Nine months after the start of the state of alarm, diving into information about covid-19, we began to hear the term hafephobia. Also known as chiraptophobia, aphenphosphobia or thixophobia, it refers to a persistent, excessive and unrealistic fear of being touched.
Although the concept seems novel, it is not. It was already common in people who have experienced some type of sexual abuse.
Those who suffer from haphephobia avoid any social situation that involves being touched. When it is not possible, they fall prey to anxiety and anguish.
This phobia is related to other disorders in which anxiety predominates. This is the case of misophobia (fear of germs) or ochlophobia (fear of crowds). Also obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Context and relationship with the interlocutor
There are studies that suggest that physical contact is determined by the context in which an interpersonal relationship occurs. Also by the perception of how intimate it is assumed. That is, in general, we feel comfortable with the physical contact of someone with whom we consider to have a significant emotional bond.
This link allows us to interpret the situations in which we find ourselves immersed. When we observe a person, we try to decipher their gestures and ask ourselves different questions. Among others, its identity, intentions, whether or not it is trusted. Now, in addition, if it meets the “covid-19 standards”
By answering us, our thinking affects our behavior. This makes us respond depending on the degree of trust we decide to give the person and the curiosity we feel in knowing more about them.
It is the thought that controls the stimulus and not the other way around, in this case. Something fundamental in a context of covid-normality, which marks a different form of interpersonal relationship, limiting physical contact.
Personal relationships in times of covid-19
The uniqueness of the health crisis lies not only in that of the SARS-CoV-2 agent. Also in the strange and changing ways in which we relate.
During these months of pandemic, more and more questions have arisen that determine the way in which we interact.
When will we get out of confinement? Until when should we use the mask? What is close contact? Can we continue working? When will the vaccine come out? Will this work for the different strains? Issues that involve endless uncertainty.
Likewise, there have been countless changes in behavior that we have had to make in such a short time.
Change, in any form, is initially threatening. It disturbs the balance and sows insecurity. The instability caused by the covid-19 is also compulsive, unpleasant and introduces us to an unforeseen reality.
People with hafephobia experience endless uncertainty and unforeseen reality with greater discomfort than the general population.
The difficulty of adapting to new habits
That the current circumstances force us to acquire new behaviors to reduce the contagion requires full attention and new habits.
The recent and forced changes in our behavior (social distancing, use of masks, hygiene practices, avoiding large gatherings …) can start a vicious cycle of discomfort, fear and anxiety in the population. This becomes much more serious in these patients.
Inculcating new routines and avoiding certain practices (not touching the face, not waving to the other with the hand or not touching or hugging him) requires the reprogramming of a habit. The difficulty of acquiring such changes in a short period of time creates more fear and anxiety.
As a result, people tend to panic and lose control. This makes them more susceptible to the development of haphephobia. Also from other specific fears or psychological disorders related to anxiety.
The situation worsens in a context of information overload. Sometimes accurate; but others not so much. It is the perfect breeding ground for the development of distorted thoughts, leading to the perception of threat of unrealistic intensity.
What are the symptoms of hafephobia?
Symptoms of haphephobia include fear and irrational thoughts. Also poor concentration, tachycardia, hyperventilation, sweating and the feeling of dizziness.
The fact that these are generally automatic and uncontrollable makes those who suffer from them think that they are taking over. It often assumes that extreme measures are taken to avoid the dreaded situation: being touched.
This is known as “safe” or “avoidance” behaviors. Which manages to reinforce the phobia instead of solving it.
Depending on the level of fear, the severity of the symptoms varies. Over time, they can be normalized and accepted as limiting beliefs for the person. However, in some cases haphephobia can worsen as increasingly sophisticated behaviors and safety routines develop.
There are those who can build confidence to get over your reactions with one or two specific people over a long period of time. Others may remain uncomfortable with any form of contact. They can also tolerate it, if they initiate it or if they give express permission to another person to do so.
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, it is recommended to seek psychological help.
Fortunately, specific phobias respond very well to psychotherapeutic treatment, in some cases combined with antidepressant medications or beta-blockers. The use of therapy-trained coping mechanisms helps reduce the impact of hafephobia on everyday life and facilitates its long-term overcoming.
This article has been published in The Conversation