What Is Hierophobia?

  • Charchita Mishra Bachelor’s of Science - BSc. [Hons] Applied Biomedical Sciences, University of Essex
  • Dr. Maria Weissenbruch Doctor (Ph.D.), Cell and Developmental Biology, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany

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Introduction

Most of us are probably familiar with the infamous one-woman show, that now is quite a fan favourite TV series: Fleabag. Revolving around the premise of a woman in her 20s trying to figure life out through its trials, tribulations, and bouts of self-doubt it throws at her. One of the key characters from this show that seemed to stick with us was the ‘Hot Priest’. 

Whilst loved by most, there is a crowd of people who possibly cannot indulge in the viewing of this TV series. This is due to a condition known as Hierophobia.2 In the vast majority of phobias that afflict mankind, this is not that prevalent but yet profoundly impactful for the ones that are affected by it. 

Stemming from the Greek word, “hieros” meaning sacred and “phobia” meaning fear or aversion, Hierophobia is the fear of priests or sacred things.2 In most cases, simply thinking of anything religiously sacred could trigger this phobia. At times, they could even experience extreme symptoms such as panic attacks, followed by excess sweating, increased heart rate, and blood pressure. Although causing symptoms similar to an anxiety attack, it is not particularly considered a standalone anxiety disorder on its own, on the DSM-5 or ICD-10. It is classified as a specific phobia that comes under a subtype of an anxiety disorder. For triggering anxiety-related symptoms in most cases, it does not always cause panic attacks. 

Though its own specific phobia, it is possible for it to co-exist with other specific phobias - such as sculpturophobia (fear of statues) or staurophobia (fear of crosses) - or other anxiety-based disorders like social anxiety. 

Causes

Hierophobia can manifest itself in people due to a multitude of reasons.2 Being able to identify these reasons could enable one to understand the origin of these fears:

  • Exposure to certain media: Being exposed to the negative portrayal or sensationalization of religious connotations or priests in literature or media when the individual is in a young and impressionable age.
  • Sparse understanding of the concept: Instead of the aforementioned point, exposure to religious content and not having a clear grasp and understanding of it could generate a fear response in some people. Most likely due to the limited exposure making the content unfamiliar because of the lack of understanding of it.
  • Ingrained beliefs and childhood upbringing: Growing up, depending on how the individual was raised, a fear of God or religious paraphernalia could have evinced within the person. Caused either due to conflicting religious beliefs or the lack thereof. 
  • Negative associations with religion: If one was constantly fed with negative facts or ideologies based on priests or religious imagery, it could eventually shape one’s perception of it negatively. Forming an aversion towards religious media, in some cases, turning into a fear due to the manner the information was passed on.
  • Certain religious trauma: Negative associations with religion or priests could also be an outcome of a traumatic or particularly scarring experience involving religious rituals, symbols, or places of worship.
  • Anxiety: Every phobia, in some way, has been related to anxiety or having anxiety-like traits. These traits may be genetically passed down in a person with a family history of anxiety or affinity to certain specific phobias. Other psychological factors like a heightened fear response, or generalised anxiety can also be a potential driver in developing hierophobia. 

Though there are numerous causes, there is no hard and fast answer as to what exactly could lead to the development of hierophobia. It could arise as a result of a combination of factors, often through a conglomeration of more than one of the abovementioned causes. 

Psychological causes of hierophobia

The brain is a complex organ, a conglomeration of interactions occurring within the brain could lead to the triggering of these fear responses within it.1,4 Fear causes stress, the amygdala within the brain is known as the tiny centre that contributes to processing these emotions and sending them over to the hippocampus. The higher the fear response within the person, the higher the sensitivity of the amygdala is in detecting it. Relaying this fear to the hippocampus which is responsible for memory storage and formation. In early life, when traumatic experiences occur, the hippocampus is altered within the individual. Forming sturdy memories of fear and anxiety in relation to the trauma, could point to the persistence and development of phobias within the person, in this case it being hierophobia. 

Brain activity in individuals suffering from these specific phobias is altered, and the prefrontal cortex - responsible for emotional regulation and decision-making - becomes more heightened with its fear responses.1,4 Fully developing at about 25 years of age, it is connected with many other cerebral structures, especially the amygdala and hippocampus. The behaviours managed via the prefrontal cortex become compromised in the presence of chronic fear or stress. The brain’s plasticity changes and gives rise to phobias which cause irrational fears towards certain things depending on the individual’s exposure and experiences with them at a young and impressionable age. 

Symptoms

Physical

  • Tachycardia (rapid heartbeats)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Feeling light-headed or Dizziness
  • Shivering or Physical Tremors

Emotional 

  • Fearing out of control
  • Hostility as a result of avoidance of triggers or environments
  • Panic attacks
  • Intense feelings of nervousness
  • Heightened vigilance to avoid triggers

Hierophobia and its impact on daily life

Social interactions: 

Individuals afflicted with hierophobia may try to avoid being a part of religious ceremonies, places of worship, or some social gatherings that involve priests. This could lead to strains in certain relationships, people viewing them with a bias, self-isolation, and inability to be a part of special moments in their loved ones' lives.

