What to Know About Scopophobia, or Fear of Being Stared At
Scopophobia is an excessive fear of being stared at. While it is not unusual to feel anxious or uncomfortable in situations where you’re likely to be the center of attention — like performing or speaking publicly — scopophobia is more severe. It can feel as though you’re being scrutinized.
Like other phobias, the fear is out of proportion to the risk involved. In fact, the anxiety can become so intense that it can keep you from functioning in social situations, including school and work.
Related anxiety disorders
Most of the time, people who have scopophobia also experience other kinds of social anxiety. Scopophobia has been linked to social anxiety disorder (SAD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source note that some people with neurological conditions like Tourette’s syndrome and epilepsy may also develop social phobias, possibly because the symptoms of these conditions may occasionally attract attention.
Social phobias can also develop as a result of a traumatic event, such as bullying or an accident that changes your appearance.
Scopophobia symptoms vary in intensity from person to person. If you suddenly experience an episode of scopophobia, you may develop any of the symptoms associated with anxiety, including:
- excessive worry
- racing heartbeat
- sweating or shaking
- dry mouth
- difficulty concentrating
- panic attacks
A note about blushing
Scopophobia can cause you to avoid social situations, even small gatherings with people you know. If your symptoms become severe, the fear of being stared at could cause you to avoid ordinary face-to-face encounters like visiting the doctor, conferring with your child’s teacher, or using public transit.
If you are excessively worried about being scrutinized, it could limit your work life or dating life, and it could cause you to miss out on opportunities to travel or to further your education.
Avoiding eye contact — why it matters
In many animal species, direct eye contact signals aggression. With human beings, however, eye contact has many complex social meanings.
Eye contact can communicate that someone is giving you their full attention. It can show that it’s your turn to talk. It can reveal a wide range of emotions, especially when the expression in someone’s eyes is read in the context of their other facial features, their tone of voice, and their body language.
But if you have scopophobia, you may misinterpret eye contact and other facial cues. Researchers have explored how social anxiety affects people’s ability to accurately read where other people are looking and what their facial expressions might mean. Here are some of their findings:
The “cone” of gaze perception
When someone is in your field of vision, it’s natural to take note of the general direction in which they are looking. Researchers have referred to this awareness as a “cone” of gaze perception. If you have social anxiety, your cone may be wider than average.
It may seem as though someone is looking directly at you when they are looking in your general direction — and if you have scopophobia, you may even feel you are being evaluated or judged. The unpleasant feeling of being stared can intensify if more than one person is in your field of vision.
In one 2011 study, researchers examined whether people with social anxiety disorder believed that someone nearby was looking at them, as opposed to looking in their general direction.
The study showed that people with social anxiety disorder tended to have an enlarged sense of being singled out for attention, but only when there was a second onlooker present.
Multiple studies have shown that when people with social anxieties believe someone is looking at them, they experience the other person’s gaze as threatening. Fear centers in the brain are activated, especially when the other person’s facial expressions are perceived as either neutral or angry-looking.
But here’s an important note: If you have social anxieties, you might not be reading neutral expressions accurately. Researchers have observed that social anxiety can cause you to avoid looking into other people’s eyes, concentrating your view on their other facial features instead.
This tendency to avoid eye contact also affects people with autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. But your chances of misjudging someone’s mood, expression, or intention increases if you aren’t getting important cues from their eyes.
Research has also shown that social anxiety can actually cause you to scan people’s faces too much, looking for any hint of negative emotion — a habit called hypervigilance. People who are hypervigilant tend to be very good at identifying the signs of anger. Other emotions, not so much.
The downside of hypervigilance is that it may actually create a cognitive bias — causing you to perceive anger in neutral expressions. Looking hard for any sign of anger or upset may increase your belief that someone who is looking at you is feeling something negative, even if they are not.
What you can do about scopophobia
If you have scopophobia, it may help to know that roughly 12 percent of the adult population has also experienced a social anxiety disorder.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
The National Institute of Mental Health recommends two different forms of therapy for people who want to recover from social phobias:
- Cognitive therapy with a mental health professional can help you recognize the unhealthy thinking patterns at the root of the phobia so you can change both your thoughts and your behavior over time.
- Exposure therapy with a therapist can help you gradually confront the situations that make you anxious so that you can begin to re-engage in areas you might have been avoiding.
Some anxiety symptoms may be relieved by medication. Talk to your doctor to see if your specific symptoms could be responsive to prescribed medications.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America can help you locate a support group in your area.
If you think you may have developed scopophobia because of the visible symptoms of a condition like epilepsy, you may find support and connection using the CDC’s toolkits and community-building guides.
If you feel a rising sense of anxiety from an episode of scopophobia, you can take some practical self-care actions to calm yourself:
- Close your eyes to reduce the stimulation of your surroundings.
- Practice slow, deep breathing.
- Notice how your body feels — ground yourself in physical sensations.
- Relax one body part at a time.
- Take a pleasant walk if possible.
- Visualize a calming location — some place you feel relaxed and safe.
- Remind yourself that anxiety passes.
- Reach out to a trusted, supportive person.
The bottom line
Scopophobia is excessive fear of being stared at. It is often associated with other society anxieties. During an episode of scopophobia, you may feel your face flush or your heart race. You might begin sweating or shaking.
Because the symptoms can be unpleasant, you may avoid social situations that provoke episodes of scopophobia, but prolonged avoidance can interfere with the way you function in your relationships, at school, at work, and in other areas of your daily life.
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy may help you develop coping skills, and your doctor may prescribe medications to deal with your symptoms. During an episode of scopophobia, you can practice relaxation techniques or reach out to someone supportive to bring you some immediate relief.
Dealing with scopophobia is difficult, but you are not alone, and there are reliable treatments available to help you manage symptoms and move toward healthier interactions.