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Podophobia is an extreme and overwhelming fear of feet that can include a fear of your own feet and a fear of other people’s feet. It is a relatively unknown phobia that is also thought to be significantly underdiagnosed.
Today, we are going to look at podophobia in more detail, including the common causes, triggers, symptoms and treatments.
What is podophobia?
Podophobia is the extreme, irrational, overwhelming and persistent fear of feet. Someone with this phobia will likely experience extreme fear, anxiety or panic if they see, touch or smell feet or if they hear a sound they associate with feet, such as footsteps. Even thinking about or talking about feet can result in a phobic reaction.
Podophobia may refer to a fear of all feet (including your own) or only a fear of other people’s feet. For some people, their phobia of feet is only triggered by bare feet, whereas for other people it can occur in relation to feet in socks and/or shoes. The negative thoughts and feelings associated with feet are likely to be overwhelming and can have a significant impact on a person’s day-to-day life, mental and emotional health and overall well-being.
Because it can be difficult to be around other people if you have a foot phobia, this can make it difficult to function normally in both professional and social settings. You may find yourself withdrawing from social situations and avoiding other people. You may also go to extreme lengths to avoid any exposure to feet, by refusing to be too close to other people or always staying out of the eye line of their feet.
For someone with podophobia, feet can be so anxiety-provoking that they may experience intense anxiety and fear at the thought of them. They may be unable to think about feet reasonably or rationally and may be out of touch with reality regarding how much of a danger feet pose to them. They may also find themselves constantly checking that they are not being exposed to feet, even if they are watching a TV show or a film.
Although avoidance behaviours are designed to prevent encounters with feet, whether your own or other people’s, they can actually have a paradoxical effect. This means that instead of helping you to manage your phobia, they can actually have the opposite effect and instead reinforce your fear and make your symptoms more severe if you encounter feet in the future. Avoidance behaviours can also negatively impact your social life and professional life, your relationships and your ability to function normally in everyday situations.
If your phobia relates to your own feet, you may constantly keep your feet covered in thick socks and slippers and may find that you are unable to touch them, resulting in you being unable to clean your feet or cut your toenails. This can result in excess dirt and bacteria and can result in infections and skin irritations.
Other people with podophobia become so obsessed with keeping their feet clean that they begin to obsessively wash their feet and may refuse to wear shoes or walk barefoot.
Many people view feet as smelly or disgusting; however, this does not mean that all of these people are experiencing podophobia.
To be classified as a phobia, your fear of feet will include:
- Feelings of intense fear, panic or anxiety that are difficult to manage.
- Fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the true risk.
- A fear of feet that has lasted for at least six months.
- Engaging in avoidance behaviours to prevent encounters with feet, whether other people’s or your own.
- A fear of feet that interferes with your day-to-day life, overall well-being or sense of safety.
- Experiencing anticipatory anxiety or worry when thinking about feet.
Because podophobia is an individualised phobia, it manifests differently in different people. A phobia of feet can occur for many different reasons and be connected to specific fears relating to feet.
Some specific fears or behaviours that are characteristic of podophobia are:
- Viewing feet as smelly, dirty or disgusting.
- A dislike of people putting their feet on the furniture or walking indoors.
- A dislike of bare feet.
- Being unable to function at work, home, school or in social situations due to your fear of feet.
- Going to extreme lengths to avoid feet.
- Thinking that feet are likely to have fungal or bacterial problems or infections, such as toenail fungus or athlete’s foot.
- Feeling like you are going to vomit or want to run away and hide if you see feet, or feeling immobilised and panicked if you see feet.
If you have podophobia, you may be aware that your fear of feet is irrational and that feet don’t actually pose a threat to you. However, you may still find that you are unable to control your fear or anxiety and are unable to manage or prevent your physiological, psychological or behavioural responses to feet or the thought of feet.
Podophobia can be connected to and occur in conjunction with other phobias, such as:
- Ablutophobia: An extreme fear of bathing, cleaning or washing.
