When Touch is Too Much
Phobias come in all forms. You’re probably familiar with claustrophobia, a fear of being in a confined or crowded space. Many people have a fear of heights, known as acrophobia. And although you may not know the name for it, you may have experienced the number-one phobia: ophidiophobia, which is a fear of snakes.
For Mike Burgin, our office coordinator, the fear associated with phobias hits close to home. Since his childhood, he’s been uncomfortable with human touch. As an infant, he fussed when he was held and grew calm when he was put down or placed in a swing. As a young child, he avoided hugs and other physical contact. In school, Mike wanted to participate in sports, but the physical constraints and interactions were too hard. His discomfort goes as far back as he can remember, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he learned his condition had a name: haphephobia.
Haphephobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by a fear of being touched. According to Healthline.com, haphephobia is more than just cringing inwardly when someone gives you an unwanted hug. It’s an often-paralyzing fear that can have devastating effects if undiagnosed or untreated. Over the years, Mike has learned ways of coping that help him manage interactions. We visited with him to learn about haphephobia and how it affects him.
What are some of the things that trigger haphephobia?
Because it’s a fear of being touched, any unexpected or unwanted touch can be a trigger. Unless I’m with my family, most touch is unwanted – and even with my wife or children, I have limits in terms of how much touch I can tolerate. I’m happy to give my wife a hug, but I’m not comfortable sustaining it for a long time.
I also get anxious if people stand too close or if I’m in a crowded room of people with very little personal space.
How do you feel physically when your boundaries are crossed?
My reactions include hot flashes, sweating and fidgeting. My heart rate and blood pressure increase. People with haphephobia can experience hives, nausea, fainting and full-blown panic attacks.
What do you want others to know about haphephobia?
First and foremost, phobias aren’t funny. Often, when someone learns I don’t like to be touched, they proceed to touch me intentionally. They poke, prod and grab me. They’re basically challenging the validity of what I’m feeling and trying to “cure” me of it by touching me.
They think it’s amusing, but it’s chaotic and difficult for me. You can’t do that to a person. It would be like making gunshot noises in front of a war veteran with PTSD or expecting someone allergic to cats to sit in a room and play with them.
This is not a joke, nor a game. Purposely touching me in a playful way for you is physically traumatic for me. It is truly debilitating, and I need time to recover from such experiences.
How have you learned to cope with the condition?
I’ve been working through this intuitively since I was a kid. Because I wanted to participate in family trips like going to a major league baseball game, I learned to make my way quickly through a crowd on my own. Instead of hugs, I gave knuckles or handshakes. When I know I’ll be entering a stressful physical situation, I prepare myself mentally ahead of time. If I’m in a gathering, I sit a little apart and position myself by an exit. Taking time for solitude is a helpful strategy.
How does your family handle it?
My wife, Jessica, has been amazing in learning about haphephobia, accepting it and supporting me. She understands this is how I’m wired. Most of the time she works with it; sometimes, she helps draw me out, and that’s a good thing. She’s also helped me be more vocal about my needs.
Editor’s note: We also talked with Jessica, who told us that although she doesn’t experience the world the same way Mike does, she loves him and tries to put herself in his shoes. Her relationship with Mike has made her more self-aware and more sensitive to what other people experience. This is how her household works, and they’ve been fully committed for nearly 25 years and counting.
One of the most important ways Mike copes is by educating others. Phobias are relatively common, and we all need to be our own advocates. Our patients understand this from first-hand experience. Sensitivity and empathy are essential to building relationships and keeping one another whole.