What Is Mottephobia

  • Stephanie Leadbitter MSc Cancer Biology & Radiotherapy Physics, BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science, University of Manchester, UK


Mottephobia is an intense and irrational fear of moths. Although to most, moths are seen as harmless insects, mottephobia sufferers experience panic when confronted with moths, and often develop severe symptoms of anxiety including panic attacks.1

People with mottephobia may also suffer from lepidopterophobia, the fear of butterflies, entomophobia, the fear of insects, or ornithophobia, the fear of flapping wings. In extreme cases, even seeing an image of a moth may induce the physical symptoms of panic.

It is a common phobia, classed as a specific animal phobia, and often manifests as an individual imagining being attacked by moths. Mottephobia can be intensely debilitating in extreme cases.

Understanding phobias

A phobia is an extreme and irrational fear, often to an object, an animal, a place, or a situation. Phobias are more intense than general fears, and often manifest as protective reactions rather than adaptations to a threat.2 Phobias are often accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of dread and danger, and in severe cases the anxiety caused can restrict an individual’s day-to-day life. It is estimated that 10 million individuals in the UK suffer from a phobia. Phobias are often categorised in three ways.

  • Specific: Specific phobias often occur when an individual has an intense and persistent fear of a particular object, animal, environment, or situation. Often those with specific phobias, including mottephobia, recognise the fear is irrational and exaggerated.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder: Social phobias occur when a person is acutely aware of their surroundings and heightened to the possibility of humiliation or judgement. This often intensifies in situations with unfamiliar people.
  • Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia is similar to social anxiety disorder, as it involves feelings of extreme fear in public. However, the stimuli of agoraphobia instead concern the embarrassment or difficulties of being trapped or unable to make an exit.

Phobias can be extremely debilitating and often hard to overcome. Having a phobia may cause avoidance, as the phobic will deliberately evade situations where the trigger may occur. For example, an individual with mottephobia may avoid going outside in the evening in spring and summer. In some cases, this avoidance may stop a person from living their life to the fullest and enjoying time with friends and family and hinder the taking part in a person's favourite hobbies or pastimes. Sometimes, phobias may cause a more serious complication. For example, an individual’s medical care may be compromised if they have a fear of doctors or needles (iatrophobia and trypanophobia, respectively).

Mottephobia defined

Mottephobia is the irrational fear of moths. The word mottephobia stems from the German for moth, motte, and the Greek for fear, phobos. The cause of the phobia may be different for each sufferer and may arise from different aspects of the moth. For example, some mottephobia sufferers may find their panic is caused by the constant fluttering or flapping of the wings of a moth. Mottephobia caused by fluttering may elicit panic if moths are seen flying nearby, or the noise of a moth’s wings. 

Mottephobia sufferers may also be alarmed by the fear of flying creatures. Often these individuals suffer from lepidopterophobia (butterflies) and ornithophobia (birds) too, and often the phobia arises from the intense fear that the flying creature may land on them. 

Intense panic in individuals with mottephobia may also be caused by the fear of swarming. As social creatures, moths often fly in groups, an instance which may trigger fright in a phobic individual.

The fear of moths, and their fluttering, flying, and swarming may be caused by a separate phobia. Being unable to control the environment around you or to escape a threatening situation may manifest as the fear of being overcome and potentially attacked by these insects. 

Often mottephobia is grouped with lepidopteraphobia, and so statistics regarding the phobia of moths specifically are lacking. Generally, specific phobias affect between 5 and 10% of the population.3

Causes of mottephobia

Genetic factors

It is hypothesised that certain phobias are genetic in origin, with an evolutionary survival mechanism induced in response to certain animals and insects. Some phobias also seem to be passed down within families, contributing to phobic experiences. A family history of mental illness or anxiety disorders can increase the likelihood of developing mottephobia, and studies suggest having a phobia results in a genetic disposition to developing a mental disorder.4 However, phobias can also be a learnt behaviour, acquired through witnessing others react to the stimulus in a negative manner

Environmental factors

Moths have been used in media for many years to symbolise darkness and death, leading to a subconcious distrust of the creatures. For example, exposure to images such as those in The Silence Of The Lambs may lead to an association of moths with fear. The association of moths with darkness may highlight why some individuals are scared of just moths, but not butterflies, which are often associated with beauty and transformation.

Traumatic experiences

Like a lot of other specific animal phobias, mottephobia may be caused by negative experiences in the past, often in childhood. These experiences can occur as an isolated event, or be repeated, but both will lead to a state of panic in response to a trigger. An individual may have memories of being frightened of a moth previously, a memory which is reimagined each time the phobic person encounters a moth subsequently. Although generally harmless creatures, experience with moth infestations or damage to fabrics (e.g. clothes or carpets) by moths may also trigger mottephobia. Additionally, moths are also known to get into electricals, and in extreme cases, this can lead to electrical fires. Experiencing this may also trigger mottephobia, as the fear of the recurring may be overwhelming. 