- Mysophobia (Germaphobia): An extreme fear of germs.
- Onuxophobia: An extreme fear of fingernails and toenails.
- Nosophobia: An extreme fear of developing a disease or illness.
- Kaltsaphobia: An extreme fear of socks.
- Osmophobia: An extreme fear, aversion or hypersensitivity to odours.
Podophobia can also be connected to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health condition where an individual has obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours, in many cases related to cleaning and avoiding germs and contamination. Because many people think of feet as dirty and smelly, someone with a type of OCD that centres around germs may also experience a phobia of feet.
How common is podophobia?
Podophobia is a type of specific phobia, meaning it is an enduring, overwhelming and irrational fear of a specific object, situation, place or person; in this case, an extreme fear of feet. There are more than 400 different types of specific phobias and because they are not listed separately in the diagnostic criteria, this means that any diagnoses of podophobia will fall under the specific phobia umbrella.
This means there are no individual statistics available that show how many people have a phobia of feet.
As with other types of specific phobias, it is thought that podophobia is significantly underdiagnosed. Many people with a foot phobia never seek a diagnosis for their condition or their phobia is misdiagnosed or goes undiagnosed.
There are multiple reasons why this might happen, for example:
- Many people who experience fear and anxiety in relation to feet have never heard of podophobia so may not realise they are experiencing a diagnosable medical condition.
- Many people are not aware that there are effective treatment options available for phobias so never seek a diagnosis.
- Someone with a phobia of feet may implement effective avoidance strategies that prevent encounters with feet, meaning their phobia is not frequently triggered.
- Someone with podophobia may not discuss their thoughts and feelings with others so may not realise that their fear of feet is extreme.
- Someone with a foot phobia may be embarrassed by their fear and may not want to speak to their GP or admit that they are experiencing difficulties.
However, it is important to bear in mind that not everyone who dislikes feet is experiencing a phobia. Negative thoughts and feelings concerning feet occur on a spectrum, ranging from mild fear and anxiety in certain situations (for example, if you see someone with dirty feet) to severe fear, panic and anxiety that can impact your day-to-day life, affect your decision-making and result in changes in your behaviour.
It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between people who dislike feet and those who are experiencing podophobia.
Who is at risk of podophobia?
Although anyone can develop podophobia, there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of you developing a phobia of feet.
These can include:
- Having a sensory processing disorder that makes you more sensitive to strong smells.
- Having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
- Have a previous negative, traumatic, painful or scary experience involving feet.
- Currently or previously being a victim of sexual, physical or emotional abuse or violence.
- Belonging to a religion or culture that considers certain parts of the feet to be dirty or that believes showing parts of the feet is disrespectful.
- Previously obtaining a serious injury or infection to your foot or feet.
- Being insecure or anxious about your shoe size.
- Having a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with podophobia.
- Having a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with another phobia.
- Being exposed to the fear of feet during childhood or adolescence.
- Being a naturally more anxious or nervous person.
- Having a history of anxiety, depression, panic attacks or another relevant mental health disorder.
- Experiencing a significant life stressor, having higher than usual stress levels or being in a heightened mental state (particularly if you are exposed to a fear of feet or have a negative experience involving feet during this time).
- Having a substance use disorder, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
- Having a negative experience involving foot fetishes.
It is important to note that although the risk factors listed above can increase the likelihood of you developing podophobia, they do not guarantee this. Someone with none of the above risk factors can develop a phobia of feet unexpectedly, whereas someone with several risk factors may never develop a fear of feet.
Unlike many other phobias which are more common in children, podophobia is more prevalent in adults.
How to deal with podophobia
As well as multiple treatment options, there are other effective strategies you can implement to help you deal with your phobia. These coping and calming strategies can be combined with lifestyle factors to help you successfully manage the symptoms of your phobia and reduce the impact your phobia has on your life.
Some of these strategies are most effective when implemented long term. This means you engage in them regularly as part of your daily or weekly routine. These strategies can help you to reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms over time and enable you to be exposed to your triggers in the future without experiencing negative thoughts and feelings.
