Kenophobia (Fear of Empty Spaces)

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What is kenophobia?

Kenophobia is an intense, irrational fear of empty or wide-open spaces. ‘Keno’ is from the Greek for ‘empty’ or ‘blank,’ and ‘phobia’ is Greek for fear. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines phobias like kenophobia as types of anxiety disorders.

A phobia is not just a mild worry; it is an uncontrollable, overwhelming fear of an animal, object, person, activity, environment or situation. The trigger of the phobia presents little or no actual danger, and most people with phobias know this. However, the symptoms of the phobia make them feel like they have no control over their reactions and are powerless to conquer them.

The APA classifies kenophobia as a simple (or specific) phobia, the most common type of phobia. The APA estimates up to 9% of the population has a simple phobia.

Someone with kenophobia feels strong anxiety when in an open space. This can range from an empty indoor room to a sweeping outdoor landscape. The lack of defined borders or physical barriers can cause disorientation and even trigger panic attacks for a person with kenophobia.

Kenophobia is often confused with agoraphobia, which is a specific fear of going out in public or being in a situation that may be difficult to escape. There is some overlap; for example, both agoraphobia and kenophobia could include a scenario such as swimming in open water. However, agoraphobia may also be triggered in a closed space, such as riding the subway.

What are the symptoms of kenophobia?

Like most other simple phobias, kenophobia has both physical and psychological symptoms. They can be mild, moderate, severe, and even disabling. The physical symptoms are a result of the body’s instinctive fight-or-flight response, which produces a release of adrenaline to prepare for a perceived threat.

Common physical symptoms include:

  • Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or like you’re about to pass out
  • Nausea
  • Trembling or shaking

Other kenophobia symptoms include:

  • Avoidance of empty or open spaces
  • Awareness that fear of voids is irrational
  • Dread or worry about having to be in an empty or open space
  • Guilt or shame about the fear of open spaces
  • Inability to control or overcome the fear of empty areas
  • Intense panic and strong desire to flee when in an empty or open space

Children who have a simple phobia may not be able to articulate what they are feeling. Their feelings may manifest as clinginess, inconsolable crying, or a temper tantrum.

Anxiety symptoms caused by kenophobia may or may not be disruptive. When they do interfere with daily life or prevent you from enjoying professional, personal or social interactions, it’s time to seek help. See your doctor early if you recognize the fear of empty spaces is interfering with your (or your child’s) ability to live normally. Treatment is often most effective when you address the phobia promptly.

What are the causes of kenophobia?

The exact cause of most phobias is still not known. Like many other emotional or psychological conditions, a combination of genetic and environmental influences is likely at play. For some people, kenophobia can be traced to a specific incident, such as a time when a child may have gotten lost in an open field or was left alone in an empty room. In these cases, this trauma becomes imprinted within the amygdala, a small area of your brain that controls emotional reactions, including the fight-or-flight response. When you encounter new stimuli similar to what caused the past trauma, your amygdala calls up the same feelings and reactions you felt then.

However, many people with kenophobia can’t identify a specific triggering incident. In these cases, genetics may play a role, as certain personality traits and factors can be inherited. Some phobias appear to run in families, but this may simply be the result of children modeling the behavior of their parents and relatives. As a result, it’s difficult to identify whether phobias are genetic, environmental, or a combination of both.

What are the treatments for kenophobia?

Many of life’s greatest adventures involve wide, expansive spaces: going to the beach, relaxing in a park, or driving on the open road. If fear of empty spaces is interfering with your ability to live your life or interact with loved ones, there are treatment options. Phobias don’t just mean you need to “grow up” or “get over it.” Phobias are real, and accepting that you have a clinical disorder is the first step toward recovery. Next, you can find a qualified provider or counselor to begin treatment.

The most effective kenophobia treatments are forms of psychotherapy:

  • Cognitive behavior therapy. This form of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, teaches you to identify and change unhealthy thoughts, emotions and behaviors. A therapist will help you change your perception of open spaces and develop the skills to face your fear. You might also discuss possible origins of your kenophobia from your childhood. Therapists usually combine CBT with exposure therapy.
  • Exposure therapy. This type of talk therapy gradually and repeatedly exposes you to your fear of empty spaces. Also known as desensitization therapy, this process takes you through a series of controlled situations that slowly build your tolerance and confidence around the source of your fear. Your therapist may have you start by thinking about open spaces. From there, you may look at pictures of empty landscapes or go visit a wide-open space. The goal is to master your fear instead of it mastering you.

Talk therapy is the most successful treatment for long-term relief of phobias. Doctors sometimes recommend medications on a short-term basis for social phobias, as it can help people begin talk therapy. Medicines can also help phobias involving temporary social situations, such as fear of public speaking.

Social phobias, including kenophobia, can lead to complications without treatment. Potential complications include:

  • Social isolation, loneliness, and problems with work, school and social relationships
  • Substance abuse with alcohol or drugs in an effort to self-medicate and deal with the phobia’s symptoms
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 21
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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