Kenophobia is the fear of empty spaces, empty rooms, or voids. It is the opposite of claustrophobia, wherein the person is afraid of tight spaces such as elevators or crowded rooms, auditoriums or malls. In Kenophobia, the person is terrified of open fields or spaces that he or she generally expects to be filled with mountains or people. The word Kenophobia is derived from Greek ‘kenos’ meaning ‘blank’ and phobos meaning deep fear or aversion.
Kenophobes are afraid of empty rooms and empty stretches of landscapes. They get an eerie feeling upon seeing such wide spaces. They expect to see walls, mountains, or people, and when these are not present, they tend to have panic attacks. Empty rooms and landscapes trigger disorientation in the individual and they develop a sense of detachment or ‘unreality’ upon seeing these places. Needless to say; life can get very difficult for a Kenophobe.
Let us take a look at some possible causes of this phobia, its symptoms, followed by some effective self-help tips and other treatment options.
Causes of Kenophobia
As with most phobias and anxieties, there is no clear consensus about what causes Kenophobia. The most common explanation is a childhood traumatic episode where a child may have gotten lost or felt scared in an open space such as a field or a vast, open beach. There are plenty of people with Kenophobia who cannot even recall the traumatic incident. Some degree of resistance to vast, open fields, or large open spaces is common, but Kenophobia is an exaggerated form of this reaction.
Many times, Kenophobia can suddenly arise out of the blue. Scientists believe that a combination of genetic tendencies, brain chemistry, and other biological and environmental factors could cause such fears to develop.
Factors in the environment include over-anxious family members or caregivers: they may have unknowingly caused the fear in the individual’s mind. The fear manifests as a learned response to dealing with open, empty spaces.
Genetics are also responsible for fears and anxieties. Some people are simply born with the tendency to be more anxious than others.
Phobias are also triggered due to a ‘vicious cycle’. What this means is that the phobic is embarrassed at his/her unreasonable reaction to the trigger, in this case, empty spaces. The embarrassment causes an intense panic attack which then leads to the embarrassing reaction and so on. This causes the Kenophobe to develop intense anxiety about being in that fearful situation.
Stress is also a cause of specific and complex phobias. Long term stress can lead to various symptoms and tends to reduce one’s ability to cope with certain situations. This again makes the anxious individual fearful about specific situations, such as being near empty, open spaces, and over a period of time, the person develops a phobia about it.
Movies like ‘Gravity’, which depicts the lead character getting trapped in space, can also trigger this phobia.
Symptoms of Kenophobia
Most phobic individuals develop extreme anxiety or fear when faced with a situation or object they are afraid of. Kenophobia is no different. Even thinking about vast, empty spaces can trigger the following physical and psychological symptoms:
- Unsteadiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, feeling as if one is about to faint
- Feeling as if being choked, difficulty swallowing
- Accelerated heart-rate, palpitations, pounding heart
- Tightness of chest, pain in the chest
- Excess sweating, cold, sweaty palms
- Hot or cold flashes
- Feeling like being smothered, difficulty breathing
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Numbness, tingling sensations
- Shaking or trembling
- Feeling disconnected with reality; unable to tell if it is a dream or real, a sense of detachment
- Feeling like running away and hiding
- Thoughts of death or dying
- Fear of losing control or embarrassing oneself
- Fear of fainting
When a Kenophobe is faced with an empty stretch of landscape or a large empty room (anything one is accustomed to seeing filled with crowds or mountains), he/she gets an eerie or strange feeling. This may trigger disorientation in the phobic. He or she may not be able to articulate the strange feeling experienced; just that they feel a sense of ‘unreality’. It may even trigger a full-blow panic attack with the above symptoms.
Treatment for fear of voids or empty spaces
Thankfully, most Kenophobes who seek treatment can fully recover and enjoy a better quality of life. A variety of treatment options exist: cognitive-behavior therapy, exposure or desensitization, anxiety-management, self-help techniques, and in some cases, medicines.
It is important to understand that no one treatment is the ‘right treatment’. What works for one individual might not work for another. A good therapist will always tailor the treatment based on the exact symptoms.
A Kenophobe can also learn to help him or herself manage the anxiety through various relaxation techniques. These range from deep breathing, meditation, stretching, to positive visualization. A support group can also help.
One can learn to manage their reaction to the fear by gradually exposing themself to it, by writing about open spaces, seeing pictures, or talking about it. Simply by staying in the present moment, one can control the anxiety response. Many self-help and online programs can also be helpful. Reading and learning more about the phobia can help one understand that the fear is real and that there are other people suffering from it as well.
When to seek help
Kenophobia can be difficult to live with and you should consider seeking help if:
- The phobia affects your daily life
- You realize that your fear is excessive and unreasonable
- You avoid open, empty spaces due to the fear
- Your fear affects your job or relationships and your normal routine
- You have had the fear for more than 6 months
Counselors will often recommend talking therapy, medication, advice and information in the form of books, online programs, or support groups. Cognitive behavior therapy is an important treatment as far as anxiety and phobias are concerned. It includes different techniques like exposure therapy and others that change the phobic’s negative thought patterns. If your phobia is causing significant anxiety, your doctor may recommend drugs like anti-depressants, tranquilizers etc. These may have a significant impact on day-to-day life, so they are usually for short-term, low-dose treatment.