If you have joined the many new enthusiasts of the hit show The Last of Us, then you already know how frightening mushrooms can be. In a world where the right mutation meets the right climate, mushrooms have taken over the human brain, and those left behind now live in a nightmare zombie wasteland. It’s not hard to see what’s scary about that.
However, real-life mushrooms tend to cause a lot less stress to the average human. When someone does have a fear of shrooms – referred to technically as mycophobia – they are often met with confusion or even dismissal on the part of people around them.
Despite this, mycophobia is a real issue that affects a number of people, albeit a relatively small one, at least if we believe the documentation that places such numbers only in the dozens of patients. However, chronic, neurotic, or debilitating fear of mushrooms and low-level anxiety about them are two different things, as many a professional would agree that society as a whole has concerns about our fungi friends.
To better understand this, let’s take a look at mycophobia today: what it is, what causes it, its symptoms, and possible treatment. We will also consider whether you or someone you love should seek help for this fear today.
What Is Mycophobia?
According to Macmillan Dictionary, mycophobia is defined as “a strong dislike or fear of mushrooms.” While it is not classified in medical texts as an official phobia yet, as of the time of this writing, the reaction that some people have to mushrooms certainly qualifies it as a legitimate fear.
According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a phobia is characterized by “Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation,” which “almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety” that is “out of proportion to the actual danger posed by the specific object or situation and to the sociocultural context.”
The manual also states that “The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety” that “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” and “for six months or more.” Perhaps most tellingly, it is “not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, including fear, anxiety, and avoidance of situations associated with panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating symptoms.”
In other words, a phobia does not have an actual foundation in reality in that it should cause that amount of fear in a person – as opposed to, say, a rampaging tiger, which would create a significant degree of terror in anyone.
What it does have is an overwhelming fear of the object (in this case, mushrooms or other fungi) and a desire to avoid them at all costs.
Mycophobia: A Medical Anxiety
Mycophobia should not be confused with mysophobia, which is the fear of germs. That said, the two are related. People with mycophobia are not just disturbed by the sight of mushrooms or fungus (as well as their smaller, less distinct fungal cousins, mold and yeast); they genuinely believe it will cause them medical harm.
Some people are afraid to touch it, while others believe that inhaling spores will make them sick. Still, others believe that they are infected with fungus even when there is no evidence that an infection is present. This is the case with patients who persistently believe they have “therapy-resistant intestinal candidosis,” even when doctors determine no treatment is necessary.
It’s important to note that fungi such as yeast live on the surface of your skin and in your intestines. A certain amount of yeast is normal and cannot hurt a person, yet those with mycophobia are deeply disturbed by the idea.
So exactly where does this fear come from?
What Causes Mycophobia?
It’s hard to say what causes mycophobia in an individual, especially as this particular anxiety has not received a lot of study. Phobias, in general, are better understood, though. They may arise from how one’s brain functions, genetics, learned behavior from family members or role models, and negative experiences linked to the object of fear.
If, say, a person had become dangerously ill as a result of ingesting a poisonous mushroom, it’s easy to see where the phobia would come from. Ditto if a parent had the experience and had related it to the child a number of times. Sometimes it is as simple as having a panic attack in regards to the object, then associating it with panic thereafter.
Phobias are usually self-reinforcing. As the Cleveland Clinic explains about the closely related mysophobia, “You may go out of your way to avoid situations that expose you to germs. The phobia and steps you take to avoid it worsen over time. You may find yourself stuck in a cycle of repetitive behaviors that affect your quality of life, similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”
Hence, what might have started as a slight anxiety can become, through lack of exposure to normal stimuli, an extreme fear in the end.
Mycophilia and Mycophobia
It’s also reasonable to wonder what causes mycophobia on a cultural level.
The terms mycophilia (a liking for mushrooms) and mycophobia have been around since the 1950s, when researchers asked the question, “How scared of mushrooms are most people, and does this correlate to the region in which they live and how indigenous they are to that area?”
