Take a look inside the weird-but-true reality of “styrophobia.” (GIF: iStock/Priscilla De Castro for Yahoo Health)
What sends chills down your spine? Huge, hairy spiders? Skyscraper heights?
Well, imagine if — instead of snakes and public speaking — it’s seemingly innocent shipping boxes and summer barbecues that turn your heart cold with terror.
Meet the sufferers of “styrophobia,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “getting anxious over the sight or sound of Styrofoam.” It may sound about as likely as Never Nude syndrome (hello, Arrested Development fans!) — but we swear we’re not making this up.
While there are no official statistics tracking the prevalence of Styrofoam aversion, and it’s not listed in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, styrophobes swear their disgust toward the protective material is real and visceral.
“No matter how badly I need what’s inside, I don’t even open my own packages anymore because I start crying and shaking if I see packing peanuts,” says Ryan Zamo, 26, CEO of Z Skin Cosmetics in Los Angeles. “And the sound that takeout containers make nauseates me; I have literally thrown up a few times after hearing it. It reminds me of someone blowing a high-pitched whistle while dragging their nails across a chalkboard as a three-car pile up is going on.”
Diana Santaguida, 30, cofounder of a digital marketing agency in New York City, agrees. “When rubbed against hands or other dry objects, Styrofoam produces the most horrific pitch known to man — one screech and my teeth begin to hurt,” she says. “I actually went so far as to ban it from our office.”
It’s not just the ear-piercing squeak that styrophobes take issue with. They find the texture and appearance of the stuff equally offensive. “Imagine if someone told you to hold a handful of wet baby snakes and tarantulas — that’s what the idea of touching Styrofoam is like to me. In fact, I’d rather hold snakes and spiders,” Zamo says. “And have you ever examined a packing peanut up close? It’s porous, slimy-looking, and contorted.”
Adds Sandi Wisenberg, 59, a Chicago writer and professor at Northwestern University, “I have an instinctive revulsion to the texture. I refuse to eat off Styrofoam plates because the friction of a utensil rubbing against it would drive me crazy.” She concedes that she will reluctantly touch a Styrofoam cup, “but I’m very careful to hold it in one place and never slide my fingers or mouth across it.” Her reaction is so strong that she can feel put off simply by the sight of a Styrofoam cooler.
The thing that makes Styrofoam freak-outs so baffling is that, unlike most common fears, there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason behind it. Arachnophobia makes sense since some spiders are poisonous, public speaking leaves you vulnerable to humiliation, and falling from a high place obviously leads to injury. But … packing material? What gives? Experts lay out a few possible causes.
Phobias can be contagious
If you dug deep into the trenches of your brain, you might find an early memory of encountering somebody else who was turned off by the S word. (Most phobias first appear prior to age 10, according to clinical psychologist Timothy Gunn.)
“Styrophobia can be a learned behavior, formed after watching someone else who had this fear, and then believing it to be harmful yourself,” explains clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo to Yahoo Health. For instance, although Wisenberg can’t trace the origin of her phobia, her niece also hates Styrofoam — so perhaps she was influenced by her aunt’s aversion.
It conjures up bad memories
Fear triggers can also be a result of conditioning. “Some people develop phobias because a negative event was paired with the neutral stimulus,” Gunn explains to Yahoo Health. “Let’s say a person got attacked by a robber while a dog was barking in the background — they then become fearful of dogs even though the dog had nothing to do with the actual attack.”
Think back … did your boyfriend break up with you when you were in the middle of unpacking a new stereo? Did you find out that your cat died while scooping potato salad off a plate at a picnic?
“Of course, a phobia could also be a result of actually being harmed by the thing that they fear,” Gunn adds. Zamo’s repulsion began at age 19, when he moved out of his college dorm and into his first apartment. “For about a year afterward, I found packing peanuts everywhere that I did not want them — in my bed, stuck to my body,” he recalls. “Then once my roommates caught on to my aversion, they began torturing me with it. They would come home after a night out with Styrofoam takeout boxes and squeak it in my ears.” As a result, his intolerance increased.
Your brain is misfiring
Certain people may have a sensory deficit related to the sound or feel of Styrofoam. “This is a neurological disorder, where faulty brain wiring causes a particular aversion towards the feel, sound, or appearance of Styrofoam,” Neo says. “As a result, a person will experience involuntary responses like cringing, raised pulse, or goose bumps.”
If this were the case, you would likely be uncomfortable around other types of noises or textures (toilets flushing, crumpled paper, etc.), Gunn says. Santiago, for example, admits that she has been sensitive to pitch since she was about 12 years old. Although Styrofoam is her ultimate nemesis, she’s also bothered by shrill breaks on a subway or streetcar.
Along those same lines, Styrophobia may be a form of misophonia, or hyperconnectivity between the auditory system and the limbic (fear) system in the brain. “A subtle popping of packing peanuts may be unnoticeable to most of us, but to someone with misophonia, it can be like gunshots firing,” Neo says.
“Theoretically, misophonia develops when a person is in a state of distress and there is a repeating sound or sight,” explains Tom Dozier, director of the Misophonia Treatment Institute in Livermore, Calif. When the sound is heard at a later time, you instinctively react with physical aversion.
That said, styrophobia develops differently from typical misophonia, which is triggered by stressful situations. “Styrofoam squeaks are similar to the reaction that many of us have to nails on a chalkboard, which generally causes shuddering,” Dozier says. “People feel that sensation and hate the sound, eventually causing a pairing of the physiological response and the presence of Styrofoam. After repeated exposure, a strong reflex develops.”
Can styrophobia be cured?
Curing your styrophobia depends on how much of your response is physical versus emotional. If you believe it’s the former, try Dozier’s Misophonia Trigger Tamer app, which has worked for some people. It allows you to record the trigger (so, in this case, a Styrofoam squeak) and play it back in a modified way that causes only minor irritation. Once you become accustomed to that subtle sound, you can gradually increase the volume. You may also want to consult an occupational therapist who is certified in sensory integration.
If you think your fear is psychological in origin, Gunn recommends working with a mental health professional experienced in treating phobias or anxiety disorders. “Learning some coping skills to manage your anxiety and then confronting the feared stimulus until your worry decreases is a common form of treatment,” says Gunn.
The good news is that most phobias respond well to therapy. So with any luck, you’ll soon be able to dig in to that box of leftover chow mein, stress-free.
For more on misophonia, watch the video below:
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