What is Scelerophobia?

  • Dalia Gamal Msc, Oral sciences, University of Glasgow
  • Saira Loane Master's of Toxicology, Institute of Biomedical Research, University of Birmingham
  • Charlotte Mackey BSc (Hons), Psychology, University of Exeter, UK

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Do you ever experience intense fear or anxiety at the thought of crime? If so, you may be dealing with a condition known as scelerophobia. Some people experience a fear of heights, a fear of flying, or, in some cases, a fear of crime. These fears, generally known as phobias, represent intense and irrational fears a person might experience in response to a specific object, animal, or place. Fears are common, and everyone handles them differently.

Overcoming these fears means realising that the threat might not be as dangerous as it seems. But for many people, intense fears can be particularly distressing. If you or someone you know is dealing with scelerophobia, keep reading to learn how to overcome it.

Definition of scelerophobia

Scelerophobia, originating from the Latin word ‘scelero' meaning 'crime' or 'wickedness’, is an intense and irrational fear of crime, burglars, or evil in general.1 Someone with scelerophobia often worries about getting robbed at home and might find it difficult to feel safe or to sleep at night. While it's natural to have a fear of crime for reasons of personal safety, when scelerophobia reaches an extreme level, it can negatively impact a person’s daily life.

For instance, some people might avoid going to new or crowded places because they're scared of being assaulted or because they don’t want to leave their homes unattended. Sometimes, people might go to extremes to protect themselves, like obsessively locking and rechecking their doors and windows. 

Symptoms of scelerophobia

The signs and symptoms of scelerophobia can vary from person to person. Some people with scelerophobia may resort to extreme protective measures like having guard dogs, electric fences, and installing advanced security systems. Other people may experience physical symptoms that are typical of phobias, such as:

  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • chills
  • panic attacks
  • hot flashes
  • difficulty breathing

In addition to the physical symptoms, scelerophobia can also be associated with various psychological symptoms such as guilt, withdrawal from social situations, and feelings of dread. People experiencing scelerophobia may also show anxiety-related signs like shaking, crying, and trembling. They often stay on high alert, finding it hard to relax, which can be quite exhausting. 

What causes scelerophobia?

Although the exact cause of scelerophobia remains unknown, multiple factors may cause a person to develop a phobia of crime, such as2

  • Past trauma – Sclerophobia can develop as a result of experiencing or witnessing criminal activity. You might have personally experienced a burglary in your home or witnessed a break-in at a family member's or neighbour's house
  • Genes – You may be more likely to develop scelerophobia if you have a close family member with a phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Gender – Studies have shown that people assigned female at birth (AFAB) are more afraid of crimes than people assigned male at birth (AMAB) as AFAB often consider themselves more vulnerable to crime3
  • Location – Scelerophobia tends to affect people in large cities more than those in rural areas because of the higher crime rates
  • Media – Exposure to news reports or media coverage of violent crimes can worsen the anxiety and fear of crime among some individuals
  • Environment – The way you are brought up can affect whether you develop scelerophobia. If you are raised in an environment where those around you have scelerophobia, you might adopt this fear as well through learned behaviour

What triggers scelerophobia?

When someone has scelerophobia, it can be triggered by many factors. In a home environment, it could be an unexpected noise outside, the activation of a security light in the yard, or the detection of motion by a doorbell camera. Outside the home, it might be triggered by unfamiliar and crowded places, being far away from home, or receiving notifications from security or doorbell cameras.

How is scelerophobia diagnosed?

Specific phobias are categorised into several sub-categories

  • Animal type (e.g. spiders, dogs) 
  • Natural environment type (e.g. heights, water)
  • Blood, injection, and injury type (e.g. needles, dentists)
  • Situational type (e.g. airplanes, enclosed places) 
  • Other types4 

Scelerophobia is likely to fall into either 'situational' or 'other type’.

If you identify with one or more of the phobia symptoms outlined above, you should start by visiting your GP for an initial assessment. They may then refer you to a specialist psychologist or psychiatrist who can diagnose a phobia by talking to you and asking questions.

How scelerophobia is treated

Treatment for scelerophobia should be considered when it negatively affects day-to-day life, for example by limiting your daily activities or affecting how you function at work or school, or in social situations. Many people with phobias tend to avoid their fears rather than seek treatment. However, avoiding the fear of crime can be more challenging than avoiding other, specific phobias. 

Fortunately, there are several effective phobia treatments available. It's important to keep in mind that no universal treatment works for everyone, as the effectiveness of treatment depends on the person's specific phobia and its severity. Typically, a combination of treatments is necessary for the best results.5

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that focuses on how thoughts and perceptions affect our feelings and actions. When anxiety takes hold, it can warp our view of reality. CBT helps us see situations clearly by identifying and challenging negative thought patterns and behaviour, giving us the tools to face our fears. For scelerophobia, CBT can help establish whether someone's fear is realistic and guides them to think differently. In addition, people with scelerophobia undergoing CBT can also learn different skills to reduce their anxiety and manage their condition. CBT is typically a short-term therapy that is typically delivered over six to 12 sessions and is very effective for treating phobias.6

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a common way to treat phobias. In this therapy, a therapist eases you into facing your fears in a safe environment through gradual exposure to the objects or situations that are feared. They start with something mildly anxiety-inducing and gradually increase it. Along the way, they teach you techniques like breathing exercises and muscle relaxation to manage anxiety. The therapist needs to understand the intensity of someone’s fears to make sure this therapy is just right and not too overwhelming.