Other coping and calming strategies are designed to be implemented short term when you are faced with feet or another trigger. Short-term strategies are most effective in helping you to prevent or manage any physiological, psychological or behavioural symptoms that usually occur when you face foot-related triggers, and to prevent a triggering situation from worsening and your negative thoughts and feelings from taking over.
The most effective long-term and short-term coping and calming strategies to help you deal with your foot phobia are:
- Acknowledge and understand your phobia
Acknowledging that you have a phobia of feet and not trying to deny your thoughts and feelings is the first step in overcoming your fear. It enables you to accept and change your internalised beliefs and thought processes and explore the cause of your phobia of feet and any negative or damaging beliefs, patterns of thought, feelings and behaviours that are attached to it and any unprocessed trauma that is related to the cause of your fear. Accepting and understanding your fear allows you to change your automatic and conscious reactions and behaviours towards feet and other triggers. It can also help you to understand and rationalise your thoughts and reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms.
Desensitisation draws on the same principles as exposure therapy and involves gradual exposure to your triggers to prevent feet from causing a negative response and adverse symptoms in the future. Desensitisation should be done in an environment you feel safe in, with people you trust and when you are in a calm and controlled state of mind. Ensure exposure is gradual by starting with a foot-related trigger that results in less fear and anxiety (such as looking at pictures of feet) before moving up to more intense exposure (such as wearing flip-flops outside your home). The more exposure you get the less intense your fear response will be and the less likely you are to experience adverse symptoms in the future.
- Visualise yourself overcoming your fear
Visualisation techniques can help you to overcome your phobia and any fear, anxiety or panic you usually experience in relation to feet. Visualise yourself in triggering situations and imagine confronting your fear of feet and successfully overcoming it. You could also visualise how overcoming your phobia will have a positive effect on your life. Visualisation can help to reassure your brain that feet don’t pose a threat to you and that you are not in any danger. This can make it less likely that you will experience an automatic fear response in the future.
- Challenge negative thoughts and feelings
If you have podophobia, you are likely to experience extreme anxiety or distress when thinking about or talking about feet or when anticipating encounters with feet. If you find yourself thinking about feet negatively or experiencing negative feelings, such as fear, anxiety or disgust, try to disrupt your thoughts and feelings to prevent your fear from escalating. Remind yourself that feet aren’t dangerous and that your fear is disproportionate. If the symptoms of your phobia begin to take over, remind yourself that the feelings will soon pass and your fear is disproportionate.
- Create a fear ladder
A fear ladder can help you to analyse and understand your fear of feet and can also help you to identify which of your triggers creates more severe fear, anxiety and panic than others. When creating your fear ladder, your triggers will be organised from least severe to most severe. Because phobias are highly individualised, everyone’s fear ladder is different. Although your fear ladder may look different, an example is shown below:
– 1 = Touching someone else’s feet.
– 2 = Someone else putting their bare feet on the furniture.
– 3 = Someone else walking in your home with no shoes or socks on.
– 4 = Wearing no socks with your shoes.
– 5 = Touching your own feet.
– 6 = Going to a place where people frequently wear no shoes, such as the beach.
Once you have created your fear ladder, you can then confront your fears one at a time, starting at the bottom of the ladder (the trigger that results in the least phobic response). This can help you to build up your tolerance of your triggers gradually and reduce your fear of feet long term.
- Join a support group
Joining a support group with people who have had similar experiences and have similar fears or anxieties to you can be an effective way of managing your phobia. A support group can help you to understand and be more open about your thoughts and feelings and allow you to receive advice, reassurance and empathy from other people who understand your experience. You could attend an in-person or online support group with other people with phobias or anxiety disorders.
- Confide in people close to you
Telling the people you are close to and people you spend a lot of time with about your phobia can ensure they understand your fear and are aware of situations you may find difficult. This allows them to be more mindful of your phobia and ensure they don’t accidentally trigger your phobia. Your family, friends and colleagues are some of the people you can disclose your phobia to. You can also create a support network of people you love and trust who you can turn to if you are struggling.
