Scopophobia is a type of specific phobia in which people have an excessive fear of being watched or looked at. They may be overwhelmed by a sense of danger and the need to escape.

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness. Of people with an anxiety disorder, 19.3 million of them have a specific phobia. Scopophobia is one example of a specific phobia.

This article explains what scopophobia is and how it is treated. It also looks at ways people can manage anxiety.

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Scopophobia is a persistent fear of being watched or stared at.

While many people may feel some level of anxiety when they are the center of attention, these feelings are exaggerated and out of proportion to the situation for people with scopophobia.

When trying to avoid such situations, people may choose to alter their lifestyles and not take part in social events. Some people may find their phobia interferes with their work or school life.

Scopophobia and other anxiety disorders

Doctors may consider scopophobia to be both a specific phobia and a part of social anxiety disorder.

The National Institute of Mental Health notes that the term “specific phobia” refers to phobias that relate to specific objects or situations.

People with social anxiety disorder typically have an intense anxiety toward, or fear of, social situations. A person with social anxiety disorder is concerned that others will negatively judge their behaviors and actions, resulting in feelings of embarrassment.

For some, scopophobia may be a symptom of social anxiety disorder, rather than a stand-alone diagnosis.

Although there does not appear to be one single cause of developing a phobia or anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety disorder, there are factors that can increase the risk.

Scientists believe that a combination of factors can contribute to a person developing an anxiety disorder. Some are genetic, such as family history. Others may be a result of a person’s experiences.

People who have had negative social experiences, such as being bullied as a child, may feel threatened in similar situations.

According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, being female or having a history of depression may increase the risk of developing a specific phobia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and International League Against Epilepsy note that people with medical conditions that draw other people’s attention, such as Tourette syndrome or epilepsy, may be more susceptible to anxiety and phobias.

People with scopophobia find social encounters stressful because they believe other people are watching and judging them.

Symptoms of a specific phobia can vary between people. However, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) notes that symptoms of a specific phobia may include:

  • a feeling of imminent doom or danger
  • feeling the need to escape
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • a smothering feeling
  • feeling as if they are choking
  • nausea
  • abdominal discomfort
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • feeling faint
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • chills or a hot flush
  • tingling sensations
  • experiencing a fear of losing control
  • a fear of dying

For many people with scopophobia, the buildup to a social encounter can be enough to trigger their symptoms. Some people turn down invitations to socialize as the associated stress becomes overwhelming.

Not everyone with scopophobia experiences the symptoms in the same way. Some people may feel uncomfortable in social situations but are still able to attend them. Others may feel so overwhelmed that they avoid going out altogether.

If scopophobia is a part of social anxiety disorder, the symptoms can:

  • disrupt a person’s daily life
  • interfere with daily routines
  • interfere with a person’s ability to do their job
  • interfere with their social life and relationships
  • make it challenging to complete school

Additionally, people with scopophobia may misinterpret social cues. For example, they may read more significance into a person’s facial expressions than was intended and interpret it as criticism.

Some people with social anxiety disorder continue feeling distressed after an encounter. These difficult memories can occur for months after a stressful meeting.

Social anxiety disorders may also increase the risk of depression or substance use disorder.

Doctors diagnose a specific phobia based on the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR). The criteria include:

  • being markedly anxious or fearful about a specific situation or object
  • the object or specific situation almost always triggers an immediate fear or anxiety
  • the fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the level of danger the object or situation poses
  • a person actively avoids or endures the object or situation with intense anxiety or fear
  • the avoidance and fear cause distress and impact the aspects of a person’s life, such as their social and professional life
  • the symptoms are persistent and last for 6 months or more
  • other mental disorders, such as social anxiety disorder, do not better explain the symptoms

Doctors diagnose social anxiety disorders using criteria listed in the DSM-5-TR.

These include:

  • being markedly anxious and stressed about social situations
  • avoiding social situations, or enduring them with continual anxiety
  • having the same reactions to almost every social situation
  • the avoidance, or reluctance to participate, persists for at least 6 months
  • the fear is out of proportion to the risk
  • the avoidance or distress of social encounters interferes with how the person lives their life

Treatment for scopophobia may include:

CBT involves a therapist teaching people to recognize unhelpful ways of thinking that can lead to overwhelming fears. The person with scopophobia then learns new ways to identify and reevaluate perceived threats.

The American Psychological Association explains that exposure therapy can help break the cycle of fear and avoidance. During treatment, a person with scopophobia first works with a therapist to create an environment in which they feel safe. Then, they are exposed to situations they find threatening.

These exposures can range from imagining a situation to being involved in a social encounter. Some therapists use virtual reality technology to help people face their fears.

Exposure therapy can help people learn that the situations are not as threatening as they once believed.

Managing stress and anxiety through mindfulness therapies can help people with certain types of anxiety.

The ADAA suggests some people find that taking deep breaths, or counting to 10, before embarking on a social encounter can help reduce their anxiety.

Some people may find it beneficial to talk with others who have had similar experiences. Mental Health America provides some information and resources on how and where a person can find a support group.

Scopophobia is an excessive fear of being watched. People with scopophobia find social interactions extremely stressful because they think people are judging them.

Some people avoid socializing altogether. The phobia can stop them enjoying everyday activities or impact their work or school life.

Exposure therapy and CBT can help people manage their stress and participate more fully in social situations.