Podophobia refers to an extreme fear of feet. Several types of therapy, including exposure therapy, can offer relief.

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Podophobia is a condition that causes people to experience extreme anxiety anytime they’re exposed to feet. The anxiety is so severe that you may go to great lengths to avoid touching or even seeing feet.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes podophobia. But there are ways to gradually decrease the intensity of the fear so it has less effect on your quality of life.

Prevalence of phobias

The National Institutes of Mental Health estimate that 12 percent of all adults experience a specific phobia at least once in their lifetime.

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) doesn’t list podophobia specifically — but that doesn’t mean this fear of feet isn’t real.

As with other specific phobias, podophobia causes a degree of fear that is intense and out of proportion to any danger posed by the object itself.

For some people with podophobia, the fear is so severe that just thinking about the possibility of exposure to feet — whether bare or with socks or shoes on — can interfere with the ability to function at home, at school, at work, or in social situations.

Plus, avoiding the feared object can take a lot of time and energy. Attempting to avoid exposure to feet may keep you from accomplishing daily tasks.

Podophobia can cause a strong emotional and physiological reaction, including symptoms like:

People experiencing panic from a phobia may also freeze up, lash out, or cling to another person.

Sometimes, these symptoms can be fleeting or only occur once. In these cases, you may not have developed a phobia.

On the other hand, you may have developed a phobia if:

  • You have experienced symptoms like these for 6 months or longer, due to repeated exposure to fleet.
  • These symptoms disrupt your life when they do occur.

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes podophobia. One theory is that you may have formed an association between the feared object — in this case, feet — and an experience you found upsetting or terrifying.

The connection between the frightening event and the object might be easy to see, such as being afraid of feet if you experienced a painful or traumatic episode of abuse that involved someone else’s feet.

But the connection may not be so clear. The cognitive and biological mechanisms of phobias in relation to trauma aren’t fully understood and can vary for each individual.

Another theory is that you may have heard someone else describing a particular danger so often that you internalize the other person’s fears.

Genetic component of phobias

A 2014 study suggests a genetic component to phobias, but there aren’t any studies that explore this in relation to podophobia specifically.

Some older research from 2003 does show that family history may play an important role in the development of phobias. In other words, you may inherit the tendency to have a phobia.

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If you experience intense fear or anxiety when exposed to feet and these symptoms interfere with your ability to perform daily tasks or enjoy your life, talk with a healthcare or mental health professional, such as a primary care physician or a therapist.

To make a diagnosis, they will likely ask you questions about:

  • what triggers your symptoms (if you’re able to recall general or specific scenarios when your phobia symptoms occur)
  • how long your symptoms have persisted
  • what areas of your life your symptoms disrupt

Diagnosis of a specific phobia often involves identifying several of the following:

  • an immediate, intense anxiety response
  • a fear that greatly exceeds the amount of danger you’re in
  • symptoms that last longer than 6 months
  • symptoms that keep you from functioning in a healthy way in some area of your life
  • symptoms that aren’t explained by another condition or diagnosis

Medications may be used to treat some anxiety symptoms, such as alprazolam (Xanax).

But for many people, the most effective treatment for a specific phobia is behavioral therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT focuses on identifying unhealthy or unrealistic thoughts. It helps revise your thought responses to stimuli, such as a foot, so that they’re more attuned to the reality of a situation and more in proportion to the actual level of danger.

It can also help you notice when you’re having symptoms, so you can address them in the moment and use behavioral strategies to lessen them.

CBT can help you define and understand the possibly disproportionate beliefs and ideas you may have associated with the object or situation you fear. This may allow you to react with more thoughtful responses appropriate for the situation.

Exposure therapy

Another effective treatment for phobias is exposure therapy, or systematic desensitization. With this treatment type, you and your therapist will work on building your ability to calm yourself in stressful situations.

Over a long period, you will practice using relaxation skills as you gradually face things you fear — starting with the least frightening version of your stimuli and progressing to the most frightening version.

At each stage, you practice relaxation techniques until you no longer experience a disproportionately extreme response before moving to the next stage of exposure.

Exposure therapy and CBT

Exposure therapy and CBT combined are very effective in treating specific phobias, according to a 2020 review. Some therapists may also incorporate virtual reality or augmented reality devices into your treatment.

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A doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner may prescribe medication if your anxiety continues to be severe during treatment and your anxiety symptoms don’t improve with therapeutic methods.

Benzodiazepenes and beta-blocking medications may help lower your stress levels. These drugs are usually prescribed only for short-term use.

Extra help

Some people have reported positive results using the following methods to treat anxiety associated with phobias, despite a lack of research to confirm or explain their effectiveness:

Podophobia is an extreme and unrealistic fear of feet.

Researchers don’t know exactly how podophobia develops, but you can take steps to reduce the anxiety this phobia causes. These methods may help change the way you think about and respond to this fear.

Phobias can result in severe anxiety. Talk with a healthcare professional if you find that you’re going out of your way to avoid a phobia or if the symptoms are disrupting your life.