- Utilise distraction techniques
If you are in a triggering situation or unexpectedly encounter feet, distraction techniques can help to prevent your automatic fear and anxiety responses and prevent the symptoms of your phobia from manifesting or escalating. There are many different distraction techniques and you should choose the techniques that are likely to be most successful for you. The most popular distraction techniques are:
– Counting objects around you.
– Writing in a journal or colouring.
– Focusing on your breathing.
– Listening to music.
– Playing a game.
– Reciting something.
– Engaging in conversation.
- Practise mindfulness
Managing the symptoms of your phobia can be easier with mindfulness, which reduces the impact your fear has on your life. As well as teaching you how to accept your feelings and thoughts, it can also teach you how to overcome any fears or anxieties you may have. By focusing your attention and breathing, mindfulness can also reduce anxiety and the likelihood of having a panic attack. Mindfulness can also help you to manage stress and anxiety and be more in control of the connection between your mind and body and help you to control the symptoms of your phobia.
- Practise yoga and meditation
Yoga and meditation can help you manage phobias and anxiety, among other mental health conditions. Additionally, they can reduce stress and anxiety and prevent panic attacks. Meditation and yoga can help you achieve a highly relaxed state and reduce your stress levels, which can reduce the likelihood that you will experience a fight-or-flight response. You should practise them regularly (at least once a week) to reduce the impact of your phobia and improve your symptoms.
- Learn deep breathing exercises
When faced with a trigger, deep breathing exercises can help you manage or prevent phobia symptoms. The deeper you breathe, the more relaxed and calm your brain becomes, which in turn can help you manage your anxiety. Deep breathing exercises can effectively reduce your stress levels, relieve tension in your body, and reduce your anxiety over time. Deep breathing exercises should be used during triggering situations for at least 10 minutes, or until your anxiety begins to subside.
- Make lifestyle changes
Certain lifestyle factors can worsen the symptoms of your phobia and increase your anxiety. By making changes to your lifestyle, you can reduce your anxiety and the impact your phobia has on your life. Some of the lifestyle changes you could make are:
– Implement a successful sleep routine.
– Reduce your daily stress.
– Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
– Implement an exercise routine.
– Avoid caffeine, sugar and other stimulants.
– Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.
– Stop smoking.
What triggers podophobia?
A trigger, also known as a stressor, is an object, person, place, situation or thought that triggers a negative reaction and negative thoughts and feelings, such as fear, panic, anxiety or distress. A trigger can also lead to physiological, behavioural and other psychological symptoms. Your brain perceives a trigger as a threat to your physical or mental safety or well-being and will react accordingly.
The triggers of podophobia are the things that trigger your fear of feet and cause physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms. Some people think that the only thing that triggers podophobia is seeing or touching a foot; however, this is often not the case. Because podophobia is an individualised phobia, it can manifest differently in different people.
Many different things can trigger your fear of feet. Some people have only one or two triggers whereas other people have many different triggers. Different objects, places and situations can act as triggers for your phobia, and the triggers can vary from person to person. The types of triggers and the number of triggers experienced by different people can vary depending on what initially caused their phobia of feet to develop, their perception of the potential risk, the severity of their symptoms and their current mindset and mental health.
As mentioned earlier, different people’s phobias are triggered by different ‘types’ of feet.
For example, your phobia may be triggered by:
- Your own feet.
- Other people’s feet.
- Bare feet.
- Feet in socks, shoes or slippers.
- All parts of the foot.
- A specific part of the foot, such as the toes.
The most common triggers for podophobia are:
- Someone else’s feet touching you.
- Feet being close to you.
- Seeing feet, even from a distance.
- Smelling feet.
- Hearing footsteps.
- Seeing something commonly associated with feet, such as socks, shoes or toe rings.
- Seeing or hearing someone cut their toenails.
