Coping With Coulrophobia Symptoms

The Fear of Clowns

Close-Up Of Clown Face
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What Is Coulrophobia?

Coulrophobia is a fear of clowns. It is a type of specific phobia, which involves a fear of a specific situation or object. It is important to note that while many people experience discomfort with clowns, those feelings don't necessarily represent a true phobia.

Clowns date back to the jester or fool of ancient times. As time went on, the jester morphed into the trickster, a more sinister figure with intentions that were less than honorable.

By the 1980s, clown phobia had reached a peak. Rumors of ritual abuse of children were rampant, and clowns figured heavily into many of the stories. Spontaneous reports of clown harassment began pouring in from children nationwide. Even urban legends began to focus on killer clowns lying in wait for hapless babysitters.

Horror author Stephen King tapped into the national consciousness with the definitive killer clown work of fiction, It (first published in 1986).

Symptoms

People who experience coulrophobia have symptoms of extreme fear and discomfort in response to clowns. This can include when they encounter clowns in real-life situations, but it can also involve seeing clowns depicted on film or in print. Symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Crying
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Nausea
  • Panic
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Trembling

In some instances, people can experience panic attacks in response to seeing a clown. Panic attacks are marked by a sudden sense of fear and dread and are accompanied by other symptoms that may include chest pain, chills, derealization, fear of dying, dizziness, and numbness.

Diagnosis

Coulrophobia is not recognized as a distinct condition in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition" (DSM-5). Instead, people may be diagnosed with a specific phobia if their symptoms meet certain diagnostic criteria, which include:

  • Excessive and unreasonable fear in response to the fear object
  • An immediate anxiety response that is out of proportion to the actual danger
  • Extreme distress or avoidance of the source of the fear
  • Life-limiting effects on areas of a person's life including daily living, school, work, and relationships

The symptoms must be present for at least six months and must not be due to another mental health condition.

Causes

Why might people dislike or fear clowns? Like other types of specific phobias, there are a few different factors that can play a role.

  • Family history: Some research has found that having a close relative with a phobia or other type of anxiety disorder can make people more susceptible to developing a phobia. This suggests that phobias may have a genetic component or may be influenced by family members modeling fearful behavior.
  • Negative experiences: Negative personal experiences with clowns at a young age can also contribute to the development of this phobia.
  • Media depictions of clowns: Another theory is that mass media has created a hype surrounding evil clowns such that even children who are not personally exposed to clowns are trained to dislike or fear them. One study found that portrayals of frightening clown characters played a role in increased fear and phobia of clowns.

Impact

Coulrophobia can potentially interfere with your ability to function normally in different areas of your life. It might cause you to avoid specific situations or settings so that you won't encounter the source of your fear.

Fear of clowns can be a problem in the case of medical clowning, which is often done in pediatric settings as a way to relieve children's anxiety. One study in the U.S. found a 1.2% prevalence of fear of clowns in pediatric patients, over 85% of which were girls. They felt fear even thinking about a visit from a clown.

One survey, conducted at British hospitals by the University of Sheffield and published in 2008, found all 250 children (age 4 to 16) who were polled expressed a fear or dislike of clowns. However, other studies find a very positive role in hospital clowns.

Researchers also found that four out of 14 pediatricians and pediatric residents they polled considered themselves afraid of clowns.

Treatment

Fortunately, it is possible for mental health professionals to treat clown phobia, as any other phobia, without learning the precise reasons for its development. Like other phobias, coulrophobia will often be treated with psychotherapy. In some cases, medications may be prescribed to help manage some of the symptoms associated with the condition.

Psychotherapy

A type of psychotherapy known as exposure therapy is usually the preferred treatment for phobias. This approach involves gradually exposing someone to the source of their fear while they are in a safe environment. People may practice relaxation techniques during this exposure to help them eventually feel less fearful. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is another approach that can be helpful. CBT focuses on helping people identify and change the negative thoughts that contribute to their feelings of fear.

Medications

Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may also sometimes be prescribed to help people cope with symptoms that they are experiencing. Such medications might also be used to treat co-occurring conditions.

Coping

Finding ways to cope with your feelings of anxiety about clowns can also be helpful. Some coping strategies that you may find useful include:

  • Relaxation techniques: There are a number of useful relaxation strategies that can help you calm your body's response to fear. Deep breathing is one technique that can be particularly useful for calming anxiety.
  • Practice mindfulness: This technique involves focusing your mind on the present moment rather than the past or future. It can allow you to find ways to center yourself in the moment and feel more in tune with your body's reactions.
  • Journaling: Expressive writing may be a useful strategy when you are dealing with feelings of anxiety. Consider spending a few moments each day focusing on a positive thought or writing about feelings of gratitude.

A Word From Verywell

The fear of clowns is not uncommon. In one 2016 survey, 7.8% of adult respondents stated that they were afraid of clowns.

While many people report feeling a dislike or sense of unease around clowns, that does not mean that they necessarily have coulrophobia. If your symptoms are causing significant distress and interfering with aspects of your daily life, it is important to talk to your doctor.

Treatments for specific phobias such as coulrophobia are quite effective. The sooner you seek help the sooner you can begin finding relief from your feelings of fear and anxiety.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a phobia, 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.

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