What Is Cibophobia?

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What Is Cibophobia?

Cibophobia is a general fear of food. It is considered a specific phobia, which is an anxiety disorder. People with this phobia are sometimes mistakenly thought to suffer from anorexia, an eating disorder.

While those with anorexia fear the effects of food on body image, those with cibophobia are afraid of the food itself. However, people can experience both disorders at the same time.

Symptoms 

If you have cibophobia, you experience extreme anxiety around your trigger foods. Symptoms of anxiety include restlessness, fatigue, muscle tension, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and constant worrying.

You may fear one specific food or many foods at a time. You might have an above-average fear of illness or choking as a result of eating the particular food. Or, you may associate the food with an unpleasant or traumatic experience.

It may be difficult to recognize cibophobia, particularly if someone is avoiding certain foods for a reason other than fear (such as a diet or lifestyle choice).

Someone with cibophobia will go to extreme measures to avoid the food they fear. They may experience symptoms of a panic attack when confronted by the food. These symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Hot flashes
  • Feeling faint
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Chest tightness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea

While panic attacks generally subside on their own, they can often feel life-threatening, causing symptoms like fear of losing control or fear of dying.

If you or a loved one are struggling with panic attacks, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Diagnosis

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) uses the following criteria to diagnose specific phobias:

  • The fear is out of proportion to any real danger.
  • The fear causes significant stress and disruption to the person's life.
  • The fear and its effects have lasted for at least six months.

Cibophobia disrupts daily life. A person with cibophobia may become especially anxious at their workplace, for instance, where they might encounter someone eating the food they fear.

A person with cibophobia will likely display avoidant behaviors. This means that a person will, by any means necessary, prevent themselves from coming into contact with the object of their phobia. They may stop grocery shopping or stop going to restaurants—anywhere there's a chance they'll come into contact with the food they fear.


While cibophobia is not an eating disorder, someone can have cibophobia and an eating disorder—such as anorexia, bulimia, or orthorexia—at the same time.

Cibophobia and eating disorders may present similarly. Both conditions cause an extreme level of anxiety around food and avoidant behaviors.

A person with cibophobia, however, fears the food itself and not the effect the food has on their body image (such as weight gain).

If you have cibophobia, you know that your fear response and avoidant behaviors are irrational. You are aware that the food you fear will not cause you any real harm, but you are unable to overcome the fear.

Causes

The exact cause of cibophobia is unknown. However, experts have divided specific phobias into two categories: experiential-specific phobias and nonexperiential-specific phobias.

With experiential-specific phobias, someone fears something because of a traumatic experience. Someone with cibophobia might have been forced to eat a certain food or they became ill after eating the food that they now fear.

They may have also been conditioned to dislike a particular food. For example, a parent might have instilled in them a fear of mushrooms.

Someone with cibophobia may associate the food they fear with an unpleasant experience or memory.

With nonexperiential cibophobia, a person hasn't had any traumatic contact with the food they fear. In this case, experts believe a phobia can develop as a result of genetics and brain chemistry. In other words, biology makes certain people more susceptible to developing a phobia.

Specific phobias are likely to co-exist with other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A fear of food might begin with discomfort related to the food's texture, or to expired or undercooked foods. Some common foods that people with cibophobia fear include broccoli, mushrooms, cottage cheese, and pickles.

What begins as a simple dislike of food in conjunction with other untreated mental health conditions may create a phobia over time, leading to increased fear and disruption of daily life.

Complications 

Studies show that untreated phobias may worsen over time. If you don't address the symptoms of your cibophobia, you may find it difficult to maintain social relationships, show up to work, or perform tasks like grocery shopping. Your avoidant behaviors may become more extreme.

Over time, you may begin to fear more types of food. You might even severely restrict your diet, which can jeopardize your health. You may choose to go hungry rather than eat things that you associate with your fear.

The social stigma of cibophobia can be challenging as well. You may find it difficult to hide your increasingly restricted eating patterns. Your friends and relatives might suspect an eating disorder.

You may find it difficult or even impossible to explain your phobia to others, causing you to become more socially isolated. This can lead to loneliness, anxiety, and even depression.

Treatment

It is very important to seek treatment for cibophobia from a qualified mental health professional. The most common treatment type for specific phobias is a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

Psychotherapy

The most common type of therapy for phobias and other anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy. Your therapist will work with you to uncover and change your underlying beliefs about the food you fear.

Systemic desensitization is another therapy type used for phobias. It is similar to exposure therapy, but you are also taught relaxation techniques to use while you are being exposed to the feared food. If you are afraid of pickles, for instance, a therapist might have you start by looking at photos of pickles while practicing breathing exercises.

From there, you might practice visualizing a pickle in the same room as you. Or, your therapist might use virtual reality (VR) to expose you to your fear. Maybe you try walking in the pickle aisle in the grocery store. Over time, your goal might be to sit next to someone who is eating a pickle.

Remember, you are the expert when it comes to your phobia. If gradual exposure to the food you fear doesn't feel comfortable, be sure to talk to your therapist, who can adjust your treatment.

Hypnotherapy is another option. Research has shown this may be effective for treating specific phobias. It allows a practitioner to communicate with a patient's subconscious to identify beliefs about their fear. From there, they will work with you to overcome these beliefs.

Medication

Your doctor can tell you which medications may be right for you. Antidepressants, beta-blockers, and benzodiazepines (such as Xanax) are sometimes prescribed to people with specific phobias.

Medications like these may be able to treat the symptoms of anxiety associated with your phobia. Your doctor might prescribe something for a limited amount of time and have you taper off medication as your anxiety reduces to a manageable level.

Of course, be sure to communicate with your doctor if you have pre-existing health conditions or you're taking other medications that may be contraindicated with a prescription. In addition, tell your doctor if you have substance use disorder, particularly with benzodiazepines as they have the potential for addiction.

Coping

In addition to therapy and medication, there are lifestyle changes that have been proven to relieve symptoms of anxiety. Developing a meditation practice, for instance, has been shown to promote stress relief and relaxation.

Breathing exercises are also effective in decreasing symptoms of arousal, anger, anxiety, and depression. Breathing in a controlled and conscious manner can help to regulate your central nervous system and ease the stress-inducing symptoms of your phobia.

Fulfilling your basic needs, such as getting enough sleep, physical exercise, and eating a nutritious diet are all helpful ways of managing symptoms of anxiety.

Coping with a phobia or other mental health condition can be challenging, but you don't have to do it alone. You can confide in loved ones if you feel comfortable. Research also suggests that attending support groups for specific mental health conditions can be therapeutic.

A Word From Verywell

There are many contributing factors to cibophobia, but know there are treatment options that can relieve your symptoms. If you find your cibophobia is disruptive to your daily life, especially if it is keeping you from eating and receiving proper nutrition, be sure to contact a health care professional right away.

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