Counselling

Counselling is a talking therapy that involves a trained therapist carefully listening to patients about their fears and emotions without judgement, finding the reasons behind their fears, and finally helping the patient find their own solutions to problems. Counsellors assist people in managing their emotions and feelings, helping them establish a sense of security.

Lifestyle changes

Making lifestyle changes and engaging in self-care are effective ways to deal with phobias by reducing the anxiety that fuels fear.

Some lifestyle changes you could make include:

  • Incorporating regular exercise into your daily routine – Doing so is a proactive way to reduce the symptoms of phobias. Participating in physical activities can trigger the release of endorphins, which are the body's natural mood enhancers. For example, simply incorporating a walk into your daily routine can help reduce anxiety levels and clear your mind
  • Eating a balanced diet – Changing your dietary habits is another crucial aspect of managing phobias. Reducing your consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and fatty foods can positively influence your overall mental and emotional state. These substances can often worsen feelings of anxiety, so minimising their intake can help regulate your mood and mitigate fear-induced stress
  • Quality sleep – Ensuring sufficient and restorative sleep is paramount in managing phobias. A well-rested mind and body are better equipped to cope with anxiety and stress. Proper sleep contributes to emotional resilience, making it easier to confront and control your fears

Self-defense classes

Self-defense classes can be an effective way to help overcome the fear of strangers or thieves. These classes boost confidence and teach people how to protect themselves. For people with an intense fear of threats and crime, self-defense classes can be valuable in providing a sense of security and self-assurance.

Medication

In most cases, medication isn't the first treatment choice for managing phobias due to the view that they are of limited benefit in treating specific phobias.7,8 However, medication can sometimes be considered when phobia symptoms are severe, interfering with daily life, or not responding to other treatment methods. They can also help reduce some of the main symptoms of phobia such as feelings of anxiety or panic.

Different types of medication that may be prescribed include:

  • Beta-blockers – Beta-blockers are often prescribed to manage the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a rapid heart rate, trembling, and sweating. They work by blocking the effects of adrenaline, reducing the body's "fight or flight" response
  • Antidepressants – Certain types of antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are used to treat phobias. These medications can help regulate mood and reduce the frequency and severity of anxiety and panic attacks
  • Tranquillisers – Benzodiazepines are a type of medication known as tranquillisers and can provide quick relief from intense anxiety or panic symptoms. They target a specific neurotransmitter in the brain, known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which plays a role in mood regulation and calming the nervous system. Benzodiazepines are used on a short-term basis as they can be addictive
  • Anti-anxiety drugs – These medications, including drugs like buspirone, are designed to reduce anxiety symptoms. They work by targeting the brain's neurotransmitters responsible for mood and emotion regulation. Anti-anxiety drugs can provide relief for people with phobias, helping to reduce fear and anxiety

Summary

Fear of robberies and crime are a common part of life and many people unfortunately experience them at some point. However, sometimes such a fear can be extreme and interfere with daily life. The good news is that phobias can be treated and overcome. These include therapeutic approaches like talking therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), lifestyle changes, and the potential use of medication. Seeking help from a specialist in therapy or talking to a loved one can make a significant difference. If you or someone you know is suffering from scelerophobia, reach out to your doctor or a local mental health clinic to explore your available options.

References

  1. Ramage S. Genetics crime and justice, edward elgar 2015. Current Criminal Law [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Mar 18];9(3):2–29. Available from: https://philarchive.org/rec/RAMGCA
  2. Ergün, Gül, and Aysun Güzel. “Fear of Crime and Related Factors in Relatives of Individuals with Mental Disorders.” Psychiatry, Psychology, and Law, vol. 26, no. 6, Aug. 2019, pp. 851–67. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1080/13218719.2019.1642256.
  3. Fox, Kathleen A., et al. “Gender, Crime Victimization and Fear of Crime.” Security Journal, vol. 22, no. 1, Feb. 2009, pp. 24–39. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1057/sj.2008.13.
  4. Administration SA and MHS. Table 3. 11, dsm-iv to dsm-5 specific phobia comparison [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Mar 18]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t11/
  5. Singh, Jarnail, and Janardhan Singh. “Treatment Options for the Specific Phobias.” International Journal of Basic & Clinical Pharmacology, vol. 5, no. 3, Dec. 2016, pp. 593–98. www.ijbcp.com, https://doi.org/10.18203/2319-2003.ijbcp20161496
  6. Kaczkurkin AN, Foa EB. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence. Dialogues Clin Neurosci [Internet]. 2015 Sep [cited 2024 Mar 20];17(3):337–46. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4610618/
  7. Thng CEW, Lim-Ashworth NSJ, Poh BZQ, Lim CG. Recent developments in the intervention of specific phobia among adults: a rapid review. F1000Research [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Mar 18];9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7096216/
  8. Singewald N, Schmuckermair C, Whittle N, Holmes A, Ressler KJ. Pharmacology of cognitive enhancers for exposure-based therapy of fear, anxiety and trauma-related disorders. Pharmacology & Therapeutics [Internet]. 2015 May 1 [cited 2024 Mar 18];149:150–90. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0163725814002332

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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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Dalia Gamal

Msc, Oral sciences, University of Glasgow

Dalia has a background in dentistry, academic writing, and biomedical sciences. She holds a bachelor in dental surgery and an Msc in Oral Sciences. and has several years of experience working in both clinical and laboratory settings. Dalia is also passionate about research and writing about diseases and health-related topics.

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