Kenophobia: How to Treat Fear of Open Spaces

Medically Reviewed By Matthew Boland, PhD
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Kenophobia is an intense fear of empty spaces or voids. It is a specific situational phobia, in which the individual experiences an irrational response to a situation that does not pose any actual threat. “Keno” is from the Greek word for “empty” or “blank,” and “phobia” is the Greek word for “fear.” A person with kenophobia is likely to actively avoid being in spaces that are empty, such as an empty room or vast landscapes.

If a person with kenophobia encounters a situation that triggers the phobia, they may experience intense feelings of distress. This can result in symptoms such as shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, and feeling dizzy.

There is no one cause of kenophobia. Specific phobias can develop over time as a result of learned history, past experiences, or biological factors.

Read on to learn more about kenophobia and related conditions. This article also contains information about symptoms and treatments for phobias.

What type of phobia is kenophobia?

There is an empty warehouse.
Sky-Blue Creative/Stocksy United

Kenophobia is a specific phobia. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. Around 8–12% of adults in the United States experience some type of specific phobia.

There are different subcategories of specific phobias. Common types of specific phobias include:

  • Animal phobias: These include phobias such as a fear of dogs.
  • Natural environment phobias: These include a fear of heights or water.
  • Situational phobias: A fear of flying, going into tunnels, or being in small spaces are examples of situational phobias.
  • Blood-injection-injury phobias: These are things such as a fear of needles or a fear of invasive medical procedures.
  • Other specific phobias: This category includes specific fears that do not fit into the other categories.

Kenophobia is a situational phobia. An individual does not have to be in an empty space to experience symptoms of kenophobia. Symptoms can also occur from thinking or talking about empty spaces.

View our hub to learn more about types of anxiety disorders.

Is kenophobia different from agoraphobia?

There are similarities between kenophobia and agoraphobia. However, they are not the same anxiety disorder.

Kenophobia is a fear of empty spaces and voids, such as an open field or an empty room.

In contrast, agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations or environments that the individual cannot escape. This typically refers to busy public places such as shopping centers or public transport. However, an individual with agoraphobia may also fear empty unfamiliar spaces.

What are the symptoms of kenophobia?

Like most other specific phobias, kenophobia has both physical and psychological features or experiences. These occur when the anxiety disorder causes the individual to perceive something as a threat or danger.

Common features of kenophobia can include:

Not everybody will experience all of these symptoms. They will also vary in intensity for each person with kenophobia.

Someone with kenophobia does not need to be in or near an empty space in order to feel intense anxiety or distress. The thought alone can trigger symptoms.

Treatments for kenophobia

If you have kenophobia, your doctor will refer you to a mental health professional who can treat the condition with a number of therapies. These primarily include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

During CBT, your therapist will help you to identify responses to empty spaces and work on changing your associated thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This will help you change your perception of empty spaces and develop the skills needed to face your fear. Learn more.

Exposure therapy

Avoiding empty spaces may make your symptoms of kenophobia worse. Exposure therapy helps to prevent this by gradually exposing you to empty spaces while you are not alone.

There are different kinds of exposure therapy, including:

  • In vivo exposure: This is a therapy in which you face your fear head on. For example, your therapist might accompany you to an empty space so that you can talk through your experience of kenophobia as it happens.
  • Virtual reality (VR) exposure: For some phobias, it may be easier to experience the feared situation through VR. For example, if you are unable to physically go to an empty space, your therapist might ask you to wear a VR headset to simulate the experience.
  • Imaginal exposure: Unlike in vivo exposure, you will not need to actually go to an empty space with imaginal exposure. With this therapy, your therapist will ask you to imagine the situation instead. This is typically used for therapies unrelated to phobias, but a therapist may also opt to use it to treat a phobia.
  • Interoceptive exposure: During interoceptive exposure, you and your therapist will intentionally bring about the symptoms you experience. This is to allow you to get used to them in a safe space to help you to come to terms with the fact that they are not responding to a real threat. Like imaginal exposure, this is usually used for non-phobia therapies, but a therapist may choose to use this to help treat your phobia.

Medications for phobias

Medication is not typically prescribed to directly treat phobias. However, your doctor may prescribe anxiety medication or antidepressants if your kenophobia is so severe that it prevents you from going about your daily routines. This will not stop the phobia, but it may help to ease symptoms.