- Going to a salon and seeing someone having a pedicure.
- Someone putting their feet on the furniture.
- Seeing someone outside in bare feet, for example, at the beach or in the park.
- Going into a swimming pool or another area where you know other people’s feet have been.
- Seeing feet on a TV show or in a film.
- Thinking about feet.
- Someone talking about feet.
- Being in close proximity to someone’s feet, even if you cannot see them.
- Entering a shoe shop or another place that sells shoes.
What are the symptoms of podophobia?
The symptoms of podophobia are the physiological (related to your body), psychological (related to your mind) and behavioural (related to your behaviour) symptoms you experience because of your fear of feet. Phobia symptoms can vary and often differ from person to person. The symptoms can differ in the types of symptoms you experience, the way they manifest and their severity.
Some people with a foot phobia only experience a few symptoms that are mild in severity. Other people experience more severe symptoms. It is also possible to experience different types and severities of symptoms in different situations, depending on the trigger you are facing. For example, your symptoms may be more severe if someone’s bare feet are close to you compared to if you see someone walking near you wearing shoes.
Differences in the severity of your symptoms, how frequently they occur, and their manifestation can also occur for other reasons, such as how acute your phobia is, your perception of the situation and your current mental health and mindset; for example, your symptoms may be more likely to manifest and may be more severe if you are already experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety.
The symptoms of podophobia can occur at any time and are often automatic and uncontrollable. It may feel like you are unable to control or manage your thoughts or feelings and that your phobia is taking over your body.
The most common symptoms of podophobia are:
Psychological symptoms are the cognitive and emotional symptoms you experience when faced with feet or another trigger.
The most common psychological symptoms of podophobia are:
- Intense, overwhelming persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear, anxiety, panic or distress when faced with your own or someone else’s feet.
- Feelings of fear, anxiety or panic that are out of proportion to the risks.
- Being unable to control your fear, anxiety or panic even if you are aware that they are out of proportion to the risk.
- Being unable to concentrate or function normally if feet are close to you.
- Feeling immobilised or frozen by your fear.
- Feeling defenceless or vulnerable when you are close to someone’s feet.
- Feeling like you are losing control or out of control.
- Catastrophising the potential risks, for example, you could catch an infection from someone’s feet and become extremely ill.
- Mood swings, irritation or anger, for example, if someone puts their feet close to you.
- Experiencing anticipatory anxiety in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Experiencing depersonalisation or derealisation when in a triggering situation (where you feel like you no longer understand what is happening around you or you have lost touch with reality).
- Experiencing frequent or distressing nightmares about feet.
- Feeling like you are in danger or having a sense of impending doom.
Behavioural symptoms are the conscious or unconscious changes to your behaviour that occur as a result of your fear of feet. These behavioural changes are usually negative or harmful, even if it doesn’t feel that way initially. These behaviours are likely to differ from your usual behaviour or be abnormal for society as a whole.
The most common behavioural symptoms of podophobia are:
- Avoiding looking at, touching, smelling or being close to your own feet or other people’s feet.
- Avoiding beaches, swimming pools and other places where people are usually barefoot.
- Being unable to wear sandals or flip-flops.
- Being unable to touch your own feet or allow other people to touch your feet.
- Being unable to maintain good foot hygiene, such as cutting your toenails and washing your feet OR obsessively following foot hygiene practices.
- Covering your feet with socks, shoes or slippers all the time.
- Refusing to talk about or think about feet or any feet-related objects.
- Wanting to run away or hide if you see feet.
- Being unable to eat or having a lack of appetite during or in the lead-up to a potentially triggering situation.
- Difficulties sleeping or insomnia in the lead-up to a potentially triggering situation.
- Refusing to watch a TV show or film that features bare feet.
- Withdrawing from social or professional situations to avoid seeing other people.
- Refusing to wash your feet, even if you are experiencing adverse health consequences, such as skin conditions and fungal infections.
