What is Onomatophobia? (An Overview)

In this blog we will discuss the symptoms, causes and treatment of Onomatophobia. 

The fear of hearing a certain word or of names is called Onomatophobia.

People suffering from this type of specific phobia experience extreme anxiety when they hear a certain word or name they fear. This anxiety can lead to one undergoing panic attacks if the anxiety worsens.

This extreme anxiety and panic attacks can occur not only when one hears a certain word/name, but just the thought of hearing them can also cause intense fear.

According to the DSM-V, one must experience extreme anxiety lasting for at least 6-months, to be diagnosed with Onomantophobia.

As the DSM-V suggests, this anxiety affects one’s social and occupational functioning.

For instance, a child with Onomatophobia will not be able to listen to conversations between family members or at school.

This can be a reason for his low grades or less friends, as children might see him as different and will less likely be friends with him.

This can also be because of the panic attacks the child might undergo in class, as other students might get afraid of him.

The inability to hear certain words not only holds back a child from excelling in his academic life but also affects the professional life of an adult.

One might not be able to work at a particular job because of his fear of certain words/names, which he may encounter at his worksite.

If he comes across a certain word/name, let say in the middle of his presentation at the office, he may suffer panic or anxiety attacks.

This can lower his self-confidence, persuading him to leave the town out of shame.  

The humiliation one feels when under an anxiety/panic attack in public or around people can be the reason for them to develop depression in the long run.

Thus, individuals suffering from Onomatophobia (like all other specific phobias) avoid their fear stimuli. In the case of this phobia, one will try all his best to avoid coming across a specific word/name they fear.

They might not leave their houses because of the fear of hearing those words.  This act of repeated avoidance is a way  sufferers decrease their anxiety levels.

However, these acts of avoidance, if done repeatedly can change into compulsions and one suffers from Obsessive-compulsive Disorder.

Unlike other fears, Spheksophobia (fear of wasps) or Iophobia (fear of poison) for example, this particular fear is irrational.

This is because  words/names are not threatening or harmful to a person in any way, as opposed to wasps or poison. 

Onomatophobia is an irrational fear of hearing a certain word/name.

The name derives from the Greek word ‘onomato’ (meaning word) and ‘phobos’ (meaning fear). This is a type of specific phobia. 

Symptoms of Onomatophobia 

People with Onomatophobia, like in all other phobias, experience intense anxiety when hearing a certain word/name.

They’re unable to control this anxiety and thus, end up feeling more anxious. This anxiety, in extreme cases, can give rise to full-blown panic attacks.

The sufferer goes into flight or fight mode because of an adrenaline rush. In this state, the body’s physiological responses help one make decisions when in fear causing situations.

They either decide to escape the situation (flight) or stay and combat their fear (fight).

In the case of Onomatophobia, the physiological symptoms that are produced when hearing a certain word/name (including extreme anxiety) cause the person to escape or avoid that situation.

Sufferers don’t have the courage to fight with their fear because of the unpleasant, terrifying experience the body goes through.  

Including anxiety, Onomatophobia has a number of other physiological symptoms which include:

  • Extreme anxiety upon an hearing a certain word or name 
  • Extreme anxiety by just thinking about a certain word or name 
  • Avoiding hearing certain words or names  
  • Full-blown panic attacks
  • Inability to handle anxiety
  • Muscle tension
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Breathlessness
  • Feelings of dizziness
  • Screaming or crying
  • Hot/cold flashes when in a flight or fight mode (A hot flash refers to the temporary heating up of the body when in a state of fear. And a cold flash means when the body suddenly starts to shiver or cool down, when encountered by a fear stimulus)
  • Migraine
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach

Out of these, one should have at least 3-5 symptoms (including anxiety) to be diagnosed with Onomatophobia, according to the DSM-V.

Causes of Onomatophobia 

Onomatophobia, like all other phobias, has no known cause.

These types of phobias can be a result of a number of factors such as biological (genetics) and or environmental (past experiences or social learning).

Genetics refers to the genes and neurotransmitters in our body. Someone with a family history of a phobia/mental disorder has a higher chance of having the same or different disorder in the future.

This is because the genes of the parents are transferred to their children, thus any alteration in the genes of one’s parents is inherited by the child.

