Onomatophobia – the fear of hearing certain words or names – combines two Greek words namely, onomatos and phobos. The former means ‘name’ or ‘word’ and the latter means aversion or fear. It is very similar to Onomatopoeia which is a figure of speech wherein the word describing a sound sounds like the word itself (such as boom, buzz, ting-ting, etc).
In Onomatophobia, a certain word or sound of a word triggers an intense emotional reaction in the phobic. For example, a woman jilted by her lover might develop the phobia of hearing his name or anything that could sound like his name owing to an emotional aversion. In certain cultures and religious beliefs, even hearing the names of certain Gods or deities could trigger Onomatophobia as these entities are believed to be powerful enough to cause destruction.
For an Onomatophobe, life can be quite difficult. First of all, people do not take this fear seriously, leading to the individual being teased and ridiculed. This can exacerbate his/her fear and also lead to social isolation, loneliness and depression. Secondly, the sound of certain words or names may be common, which could lead them to indulge in extreme avoidance behavior. This, in turn, could lead to other problems and issues.
Let us study the fear of hearing certain words or names in detail.
Causes of Onomatophobia
Children and adults with Onomatophobia may have experienced a traumatic event in their childhood that could be the cause of this extreme fear. A child with a stuttering problem may start fearing certain words which s/he is unable to pronounce. Such a child may cope by withdrawing completely and not speaking at all. The phobia could continue well into adulthood. A traumatic event in the child’s past linked to a sound or a word or even a name (generally one that has caused death or destruction) can continue to trigger a panic attack for years to come.
In case of adults who suddenly develop this phobia, there may not be a single cause for it; rather there may be a number of causes responsible. Heredity, biology, family background and upbringing, conditioning, recent stressors, one’s self-talk and personal belief systems can all be responsible for Onomatophobia. A dysfunction in the parts of the brain – amygdala and the locus coeruleus – can also cause such extreme avoidance behaviors and phobias. Similarly, a dysfunction in serotonin production (a neurotransmitter in the brain) can also trigger such a phobia. Chronically suppressed anger could change the production of serotonin that could manifest in the form of a phobic reaction.
Symptoms of Onomatophobia
Many of us experience fears, but what sets a fear and phobia apart is the difference in severity and time. For example, a person with the fear of public speaking or stage fright may be afraid to go on stage and could forget his/her speech. But would the person continue experiencing those symptoms after the event is over? Probably not. A phobic individual having the fear of hearing certain words may have experienced an intense emotional reaction to that word. However, s/he may fail to see it as an isolated incident and the event would forever be locked in their memory. As a result, each time they hear that name or word, they might experience a panic attack with the following symptoms:
- Shaking or trembling
- Crying, sobbing, screaming
- Sweaty palms
- Racing heart
- Shortness of breath
- Hot or cold flashes
- Tightness in the chest
- Numbness or tingling
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Feeling like dying
- Thoughts of death play like a movie reel in the phobic’s mind
- S/he may feel a sense of detachment or ‘loss of reality’
- Feeling like one is not in control
- Fear of embarrassing oneself
- Feeling like fainting
Intense symptoms could trigger a full-blown panic attack which can be very frightening to experience and can make a phobic feel extremely stressed out and overwhelmed. Moreover, it may instill a deep sense of dread and anxiety about the next ‘episode’, making it a vicious cycle. People who do not understand phobias often tease or ridicule such an individual. This can lead to even greater avoidance behavior where the phobic may go to great lengths to avoid hearing certain words or names, which may cause social isolation, depression, and loneliness.
Treating the fear of hearing certain words or names
The first thing to do when you decide to help yourself by dealing with your anxiety is to acknowledge that you have a problem. Next, you must keep a firm belief that you can cure yourself. An important part of self-help therapy for Onomatophobia is gradual exposure to the fear. You can start by reading that word, saying it aloud, and asking a friend or loved one to say it, and so on. With gradual exposure, the fear will cease to have power over you. You must also use relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing to calm the anxiety and control panic attacks experienced. Learn to live from moment to moment. Do not think about the past or about the times when you had an ‘episode’. Mindfulness practice of living in the present moment can help most phobics prevent triggers of their anxiety.
If your phobia continues to cause intense, disabling fear, then it may be time to speak to a professional. You can start by talking to your family physician so they can refer you to a professional. There are a variety of options such as talking therapy, medicines, online and offline support groups, and even Cognitive Behavior Therapy or CBT.
Cognitive behavior therapy
CBT or cognitive behavior therapy is one of the most effective treatments available for treating specific and complex phobias like Onomatophobia. It is based on helping the individual identify connections between thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns. This can help one develop practical coping skills to prevent and also deal with a panic attack should it occur.
If the phobia is causing significant anxiety, your doctor may put you on short term medication to relieve the symptoms. Antidepressants, beta blockers, or tranquilizers may be prescribed. However, you must understand that these drugs can take a significant amount of time to work and may have some side effects. After coming off the drugs, you can also experience withdrawal symptoms.