Coping With the Fear of New Things

Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder.
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What Is Neophobia?

Neophobia is the fear of new things. It is a relatively complicated phobia. It is not recognized as a distinct condition in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5)." However, if the symptoms of the condition meet certain criteria, it might be diagnosed as a specific phobia.

This type of fear may range from mild to severe. The fear may apply primarily to certain things such as a fear of new foods or new places. It can also take a serious toll limit a person's life, relationships, and experiences.

This article discusses the symptoms of neophobia and what causes this type of fear. It also explores how it is treated and some of the ways that it might affect a person's life.

Symptoms of Neophobia

Neophobia can lead to physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms. Some of the physical symptoms of this type of phobia can include:

  • Breathlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Trembling

Psychological symptoms include feelings of anxiety, a sense of unreality, or a fear of dying. The physical and psychological responses that people experience when confronted with new things contribute to the behavioral signs of the phobia, which may involve avoiding new experiences or enduring them with extreme distress.

Neophobia challenges the human need for novelty with a fear of the unfamiliar. In its mildest forms, it may not even be recognizable as a fear. Some people are bigger risk-takers than others, and there is nothing wrong with preferring a comfortable routine.

More serious symptoms of neophobia represent a true phobia that can become life-limiting.

Diagnosis

People with this fear are not diagnosed with neophobia, since it is not a condition recognized in the DSM-5. Instead, they might be diagnosed with a specific phobia if their symptoms meet the following criteria:

  • Feelings of excessive and unreasonable fear in response to new things
  • An immediate fear response when faced with new things
  • Avoiding new things or extreme distress when encountering them

To be diagnosed with a specific phobia, these symptoms must be life-limiting, last six months or longer, and cannot be better explained by another mental disorder such as agoraphobia or panic disorder.

Causes of Neophobia

Neophobia may be the result of a number of different factors. Having a close relative with anxiety increases a person's risk of developing a phobia. Upsetting or traumatic experiences can also play a role.

In the case of neophobia, having distressing experiences when trying new things might contribute to the onset of this fear.

Neophobia may be related to the twin fears of success and of failure. To truly succeed or fail, it is necessary to take a risk. Both outcomes are potentially life-changing, forcing people to adapt to new circumstances. People with neophobia may feel that the potential benefits of success do not outweigh the potential upheaval to their life.

More generally, people tend to be creatures of habit. They often spend decades in the same house, working for the same employer, driving the same car, and even eating the same thing every Friday night.

Familiarity also tends to have an impact on people's personal preferences. The more a person is exposed to something, the more they tend to prefer it, a phenomenon known as the mere exposure effect.

There are times when sticking to the familiar can serve as an adaptive coping mechanism, particularly when a person is dealing with stress. For example, researchers have found that re-watching TV shows can be a way to reduce feelings of anxiety and restore a sense of self-control.

It's the same reason why people enjoy eating certain comfort foods. Familiarity can serve as a source of comfort when people are tired and stressed out.

Over time, constantly choosing the familiar might play a part in hesitancy when it comes to the unfamiliar. Some fear of the unknown is normal and even adaptive. It is when this fear becomes excessive, distressing, and life-limiting that it represents a more serious problem.

Complications

A mild fear of new things is not likely to cause major problems in a person's life. It might mean they make predictable choices or fall back on the same routines. This might lead to boredom, but people can often overcome it by consciously making an effort to step outside of their comfort zone once in a while.

Moderate to severe neophobia can have a serious impact on a person's daily life. It is easy to become stuck in a rut, avoiding risks that could lead to greater personal fulfillment. Some people make the conscious decision not to shine at work or school, some refuse to try new vacation destinations, and others avoid opportunities to make new friends.

Neophobia in Children and Older Adults

Small children often demonstrate signs of neophobia. The entire world is new to them, and resistance to change may just be an innate need to feel like something is constant in their ever-widening worlds.

Likewise, many older adults develop mild neophobia. As people age, they sometimes seek out the familiar in order to feel like they are in control. In such cases, people prefer to remain in comfortable, familiar surroundings.

Having a daily routine and being somewhat reluctant to change doesn't mean that a person has neophobia. It only becomes a phobia when it results in excessive fear, creates significant distress, and limits the ability to function normally in daily life.

Food Neophobia

Food neophobia is especially common in small children. So-called "picky eaters," who are unwilling to eat more than a handful of familiar items, may actually have food neophobia.

Most kids outgrow food neophobia as they mature. However, those who do not outgrow it by young adulthood may struggle with the fear throughout their lives. This can have a negative impact on eating habits, nutrition, and health.

Cenophobia

Cenophobia, or the fear of new ideas, is a subset of neophobia. The fear halts progress and can make it difficult for people to accept new ideas and change. While it is smart not to accept every idea at face value, new ways of thinking about a situation are critical to success, innovation, and effective problem-solving.

Treatment for Neophobia and Other Phobias

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the first-line approach to treating specific phobias such as neophobia. CBT focuses on helping people change the negative thought patterns that can lead to fear and avoidance behaviors. Instead of dreading new things or experiences, people might work to relabel these thoughts as anticipation or excitement.

One component of CBT known as exposure therapy may be particularly effective. In this approach, people are gradually and progressively exposed to what they fear. Over time, their feelings of fear diminish.

In the case of neophobia, people might start with small exposures to new things or experiences, like ordering a new dish at their favorite restaurant. Eventually, they work their way up to more challenging sources of unfamiliarity, such as visiting a new destination.

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.

Prognosis & Prevention

Specific phobias such as neophobia respond well to treatment. Treatment approaches such as CBT, exposure therapy, medications, and supportive care can make a significant difference in a person's symptoms and help improve their life and functioning.

Some of the risk factors for developing phobias are not possible to eliminate and prevent. Understanding the risk factors, which include both genetics, experiences, and trauma, may help people take steps to get treatment early on before fearful behaviors become worse. Challenging yourself to try new things could help prevent the development of this type of fear.

Recap

Like other specific phobias, neophobia is highly treatable. Trying new things or exposing yourself to unfamiliar experiences may help prevent the development of more severe fear.

Coping With Neophobia

If you have a fear of new things, there are steps you can take that may help. In addition to getting professional treatment, there are also self-care and self-help strategies that can help you manage your feelings of fear and anxiety.

  • Start small: Gradually exposing yourself to new things in small doses can help you get used to new experiences.
  • Find ways to relax: Using relaxations strategies can be helpful when you are dealing with symptoms of fear and anxiety. Deep breathing is one approach that has been shown to be particularly effective when coping with anxiety.
  • Distract yourself: When you find yourself faced with the unfamiliar, look for ways to occupy your attention without focusing on the source or symptoms of your fear.

Neophobia can have a detrimental impact on your life. It may cause you to miss out on opportunities, relationships, and experiences that could potentially bring richness and joy to your life. Getting treatment and finding ways to cope can help you overcome your fear of new things and open your life up to a world of opportunity.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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