Understanding the Fear of People (Anthropophobia)

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Anthropophobia, or the fear of people, is a commonly misunderstood phobia. It often resembles social phobia but is not precisely the same fear. Depending on the severity, anthropophobia may cause a phobic reaction even when in the company of only one other person.

In extreme cases, those with anthropophobia may withdraw altogether, communicating with others only through snail mail or electronic means such as e-mail or text messaging.

Fear of People vs. Social Phobia 

Social phobia is a diagnosis that encompasses a wide range of social fears. Some people fear only specific situations, such as public speaking or eating in front of people. Others are afraid of virtually all social situations. However, in social phobia, the focus of fear is the social situation where the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.

In anthropophobia, the fear is literally of other people, regardless of the situation in which they are encountered. Relatives who are known for being kind and loving are perceived as the same level of threat as strangers on a crowded bus.

While those with social phobia generally feel somewhat less afraid in situations that make them feel anonymous, those with anthropophobia may be equally uncomfortable whether they are on stage or in the back row of a crowded theater.

The differences are subtle and proper diagnosis is tricky. Therefore, it is important to seek professional assistance with any fear that involves other people.

Causes and Symptoms

Like all phobias, previous experiences can increase the risk of developing anthropophobia. There may be culturally specific elements to this diagnosis.

Anthropophobia typically causes symptoms similar to those of any other phobia. When spending time with others, you may begin to sweat and shake. You might turn red and have trouble breathing normally. You might feel like your pulse is racing. You may be unable to speak, or even to formulate coherent thoughts.

You will likely experience a strong fight or flight response, in which you feel an overwhelming need to get away. Additionally, you might worry that others are judging you for everything from your style of dress to your choice of words. You may be unable to make eye contact even with trusted friends.

Anthropophobia often causes anticipatory anxiety as well. In the days leading up to an encounter with others, you may have trouble sleeping. You might feel physical distress, such as stomach problems or headaches when thinking about the upcoming event. You might be tempted to cancel or to simply not show up.

When left untreated, anthropophobia often worsens over time. What begins as a relatively minor fear of being surrounded by strangers could escalate to include any group of people, even close friends, and eventually to include one-on-one encounters. Some people with severe anthropophobia quit work or school and actively avoid seeing anyone.

Treatment for Anthropophobia

Like all phobias, anthropophobia responds well to a variety of different treatment methods. When caught in an earlier stage, treatment may involve only a handful of brief therapy sessions during which you learn to replace your fearful thoughts with more positive ones. Behavioral training such as systematic desensitization, in which you are gradually exposed to stronger triggers, is often used.

Anthropophobia interferes with one of the most basic human needs, the need for social contact, so the rewards of treatment are well worth the effort.

If your anthropophobia is extreme, therapy may take more time. You may need to spend several sessions learning to tolerate sharing space with the therapist before you can progress. Nonetheless, with persistence and hard work, it is possible to overcome even the most extreme fear of people. Be patient and kind to yourself, but keep pushing through.

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