Toxicophobia (fear of poisoning): symptoms, causes and treatment

The presence of toxic substances is not uncommon, with poisoning being one of the leading causes of death for many people throughout history. Poisons such as arsenic were used during ancient times and the Middle Ages to commit murder, and even today chemical weapons are used in war conflicts. We also use poisons to end the life of other creatures, such as rat killers or insecticides.

The existence of a certain fear of poisoning at any given time may therefore be quite rational. But most of us will never really poison. Maybe food poisoning or drug poisoning, but death from poisoning is not such a common thing. However, for some people, this fear exists persistently and turns into an uncontrollable panic, which leads them to avoid situations and stimuli and greatly limits their life. This is what happens to toxicophobic subjects.

    Toxicophobia as a specific phobia

    It is considered to be toxicophobia, toxiphobia or toxophobia in the irrational or exaggerated fear of poison or being poisoned (Usually accidentally). It is one of the so-called specific phobias, which generates intense fear or anxiety about a particular stimulus. These sensations cause in those who suffer from them an intense need to escape the stimulus, as well as to avoid both exposure to it and the situations in which it might appear.

    This panic is persistent, does not go away on its own, and occurs whenever exposure to the stimulus in question is given. This fear is usually triggered by the presence of the stimulus itself, but mere imagination or reflection on the causative element of the fear can trigger anxiety reactions and physiological symptoms.

    Among the most common symptoms are tachycardia, hyperventilation, sweating and tremors, which can lead to an anxiety attack. At the cognitive level, attention is focused on the stimulus and avoidance, which reduces cognitive abilities and the ability to judge and plan. In extreme cases, they might even appear hallucinations, such as a nervous paroxysm, in which they might catch a taste of poison or something toxic in the food.

    Although seeing and recognizing a certain type of poison is not common, drugophobia can be a serious limitation on the life of the person suffering from it. If administered in a moderate degree, fear may appear towards the poisons themselves, avoiding the use or exposure of poisons such as rat killer. But depending on the degree, this panic can extend to the consumption of cleaning products, solvents, drugs, and virtually any type of potentially harmful chemical. It can also generate suspicion regarding the handling of drinks or food or, in extreme cases, contact with other people who may be poisoned.

      Link with other psychopathologies

      An interesting aspect of drugophobia that deserves to be highlighted is its possible connection or confusion with elements of other psychopathologies and symptoms, Such as delusions of persecution or hallucinations of taste in various conditions and states of the psychotic type, such as schizophrenia, delusional disorders or intoxication with a substance (in this case, one would speak of a true poisoning). It can also sometimes be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder, in people with obsessions related to germs, and with cleaning and washing compulsions.

      In this sense, it should be noted that toxicophobia involves a disproportionate fear of the idea of ​​being poisoned or the presence of poisons and can lead to avoiding situations in which there may be toxic elements or the perception of a strong possibility of being poisoned.

      The disproportionate fear of being poisoned is also common among people with delusions of persecution, but in this case we would not be talking just of fear but of the persistent, fixed belief that someone is trying to kill us this way (Sometimes there are taste hallucinations which they interpret as confirmation of this belief). Or in people with OCD related to germs, disease, and cleanliness, the thought of these things appearing can cause deep anxiety.

      The idea that they are trying to kill us, the worry about the germs and diseases they can cause or the thought that some kind of unhappiness can arise if we do not perform the compulsion can generate the emergence of ” a deep aversion and fear of exposure to such as poison or toxins, seeking to avoid them through compulsions (although in general cleaning TOCs are related to cleaning up germs and not to toxic substances in as chemicals).

      However, it should be borne in mind that in order for us to talk about a phobia, the fear must be irrational or disproportionate. In these cases, the fear would be consistent with the presence of repetitive and intrusive thoughts related to the problem or belief that someone is trying to kill or really hurt us. The different diagnostic classifications state that only a phobia such as toxicophobia is diagnosed in the absence of other disorders that better explain the fear and reactions to the feared stimulus.

      Causes: a fear with an adaptive sense

      The causes of toxicophobia, as with other mental disorders, are not fully understood. Despite this, there are several very plausible hypotheses as to its origin.

      One possible hypothesis is the existence of conditioning: throughout our life we ​​have seen and heard from people who died from poisoning, accidentally or intentionally. It is even possible that we have seen or experienced a situation in which we or a loved one has been poisoned. In this sense, the person with toxicophobia could have fear conditioned by past experiences, Whether experienced in person or by proxy through the visualization of a case of poisoning (either by direct observation, reading or audiovisual media).

      Another rather plausible hypothesis is the same one that is often dreaded for different animals and plants: Seligman’s preparation theory. This theory proposes that the intense fear of certain stimuli would be phylogenetically prepared, inherited from our ancestors when they had to face life and death situations. For example, attacking a predator, biting a spider, or consuming certain herbs can lead to death. In this way, our species would have learned to avoid a series of stimuli and to feel an innate fear or disgust towards them.

      Although in the case of toxicophobia the element in question is very generic (in nature we do not find any poison in bulk but it comes from animals or plants), we might be faced with a generalization of these fears linked to the idea of ​​dying or falling ill because of an external agent not directly visible. Obviously, avoiding toxic elements is adaptive and allows us to survive, so the fear of being poisoned could be largely explained by this theory.

      Treatment of this disorder

      One of the most common treatments for phobias is Exposure therapy. It is about placing the subject in situations where he must face his fear, generally in a graduated way after having led a hierarchy with feared situations between therapist and patient. In the case of toxicophobia, obviously the subject will not be exposed to being really poisoned, but if it is possible to work with avoided situations related to this fear.

      For example, the subject may be exposed to drinking in a group or in a nightclub if this situation generates fear of being poisoned with the glass. You may also be exposed to the use of chemicals as cleaning products. Another possible element would be to manipulate commonly used bottles or poisons, such as insecticides or rat killers.

      Discussion of beliefs and fears, as well as the meaning attributed to poison and beliefs that may be the cause of fear of toxins or poisoning, can also be helpful. They would generally be used cognitive behavioral therapy procedures, like cognitive restructuring.

      It is also essential to make a good differential diagnosis, due to the high probability of confusing the phobia with toxins or of being poisoned with the belief that it is the property of certain subjects with a certain type of psychotic pathology or a obsession with cleaning up certain types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

      Bibliographical references:

      • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.

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