Scopophobia is the fear of being looked at or stared at by other people. Related to social anxiety disorder, this condition is linked to high anxiety, self-consciousness, and social avoidance.1,2,3,4 Like other anxiety disorders, scopophobia can be treated with therapies like CBT or exposure therapy, sometimes in combination with medication.5
What Is Scopophobia?
Scopophobia (sometimes called scoptophobia) is a phobia triggered by being looked at or stared at by someone.1 People with scopophobia have a fear of being looked at, stared at, or watched by people. Some people with this phobia also are afraid of making eye contact with people, and feel uncomfortable looking at people’s faces, even when interacting with them.4
Scopophobia is usually centered around a fear of being scrutinized or judged by people. This can lead people to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and in some instances, to avoid certain public places or social interactions. Many people with scopophobia have social anxiety or another disorder that causes them to be more self-conscious, anxious, and socially avoidant.2,3,4
“You may suffer from Scopophobia if you consistently fear being observed by others and experience intense desire to avoid or escape the spotlight,” says Taylor Hudd, Anxiety Researcher at the University of Waterloo. “This fear is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, blushing, racing heart, or difficulty swallowing. Scopophobia commonly emerges in performance contexts, like presentations, sporting events, or playing musical instruments, but can also appear during casual interactions, like sharing a story with guests at a dinner party or talking about yourself on a date.”
Normal Anxiety vs. Scopophobia
Almost no one likes the feeling of being stared at, but most people enjoy getting attention from other people, including having others look at them or make eye contact with them. Research shows that even as infants, human beings are hard-wired to respond positively to human faces, positive facial expressions, and eye contact.4
There are exceptions to this though, especially when other social or nonverbal cues suggest there is a negative reason a person is looking at us. Exceptions include eye contact that feels threatening or uncomfortable, including being stared at by a stranger, or eye contact that is too long, intense, or with a person who is ‘hard to read.’4 It’s also normal to have limited instances of fear of attention, like having stage fright or performance anxiety, which is not necessarily a sign of scopophobia.
A specific phobia is only diagnosed when the fear is persistent and excessive, and severe enough to interfere with a person’s ability to function or lessen their quality of life.6
Disorders Related to Scopophobia
Many people with scopophobia have another health or mental health issue that contributes to their fear, with social anxiety disorder being the most common. Avoiding eye contact and blushing have both been marked as significant indicators of social anxiety, and can lead people to become more anxious and self-conscious when interacting with others, potentially leading to agoraphobia. For many, scopophobia may be a symptom of social anxiety disorder, rather than existing as a stand-alone condition.1,2,3,4
Social anxiety is common in the US, with some research estimating up to 15% of people will develop the condition at some point in their lives.4,5,6 People with this condition have a deep fear of being embarrassed, criticized, or rejected and experience high levels of anxiety, stress, and self-consciousness in social situations.6,7
Less commonly, other health, neurological, or mental health conditions can directly or indirectly contribute to scopophobia or social anxiety disorder:1,7
- Autism which can make it hard for people to read or pick up on social cues and have positive interactions with other people
- Panic disorder which can cause avoidance of public/social settings because of a fear of having a panic attack
- Epilepsy, which can cause people to develop social phobias and avoidance because of the fear of having a seizure
- Mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder may be linked to social anxiety, isolation, and decreased self-esteem
- Substance or alcohol use disorders can sometimes develop as a method of coping or self-medicating anxiety experienced in social or public situations
- Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder which may cause a excessive concern about weight, size, eating, and developing a negative body image
- Body dysmorphia which can lead people to believe they are physically deformed, unattractive, or repulsive to other people
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which can lead people to ruminate on specific fears and irrational beliefs about oneself, relationships, other people, or the world
- Other limitations or disabilities that affect appearance or how someone is perceived
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other traumatic experiences of being bullied, rejected, criticized or embarrassed in front of other people
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, (recurrent panic attacks and a fear of future panic attacks), agoraphobia, or other specific phobias like anthropophobia (fear of people)
- Certain personality disorders, especially avoidant personality disorder which is characterized by an avoidance of social interactions
- Attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) which can cause people to struggle with focus, concentration, sitting still, and completing tasks
Symptoms of Scopophobia
Not everyone who feels a little nervous, scared, or uncomfortable with being looked at has a diagnosable phobia. Symptoms like disproportionate anxiety when being looked at have to be causing distress and last longer than six months. A diagnosis can only be made by a licensed and trained professional who conducts a thorough evaluation to assess a person’s symptoms and determine their possible causes.