This genetic tendency to develop a mental disorder/phobia can also be referred to as a Diathesis-stress relationship.

According to this, one with a genetic predisposition will not develop symptoms of Onomatophobia until and unless there is some trigger event, instigating anxiety or fear of certain words or names.

People who have Sesquipedalophobia (fear of long words) are very likely to develop this phobia. 

The environmental trigger events can be childhood experiences such as, one might have gotten scolded or beaten up by parents or teachers upon reading certain words incorrectly.

Since then, whenever they’ll see/hear that word, they will associate it with the beatings. 

Also, one might fear a certain name because they fear a person with that name. Maybe because that person caused them harm or trauma in childhood.

Also, one fearing a certain word is because they fear a specific object named after that word. 

Therefore, it is true that there is no specific cause for one to develop Onomatophobia. Both genetics and environmental factors play equal roles. 

Treatment of Onomatophobia 

Onomatophobia, like all other phobias, has no exclusive type of treatment that is specifically designed to treat it.

Like all the other specific phobias, this phobia is treated by a number of different therapies including, Exposure Therapy, Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) and or medications that lower downs the anxiety or other physical symptoms.

• Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

It is one of the most frequently used treatments for patients with almost all kinds of mental disorders.

Onomatophobia is defined as the irrational fear of hearing certain words or names. Thus, the therapist helps the patient in replacing these irrational thoughts with more rational ones.

The patients are helped out in analyzing and justifying the way they feel about being exposed to the words or names one fears.

Therapists assist them in uncovering the reasons behind their fear and later they provide them with alternate, pleasant thoughts.

The patient is told to maintain a thought diary (with ABCD column) which provides them a replacement for every irrational thought they have, when thinking about a particular situation.

The ABCD stands for:

i.  A (antecedents) a situation or triggering event.

ii.  B (belief) the thought that comes to one’s mind when in that triggering situation.

iii.  C (consequences) the symptoms/feelings caused by that event/thought

iv.  D (dispute) alternate, rational thoughts provided by the therapist in an attempt to    dispute/challenge those irrational beliefs.

This last section of the thought diary is what really plays a role in helping the person feel good/less anxious. 

• Exposure Therapy

It is one of the most frequently used ways of treating patients with Onomatophobia. In this therapy, the patient is exposed to the source of his fear over a certain span of time.

To begin with the therapy, the therapist exposes the patient to the least triggering stimuli, a picture of the word/name they fear, for example. 

As the therapy progresses and the patient is able to control his anxious feelings, imagery can be used to take the treatment a step further.

In this part of the treatment the patient is asked to visualize/imagine a situation in which he hears the word/name is feared.

During this process of imagery, one actually feels being in that particular situation or place, experiencing various senses.

 Once the person successfully, without feeling anxious clears this step of the therapy, he is then exposed to a real situation where he hears the word/name he fears.  

While the patient is being exposed to different intensities of stimuli during the various stages of therapy, the therapist simultaneously teaches them coping exercises.

These include, breathing techniques or muscle relaxation methods to lower their anxiety, when in an actual fear/anxiety causing situation. This teaches them how to remain calm when exposed to the fear stimuli.

Before actually starting the exposure therapy, the therapist needs to figure out the intensity of the patient’s fear, as to deduce whether they will be able to undergo this treatment, without any physical or psychological harm caused to them during the exposure processes.

However, these steps desensitize one to their fear of hearing certain words/names by exposing them to that stimuli repeatedly, until they learn to undergo the situation without anxiety/panic attacks.

• Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

MBSR is a meditation therapy, used to manage stress or anxiety. It is an 8-week program which includes group sessions.

Mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga are practiced in these sessions. Lectures and group discussions are also done to talk about mental health and increase interactivity.

In mindfulness meditation the person is told to, for example, to focus on the sensations felt while breathing or the rhythm of the chest rising and falling during the process.

This distracts the person’s attention from something stressful to something which is neutral and soothing.

For quick and effective treatment, patients are also given a set of home works, for example 45 minutes of yoga and meditation sessions for 6 days a week and to record their results/feelings in a book or diary for 15 minutes a day.

