What is Sitophobia? (An Overview)

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

An irrational fear of eating/food is called Sitophobia.

It is a type of specific phobia, which comes under the category of anxiety disorders according to the DSM-V. 

Someone suffering from Sitophobia feels extreme anxiety when they see food or are told to eat.

They might just feel terrified or anxious when thinking about food.

It is also possible that someone might be fearful of certain foods and not all, for example fear of nuts or vegetables etc.  

One might even experience full blown panic attacks if the anxiety intensifies.

This extreme anxiety and unpleasant physical symptoms can lead one to avoid their fear stimuli, which is eating/food in the case of Sitophobia.

This avoidance maintains one’s fear. One feels nice when away from their fear stimuli.

Thus, they repeat their actions which justify their fear by telling them that food/eating are things to be afraid of. 

One can also develop OCD in the long run because of these recurrent acts of avoidance.  

As the DSM-V suggests, anxiety and acts of avoidance can affect one’s social and occupational functioning.

Someone suffering from Sitophobia will for example, not eat food at all.

They might starve for hours, with their family being worried for them and trying all the possible ways to make them eat something. 

The person’s health may deteriorate, leaving their families tense.

Because of the bad health status of the sufferer, he might not be able to earn a living and lose his job.

One might get divorced or abandoned by family because of his inability to earn money and an extra burden of his hospital expenses they need to pay.  

All these social and occupational stresses accompanied with anxiety can lead to one developing depression in the future. 

Sitophobia is an irrational fear of eating or food. It is an abnormal, persistent fear, which is classified as a specific phobia. 

Symptoms of Sitophobia 

People with Sitophobia, like in all other specific phobias experience intense anxiety on having an encounter with food.

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. 

Sufferers go 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)-avoid their fear stimuli and combat their fear (fight)-take counterproductive actions. 

In the case of Sitophobia or any other type of specific phobia, the physiological symptoms that are produced when exposed to food/eating (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.   

Apart from anxiety, Sitophobia has a number of other physiological symptoms which include:

  • Extreme anxiety upon an encounter with food/eating
  • Extreme anxiety by just thinking about food/eating 
  • Avoiding any contact or sight of food
  • Malnourishment 
  • Full-blown panic attacks
  • Inability to handle anxiety 
  • Muscle tension
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Breathlessness 
  • Feelings of dizziness 
  • 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 
  • Drying up of mouth 

Out of these, one should have at least 3-5 symptoms (including anxiety) and this anxiety should last for at least 6 months to be diagnosed with Sitophobia, according to the DSM-V.

Causes of Sitophobia 

Sitophobia, like all other specific 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/specific phobia can also be referred to as a Diathesis-stress relationship.

According to this, one with a genetic predisposition will not develop symptoms of Sitophobia until and unless there is some trigger event, instigating anxiety or fear of food/eating.

An environmental trigger can be a traumatic experience of a child with food/while eating.

For example, a child choked while eating food and since then, developed this phobia. Maybe the food one had caused him to develop a skin allergy or food poisoning. 

Additionally, as a child, one did not like the taste of the food he had.

Strict parents force or beat their child, so they finish their whole plate of food/eat it on time.

Thus, one might’ve developed Sitophobia as a result of the association one makes of beating with eating food.

On the other hand, this phobia can be a learned response.

Someone whose parents show a dislike for certain foods/choked while eating, their children are very likely to imitate them and develop Sitophobia.  

One can also develop this type of specific phobia as a result of other disorders.

For example, someone with Body Dysmorphic Disorder will avoid eating food due to the fear/consciousness that they’ll gain weight and look bad.

This is also a result of the societal pressures put forward by people, by promoting the ‘ideal’ size zero for women/men.

Someone with Cacophobia (fear of ugliness) is also very likely to develop Sitophobia because of society norms.  

Therefore, Sitophobia is developed by both genetic and environmental factors.

Treatment of Sitophobia 

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

Like all the other specific phobias, Sitophobia 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.

Sitophobia is defined as the irrational fear of food/eating. 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 food or eating it.

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 Sitophobia (or any other kind of specific phobia).

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 a certain food, 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 is eating food.

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 real food and asked to eat it. 

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 food/eating, by exposing them to that stimuli repeatedly, until they learn to undergo the situation without anxiety/panic attacks.

• Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) 

This is another effective therapy used to treat Sitophobia.

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

Coping skills are taught in the DBT group which lasts for about 6-months 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 smell of a certain food presented to them, making use of their olfactory 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.

• 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 Sitophobia, 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 about eating food. 

• Drug Therapy 

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

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 Diazepam 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 Sitophobia, 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).

Titles to read 

by Tanya J. Peterson MS NCC

by Tanya J. Peterson MS NCC  

by Brandi Matz MSW LCSW 

by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1) Why do I have a fear of eating? 

People suffering from Sitophobia experience extreme anxiety when eating food.

Someone with Anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder will also avoid eating. In both conditions, one is fearful of eating. 

Q2) How do I overcome my fear of food? 

Like all other specific phobias, Sitophobia is also treated using medicines or psychotherapies (like CBT, exposure therapy or yoga). 

Q3) What are the symptoms of Sitophobia? 

One is diagnosed with Sitophobia if they experience extreme anxiety when around food/eating, they might suffer panic attacks.

Some might have other physiological symptoms for example, nausea, migraine, increased heart rate etc. 

Q4) What is Sitophobia?

It is an irrational fear of food or eating.

It is a type of specific phobia, in which one feels extremely anxious when around food.  

Examples of other interesting phobias