Symptoms of mottephobia

Mottephobia can manifest in the same manner as many other phobias, causing both physical and psychological symptoms. The most common symptoms are listed below.2

Physical Symptoms

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Shaking/trembling
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Nausea
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Tight chest
  • Headaches

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feelings of anxiety and fear

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Freezing
  • Running away/avoidance
  • Screaming
  • Crying

Diagnosis and treatment of mottephobia

Phobias are diagnosed according to the DMS-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria. A diagnosis is made by a doctor or healthcare professional if an individual experiences these symptoms for six months or more, causing severe distress and significantly impacting daily life. If diagnosed, a treatment plan can be devised to address the fear and develop coping mechanisms. Therapy can be a slow process, but is extremely useful in the treatment of phobias. Less than 8% of individuals with a specific phobia seek out treatment.5

Cognitive-Behavioral therapy

One of the most widely-used techniques for the treatment of specific phobias such as mottephobia is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This method of talking therapy aims to identify the thoughts and behaviours leading to panic, then challenging those thoughts. It encourages a phobic to learn to understand the fear. This treatment is often used for anxiety disorders, but may not always work, especially if the cause of the phobia is a traumatic experience. 

Exposure therapy

A specific type of CBT, exposure therapy, is often used in the treatment of animal-related specific fears. Exposure therapy is performed in a safe and controlled manner, and involves the gradual exposure to moths, allowing the phobic to become desensitised to their fear. The treatment will begin with images, often cartoons of moths, and allows the progression from extreme panic to an absence of discomfort upon seeing images of moths. The use of virtual reality is often used in this instance, termed augmented reality exposure therapy.1,6 Exposure therapy is a slow process, but even just one session can rewire neural circuits.7 Additionally, mottephobia sufferers may find intentionally interacting with moths or butterflies can help to control the fear and reduce anxiety.


The underlying cause of mottephobia cannot be treated with medication, but the prescription of anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication from the GP may help to reduce the anxiety symptoms caused by the phobia, and prevent panic attacks.

Coping strategies

Techniques to manage stress levels may also help to control the symptoms of anxiety often felt with mottephobia.

  • Relaxation: Attempt breathing techniques and meditation strategies like mindfulness and yoga to relax and relieve stress. The redirection of attention to something other than the trigger (i.e. a moth) and the symptoms may relieve the anxiety felt.
  • Support systems: Talking to friends, family, and colleagues can also help to relieve stress. Sharing fears can remove the intensity and allow better coping strategies. Self-help groups are a great support network for connecting with people experiencing the same phobia.
  • Lifestyle changes: Little changes to daily life can help relieve stress and anxiety. Ensure you are getting enough sleep and physical exercise, and reduce caffeine intake.


Mottephobia is the intense and irrational fear of moths caused by genetic or environmental factors or traumatic experiences. Mottephobia can severely affect an individual’s quality of life, with symptoms from sweating and trembling to intense panic attacks with breathing difficulties. Many treatments are available to help relieve the symptoms of anxiety, including talking therapy and anti-anxiety medications.


  • Abate AF, Nappi M, Ricciardi S. Ar based environment for exposure therapy to mottephobia. In: Shumaker R, editor. Virtual and Mixed Reality - New Trends. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer; 2011. p. 3–11. (Lecture Notes in Computer Science). 
  • Adolphs R. The biology of fear. Current Biology. 2013 Jan;23(2):R79–93. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0960982212014352
  • Samra CK, Abdijadid S. Specific phobia. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499923/
  • Villafuerte S, Burmeister M. Untangling genetic networks of panic, phobia, fear and anxiety. Genome Biol. 2003;4(8):224. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC193636/
  • Mackenzie CS, Reynolds K, Cairney J, Streiner DL, Sareen J. Disorder-specific mental health service use for mood and anxiety disorders: associations with age, sex, and psychiatric comorbidity. Depress Anxiety. 2012 Mar;29(3):234–42. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4284961/
  • Botella C, Pérez-Ara MÁ, Bretón-López J, Quero S, García-Palacios A, Baños RM. In vivo versus augmented reality exposure in the treatment of small animal phobia: a randomized controlled trial. PLoS One. 2016 Feb 17;11(2):e0148237. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4757089/
  • Hauner KK, Mineka S, Voss JL, Paller KA. Exposure therapy triggers lasting reorganization of neural fear processing. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2012 Jun 5;109(23):9203–8. Available from: https://pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1205242109
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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Holly Stowell-Connolly

PhD – Translational Health Sciences, University of Bristol, UK

Holly is a post-doctoral researcher, currently working to develop treatments to halt the damage caused to the kidney in diabetes. She is passionate about understanding how the kidney becomes damaged in diseases such as diabetes and has spent her academic career performing this research into kidney disease at the University of Bristol, where she performed her PhD, and the University of Exeter, where she gained her Bachelors.

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