According to Psychologists, Your Deep-Seated ‘Trust Issues’ May Really Be a Sign of Pistanthrophobia, the Fear of Trusting Others

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If a romantic partner has ever cheated on you, you likely know how difficult it can be to get over the trust issues that infidelity brewed. Dating new people after the fact can feel dang near impossible: Logically, you know that not everyone is a cheater, but having your trust broken by another can be enough to seek signs you can't trust someone in every future partner. For most of us, that period of hypervigilance will eventually ebb, but for others, the trauma of being cheated on may develop into pistanthrophobia, aka a fear of trusting others.

Ahead, clinical psychologists explain how pistanthrophobia occurs, its symptoms, plus possible treatment methods.

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What is pistanthrophobia?

Pistanthrophobia is an irrational, persistent fear of trusting other people. Pistanthrophobia—just like cherophobia, scopophobia, aerophobia, and thanatophobia—falls under the wider umbrella of anxiety disorders and is classified as a specific phobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Symptoms of pistanthrophobia

The psychological and physical symptoms associated with pistanthrophobia vary from person to person. Still, some common symptoms shared by people with it are outlined below.

Symptoms and behaviors of pistanthrophobia may include:

  • A strong, irrational fear of being slighted, cheated on, or otherwise harmed due to being too trusting
  • Avoidance of intimate or romantic relationships to not be hurt emotionally
  • A general distrust of the intentions of others
  • An inability to “open up” or be vulnerable with other people
  • Anxiety or panic in regard to dating or intimacy

According to Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, there tends to be an overlap in the symptoms of anxiety and phobias; after all, phobias are, at their core, anxiety disorders. Because of this, some physical symptoms of pistanthrophobia may include:

  • An increased heart rate (palpitations)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea or stomach discomfort

What causes pistanthrophobia?

Pistanthrophobia, like all other phobias, is usually caused by one—or a combination of—three primary pathways, says Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders.

The first pathway forms through observational learning. Observational learning—aka modeling a behavior we were exposed to—can happen as children when we learn about fear of something through watching adults with that same fear. Pistanthrophobic people may have witnessed a parent be hypervigilant about being cheated on, or have heard a parent express how suspicious they were of their partner.

According to Dr. Chapman, the second pathway is trauma. For people who struggle with pistanthrophobia, their fear of trusting others may stem from one or many past negative experiences regarding trust. A traumatic event that involved being cheated on, being lied to, or otherwise deceived could be enough to develop into full-blown pistanthrophobia.

Finally, the last pathway that phobias form through is information transmission. Information transmission happens when someone learns about the threat of danger1 from someone else. In the case of pistanthrophobia, this could be watching a pop culture news clip about a celebrity being cheated on, or reading about statistics related to infidelity.

There is no current research available in regards to who is most likely to develop pistanthrophobia; however, research shows2 that women are more likely to be diagnosed with a specific phobia than men. A genetic factor is also at play: According to Dr. Chapman, people who have someone in their family who suffers from a phobia are more likely to develop one themselves3.

People who have certain mental health conditions are also more likely to develop a phobia, says Dr. Saltz. Having depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorder, or panic disorder will increase your chances of developing a phobia than someone who doesn’t, she says.

How do I know if I have pistanthrophobia?

You may have pistanthrophobia if your fear of trusting others has begun to disrupt your functioning and daily activities. To be sure you have pistanthrophobia, “the symptoms need to be such that they have risen to the level of significantly impacting your life in more than one arena,” says Dr. Saltz. In other words, if your fear of trusting others impacts your friendships, romantic relationships, career, hobbies, or interests, you may very well be pistanthrophobic.

Another sign that your “trust issues” may be pistanthrophobia is the length of time that you’ve been experiencing the symptoms outlined above. According to Dr. Saltz, phobias are persistent, and to be classified with one, an individual must experience the symptoms for six months or longer.

A medical professional, such as a clinical psychologist, can help you determine whether you have pistanthrophobia by asking you to describe your symptoms and how they impact your quality of life, and a medical diagnosis can help you take the next steps as far as treatment goes (more on treatment options below).

Pistanthrophobia vs. Philophobia

Pistanthrophobia and philophobia are similar in that they both revolve around elements of interpersonal vulnerability and trust, but they are two different phobias. Pistanthrophobia is a fear of trusting others while philophobia is a fear of falling in love.

People who have philophobia have a broader, more generalized fear about the potential implications of romantic love. Trust may be an element of their fear of love, but their fear extends beyond the “what-if” of trusting another person.

Is pistanthrophobia curable?

Thankfully, pistanthrophobia (and all other phobias, for that matter) is potentially curable through treatment. In fact, the United States National Institute of Mental Health approximates that 75 percent of people with specific phobias end up overcoming their fears with the help of professional treatment.

Treatment methods for pistanthrophobia

As far as treatment methods go, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the “gold standard” when treating phobias, says Dr. Chapman. Exposure therapy, specifically, is an especially successful form of CBT that professionals use to treat phobias. True to its name, exposure therapy involves exposing a patient to their fear in small, progressive doses.

Medication, says Dr. Saltz, can also be an incredibly helpful treatment method for people as they initially begin to go through therapy. Doctors will typically prescribe specific serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) to people who are struggling with phobias to lessen the psychological levels of anxiety. By doing this, exposure therapy becomes more approachable and less anxiety-inducing. After exposure therapy is fully underway, medication is usually decreased until the patient has completely weaned off of it.

What to do if you have pistanthrophobia

If you believe you have pistanthrophobia and find it increasingly difficult to trust others, it may be time to seek professional help. Clinical psychologists, therapists, and licensed counselors can help you learn how to navigate your pistanthrophobia and even help you tackle issues in your current relationships that stem from your diagnosis (like learning how to rebuild trust or overcome doubt in a current romantic relationship, for example).

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Muris, Peter, and Andy P Field. “The role of verbal threat information in the development of childhood fear. “Beware the Jabberwock!”.” Clinical child and family psychology review vol. 13,2 (2010): 129-50. doi:10.1007/s10567-010-0064-1
  2. Fredrikson, M et al. “Gender and age differences in the prevalence of specific fears and phobias.” Behaviour research and therapy vol. 34,1 (1996): 33-9. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(95)00048-3
  3. Steinhausen, Hans-Christoph et al. “Family Aggregation and Risk Factors in Phobic Disorders over Three-Generations in a Nation-Wide Study.” PloS one vol. 11,1 e0146591. 19 Jan. 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0146591

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