What causes kenophobia?

The exact causes of specific phobias are unknown. However, there is a range of possible influences for the development of a phobia, such as learned behavior or experiencing trauma.

Examples of possible causes of kenophobia include:

  • Learned behaviors from childhood: If you grow up around a parent or caregiver who experiences anxiety in particular situations and avoids empty spaces, you may adopt this same fear and avoidance behavior.
  • Reacting to anxiety: You may experience anxiety when in an empty space, but you then might also begin to panic about displaying signs of anxiety as well. This amplifies the situation and can result in an irrational phobia.
  • Genetic factors: There is some research that suggests that genes can pass on phobias. If a parent has kenophobia, you may be more likely to develop the condition. This is due to avoiding the situation and therefore never getting the evidence against the belief that the situation might be harmful to you.

Can I inherit kenophobia?

While the exact cause of specific phobias such as kenophobia is not known, research suggests that it may be possible to inherit phobias from a parent or other close relative.

It is also possible to adopt the irrational fears of a parent or caregiver. If you grow up around somebody who actively avoids empty spaces and displays symptoms of anxiety when faced with such situations, you may learn to respond in the same way.

Who can have kenophobia?

Specific phobias like kenophobia can affect anybody of any age. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting around 40 million adults. This includes around 19 million adults who experience a specific phobia.

Anxiety disorders also affect children, with around 25.1% of children between the ages of 13 and 18 experiencing some type of anxiety disorder. If a younger child is unable to articulate their phobia when in an empty space, they may express this fear by crying, freezing, clinging to a parent or loved one, or having a tantrum.

When to contact a doctor

For some people, kenophobia may not affect life on a regular basis. For example, they may only experience intense anxiety when they are in an empty space, and this may not be a frequent occurrence for them.

However, you may find that you are constantly worrying about the possibility that you might find yourself in an empty space. This can prevent you from carrying out your daily routine, and it may make it difficult to leave the house or visit new places.

Contact your doctor if kenophobia is affecting you on a regular basis. They will be able to refer you to a mental health professional for assessment and treatment.

Diagnosing kenophobia

Although you will most likely be aware of the phobia you are experiencing, your doctor or mental health professional will be able to assess you to rule out any other possible causes. They will be able to rule out conditions that may cause similar symptoms.

Conditions that may display phobic symptoms include:

Criteria for diagnosing kenophobia include:

  • a persistent, excessive, or unreasonable fear that can occur either by being in an empty space or by the anticipation of being in an empty space
  • immediate anxiety or panic that follows exposure to an empty space
  • the individual recognizing that the fear is excessive to the actual threat the empty space poses
  • avoidance of empty spaces to prevent feelings of intense anxiety or distress
  • everyday routines and functioning being severely affected by the fear of empty spaces
  • an ongoing fear that the individual has experienced for at least 6 months

Read our article How Doctors Identify and Diagnose Anxiety Disorders for more information.

Complications of kenophobia

Only around 10–25% of people with specific phobias will receive treatment. If you do not seek treatment for your phobia, it may lead to complications.

This can include your phobia getting worse, particularly if you avoid empty spaces. Avoidance can actually convince your brain that there is a genuine threat, which can make your phobia even more intense the next time you cannot avoid the situation.

If your phobia persists, there is also the chance that you may pass it on to somebody else as a learned behavior. For example, if you live or spend a lot of time with a young child, they may witness your response to empty spaces, and in turn they can adopt a similar anxiety.

Contact your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of kenophobia. They will be able to refer you to a therapist, who will be able to help you to manage the condition.

Learn more

Visit these resources to learn more about anxiety disorders and phobias.

Summary

Kenophobia is a situational type of specific phobia. You may experience intense feelings of anxiety or distress when you are around empty spaces or when you think about them.

When you enter an empty space, you may experience:

Symptoms of phobias such as kenophobia can vary for each person, and they may worsen over time if you avoid empty spaces.

It is possible to treat kenophobia with therapies such as CBT and exposure therapy. CBT can help you manage the way you respond to distressing situations. Exposure therapy can gradually help you to come to terms with the fact that there is no real threat in situations that bring about your kenophobia.

Contact your doctor if kenophobia is preventing you from carrying out your daily activities or if it is causing you extreme distress.

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Medical Reviewer: Matthew Boland, PhD
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 29
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