This anxiety disorder appears through a crisis of terror at the possibility of being poisoned.
The presence of toxins is not something unusual, being poisoning one of the main reasons for the death of a large number of people throughout history. Poisons such as arsenic were used during ancient and middle ages to commit murder, and even today there are chemical weapons used in warfare. We also use poisons to kill other creatures, such as rat killers or insecticides.
The existence of a certain fear of being poisoned at a given moment can therefore be quite rational. But most of us are never really going to be poisoned. Perhaps some food poisoning, or caused by drugs, but death from poisoning is not so common. However, for some people this fear exists persistently and turns into an uncontrollable panic, which leads them to avoid situations and stimuli and greatly limits their life. This is what happens to those subjects with toxicphobia.
Toxicphobia as a specific phobia
Toxicphobia, toxiphobia or toxophobia is considered to be an irrational or exaggerated fear of poison or the fact of being poisoned (usually accidentally). It is one of the so-called specific phobias, in which intense fear or anxiety is generated before a specific stimulus. These sensations provoke in the sufferer the intense need to flee from the stimulus, as well as the avoidance of both exposure to it and situations in which it could appear.
This panic is persistent, not disappearing on its own and taking place every time there is an exposure to the stimulus in question. This fear is generally triggered in the presence of the stimulus itself, but the mere imagination or thought about the element causing the fear can trigger anguish reactions and physiological symptoms.
Among the most common symptoms, we find tachycardia, hyperventilation, sweating and tremors, and an anxiety crisis may arise. At the cognitive level, attention is focused on the stimulus and avoiding it, reducing cognitive abilities and judgment and planning abilities. In extreme cases, hallucinations may appear, such as nervous paroxysm, in which they could detect a taste of poison or something toxic in the food.
Although seeing and recognizing some type of poison is not common, toxicphobia can pose a serious limitation to the life of the person who suffers it. If it occurs in a mild degree, a fear of the poisons themselves may appear, avoiding the use or exposure of poisons such as rat killer. But depending on the degree, this panic can extend to the consumption of cleaning products, solvents, drugs and practically any type of chemical product with harmful potential. It can also generate suspicion towards the handling of beverages or food or, in extreme cases, towards contact with other people who could poison us.
Link with other psychopathologies
An interesting aspect of toxicphobia that is worth highlighting is its possible link or confusion with elements typical of other psychopathologies and symptoms, such as persecutory delusions or taste hallucinations in different conditions and psychotic states, such as schizophrenia, the disorder delusional or substance intoxication (in this case, we would be talking about real intoxication). It can also sometimes be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder, in those individuals with germ-related obsessions and cleaning and washing compulsions.
In this sense, it should be noted that toxicphobia implies a disproportionate fear of the idea of being poisoned or the presence of poisons and can lead to the avoidance of situations in which there may be toxic elements or the perception of a high possibility of being poisoned.
The disproportionate fear of being poisoned is also common in people with persecutory delusions, but in this case we would not be talking only about a fear but rather the persistent and fixed belief that someone is trying to kill us in this way (sometimes there are taste hallucinations that interpret as confirmation of said belief). Or in people with OCD linked to germs, disease, and cleanliness, the thought of these elements showing up can be a source of deep anxiety.
The idea that they are trying to kill us, the concern about the germs and diseases that they can cause or the thought that some kind of misfortune can happen if we do not perform the compulsion can generate the emergence of a deep aversion and fear to the exposure to elements such as the poison or toxins, trying to avoid them through compulsions (although cleaning OCDs are generally linked to germs to clean and not to toxic chemicals).
However, it must be borne in mind that for us to be talking about a phobia it is necessary that the fear be irrational or disproportionate. In these cases, the fear would be consistent with the presence of repetitive and intrusive thoughts linked to the topic or the belief that someone is actually trying to kill or harm us. The different diagnostic classifications stipulate in this sense that a phobia such as toxicphobia is only diagnosed in the absence of other disorders that better explain the fear and the reactions towards the feared stimulus.
Causes: a fear with adaptive meaning
The causes of toxicphobia, as with other mental disorders, is not completely known. Despite this, there are several highly plausible hypotheses regarding its origin.
One possible hypothesis is the existence of conditioning: throughout our lives we have been seeing and receiving news of people who have died from poison, either accidentally or voluntarily caused. We may even have seen or experienced a situation in which we or a loved one was poisoned. In this sense, the person with toxicphobia could have acquired a fear conditioned by past experiences, whether lived in their own flesh or vicariously through the visualization of a case of poisoning (either through direct observation, reading or audiovisual media).
Another quite plausible hypothesis is the same one that is usually had towards the fear of different animals and plants: Seligman’s theory of preparation. This theory proposes that the intense fear of some stimuli would be phylogenetically prepared, being inherited from our ancestors when they had to face life or death situations. For example, the attack of a predator, the bite of a spider or the consumption of certain herbs can cause death. In this way, our species would have learned to avoid a series of stimuli and to feel an innate fear or disgust towards them.
Although in the case of toxicphobia the element in question is very generic (in nature we do not find loose poison but it comes from animals or plants), we could be facing a generalization of these fears linked to the idea of dying or becoming ill due to fault of an external agent not directly visible. Obviously, avoiding toxic elements is adaptive and allows us to survive, so the fear of being poisoned could be largely explained by this theory.
Treatment of this disorder
One of the most common treatments when it comes to fighting phobias is exposure therapy. It is about placing the subject in situations in which she has to face her fear, generally in a graduated way after having carried out a hierarchy with feared situations between therapist and patient. In the case of toxicphobia, obviously the subject is not going to be exposed to being really poisoned, but it is possible to work with avoided situations related to this fear.
For example, the subject can be exposed to drinking in a group or in a disco if this situation generates the fear that the glass will be poisoned. You can also be exposed to using chemicals such as cleaning products. Another possible item would be to get to manipulate bottles or poisons commonly used, such as insecticides or rat killers.
Discussion of beliefs and fears, as well as the meaning attributed to the poison and the beliefs that may lie behind the fear of toxins or being poisoned, can also be helpful. Cognitive behavioral therapy procedures, such as cognitive restructuring , would generally be used.
Likewise, it is essential to make a good differential diagnosis, due to the high probability of confusing the phobia of toxins or being poisoned with the belief that it is typical of some subjects with some type of psychotic pathology or the obsession with cleaning of some types Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.