Potential symptoms of scopophobia include:1,3,6
- Extreme anxiety, stress, or discomfort with eye contact or being looked at
- Wrongly assuming others are watching, looking or staring at them
- Paranoid thoughts about being watched, looked at, or stared at by others
- Excessive worry/concern about being in public or interacting with other people
- Rumination before, during or after social interactions or being in public
- Extreme self-consciousness when being looked at or making eye contact
- Having trouble feeling present, engaged and connected in social interactions/settings
- Being overly concerned or worried about blushing (erythrophobia)
- Panic attacks or panic symptoms (racing heart, sweating, dizziness, trouble breathing)
*To be diagnosed as scopophobia, the anxiety and avoidance cannot be better explained by another physical, mental health, or substance use disorder (like social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, epilepsy, body dysmorphia, etc.)
Long-Term Impacts of Scopophobia
Scopophobia can be very difficult to cope with, and can create a lot of disruption, distress, and impairment in a person’s daily life. People with this phobia often find it difficult to have normal social lives, routines, and may avoid places and situations with other people.5,6
Hudd states, “People with Scopophobia tend to believe they lack intelligence, attractiveness, charisma, or confidence, and that others will criticize or mock these flaws. Consequently, any moment under observation becomes an opportunity to reveal flaws and risk the possibility of rejection or embarrassment. Because individuals with Scopophobia overestimate the likelihood and consequences of exposing their perceived flaws, they avoid social situations, limiting their ability to gather a more accurate estimate of risks and rewards that accompany the spotlight.”
Depending on the severity of their scopophobia, someone may have difficulty:
- Completing assigned tasks and responsibilities at work or school
- Forming and maintaining healthy relationships with friends, family, or romantic partners
- Going in public to shop, run errands, or do things they need to do
- Working towards important personal or professional goals they set for themselves
- Doing things that benefit their physical or mental health (i.e. exercise, health appointments)
- Attending leisure or recreational events and activities they enjoy
What Causes Fear of Being Stared at?
An intense fear of being watched, looked at, or stared at by other people is almost always caused by an underlying insecurity or fear. Most of the time, scopophobia is linked to a fear of being judged, criticized, or rejected by other people.1
This is a key symptom of social anxiety disorder, but can also be caused by any fear or insecurity a person has about how they look, talk, or present to other people.
Unfortunately, these kinds of personal insecurities can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that can lead a person to misread social cues in ways that seem to ‘prove’ their insecurities and fears are true. This can lead them to think, say, and do certain things that actually worsen their anxiety and create more insecurities over time.4,5,8
Research shows that people who are highly anxious or insecure around other people are more likely to:2,3,4,8
- Think others are staring at them when they aren’t
- Become more self-conscious around people than when alone
- Believe others are judging them negatively
- Feel uncomfortable or threatened by eye contact
- Find false ‘evidence’ that people dislike them
- Misread neutral cues as signs of rejection
- Actively avoid drawing too much attention to themselves
- Avert their eyes more often in conversations with people
- Have physiological stress/anxiety responses when looked at
- Avoid looking at people’s eyes or faces during conversation
- Experience dread and negative thoughts about an interaction before it happens
- Avoid social interactions that could help them overcome their fear
- Experience physiological ‘fight or flight’ responses in social situations
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How Is Scopophobia Diagnosed?
All phobias can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional after a thorough evaluation. As long as the person meets enough criteria to have a specific phobia based on their symptoms and level of impact on life, they can receive a formal diagnosis.
Thankfully, phobias are highly treatable. Many people respond well to therapy alone, but some may benefit from a combination of medication and therapy.1,5
Certain kinds of therapy have a lot of evidence to support their effectiveness in overcoming anxiety and specific phobias. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most proven treatments for anxiety and phobias, and involves working to change thoughts and behaviors that contribute to your anxiety and avoidant behaviors. Exposure therapy is also helpful for people with specific phobias, and involves working with a therapist to gradually face your fears, while also developing coping skills to better manage your anxiety in healthy ways.5
Choosing a therapist who is skilled at treating phobias, anxiety, or social anxiety disorder is recommended, as you will be most likely to get the help you need. An online therapist directory can be a great starting place for people who are interested in starting therapy.
