," said Sue. "They really bothered me, but it's on me to manage my condition, so I spent a lot of my holiday looking down and reading a book." Shutterstock
Some researchers believe trypophobia has evolutionary ties. In a paper published in 2013, Arnold Wilkins and Geoff Cole of the University of Essex presented the theory that many of the world's most dangerous animals, such as alligators, crocodiles, snakes, and poisonous fish, have clusters of bumps and holes on their skin. Perhaps the aversion could be some sort of innate flight-fight response to dangerous or poisonous animals? Sean and Kristi Buckley
Others believe that it could be a built-in reaction to mold, parasites and contagious diseases.

"For example, mold on bread or vegetables have certain visual cues and characteristics that are similar to trypophobic stimuli, " said researcher An Lee. "So, while we're not completely sure yet, it does seem to some kind of evolutionary trait that will help or facilitate survival."
University of Kent postgraduate researcher Tom Kupfer has studied the connection between trypophobia and infectious disease. He points to leprosy, smallpox and measles, which show up as small clusters of shapes on the skin.

"Smallpox alone killed millions of millions of people, so if a human ancestor was predisposed to attend to those bumps, to dislike them and stay away from them," said Kupfer, "that could provide a survival advantage."
"Those images look to me like they would be perceived as cues to infectious disease or parasites," said Kupfer, who studies the emotion of disgust and the role it plays in our daily lives. "I wouldn't be surprised if this is actually a disorder based on disgust and disease avoidance." Shutterstock