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Being afraid of something isn’t uncommon, but for some people, what starts off as a slight fear can develop into a really debilitating anxiety called a phobia. Phobias are irrational fears which are classified as either simple, a fear of a particular object, or as complex, when the fear relates to a circumstance or situation.
Certain phobias may sound funny to some people who have never suffered from them, but in reality, they can be debilitating to the person affected. A phobia is more than a straightforward fear, it develops when a person begins to organise their life around avoiding the thing that they are afraid of, whether it is an animal, object, place or situation.
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. If you have a phobia, you will have an overwhelming need to avoid all contact with the source of your anxiety. Coming into contact with the cause of your phobia or even the thought of this can make you anxious and may cause you to panic. This is made all the more debilitating when the source of your phobia is an everyday object, such as with koumpounophobia.
What is koumpounophobia?
The words “koumpouno” and “phobia” are derived from Greek. Koumpouno means “bean or button”, the ancient Greeks used beans in the place of buttons, and the term “phobia” means fear of, so koumpounophobia is a fear of buttons.
People suffering from button phobia have dramatic variations of the fear such as:
- Buttons with a typical texture such as plastic, metal, fabric etc.
- Unclean buttons.
- Fear of touching or fastening the buttons on their clothes.
- Fear of inhaling or swallowing buttons.
- Fear of seeing buttons worn by others.
Some people dislike buttons on equipment such as TV remotes, mobile phones, keyboards, start buttons etc. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was often called koumpounophobic, as he is said to have had an aversion to buttons. It is thought that this is why he wore roll-necked sweaters and had a liking for touchscreens.
Others with the phobia avoid any objects that resemble the shape of buttons such as beads or pearls, small coins, and other circular objects, preferring to use square shapes instead of circular ones, whilst for others the shape of the button is immaterial.
Some people are scared of old buttons, as they might be unclean due to several years of lying around or they don’t know where they have been or who they have been handled by. This kind of fear is often accompanied by mysophobia, which is commonly known as germ phobia. Some people unwittingly wash their hands repeatedly after touching buttons.
How common is koumpounophobia?
Koumpounophobia is not a common phobia, but it is also not one of the rarest phobias; it is estimated that around one in every 75,000 people suffers from it.
There are people who would not admit to having this phobia – they might say that they just don’t like buttons, they don’t like to look at them or they don’t like touching them, but they fall short of saying they have koumpounophobia. So, this may be a far more common phobia than the figures suggest.
Who is at risk of koumpounophobia?
Psychologists believe that koumpounophobia may be the result of genetic susceptibility as well as environmental and social factors. Phobias including koumpounophobia can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex or social background, and they may develop in childhood and continue into adulthood or, less often, may develop in adulthood. According to the Mental Health Foundation, approximately 2% of the UK population will have a phobia, with women twice as likely as men to suffer.
How to deal with koumpounophobia
Ways of dealing with koumpounophobia may be very different for people dealing with this phobia as the object of this phobia can differ. People with this phobia have a variety of reactions: some are unable to stand the sight, sound or texture of buttons; some are afraid of all types of buttons, while some prefer metallic buttons to plastic ones; and for others the phobia is equipment buttons rather than clothing buttons.
Avoidance appears to be the main strategy used by many koumpounophobics as they are often too embarrassed to discuss their phobia. Many people will refuse to attend formal events such as weddings as there are other guests wearing suits or coats with buttons.
Many koumpounophobics dread shopping for clothes because it is difficult to get clothing without buttons. As we have seen previously, Steve Jobs’ solution to this issue was to always wear roll-necked sweaters.
These avoidance strategies become very difficult in places such as the workplace, as the majority of people wearing formal workwear will have buttons on their clothing. Some people will refuse to take the lift as they have to select the floor button, so will always use the stairs.
Unfortunately, for the sufferer, these avoidance behaviours have a paradoxical effect and tend to reinforce the phobia rather than solve it. In many cases, koumpounophobia may have become worse over time as more and more sophisticated avoidance behaviours and routines are developed.
If your exposure to buttons triggers a panic attack, that is a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety, they can be very frightening but they are not dangerous. Most panic attacks last somewhere from five minutes to half an hour. If possible, it is important to try to remain in the situation until the anxiety has passed.
Confront your fear. If you don’t run away from it, you are giving yourself a chance to discover that nothing bad is going to happen. Doing a breathing exercise can ease your other symptoms; try breathing in as slowly, deeply and gently as you can through your nose and breathing out slowly, deeply and gently through your mouth. Some people find it helpful to count slowly from one to five on each in-breath and each out-breath.
What triggers koumpounophobia?
Koumpounophobia reactions are usually automatic and uncontrollable and can seem to take over a person’s thoughts. Many people state that they just feel sick at the sight of buttons instead of feeling a fear.
Others may not fear seeing buttons but are more frightened of their accidental ingestion. Studies have revealed that a person who has swallowed a button in childhood has an increased risk of developing koumpounophobia if any present circumstance triggers past experiences with buttons. The trigger aspect might be witnessing a distressed child possibly choking on a button.