• Yoga/Meditation

They are not just one of the many treatment therapies used for Onomatophobia, instead they are one of the most common ways of relaxation used by many people.

Yoga tends to stimulate the meditative state of one’s mind while the person is in a particular yoga posture.

Through yoga/meditation the mind is diverted towards something more productive and calm, allowing the person to escape the negative, distress causing thoughts.

Out of a number of yoga types, one can benefit from any yoga type/pose they like. Hatha yoga is one of the different types of yoga.

The breathing techniques or the imagery one creates while in a yoga posture are the real factors that makes the person feel less anxious and diverts their mind, away from the thoughts of their fear stimuli. 

• Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This is another effective therapy used to treat Onomatophobia.

It is more commonly used with people suffering from personality disorders, but is also useful with patients suffering from this phobia.

Coping skills are taught in the DBT group which lasts for about 6months and can have a number of people (depending on how many join the group).

        i. Half-smiling is the first module of DBT. It is a technique that is used with patients who are distressed because of their irrational thoughts.

The technique is known as ‘Half-smiling’ because the person is first advised to think about the stimuli that fears or upsets them, and while doing so they are told to lift the corners of their mouths by subtly smiling.

Smiling is not that will help one get rid of these unpleasant thoughts, it is the person’s ability to constrain itself from thinking about those thoughts while half smiling.

      ii.   Mindfulness, the second module, is another technique used in DBT groups which helps the individual in getting rid of those negative thoughts.

Individuals are told to focus on the present and be attentive to what is going on around them at the moment.

This helps in breaking the link between their mind and any negative thought that might come to them then. 

For example, a person is told to focus on his breath or on the sound of the blowing wind, making use of their auditory sense.

     iii.   The third technique or module of the DBT is distress tolerance skills. This module teaches people to calm themselves down in healthy ways when they are distressed or emotionally overwhelmed.

Individuals are allowed to make wise, rational decisions and take immediate action, rather than being captured by emotionally destructive thoughts that might make the situation worse.

Reality acceptance skills are also learnt under this model so that people fully accept reality and later make plans on how to address the problem/fearful aspects to it.

• Drug Therapy

Drugs are used to reduce the physical symptoms caused by Onomatophobia.

Drugs are very quick in effectiveness, as they start showing progress in the patients’ health at least 2 weeks after the medicine is taken.

This type of biological treatment is usually more effective if the cause of the phobia is only genetic.

However, these drugs/medicines are not to be taken without a doctor’s prescription or consultation.

Two types of drugs are used in the treatment of this phobia:

                   i.Anti-anxiety Drugs

Medicines like Valium are anti-anxiety drugs.

They are most commonly used with patients who experience panic attacks and also lowers their anxiety by binding to receptor cells of the brain that cause these unpleasant symptoms.

                      ii.  Antidepressant Drugs

These drugs, as the name suggests don’t only treat depression but are also very effective in treating phobias.

Medicines like Lexapro reduce the anxious feelings of a person and makes him feel calm. They need to be taken on a daily basis but not without a doctor’s advice.

Whether the cause of Onomatophobia, or any other type of specific phobia is genetics, environmental or both, the best and the most effective way of treating them is by using a combination of both biological treatments (drugs) with cognitive treatment (for example CBT/exposure therapy).

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q1) Is Onomatophobia mental illness?

Yes. It is  a type of specific phobia which comes under the category of anxiety disorders in the DSM-V. 

Q2) Why is it called Onomatophobia?

It derives from the Greek word ‘onomato’ meaning word and ‘phobos’ meaning fear. 

Q3) Do phobias get worse with age?

They usually improve as the person gets older as a result of low adrenaline levels.

However, phobias of heights and crowds might get worse.

Q4) How do you treat Onomatophobia?

There are a number of treatments used to cure this phobia.

They include exposure therapy, CBT, DBT and or medicinal drugs. 

Examples of other interesting phobias



  • https://psychtimes.com/onomatophobia-fear-of-hearing-a-certain-word-or-of-names/
  • https://fearof.org/onomatophobia/
  • https://common-phobias.com/Onomato/phobia.htm#:~:text=Onomatophobia%20is%20the%20fear%20of,discussed%20on%20the%20home%20page.
  • www.psychologytoday.com 

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