Physiological symptoms are the physical symptoms you experience in your body as a result of your phobia. They are usually physical changes or disturbances that you experience as a result of the fight-or-flight response.
This is an automatic physiological reaction that occurs when your brain perceives the object of your fear (feet) as a threat or danger. This can result in a sudden release of hormones, such as adrenaline or noradrenaline, that activate your sympathetic nervous system and prepare your body to fight or flee from the perceived danger.
This can cause physiological symptoms, such as:
- Feeling like you don’t have physical control over your body.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Unusual or excessive sweating or clamminess.
- Hot flashes or chills.
- Chest pain or feeling a tightness in your chest.
- Difficulties breathing, hyperventilating, shortness of breath or rapid breathing.
- Feeling like you cannot catch your breath.
- Dizziness or light-headedness.
- Confusion or disorientation.
- Heart palpitations, increased heart rate or feeling like your heart is pounding.
- Increased blood pressure.
- A choking sensation, finding it difficult to swallow or feeling a lump in your throat.
- Unexplained headaches or body pains.
- Muscle tension or stiff muscles.
- Nausea, vomiting or other stomach issues (for example, feeling like you need to throw up if you see someone’s feet).
- Feeling like you’ve got butterflies in your stomach if you see feet or in anticipation of seeing feet.
- A dry or sticky mouth.
- Being unusually sensitive to hot and cold temperatures (e.g. feeling like you are extremely hot even though the room temperature is normal).
- Pale or flushed skin, particularly on your face.
- Experiencing a panic attack.
What causes podophobia?
There are many possible causes of foot phobias. Some people with podophobia can identify one clear cause of their fear, whereas, for other people, multiple factors contributed to them developing a phobia of feet. Some people find it difficult to pinpoint exactly when their symptoms began and what initially caused them to develop a fear of feet, particularly if their phobia developed a long time ago or if their symptoms manifested slowly over time.
If you are unsure what initially caused your fear of feet to develop, spending some time thinking about the situation, events and lead-up to the initial manifestation of your symptoms can help you to identify the root cause of your phobia.
Understanding the cause of your fear can help you to manage your symptoms and reduce the impact your phobia has on your life. The causes of podophobia can be psychological, environmental, societal or genetic. Because phobias are specific to each individual, the causes of phobias often vary from person to person.
The most common causes of podophobia are:
- Having a fear of germs or infection
Many people have an aversion to feet because they consider them to be dirty, smelly or unhygienic. If you have OCD, another phobia relating to germs or cleanliness or are generally fearful or anxious about germs and bacteria, you are more likely to develop a phobia of feet. If you have previously had a fungal or bacterial infection on your feet, such as athlete’s foot, which caused you pain or embarrassment, this could also cause you to fear developing any bacteria on your feet or coming into contact with other people’s feet in case they have an infection that can be passed to you.
- A negative, traumatic or painful experience involving feet
This is one of the most common causes of podophobia and is also known as traumatic conditioning or a direct learning experience. The traumatic experience may or may not have involved real danger or risk. However, as long as you experienced significant fear, stress or trauma, this could have led to the development of a phobia. A traumatic experience is more likely to lead to a phobia if it happened during childhood or during a particularly vulnerable time in your life. Examples of negative or traumatic experiences involving feet include:
– Obtaining a painful or serious injury to your foot.
– Feeling embarrassed that someone said your feet were smelly.
– Developing a fungal or bacterial infection in your foot.
– Someone assaulting you using their foot (for example, kicking you or stamping on you).
Following the traumatic experience, you may begin to have intrusive and negative thoughts or memories of the trauma and begin to avoid your own and/or other people’s feet and other trauma-related triggers. This can cause the fear or anxiety you felt at the time of the experience to linger or worsen and can lead to you developing a phobia of feet.
- The disgust response
The disgust response is an emotional, often automatic response that developed as an evolutionary psychological system to protect us from diseases and infection. The disgust response acts as the behavioural immune system to encourage hygienic behaviour and discourage contact with objects that could increase our risk of disease or infection. The bad smell or uncleanliness that are frequently associated with feet or an unexpected encounter with smelly or infected feet can cause someone to experience a disgust response which can then cause them to fear feet in the future.