Fearing buttons may also be due to an inability to do them up on your own clothes, and as a result you were teased and bullied by children in school, for example. The experience triggers the phobia when faced with having to deal with buttons in adulthood.
What are the symptoms of koumpounophobia?
Phobias affect different people in different ways. Some people only react with mild anxiety when confronted with the object of their fear, while others experience severe anxiety or have severe panic attacks.
The physical reactions to koumpounophobia may include:
- An overwhelming desire to escape from button-related situations.
- Dry mouth.
- Excessive sweating.
- Inability to speak or think clearly.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Shortness of breath.
- Tightening of stomach muscles.
For some people, any thought or vision of buttons can induce a full-blown anxiety attack. Often phobias pose little real danger, but they do provoke anxiety and avoidance in the people who suffer from them. People with a phobia either try to avoid the thing that triggers the fear, or they endure it with great anxiety and distress, which can trigger panic attacks.
It may be time to consider treatment for your koumpounophobia if:
- Avoiding the trigger object such as buttons affects your everyday life, or causes you great distress.
- It keeps you from doing things you normally enjoy.
- It causes intense and overwhelming fear, anxiety or panic.
- You recognise that your fear is out of proportion to the danger.
- You have had koumpounophobia for at least six months.
- It stops you from getting support for other health problems, for example, koumpounophobia stops you from using the phone or seeing the doctor.
Koumpounophobia can cause social isolation if the phobia is so severe that the sufferer avoids putting themselves in all situations where they may be in proximity to buttons.
What causes koumpounophobia?
There doesn’t seem to be one particular cause of a phobia, as often there is not a clear reason why it starts. A traumatic event in childhood may be the original cause of this phobia. Choking on a button, having a button box fall from a shelf spilling on your head, or having difficulty fastening buttons on your clothes leading to mickey-taking or bullying are examples of such incidences.
The cause for the phobia could have originated during childhood as a result of abuse or neglect by someone wearing buttoned clothing. Certain situations might have a lasting effect on how you feel about them.
Sometimes phobias are learned responses from early life, perhaps a parent shouted: “don’t put that dirty button into your mouth”. If a parent has had a severe reaction to something, this might have influenced you.
The phobia may be evolutionary just as the fear of all circular objects is. Some scientists believe that humans have always been afraid of circular objects such as holes, as they resemble skin rashes or pits containing the unknown.
However, research suggests that some people are more vulnerable to developing a phobia than others, and that there is no simple explanation as to why someone has developed koumpounophobia. By one estimate, at least 25% to 60% of specific phobias have a genetic background.
How is koumpounophobia diagnosed?
Most people with a phobia such as koumpounophobia are usually fully aware that they have one. Many people live with a phobia without having it formally diagnosed and take great care to avoid the thing they are afraid of. However, getting help from your GP and a specialist with expertise in behavioural therapy, such as a psychologist, can often be beneficial.
Many people with phobias often suffer anxiety which can become a mental health problem if it impacts your ability to live your life as fully as you want to. If your symptoms fit a particular set of medical criteria described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) then you might be diagnosed with a particular anxiety disorder.
How is koumpounophobia treated?
Almost all phobias can be successfully treated and cured. Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder. In the UK, an estimated 10 million people have phobias. Anyone concerned that their koumpounophobia is having an adverse effect on their everyday life should contact their GP in the first instance. There can be high success rates in the treatment of phobias so speak to your GP or NHS 111.
Simple phobias such as koumpounophobia are usually treated by exposure therapy to overcome the fear. Exposure therapy focuses on changing a person’s response to the object that they fear, in this case buttons. Gradual, repeated exposure to the source of a person’s specific phobia and the related thoughts, feelings and sensations may help them learn to manage their anxiety.
For people who experience more serious anxiety with koumpounophobia, a GP may suggest talking therapy treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is a therapy that can help a person to manage their problems by changing the way they think and behave. CBT emphasises learning to develop a sense of mastery and confidence with your thoughts and feelings rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.
Medication is not usually recommended for treating phobias such as koumpounophobia because talking therapies are normally more effective and do not have any side effects. However, medication is sometimes prescribed on a short-term basis to treat the effects of phobias, such as anxiety.
There are three types of medication recommended for treating anxiety:
Your GP should explain all your treatment options and they should consider your views before starting any treatment.
For anyone with a phobia such as koumpounophobia, there are some things you can do to try to address your phobia which might help reduce the impact it has on your life. You might find that talking to someone you trust about your phobia can help. Having someone listen to you and showing they care can help in itself.
You can also talk to groups and professionals who have experience of phobias such as:
Mind’s helplines who provide information and support by phone and email.
Anxiety UK 03444 775 774 (helpline) 07537 416 905 (text)
British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) for information about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and related treatments, including details of accredited therapists.
No More Panic provides information, support and advice for those with panic disorder, anxiety, phobias or OCD, including a forum and chat room.
No Panic 0300 7729844, provides a helpline, step-by-step programmes, and support for people with anxiety disorders.
Triumph Over Phobia (TOP UK) provides self-help therapy groups and support for those with OCD, phobias and related anxiety disorders.