Is Itchiness a common reaction to gross images?
July 31, 2010 8:10 PM   Subscribe

Phobias lead to itching - what's the deal with this?

So I've always been a little bit grossed out by clusters of things. Like that edited picture of a "diseased breast" that was just photo shopped with a lotus. Just a google image search to see what I mean.

I always thought it was just me, but apparently some people call it trypophobia - for some it's super intense, but others (like me) are just mildly weirded out. What interested me was EVERYONE describes their reaction to a relevant image or thought as an unpleasant full-body itching sensation.

I don't really have phobias of other things like insects. Is the itchy-sensation common to other phobias? Or perhaps just this one, or other physical ones? Does anyone know what causes it? I'm really curious about why the body/mind might react this way but am having trouble finding more than anecdotal information.
posted by Solon and Thanks to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably just essentially a form of somatization... turning feelings into physical sensations unconsciously. A lot of people, when very anxious, can have widespread nervous system reactions, so it wouldn't surprise me at all to know that some people feel itchy when looking at a photo of a weird skin condition or something. I'd imagine that there is a process going on something like this: look at photo of clustery thing -> trigger some automatic nervous system reaction based on fear/anxiety that may or may not be noticeable or identifiable by the person who is feeling it (if not identifiable, it could be because the person is hyperdefended against connecting to fear/anxiety feelings) -> itchy.
posted by so_gracefully at 8:26 PM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have entomophobia, the fear of insects.

I don't have any itchy-sensation when encountered with my phobia. I have a voice in my head that screams to get away. It's irrational and embarrassing and I take it in stride as much as I can.

When a bug does land on me, or I suspect one has.. I spend the next hour or so very anxious. Sometimes it feels like they're crawling on me and then it's itchy.

And just for the record, the first image in that google search, when you view the full image, is indeed weirding me out too. I'm not sure what is so much a phobia as it is wrong. Your brain is telling you it looks real and it's not how a healthy normal person should look. The picture of the plants/tubes/pasta are all fine for me, though. Those are normal.
posted by royalsong at 8:27 PM on July 31, 2010

I'm not particularly afraid of holes in stuff, but I know that just before an exam I itch like a mofo. I don't know the neural pathways involved, but I speculate that histamine is involved.
posted by ladypants at 8:49 PM on July 31, 2010

Here's a New Yorker piece about a person who's head itched so much that they scratched right through their own skull. On second thought, that may not be something you want to read. The takeaway point is that there is a great deal of research about pain, but precious little is known about itching.

Here are some links to information about itching relating to a person's mental state (anxiety, fear etc.) also known as Psychogenic Pruritus
posted by ladypants at 8:55 PM on July 31, 2010

You can also try searching for combinations of the words "psychogenic", "somatoform", "pruritus" and "pruritis sine materia". A somatoform disorder is often described as a disorder that cannot be explained by "physical disease" even though it's been well established that our brains, neurons, neurotransmitters, mast cells etc. really do exist in the physical world, so the term seems a little silly to me. You might also want to throw in the term "idiopathic" which means the medical establishment hasn't really figured out the cause yet.
posted by ladypants at 9:05 PM on July 31, 2010

Itchiness is a reaction to anxiety - which can definitely be brought on by grossness (ew I know exactly which picture you're talking about too!). Your entire body goes into overdrive including your nervous system.
posted by radioamy at 9:37 PM on July 31, 2010

Things that gross me out in that particular way make me feel like my teeth are vibrating very quickly in a way that seems to resonate through my whole body. It's not itchy, but it's a kind of nerves going crazy sensation that I imagine others interpreting as itch.

I suspect it's related to the way disgust makes you shudder, just in a lower impact way. I can't, however, seem to find any good explanation why disgust makes our bodies have basically the same reaction as being cold and shivering to generate heat.

(Also, if the cluster thing is unpleasant to you, never, never watch the video of the weird kind of toad that gives birth to through the skin of its back. Oh god, now I've got that feeling. There isn't enough brain bleach in the world to make me forget how hideously gross it is.)
posted by mostlymartha at 12:35 AM on August 1, 2010

I itch when I can't sleep. I mean, I'm not afraid of anything in particular, but I have a bit of generalized, pointless anxiety and when I try to sleep when I'm not tired enough, I itch all over the place. In fact, I had considered posting an AskMe about this very issue, and am awfully glad that someone else did. But yeah, I get itchy.

My solution thus far consists of "scratch as needed," also, don't EVER watch that awful, awful youtube video of the spider with all the baby spiders crawling around on her(?) back. It is utterly hideous, and it made me itch for weeks. Literally.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 12:48 AM on August 1, 2010

I have a (perfectly rational, if you ask me!) fear of heights, and if I look down from a great height, or even up from the sidewalk at a skyscraper, the soles of my feet get really hot.
posted by dfan at 7:17 AM on August 1, 2010

It could be that certain squicky things activate a histamine response. Just looking at pictures of mosquitoes makes me itchy.
posted by theora55 at 12:32 PM on August 1, 2010

Thanks for the responses, all. It seems like itchiness is something that isn't totally well understood, but I'll mark this as "resolved" since I got some good ideas about what might be going on.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:50 PM on August 31, 2010

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