They found that people who are more closely tied to the land tend to have better feelings toward mushrooms but that the overall attitude of people toward them exists on a bell curve. Many people are quite friendly toward them, while others are afraid of them due to their long history of intoxicating and even deadly effects.
Interestingly, there may be a reason that mycophobia is a growing fear among modern-day people.
Mushrooms and Modern-Day Foraging
Figures demonstrate that the more invested in mushroom foraging and culture a country is overall, the more frequent mushroom intoxications are. This makes sense since the more enthusiastically some people gather wild mushroom species, the more those species will become available at stores, farmers’ markets, roadsides, and other points of sale.
This has forced governments to regulate the gathering and sale of various species of mushrooms, especially since many harmless mushrooms have a poisonous lookalike that can cause serious illness or death. This has given rise the world over to guides that help foragers distinguish between delicious wild mushrooms and their scary lookalikes.
What it has also given rise to, however, is made mushroom lore more pervasive. This has engendered in most people a fairly rational paranoia that mushrooms might prove dangerous. (For this reason, if you buy wild mushrooms, it’s always a good idea to put one mushroom in a bag in the freezer. This will help doctors identify the type of toxicity from which the patient is suffering in case of poisoning, which speeds treatment.)
That said, people with a healthy skepticism of mushroom safety are not the same as those who are panicked at the idea of contact with mushrooms. True mycophobia manifests differently.
Symptoms of Mycophobia
If you’re wondering whether you or someone you care about has mycophobia, there are a few ways to tell. These are similar to all phobias, and many of them are physical, including:
- Shortness of breath, the feeling of choking, or a smothering sensation
- Dizziness, faintness, lightheadedness, or unsteadiness
- Chest tightness and pain
- Heart palpitations
- A racing heart
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
Other symptoms are behavioral in nature, including:
- Avoiding any situation where you might encounter the trigger
- Feeling a need to escape if you encounter the object
- Panic or distress that can only be relieved by escape
- Obsessive rumination about the object of concern
- Lasting obsession for more than six months
- Fear or dread when even contemplating the object
In the case of mycophobia, symptoms may manifest in avoidance of restaurants, grocery stores, or other people’s houses because the affected individual fears they may come into contact with a mushroom, fungus, yeast, or mold there. Another common symptom would be avoidance of food that contains funguses (such as bread, which traditionally uses wild or storebought yeast).
People with mycophobia might refuse to go into situations where they know or suspect mold or mushrooms would be present, such as bathrooms and locker rooms (mold) or forests and gardens (fungus). They might ask others to go to great lengths to accommodate their phobias, miss out on exciting opportunities, or have trouble at work.
While an employer may start out as understanding about their biologist employee’s fear of going into the field to collect samples, for instance, they will not remain so forever. Eventually, a biologist must do fieldwork, and fear of mushrooms may result in the loss of advancement opportunities or the job itself.
These are just examples, but they showcase what can happen with an out-of-control phobia. In such cases, treatment is likely required for the person to regain a normal life.
Prescribing treatment for mycophobia is, of course, beyond the purview of this blog. Depending on the severity of your condition and the diagnosis made by your mental healthcare provider, you may benefit from talk therapy, medication, exposure therapy, or other forms of treatment. Only a professional can tell you that.
However, there are a few main approaches to treating phobias that usually work well. These include:
- Exposing yourself to situations that include the object of fear
- Imagining exposure to the object
- Recording thoughts and feelings in a journal
- Talking to a therapist about the fear
- Mindfulness training that teaches the individual to be present through the fear
In some cases, psychologists and psychiatrists may recommend medications for the treatment of a phobia, but it is usually only short-term.
Do You Need to See Someone for Mycophobia?
Again, the main litmus test for whether you should see someone about mycophobia is the same as any other phobia: if it has extreme, detrimental effects on your life. Phobias can make you unable to face certain situations, can cause you distress even when there is no rational reason to feel frightened, and can take a toll on your work or social life. And they often get worse over time.
If you find that you or a loved one is modifying behavior to accommodate the phobia, that is a dangerous precedent that can have severe, lasting consequences. It’s important to seek mental health treatment immediately.