Harpaxophobia (fear of being stolen): symptoms, causes and treatment

Harpaxophobia is the lingering fear of thieves. It is a circumstance which, classified as a phobia, involves the possibility that the experience of aggression will cause irrational fear. But can this be considered an unwarranted fear? Is this a specific phobia or is it rather an experience that accompanies more complex social discomforts?

We will see below how harpaxophobia can be defined and what elements accompany it.

    Harpaxophobia: fear of thieves

    The term “harpaxophobia” is derived from the Latin “harpax” which means “thief” or “the one who steals”; and also from the Greek word “phobos” which means fear. Thus, harpaxophobia is the persistent and intense fear of thieves, as well as having an experience of theft.

    It would be a fear activated by a specific stimulus: the possibility that someone around us steals something from us. But for someone to perform this act, the circumstances must allow it: in principle, he must be in a place where theft can go unnoticed (a very lonely space, or a space with a large number of people).

    On the other hand, many thefts, even if committed by one person, can be covered or taken care of by several other people. If combined with this, it is a time when our attention is dispersed or focused on a specific activity, where we are in a situation of major powerlessness vis-à-vis potential aggressorsThe whole circumstance turns in favor of presenting a potential risk to our property or our physical integrity.

    Having said that, we can see that harpaxophobia is not just the fear that a person will steal from us, but a whole circumstance that involves the real or perceived possibility of being assaulted or directly assaulted. This mixes several elements, which have to do with our previous experiences, direct or indirect with violence, our imaginations about who can be potential aggressors, our difficulties in developing in certain public spaces, among others.

    In this sense, harpaxophobia could be classified as a specific situational phobia, Following the criteria of specific phobia textbooks. However, harpaxophobia has not been studied or considered as such by experts in psychology and psychopathology. This may be because, far from being a disorder, the persistent and intense fear of aggression is rather an over-adaptive response generated to constant exposure to violence, directly or indirectly.

      Main symptoms of specific phobias

      The main symptoms of specific phobias are caused by activation of the autonomic nervous system, which acts in the presence of a stimulus that is perceived to be harmful. This system is responsible for regulating our involuntary motor responses, which prepares us to avoid possible damage, whether it is fleeing, hiding, exercising physical resistance, among others.

      We thus generate a series of physiological reactions. For example increasing the speed of the palpitations, hyperventilation, sweating, decreased digestive activity, Others. All this while processing information about the threatening event at high speed. The latter is the typical picture of anxiety, and with increased exposure to the stimulus, it can develop into a panic attack, which is more common in specific situational-type phobias.

      For its part, the level of anxiety felt largely depends on the stimulus that causes the phobia. In other words, it depends on the degree of danger it represents, as well as the safety signals that the stimulus itself can offer.

      In the case of harpaxophobia, the experience of anxiety can increase dramatically in settings where the likelihood of being assaulted is higher (going through a dark street alone, carrying a large amount of money or conflicting or too touristy neighborhood objects, etc.).

      To these are added other elements, such as the mood of the person (Which can lead to greater vulnerability) and perceived chances of running away or receiving help if needed

      Possible causes

      Specific phobias are learned experiences, which means they are generated by associations constantly reinforced about a stimulus and the dangers associated with it. Three of the most popular explanatory models for these associations are classical conditioning, proxy learning, and information transmission.

      In addition, three of the most important elements for the consolidation of a specific phobia are as follows (Bados, 2005):

      • The severity and frequency of direct negative experiences with the stimulus, Who in this case would have suffered thefts before.
      • Have had fewer previous safety experiences related to noxious stimuli. In the case of harpaxophobia, it may be, for example, not having crossed the same place without being assaulted.
      • Related to the above, the third element is no having been exposed to the adverse situation under other conditions after the negative experience.

      In this sense, harpaxophobia can develop through direct or indirect exposure to violence. That is, after being assaulted, or for having witnessed it, or for having met someone who suffered from it. The latter can easily result in a constant feeling of threat, generating evasive behavior towards places of risk, as well as defensive behavior to prevent assaults, especially in places where the crime rate is high.

      Thus, it is difficult to define this as a disproportionate response, as the stimulus that causes it (a theft) is potentially harmful to physical and emotional integrity, therefore avoidance behaviors and the response to anxiety are rather a set of adaptive and proportional responses to the stimulus.

      If these responses become generalized and prevent the person from performing their daily activities regularly, or have a negative impact on their interpersonal relationships, or cause generalized anxiety, it may not be harpaxophobia, but a more complex discomfort experience. For example, an experience related to social interactions or open spaces, of which fear of thieves is only a part.


      Once the above has been explored and determined, different emotional support strategies can be used to reduce prolonged and intense anxiety experiences.

      The latter will not necessarily remove the fear of thieves, as this could be counterproductive, but can minimize deeper fears (such as certain social interactions) and at the same time maintain self-help strategies. In these cases, it is advisable to go to psychotherapy to learn how to manage stress levels and regain autonomy.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Bados, A. (2005). Specific phobias. Faculty of Psychology. Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment. University of Barcelona. Retrieved September 17, 2018.
      • Harpaxophobia. (2017). Common-Phobias.com. Accessed September 17, 2018.Available at http://common-phobias.com/Harpaxo/phobia.htm

      Leave a Comment