Emotional distress

Constantly being on the lookout for any potential mentions or appearances of sacred symbols or priests could render the individual’s amygdala in a chronic state of stress. Leading to emotional turmoil and distress causing mood disorders, and irritability. The persistent feelings of dread or unease, unable to be appeased or actively controlled might also further translate into obsessive compulsive disorder within the person.

Limitations in daily life

Along with being constantly uneasy and anxious, avoiding certain social interactions, and in some cases also being unable to work certain jobs. It could also affect an individual’s life by leaving them incapable of going to museums, churches, historical landmarks, or any place that could have any inkling of sacred symbols or priests. 

Impact on beliefs and experiences

Occasionally, when the individual is not entirely closed off to the idea of religion, it could skew their outlook and ideas about it due to their phobia. Inculcating feelings of guilt and inner conflict, although wanting to participate in rituals and cultural celebrations. Being unable to and causing them to face challenges in their personal spiritual journey. 

Although a general feeling of fear and anxiety is considered normal and in some cases necessary for safe human functioning. Permitting individuals from carrying out life-threatening or unsafe activities in their day-to-day lives. Suffering from extreme anxiety or specific phobias is not an ideal state to be in. Inducing disruptions in their everyday life activities with them constantly being in a state of hypervigilance and avoidance. Also inducing physical health issues like sleep issues, headaches, weakened immune system, and gastrointestinal problems because of their constant exposure to high levels of stress and persistent anxiety. 

Hierophobia is characterised by the irrational and exaggerated fear of priests or sacred objects that remain persistent, disrupting routine functioning. Bringing about emotional and physical distress within a person forming avoidant traits within them. Normal, healthy fear does not cause these irrational responses at such persistent and intense levels. 

Treatment

Since hierophobia mainly manifests as fear, therapeutic approaches help reduce fear responses and aid individuals in managing their symptoms of anxiety. Some common treatments for it could include:3

  • Mindfulness and Relaxation: Being more mindful, engaging in deep breathing, and meditation can help manage levels of anxiety and regulate breathing. Furthermore, being mindful helps with rationalisation and in some cases can help individuals negotiate their fears within them.
  • Exposure Therapy: Gradually expose the individual to their fears in a controlled and well-monitored environment, in this case, religious and priest-related objects. Over time, with repeated and recurring exposures, it could help desensitise the individual. 
  • EMDR: Using therapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), initially designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has also displayed some efficacies in aiding various anxiety-like disorders, as well as phobias. It involves bilateral stimulation with hints of exposure therapy.
  • Education and Self-Talk: Educating oneself on the phobia one suffers from. Teaching themselves about their symptoms, triggers, and underlying causes and effects can enable them to demystify their fears and give them a sense of control. Talking to oneself, challenging the arising negative thoughts about the phobia. Replacing the fearful ones with more rational and realistic ones. 

While self-help strategies could be helpful. It is always advised to seek professional help first from a qualified mental health professional.

Summary

Hierophobia, stemming from the Greek words for sacred and fear, is a specific phobia characterized by an irrational fear of priests or sacred objects. It can be triggered by negative media portrayal, sparse understanding of religion, upbringing, trauma, or genetic predispositions to anxiety. Symptoms include physical and emotional distress, impacting daily life and beliefs. Treatment options include mindfulness, exposure therapy, EMDR, education, and seeking professional help. Hierophobia's persistent fear disrupts normal functioning, necessitating therapeutic intervention for management.

References

  1. Koob G, Le Moal M, Thompson R. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience | ScienceDirect [Internet]. www.sciencedirect.com. 2010. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/referencework/9780080453965/encyclopedia-of-behavioral-neuroscience
  2. Hierophobia (Fear of Priests or Sacred Things) [Internet]. Psych Times. [cited 2023 Dec 14]. Available from: https://psychtimes.com/hierophobia-fear-of-priests-or-sacred-things/
  3. Servan-Schreiber D, Schooler J, Dew MA, Carter C, Bartone P. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Pilot Blinded, Randomized Study of Stimulation Type. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. 2006;75(5):290–7.
  4. AbuHasan Q, Reddy V, Siddiqui W. Neuroanatomy, Amygdala [Internet]. PubMed. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537102/#:~:text=The%20amygdala%20is%20an%20almond

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Charchita Mishra

Bachelor’s of Science - BSc. [Hons] Applied Biomedical Sciences, University of Essex

There is art to medicine as well as science”, claims the Hippocratic oath. As a medical writer, Charchita aims to combine the two seamlessly. Having founded two newsletters and been President of the Life Sciences Society during the course of completion of her Biomedical Sciences degree, she tries to bring a deep and cohesive understanding of medical concepts. Her passion for science and writing and several years of experience in the two are what make her strive to deliver compelling, well-researched, and informative articles that resonate with the readers.

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