Cibophobia is the fear of food, a mental disorder that falls under specific phobias. Cibophobia may include the fear of many different foods or particular foods. The symptoms can be severe, causing significant distress, food avoidance, or even malnutrition. Cibophobia differs from eating disorders and other food-related phobias, like fear of choking, because the object of fear is the food itself.
What Is Cibophobia?
Cibophobia is an extreme, irrational fear of food that can cause significant distress and interfere with one’s ability to function. People with cibophobia may fear food in general or only certain types of foods and experience anxiety symptoms such as sweating, rapid heart rate, or panic attacks. They may avoid food or tolerate it with extreme distress, leading to malnutrition in severe cases.
Cibophobia is a type of specific phobia, with symptoms similar to other anxiety or panic disorders. Cibophobia is not classified as an eating disorder, however, it can also cause physical concerns like malnutrition and extreme weight loss. Additionally, if left untreated, severe cibophobia may evolve into an eating disorder, such as avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID).
Common food groups that contribute to cibophobia include:
- Perishable foods: A person may fear that foods that can go bad, such as dairy products, mayonnaise, or meat, is spoiled or contaminated and will make them sick.
- Undercooked foods: Many foods, especially meats, eggs, and seafood, are recommended to be cooked to a specific temperature to avoid foodborne illness or parasites. A person may worry excessively about whether food is cooked enough.
- Foods past their expiration date: Food that is past the expiration date causes a fear that it may be spoiled and cause illness.
- Leftovers: One may fear that leftovers have gone bad, been left out for too long, or have not been refrigerated properly.
- Prepared foods: Prepared foods can cause discomfort because someone else cooked and packaged the food. The person eating it has no control over the ingredients or how they were handled.
- Foods with a certain texture, color, or temperature: The fear may also be related to textures of food like slimy, crunchy or chunky, or foods of a certain color or temperature. For instance, foods that are left at room temperature or foods like cottage cheese can be triggers.
Cibophobia Vs. Anorexia
Although cibophobia may resemble anorexia, it is a separate and distinct disorder. Anorexia is characterized by food restrictions to lose or avoid gaining weight. The fear is not of the food itself but rather the effects of the food on the body.1 On the other hand, cibophobia is fear of food itself, not of gaining weight. Someone with cibophobia may fear that food is spoiled or fearful about certain aspects of food, like temperature, color, or texture.
Symptoms of Cibophobia
A person suffering from cibophobia will be incredibly anxious around certain or all foods. They experience symptoms that are similar to anxiety or panic attacks. Over time, these symptoms can have a long-term effect on one’s mental and physical health.
Symptoms of cibophobia include:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Racing heart
- Sweaty palms
- Avoidance of foods that trigger the phobia
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth
- Panic attacks
- Shortness of breath
What Causes Cibophobia?
Cibophobia can develop for several different reasons. Experiential-specific phobias are caused by a significant event and are learning-based phobias. On the other hand, nonexperiential-specific phobias are not based on any known event but have developed independently due to non-learned factors.
The two types of cibophobia are:
- Experiential-specific cibophobia: Experiential-specific cibophobia is a fear of food that can be traced back to a specific event involving the same or similar food. This could include previous experience with food poisoning or vomiting.
- Nonexperiential-specific cibophobia: Someone with a phobia of expired food with no previous history of foodborne illness would be an example of someone with a nonexperiential-specific phobia. Some factors that can contribute are brain chemistry, temperament/ personality, or genetics.2
Impacts of Living With Cibophobia
Cibophobia is a serious mental illness that, if left untreated, can lead to substantial complications in a person’s life. Not having proper treatment could lead to malnutrition and serious health consequences. Eating and drinking cannot be avoided like some other phobias, and people with cibophobia have to face their fears every day.
Untreated cibophobia may lead to one of these conditions:
- Obsessive rituals
- Eating disorders
- Feelings of loneliness
- Avoidance of social situations
- Impact on relationships
How Is Cibophobia Diagnosed?
