Humans are by nature social animals. Connecting with people is key for our mental and emotional wellbeing. However, Anthropophobia, the fear of human beings, is a mental disorder that prevents us from building social connections.
What Is Anthropophobia?
Anthropophobia is the irrational fear of people and human companionship. For people with this condition, a simple interaction can feel like a traumatic experience. In fact, depending on the severity, some individuals actively leave their education or career to isolate themselves and avoid seeing others. As it closely resembles social anxiety disorder (SAD) 1 or social phobia, this particular mental disorder is widely misunderstood, even though both conditions are not necessarily the same.
Anthropophobia can be regarded as a specific phobia, even though it has not been identified as a clinical disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a handbook published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to diagnose psychiatric illnesses. Derived from the Greek terms “ánthropos” meaning human and “phóbos” meaning fear, this phobia is also known as anthrophobia. It is also related to interpersonal relation phobia and Taijin kyofusho 2, culture-specific syndrome observed in Japan and Korea.
Anthropophobia is an extreme and unwarranted fear of human beings leading to excessive stress and anxiety. An anthropophobic person may have a phobic reaction to even a single person present in their environment. Depending on the seriousness, the fear of interacting with another human being can be so overwhelming that the sufferer may completely withdraw from others and become reclusive, communicating only through text messaging or email etc. This phobia may be triggered in all or most situations 3 as it is a fear of spontaneous and personal interaction with another human being. Context and familiarity barely have any impact on anthropophobics and their capacity to interact with another person. Hence, they can be as much afraid of family members and close friends as complete strangers.
Generally, Anthropophobia can develop during adolescence 4. Adolescents between 13 and 18 years of age usually tend to be highly introverted and shy. Hence, they find interpersonal interactions to be an overwhelming experience. As a result, many adolescents are anthropophobics and this eventually affects their academic performance. Moreover, a 2007 study 5 has found that there is an interrelationship between an anthropophobic tendency and narcissistic personality in adolescents.
However, it should be noted that Anthropophobia is separate from misanthropy. The former is a mental disorder and a fear of people while the latter is a dislike of humankind. The moral and philosophical aspects of misanthropy are related with a distrust and hatred of humanity which is completely different from a phobia.
Anthropophobia vs. Social Phobia
Anthropophobia may be considered as a form of social anxiety disorder, however, both conditions are not the same. Social anxiety disorder or social phobia is a mental disorder involving intense fear and anxiety in social situations. This can make the sufferer significantly distressed and hamper their ability to function normally in their daily lives. People with social phobia tend to feel anxious when at a party or interacting with strangers. They feel threatened by the thought of being negative, judged, humiliated, embarrassed or rejected by society and people. Hence they tend to avoid social situations. Anthropophobia, although similar in some aspects, includes various other symptoms which are not associated with social interactions.
Moreover, social phobia incorporates a variety of social fears and covers a wide range of specific situations. For instance, one person might be afraid of public speaking while another person may be afraid of talking to strangers. However, some individuals are afraid of all social situations. An anthropophobic feels threatened by people irrespective of the social setting. People with social phobia usually feel comfortable in situations where they can be anonymous. But individuals suffering from anthropophobia feel the same level of intense anxiety 6 whether they are the center of attention or hiding in the background.
Causes Of Anthropophobia
Although the causes for the development of a phobia are not specifically clear all the time, it can incorporate multiple, wide-ranging perspectives. Researchers are yet to determine the exact causes and believe that factors like genetics, environmental factors and childhood experiences can play a significant role in the development of a phobia.
Here are some of the probable factors that may lead to the development of Anthropophobia:
1. Traumatic experiences
Negative experiences in the past or in childhood can lead to the development of different phobias, including the fear of people. Past trauma or childhood trauma like having abusive parents and siblings or experiencing a violent crime can lead to the development of this mental disorder.
Genetics often play a significant role in the development of phobias. If someone in the family of the sufferer has Anthropophobia, then it is highly likely that they will develop it. This could either be a result of an inherited tendency or learned behaviour 7. As this phobia tends to develop during adolescence, children may learn such behaviour by observing a parent or caregiver’s phobic reaction to other people.
3. Brain function
Certain changes in the function of the human brain can also result in the development of specific phobias like the fear of people. Moreover, individuals with other mental disorders or neurological conditions could also develop a fear of other people. People with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or those on the autism spectrum may prefer to remain alone and away from others.
Culture and environment can also be a crucial factor in the development of phobias like Anthropophobia or social phobia. The culture-specific syndrome Taijin kyofusho is a fear of interpersonal relations and is common among the people of Japan. This culture-bound disorder affects 10-20% of Japanese people with more men impacted by it than women.
Apart from these, people with a tendency to being overanxious and paranoid may also become afraid of others. Moreover, individuals with physical issues and adrenal insufficiency may also be prone to this phobia.
Symptoms Of Anthropophobia
Symptoms for this phobia are similar to typical symptoms of other phobias. Suffers may feel distressed and discomfort when in the company of another person. They may feel high levels of anxiety, increased heartbeat, inability to speak or even think clearly. It can also trigger the fight or flight response making the patient feel overwhelmed and desperate to escape the situation. It can even make them distrust their loved ones as they become increasingly paranoid about being judged by others.