- Religious or cultural beliefs
Belonging to a religion or culture that considers certain parts of the feet to be dirty or that believes showing parts of the feet is disrespectful can contribute to someone developing a phobia of feet, particularly if they were exposed to these views at a young age. These religious and cultural beliefs can cause someone to view the feet as being offensive and irreverent or dirty and disgusting. Negative beliefs about feet can then lead to negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours which begin to take over and can result in phobic reactions.
- Currently or previously experiencing sexual, physical or emotional abuse or violence
Someone who has previously experienced abuse or assault is more likely to develop a phobia, particularly phobias related to the body (such as podophobia). These traumatic experiences can result in a fear of someone touching any part of their body or being exposed to a part of another person’s body, even if it was not a part of their body that was involved in the abuse or assault.
- Fear rumination
This is a common cause of phobias and usually occurs following a negative experience involving feet. Fear rumination involves engaging in repetitive negative thought processes and persistently and repeatedly recapping a traumatic, scary, negative or painful experience. Over time, these thoughts and memories can become increasingly upsetting and intrusive and can make you remember the event as being more negative or scary than it was in reality. Fear rumination reinforces your natural fear responses, creates additional anxiety and can result in you developing a phobia of feet.
- An informational learning experience
An informational learning experience occurs when you are exposed to information that frightens you or creates feelings of fear or anxiety. For example, learning facts about the types of germs and bacteria that live on your feet, the number of fungal and bacterial infections that occur and the different types of foot injuries people can obtain can cause them to think about feet negatively and experience fear, anxiety or panic in relation to feet. If these negative feelings are not addressed, they can develop into podophobia.
- A learned phobia
Also known as modelling or an observational learning experience, a learned phobia usually occurs when you observe a fear of feet in another person and learn to be scared of them yourself. You are more likely to learn a phobia if you are exposed to it during childhood or adolescence; for example, children who grow up with a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with podophobia are more likely to develop the condition themselves. However, a learned phobia can also develop during adulthood.
- Experiencing significant or higher than usual stress levels
Significant, long-term stress can result in a disproportionate fear response or an inability to manage intense situations. This can make it more likely that you will develop a phobia, such as podophobia, particularly if you have a negative experience involving feet or are exposed to the fear of feet while experiencing higher levels of stress. A stressful or distressing event, such as a death, can also trigger a phobia, as you may be less able to manage your emotions and thought processes when experiencing grief, which can result in a disproportionate fear response.
How is podophobia diagnosed?
If you think you may be experiencing podophobia, your first step will be to visit your GP or primary healthcare provider, particularly if your fear of feet is negatively impacting your life in any way. Your GP will likely look at your medical history and ask questions about any medication or supplements you are taking to ensure your symptoms cannot be attributed to another source. If your GP thinks your symptoms are consistent with podophobia, they will likely refer you to a psychologist or phobia specialist.
To obtain more information about your symptoms and any negative thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours surrounding feet, the psychologist will conduct a phobia questionnaire.
They will likely request information relating to:
- The types of symptoms you experience, how frequently they occur and how severe they are.
- The initial onset of your phobia, including when your symptoms first began and what initially triggered your fear of feet (if you know).
- Your medical history, including whether you are currently or have previously had any anxiety disorders, panic disorders, phobias or other mental health conditions.
- Whether you have a family history of phobias.
- How much your fear of feet interferes with your day-to-day life, your well-being and your behaviour.
Because podophobia is a type of specific phobia, to attain a diagnosis your symptoms will need to be consistent with the seven key criteria listed in the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias:
1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either when the individual is close to feet or when they are not.
2. Exposure to feet or another trigger leads to an immediate anxiety response in the majority of situations.
3. The fear is excessive and disproportionate to the threat, and this is recognised by the individual.
4. The individual avoids places or situations where they could be exposed to feet. If they are exposed to feet, the individual will experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.
