What Is Haphephobia and How Can You Manage Fear of Touch?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPH on July 20, 2017Written by Julie Ryan Evans on July 20, 2017

Overview

People with haphephobia have a fear of being touched. With haphephobia, human touch can be overpowering and even painful. In some cases, the fear is specific to only one gender, while in other cases the fear relates to all people.

Haphephobia may also be referred to as thixophobia or aphephobia.

Symptoms

Haphephobia is more than just cringing inwardly when someone gives you an unwanted hug or invades your personal space on the subway. Instead, it’s an often-paralyzing fear that can have a devastating effect on your life if untreated. This feeling of paralysis is what separates someone who is merely uncomfortable with touch from someone who has a true phobia.

In the case of haphephobia, there’s often a physical reaction to touch that may include:

In some cases, the fear can become so intense that you develop agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder where a person avoids places and situations that cause anxiety. In the case of people with haphephobia, they may avoid situations that could lead to being touched.

Diagnosis

Haphephobia is similar to other specific phobias, though it’s among the rarer ones. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 10 million adults have a phobia of some kind. It’s unknown how many people experience haphephobia.

Haphephobia is diagnosed with the same criteria that the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders outlines for diagnosing any specific phobia. The following criteria must be met to be diagnosed with a phobia:

  1. The person demonstrates an excessive or irrational fear of the situation (in this case, human touch).
  2. Exposure to the situation causes an immediate anxiety response or panic attack.
  3. The person knows that the fear is excessive and irrational.
  4. The situation is actively avoided when possible.
  5. Avoidance or anxiety interferes with the person’s ability to function in normal, day-to-day activities.

What causes haphephobia?

There isn’t one known cause of haphephobia. Some researchers believe people are born with it or that a change in brain function may play a role. Others believe it’s caused by traumatic past experiences. It may be more likely to develop in those who have experienced sexual assault or another trauma. Read on to learn more about phobias.

How to cope with haphephobia

There’s no one “cure” for haphephobia, but there are treatment options that can help you manage your condition.

Exposure therapy

In this form of treatment, you’re slowly exposed to the feared situation — in this case, touch. With a trained therapist, you can create a safe environment in which you can slowly allow yourself to become more comfortable with your fears. Repeated positive experiences through exposure may slowly change your negative emotions toward touch.

Medications

Bruce Cameron, a licensed counselor in Dallas, Texas who treats people experiencing haphephobia, says people with haphephobia often also have anxiety or depression. Treating those overlying conditions with antidepressants or benzodiazepine for anxiety is helpful in some cases.

Behavioral therapies

Cognitive behavioral therapy, including dialectical behavioral therapy or hypnosis, can sometimes help people gain control over fears and phobias.

When to seek help

Some specific phobias can be self-managed, but if fear of touch interferes with your work, family, or personal life, then it’s time to seek help. The earlier treatment starts, the easier it is. With proper treatment, most people with haphephobia can lead full, healthy lives.

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