While interacting with others, whether in a group setting or personally, an anthropophobic person may experience any of the physical and psychological symptoms mentioned below.
1. Physical symptoms:
- Dizziness & nausea
- Sweating, trembling and shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Racing pulse
- Flushed skin
- Sleep problems
- Stomach problems
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate & palpitations
- Crying or yelling
2. Psychological symptoms
- Experiencing panic attacks when meeting people or thinking about it
- Feeling anticipatory anxiety 8
- Feelings of being choked
- Fear of judgement
- Difficulty in gathering thoughts
- Unable to speak coherently
- Inability to relax
- Unable to make eye contact even with close friends
- A strong need to escape
- Taking extreme measures to avoid people and social events
In extreme cases, anthropophobics may also have the fear of death when exposed to other people or social situations.
Diagnosis Of Anthropophobia
As it has not been identified as a clinical disorder 9, diagnosis of this condition can be challenging. However, it can be categorized as a “specific phobia not otherwise specified” under DSM-5.
Some of the common criteria for Anthropophobia are:
- Intense fear or anxiety about a person or situation that expose the sufferer to people
- Exposure to people or social situations leads to stress, anxiety and fear
- The sufferer avoids interacting with people whenever possible
- The phobic reaction to people or social situations is unjustifiably larger than the actual threat or danger
- The fear and anxiety results in notable distress which affects the sufferers daily life
- The anxiety related to the phobia lasts for at least 6 months.
- It is not related to any other medical condition or mental health disorder.
To diagnose a person with anthropophobia, a mental health professional or a medical professional may use the following process laid down by the DSM-5:
- Personally talking with the sufferer to understand their condition
- Observing their behaviours and actions
- Conducting a medical exam, if required
- Verifying reports provided by other professionals, if required
Although there are some self-tests and surveys available online, such tests are not reliable as patients often tend to overestimate their own symptoms. These self-tests are not a substitute for a diagnosis and medical advice by a trained medical professional.
Treatment For Anthropophobia
As it is not a specified clinical disorder, there is no particular treatment for anthropophobia. However, treatments available for other anxiety disorders and phobias can prove beneficial in managing a patient’s fear of people. Depending on the severity of the phobia and the individual, a medical professional may suggest different types of treatments like therapies, relaxation techniques and medication.
Like other phobias, therapy can be highly effective in treating anthropophobia, especially when used with medication and other treatments. It can prove especially helpful when the condition is identified during the initial stages. Therapy can help the patient to reframe their mind and replace negative, anxious thoughts with positive, empowering ones. Some of the commonly used therapies for treating phobias include:
- Cognitive therapy
- Exposure therapy
- Talk therapy
A. Cognitive therapy
Cognitive therapy 10 helps the patient to recognize their anxiety and fear and enables them to replace their negative thoughts with rational ones. It allows the sufferer to focus on present thinking and behaviour instead of engaging in past traumatic experiences. It is a solution-oriented approach that is applied widely to treat various mental disorders.
B. Exposure therapy
Exposure therapy is a type of behavioural training that exposes the patient to the object or situation they are afraid of. Techniques like systematic desensitization are applied until the patient stops showing a phobic reaction to strong triggers. It can be done by either encouraging the patient to encounter their fears in a controlled real-life setting or through imaginal exposure like watching images or videos or by using virtual reality. This helps the patient to overcome their anxiety without actually experiencing any threat or danger.
C. Talk therapy
Talk therapy or psychotherapy is perhaps the most common treatment available for phobias. It involves talking about the fearful object and how it affects the patient. By talking to a therapist, the sufferer can gain new insights about their phobia and develop a new perspective to overcome it. Moreover, Natural Language Processing (NLP) 11, Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) 12, Psychoanalysis and Ericksonian hypnosis can also help in the treatment of Anthropophobia.
2. Relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques can greatly help individuals with specific phobias and anxiety disorders. Common relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, tai chi, physical exercise, breathing exercises, guided imagery and even hypnosis can be highly effective, especially when used along with therapy. Relaxation training can help alleviate the physical and emotional symptoms of Anthropophobia and help them better manage their stress response.
Although there are no specific medications for phobias, certain medicines can help to relieve anxiety and symptoms associated with specific phobias. Medications like beta-blockers, Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) 13 or anti-anxiety medications may be helpful.
However, it should be noted that these medications only suppress the symptoms and do not actually treat the phobia. Moreover, medication might not be the best treatment option for every patient. This is why it is crucial to consult a medical professional for seeking treatment for Anthropophobia.
Recovery Is Possible
Although you may struggle during treatment, with proper support from your doctor and loved ones you can overcome your phobia of people. Remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. Accepting support from your trusted family and friends can make the recovery process easier and more effective. Moreover, adapting a healthy lifestyle and a positive mindset can also make you feel better and deal with the symptoms of Anthropophobia effectively.References:
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- Sharpless, B. A., Balko, A. L., & Grom, J. L. (n.d.). Taijin Kyofusho. DOI:10.1093/med:psych/9780190245863.003.0013, Oxford Clinical Psychology. https://www.oxfordclinicalpsych.com/view/10.1093/med:psych/9780190245863.001.0001/med-9780190245863-chapter-13
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