Imagine you’ve just been told to stand up and sing in front of a room full of strangers.
For most people, this is a pretty terrifying thing, and it would be accompanied by a normal physiological response.
First, your nervous system would tell your face to relax, and then the tiny veins in your skin would dilate. Blood would begin to pool in your cheeks, and your face would gradually redden.
We call it ‘blushing’ and it is a hardwired fight-or-flight response to a difficult situation.
But blushing is pretty weird when you think about it. We blush at moments when we least want to be noticed, by making our most prominent feature – our face – more noticeable. Thanks a lot, body! So why do we do it?
Raymond Crozier, an honorary Professor of Psychology at Cardiff University, notes that blushing is primarily thought of as a “signal”, a visible way in which we can communicate emotions to those around us. It makes sense, but Crozier feels that the signal theory doesn’t quite account for cross-cultural perceptions of colour and ethnic differences in skin tone.
For the majority of people, blushing is a minor inconvenience but for others, it can cause debilitating fear, known as Erythrophobia. Sufferers have been known to completely avoid social situations or resort to neurosurgery to cure themselves of this phobia and until recently the mechanisms behind it were largely a mystery.
However, last month researchers from Perth’s Murdoch University published a paper in the journal Clinical Psychologist devoted to investigating this phobia.
According to an accompanying press release, it was the first study to investigate to underlying causes of Erythrophobia and it included several key findings.
One of the major findings was that it is more important to treat the anxiety behind the blush rather than the blush itself.
Sally Gatt, a lead author of the study said:
This is the first time that blushing and the underlying psychological mechanisms behind developing and maintaining fear of blushing have been examined. It lays the first step for further research and more importantly clinical therapeutic research to treat Erythrophobia. Often people with Erythrophobia focus on finding a cure for the blush, rather than lessening the fear about blushing. If more is understood about the underlying psychological mechanisms of this anxiety, effective targeted therapeutic treatment could be possible.
Gatt and the other researchers surveyed 136 people to find out what lay behind the negative thoughts driving their fear of blushing.
It was found that people with Erythrophobia suffered from self-defeating thought patterns that most likely developed in childhood. According to the study, traumatic childhood experiences such as being humiliated or ridiculed for blushing may be the root cause of the problem. The researchers suggest targeted therapies aimed at these beliefs and events may help to treat the phobia.
Erythrophobia is a kind of social phobia, which is an umbrella term that covers several related fears. It is estimated that around 8 per cent of the US population suffers from a social phobia.
According to Statistic Brain, the top ten phobias in America are:
1 Fear of public speaking – Glossophobia 74 per cent
2 Fear of death – Necrophobia 68 per cent
3 Fear of spiders – Arachnophobia 30.5 per cent
4 Fear of darkness – Achluophobia, Scotophobia or Myctophobia 11 per cent
5 Fear of heights – Acrophobia 10 per cent
6 Fear of people or social situations – Sociophobia 7.9 per cent
7 Fear of flying – Aerophobia 6.5 per cent
8 Fear of confined spaces – Claustrophobia 2.5 per cent
9 Fear of open spaces – Agoraphobia 2.2 per cent
10 Fear of thunder and lightning – Brontophobia 2 per cent
In addition to traditional therapy techniques, psychologists are also looking to technology to assist in the treatment of phobias. Last year, The Guardian reported on a study that used Virtual Reality (VR) to help sufferers of arachnophobia.
In the study, 23 subjects wore VR headsets and were encouraged to interact with a virtual spider. After the experiment, 83 per cent of the subjects showed a significant improvement in their attitude towards spiders and were able to approach a real tarantula with minimal anxiety.