The use of medication will depend on the overall treatment plan. In some cases, medication may be avoided so that the person can experience the full influence of exposure therapy. In other circumstances, someone could use antidepressants or antianxiety medications, like benzodiazepines, to limit symptoms enough to make therapy more beneficial. A conversation about medication is a great opportunity for treatment providers to work as a team to approach the client with a unified plan.
10 Tips for How to Overcome Fear of Being Stared At
There is no easy way to overcome a fear because all of the effective methods eventually involve facing your fear. Still, there are certain methods and steps to overcoming a phobia that are more likely to work than others.
Here are 10 tips and strategies for overcoming a fear of being looked or stared at:
1. Educate Yourself on Anxiety
Inform yourself on the topic by reading more about scopophobia and social anxiety, and learn more about what anxiety is and what can trigger it. Knowledge is power, and can help you feel more empowered and in control when your anxiety shows up. It can also help to know you aren’t the only one who struggles with this issue, and get tips and strategies on how to begin to overcome your fears.9
2. Use Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a key skill that can help you interrupt anxious, worried thoughts, while also helping to reduce your stress and anxiety. Mindfulness is any practice that helps you become more aware of the present moment. You can do this by focusing fully on one or more of your 5 senses to focus on your surroundings, using a mindfulness app, or by listening to a guided meditation.5,10,11
3. Buy a Self Help Book
Get some self-help books on anxiety, social anxiety, or books designed to help you address core issues like low self-esteem, trauma recovery, or improving social skills. Self-help books can provide a wealth of knowledge and tips, and are often authored by counselors or people with lived experience overcoming the same issue you have.9
4. Use a Journal
Consider using a journal to write down your goals and track your progress, as this simple trick makes you more likely to achieve your goals. Also consider recording your mood or thoughts in a daily log, which will help you become more aware of what’s happening and changing inside of you as you work towards your goals.9
5. Start Slowly
Develop a set of 10-20 steps you can take to overcome your phobia, starting with steps that feel small, easy, and doable, and working up to ones that feel scarier or harder for you. Starting small can make the process feel easier, and also makes you more likely to follow through, and working through each step will help you gain the confidence you need to tackle the next one on the list. These steps should provoke small, but manageable, amounts of anxiety. When the step is completed, the anxiety for each one is lessened and confidence in taking on more challenges is gained.
6. Reward Yourself
Build in small rewards or incentives for crossing off certain steps on your list, like buying yourself a small item or gift, or taking a day off work. As you work on checking off some of the harder and scarier steps, consider bigger rewards, like a small vacation or a bigger purchase you need to save up for. Rewarding yourself is a form of self-compassion, which can improve your success while also keeping you motivated.10
7. Use Your Support System
Don’t be afraid to call on friends, family members, and others who can provide some encouragement. Also, consider asking one of your support people to go with you out in public or help you complete some of the steps on your list. It’s usually easier to accomplish something (especially something hard) when you don’t feel like you’re doing it all alone.11
8. Be Kinder to Yourself
Self-compassion exercises are proven to help reduce stress, boost your mood, and make you healthier and happier overall. Self-compassion can even make you more likely to achieve your goals, and less likely to give up when you encounter a stumbling block, so make time for these exercises.10
9. Use Self-Care to Reduce Stress
Stress makes everything harder, but self-care can help to mitigate stress, as long as it’s practiced correctly. Keep in mind that true self-care activities give you energy back, so watching netflix, eating ice cream, and lying in bed all day might not count. However, exercise, therapy sessions, a good night’s sleep, and time with those you love probably would.11
10. Seek Professional Counseling
Research has shown that professional group or individual counseling combined with the self-help methods listed below is more likely to result in lasting improvements.9
What to Do During a Scopophobia-Induced Panic Attack
In the moment of a panic attack, you need to remember a few simple and clear tips:
- Breathe. Focusing on your breathing can help you stay grounded.
- Remember, it’s only panic. Yes, panic is scary, but it will not kill you.
- Shift your senses. Focus your attention on a pleasant smell, taste, or sound to distract your worry.
- Slow your brain. Your thinking could spiral, so try to keep your thinking slow.
Scopophobia is an intense, excessive fear of being looked at, stared at, or watched by other people.1 This phobia causes people to avoid certain social situations and interactions, which can make it hard to live a full, happy, and normal life. If you or a loved one is struggling with scopophobia, the best thing to do is reach out to a counselor for treatment. Most phobias respond very well to therapy, and symptoms can be reduced (and sometimes even resolved) in treatment.5