Fear of the unknown is normal and even adaptive, but if this fear is excessive and causes you severe distress and anxiety, it is a serious problem that can negatively impact your life.
Neophobia is the fear of anything new, which can lead to unwillingness to try new things or break from a routine. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may greatly affect a person’s life, relationships and experiences. In children, neophobia is defined as the tendency to reject or be reluctant to try new and unfamiliar foods and is often a natural stage of development. However, food neophobia may persist into childhood and even adulthood and can greatly affect your diet and health.1
This article discusses the signs and symptoms of neophobia. It also explains the possible causes of this type of fear and how it can be treated.
Causes of neophobia
Neophobia is often caused by a variety of factors, including evolutionary, genetic, environmental and sensory factors.1
Neophobic behaviour can be traced back to evolution when neophobia protected mammals from eating potentially poisonous food. Although this mechanism is no longer needed in today’s world, this behaviour is usually seen in children around 2 years of age when unfamiliar foods cause anxiety and they show a preference for familiar foods. This is a natural stage in a child’s development and should eventually run its course. However, the severity of food neophobia is dependent on various factors.1
Research suggests that genetics can also play a role in neophobia, especially food neophobia.1 Genetic factors that affect food preferences involve taste receptors that can affect the perception of different tastes, depending on differences in individual genes. This is why some children are more tolerant of bitter-tasting vegetables, while others will instantly reject them.2
Also, having a parent with anxiety increases your risk of developing a phobia.2
Previous upsetting or traumatic experiences when trying new things play a major role in the development of neophobia. Over time, you are more likely to stick to a certain routine and become a creature of habit whilst avoiding new experiences and destinations.2
In the case of food neophobia, evidence suggests that there is an association between food neophobia and the diversity of a person’s diet and their previous exposure to different kinds of foods.1,2
The social environment in which a child is raised also plays a major role in the development of food neophobia. Parents play a crucial role in their child’s eating behaviour, and they may pass their tendency towards certain foods or even food neophobia to their children. Therefore, it is important to understand and identify food neophobia in adults to prevent the possible impact on their children.2
Sensory factors can influence a child’s eating behaviour as texture is one of the main reasons for food rejection or acceptance. Certain textures have been shown to cause disgust in children even before tasting. Textures such as hard, lumpy and grainy food are less acceptable to children of all ages. This sensory sensitivity can cause children to accept a smaller variety of foods.2
Signs of neophobia
People with neophobia can show physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms.
Common physical symptoms include:3
- Increased heart rate
The common psychological symptoms include feelings of anxiety or a fear of dying. Both the physical and psychological symptoms can contribute to the behavioural signs of the phobia, which can involve avoiding new experiences or places and resisting change.3
Effects of neophobia
Mild neophobia is unlikely to greatly affect someone’s life. It may mean that they make predictable choices and stay in the same routine in their daily life. However, moderate to severe neophobia can have a serious impact on your life and may lead to avoidance behaviour, such as avoiding new places, foods and opportunities to meet people.3
In children, food neophobia can reduce diet quality and have a serious impact on their health. In early childhood, neophobia protects a child from the danger of eating something that could potentially be dangerous to their health. However, as the child grows, this biological instinct is masked by learned behaviours, which can have negative effects and affect diet quality.2
Multiple studies have found that food neophobia can lead to deficiencies in certain nutrients, especially vitamins and minerals.1 These studies found that children with neophobia have a poorly varied diet and eat less than the recommended levels of fruit, vegetables and dairy products.1,2
Severe food neophobia can contribute to other disorders, such as food selectivity, food aversion or an eating disorder. However, a restricted diet may not be due to fear but due to other illnesses or disorders that should be diagnosed as soon as possible. If you feel that your child is not eating enough or is lacking essential nutrients and minerals, you should contact a doctor immediately.2
Specific phobias like neophobia are usually treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy and medication.3
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioural therapy is a type of talking therapy that focuses on changing the negative thought patterns that can lead to fear and avoidance behaviour.4 It is useful in developing practical ways of dealing with your phobia.
Exposure therapy is a component of cognitive behavioural therapy that involves changing your response to the object or situation of your fear. This involves gradual and progressive exposure to the source of your neophobia as well as the related thoughts, feelings and sensations. This can help you overcome your phobia and manage your anxiety.3
In the case of neophobia, you may start with small exposures to new things or experiences, such as trying a different meal at your favourite restaurant. Over time, you will work up to more challenging exposures, such as visiting a new destination or trying food you dislike.3
Children with food neophobia
Food chaining is a method that is often used to treat children with avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). It involves using ‘safe food’ that a child likes and introducing them to similar foods to increase their variety. This can include new foods with similar colour, taste or texture.2
It is also important to create a positive atmosphere during or around mealtimes. This can be done by using encouraging words, animal-shaped utensils or bowls and reading books on the theme of food. You can also use the baby-led weaning method to encourage independent eating which allows the child to choose and eat on their own. It is also helpful to involve your child in the preparation of meals as this influences their preference for certain foods and helps reduce their sense of anxiety.1
Exposure therapy is often effective at treating specific phobias such as neophobia, but medication may be prescribed to reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic.
These medicines may include:
- Beta-blockers - help reduce symptoms of anxiety such as increased heart rate, high blood pressure and shaking voice and limbs
- Benzodiazepines - are effective at treating severe anxiety as they help relieve symptoms within 30 to 90 minutes. However, they cannot be used long-term.
In summary, neophobia is defined as the fear of anything new. This can cause physical symptoms of breathlessness, increased heart rate and nausea, as well as psychological symptoms such as anxiety and fear of dying. Both physical and psychological symptoms contribute to behavioural symptoms, which include avoiding new places and experiences. In children, neophobia is the tendency to reject new or unfamiliar food, which can greatly affect their diet and overall health. Treating neophobia involves cognitive behavioural therapy, exposure therapy and medicine if needed. Neophobia can greatly impact your life, which is why it is important to get the treatment you need so you can open up your life to new experiences, relationships and opportunities.
- Białek-Dratwa A, Szczepańska E, Szymańska D, Grajek M, Krupa-Kotara K, Kowalski O. Neophobia—A Natural Developmental Stage or Feeding Difficulties for Children? Nutrients [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Nov 21]; 14(7):1521. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9002550/.
- Białek-Dratwa A, Szczepańska E, Szymańska D, Grajek M, Krupa-Kotara K, Kowalski O. Neophobia—a natural developmental stage or feeding difficulties for children? Nutrients [Internet]. 2022 Apr 6 [cited 2023 Aug 25];14(7):1521. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9002550/
- Eaton WW, Bienvenu OJ, Miloyan B. Specific phobias. Lancet Psychiatry [Internet]. 2018 Aug [cited 2023 Aug 25];5(8):678–86. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7233312/
- Burton Murray H, Becker KR, Breithaupt L, Dreier MJ, Eddy KT, Thomas JJ. Food neophobia as a mechanism of change in video-delivered cognitive-behavioural therapy for avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder: A case study. Int J Eat Disord. 2022; 55(8):1156–61. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9002550/.