It’s not uncommon to feel uneasy when someone stares, but when that feeling is extreme, it may be scopophobia.
Many people experience some anxiety when they’re the center of attention, like while making a speech.
But if you feel intensely uncomfortable or have an excessive fear of being started at, it may mean something more.
Scopophobia, aka scoptophobia, is a fear of scrutiny that can interfere with your daily activities in many ways. You may have trouble focusing while at school or work. Maybe you procrastinate running errands or avoid appointments. You might even miss out on enjoyable leisure activities with family and friends.
If this sounds like you, try your best not to feel discouraged. Scopophobia is treatable, and you can learn to relax and enjoy your time in the company of other people.
Scopophobia is an exaggerated fear of being looked at or watched. People with scopophobia typically feel highly self-conscious and often avoid social situations. Some don’t even like to make eye contact with other people.
Scopophobia isn’t recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). However, it could be categorized under the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias, such as social anxiety disorder (SAD).
Scopophobia is a characteristic of social phobia. If you live with a condition that impacts social interactions, you may have a higher chance of experiencing scopophobia.
For example, people with SAD sometimes worry excessively about other people noticing or looking at them.
People who live with diagnoses that can attract attention, like Tourette syndrome or epilepsy, may also experience scopophobia. This is also true for people who have been bullied or socially excluded.
Genetics may also be a contributing factor for scopophobia. If you have a close relative with an anxiety disorder, this may increase your chance of being similarly affected.
Any experience you’ve had — or condition you live with — that makes you worry about rejection, judgement, or criticism might also be a cause of scopophobia.
Signs that your social anxiety is specific to scopophobia include:
- feeling discomfort when people look at you
- worrying excessively about blushing
- assuming that other people are watching you
- experiencing stress or anxiety because of eye contact
Scopophobia is more than just a fear of being stared at. It triggers anxiety that can cause physical symptoms, such as:
- increased heart rate
- flushed skin
- dry mouth
Psychological symptoms you may experience include:
- inability to focus
Even though the DSM-5 doesn’t list scopophobia as a distinct condition, doctors can identify it using the diagnosis of specific phobia.
Specific phobia is classed as a type of anxiety disorder. Criteria for a diagnosis are as follows:
- fear or anxiety about a specific trigger, like a situation or object
- consistent and immediate anxiety from the trigger
- fear or anxiety is exaggerated beyond the true risk of the trigger
- person with the phobia actively avoids the trigger
- anxiety from, or avoidance of, the trigger causes impairment in important life areas like social and occupational
- anxiety and avoidance have lasted 6 months or longer
- symptoms are not otherwise explained by another situation or diagnosis
In the case of scopophobia, the trigger is being looked at, noticed, or watched by another person.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to consider talking with a healthcare professional. They can do an evaluation to rule out any other underlying causes for your symptoms. They can also refer you to a mental health professional for further assessment.
For many people with anxiety disorders, treatment typically involves medication, therapy, or a combination of both. Anxiety medications are not a cure for anxiety, but they may help ease your symptoms.
For scopophobia, therapy is most often the recommended treatment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of psychotherapy widely used for mental health conditions like anxiety disorders. CBT teaches you to identify the ideas that lead to uncomfortable feelings and replace them with helpful thoughts.
A 2013 study featuring people living with and without SAD showed that CBT sessions were successful in helping the SAD volunteers feel less scrutinized.
Researchers used a measure called the cone of direct gaze (CoDG). This is the range of gaze directions from another person that makes you feel like that person is looking at you.
At the start of the study, people with SAD had a larger CoDG than people without. After CBT, the difference in the CoDG had disappeared.
Your therapist might also recommend exposure therapy for scopophobia. This therapy helps you confront your specific fear in a safe way, so that over time it affects you less.
People living with anxieties and phobias often avoid their triggers. For example, if you have scopophobia, you might avoid hanging out with friends or run fewer errands.
This type of avoidance might ease your symptoms in the moment, but eventually, it may make your phobia worse.
Exposure therapy uses the opposite approach. You’ll work with a mental health professional to confront those situations and face your fear in a controlled activity.
There are several types of exposure therapy:
- In vivo exposure: direct exposure to what causes your anxiety
- Imaginal exposure: thinking about your fear in vivid detail
- Virtual reality exposure: using virtual reality technology to create a realistic exposure
- Interoceptive exposure: purposefully recreating physical anxiety symptoms, like running in place to speed up your heart rate
Exposure therapy can be paced in different ways. Your doctor might recommend graded exposure, which means starting with the easiest tasks first and gradually increasing the level of difficulty.
Flooding is the opposite of graded. Your exposure might begin with the trigger that produces the most anxiety. Flooding sounds more difficult than graded exposure, but you may prefer it because it’s faster.
Systematic desensitization combines relaxation exercises with your triggers, which makes them easier to manage. It can also create a relaxation response to the trigger, instead of an anxiety reaction.
Exposure therapy does more than decrease your stress response to anxiety triggers. It also gives you the experience of successfully confronting and managing your fears.
Whether you’re in therapy already or have yet to be diagnosed, there are steps you can take to manage scopophobia.
There’s a wealth of information available about phobias and anxiety disorders. Education can be very empowering. If you learn more about your specific situation, this may help make you feel more in control and less vulnerable.
Learning relaxation strategies gives you a powerful phobia-management tool. An example is time spent each day in a mindfulness activity like meditation.
You can also train yourself to relax in an anxious moment. If you’re in a public space and feel stressed, a breathing exercise can reduce the physical effects of anxiety and help you stay calm.
Effective self-care is based on several fundamentals:
- a balanced diet
- regular exercise
- restorative sleep
- emotionally supportive human connections
Placing your well-being at the top of your priority list makes many things easier, including managing anxiety.
Life can be easier with allies. Confessing your fears to trusted friends or family members may make you feel less alone. You’re entitled to support if or when you need it, and people in your life may want to provide this for you.
Chances are, you’ve been avoiding social situations. This might bring you comfort, but it may also reinforce scopophobia. Instead, you might want to consider doing the opposite, like taking an extra trip to the corner store each week.
If you’re not comfortable doing this alone, you may want to consider discussing it with a mental health professional. They may be able to help you take that first step.
Living with phobias can make life difficult at times, but there is help available.
If you’re interested in exploring therapy as a treatment option for scopophobia, check out our find a therapist page to find the right mental health professional for you.