Cibophobia is classified as a specific phobia in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM). Specific phobias are different from generalized anxiety disorder because they involve significant fear triggered by a specific object or experience. A proper diagnosis is key to starting and maintaining an effective treatment plan.3
A mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist can diagnose and treat cibophobia. After scheduling an initial appointment, the clinician will get a thorough history, including symptoms, significant life events or traumas, support and coping skills, and any previous medical and mental health treatment. Diagnosis can be an ongoing process and take time.
To be diagnosed with cibophobia, someone must:
- Posses a fear of food that is out of proportion to any real danger
- Experience fear of food that is almost immediate
- Avoid food or tolerate it while experiencing significant distress
- Experience significant stress due to their fear of food
- Have experienced this fear and its effects for at least six months.
- Not have a fear of food that is explained by another disorder, such as anorexia.
The most effective treatment for cibophobia is psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, hypnotherapy or EMDR. These work in different ways to address the symptoms of cibophobia and facilitate relief. There are no accepted medications used to treat the phobia, but there are some medications that may help alleviate certain co-occurring symptoms.
Psychotherapy is generally the first step when developing a treatment plan for cibophobia. Treatments for specific phobias often involve gradual exposure to the dreaded situation, challenging automatic, unhealthy, and harmful thoughts, or treating any underlying trauma that may be related. Hypnotherapy can also help address any unconscious issues that may be contributing.
Therapeutic treatment options for cibophobia include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps cibophobia by identifying and challenging the automatic negative thoughts related to the fear. The idea is that by changing those thoughts, one can regulate their emotions and change their behaviors as a result.
- Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy involves slow, strategic exposure to a feared object or event, either in reality or through imagery. By exposing someone to their fear in this controlled way, one can become desensitized to the fear and experience a reduction in distress and symptoms.
- Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy has been found to be helpful in treating specific phobias, including cibophobia. In general, the hypnotherapist guides their client through a process that helps reduce symptoms by modifying thoughts, feelings, and sensations using suggestions. Research has shown that some people experience relief from their phobias with only one session.5
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR effectively treats phobias related to past adverse or traumatic events. This could be a good choice for someone who has experienced a traumatic event leading to the onset of cibophobia symptoms.6
- Virtual reality exposure therapy: Virtual reality exposure therapy is a more recent form of therapy that has been developed, to expose a person to their trigger through a virtual reality headset. It has shown promise as an effective tool in treating specific phobias.7
Medication is not usually the first line of treatment for cibophobia, but some medications may help reduce the symptoms that go along with the phobia. These can include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, and beta blockers to reduce some of the physical effects, like a racing heart rate.
How to Cope with Cibophobia
If cibophobia symptoms are mild, they can sometimes be alleviated by adopting self-coping exercises that help calm the nervous system and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Techniques that may help a person cope with cibophobia include:
- Practicing mindfulness and breathing exercises
- Incorporating movement into your daily routine
- Listening to soothing music
- Journaling about your fears
- Eating meals with friends and family
- Using stress management techniques, such as tapping4
When to Seek Professional Help
When symptoms affect one’s functioning in school, work, daily life, or relationships, it’s an excellent time to seek help. It is helpful to find a therapist who is skilled in diagnosing and working with specific phobias and anxiety disorders. They can help a person uncover the underlying causes of their phobia, address them, and learn healthy ways to handle triggers and anxieties. If the phobia is tied to a traumatic experience, working with a trained EMDR or other trauma therapists can help. A skilled therapist can be found using an online therapist directory.
In My Experience
In my experience as a therapist, a specific phobia like cibophobia is extremely difficult to live with. As with eating disorders, the cause of distress being something that is necessary and can’t be avoided means that the trigger is ever-present, and the distress can be quite intense. A thorough history is important to help the therapist understand if the fear has an experiential cause. If so, trauma treatments like EMDR or ART could be very effective. For nonexperiential phobias, other therapies like CBT may be more helpful. It’s important that the therapist and client have a strong therapeutic bond and establish rapport and trust.
If you are struggling with cibophobia, please know that there is hope. Cibophobia is very difficult to cope with and can greatly impact your daily life. Fortunately, therapy is highly effective for specific phobias, including cibophobia, and symptoms can improve.