5. The anticipation of encountering feet and the avoidance behaviours associated with avoiding feet can have a significant impact on the individual’s day-to-day life.
6. The fear has lasted for a minimum of six months.
7. The phobia is not associated with another disorder or mental health condition.
If your symptoms are consistent with the diagnostic criteria listed above, you will be diagnosed with a specific phobia (podophobia). Depending on the frequency and severity of your symptoms, you may then be offered treatment.
How is podophobia treated?
There are multiple treatment options for treating phobias, including podophobia, which have been proven to be extremely effective. In fact, some phobia treatments have proven to be successful in up to 90% of cases.
Many people with a phobia will benefit from medical intervention. If your phobia is triggered frequently, if you change your behaviour to avoid feet, if your symptoms are severe or if your phobia negatively affects your life, then treatment will likely be recommended.
However, not everyone with a foot phobia will require treatment. Medical intervention may not be necessary if your symptoms are mild, your fear of feet doesn’t affect your daily life or well-being, or if you’ve already implemented successful coping strategies. However, you should always consult your doctor before making any decisions regarding treatment.
Because multiple different treatment options are available, your doctor will create a treatment plan that is personalised to you and your phobia and is specifically designed to treat the causes and symptoms of your phobia.
Your treatment plan will be based on several factors, such as:
- The severity of your symptoms.
- The frequency of your symptoms.
- The root cause of your phobia.
- How significantly your phobia impacts your life.
The most common treatment options for treating podophobia are:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT):
A popular form of psychotherapy, CBT aims to identify and explore the root cause of your foot phobia and change any negative beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, feelings and behaviours that surround your phobia of feet. You will focus on identifying any unhealthy or unrealistic beliefs or patterns of thought and replacing these with more healthy, realistic thought processes. This can help you to have more appropriate responses to feet in the future.
If you have a phobia of feet, you will likely experience automatic and uncontrollable negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. CBT aims to change the way you think about feet by deconstructing your negative thoughts and beliefs into smaller pieces, which can be addressed individually. You will also learn how your thoughts affect your behaviours and how to identify harmful thoughts and behaviours and learn strategies on how to change them.
You will focus on identifying your specific triggers, for example, whether you are triggered by your own feet or other people’s feet, and learn techniques to help you cope with these triggers. CBT sessions can be conducted individually or as part of a group with other people who are experiencing similar phobias or anxiety to you.
During your CBT sessions, you will work on:
- Understanding your triggers and what initially caused your fear of feet.
- Recognising distorted patterns of thinking.
- Changing any unhealthy beliefs surrounding feet.
- Learning coping strategies and calming strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, distraction techniques and coping statements.
Exposure therapy, also known as gradual exposure or systematic desensitisation, involves gradual, repeated exposure to your triggers in a safe and controlled environment. By being gradually exposed to your fears, you should be able to be in previously triggering situations without experiencing automatic fear and anxiety responses and adverse symptoms.
Exposure therapy can help you to overcome your phobia by unlearning any negative beliefs or associations you have attached to feet and creating more realistic patterns of thought. You will first learn relaxation techniques and coping strategies to help you better cope with your triggers and manage your symptoms.
Exposure will happen gradually, in escalating phases. You will start with the least anxiety-provoking triggers, such as looking at pictures of someone else’s feet.
Once you are comfortable with this level of exposure, you will gradually increase your exposure, for example, by taking your shoes off during the session. With each exposure, you should experience progressively lower anxiety, with the aim that you can eventually be exposed to your biggest triggers without experiencing an adverse reaction.
Medication doesn’t treat the underlying cause of your phobia and is not usually used as a long-term treatment option for podophobia.
However, medication may be offered if you are also experiencing another mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression, alongside your phobia. You may also be offered treatment in the short term, if you need to confront a triggering situation, such as buying new shoes or having treatment for a foot infection.
In these situations, you may be offered medication, such as:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
- Anti-anxiety medication.