Harpaxophobia is the persistent fear of thieves . It is a circumstance that, when catalogued as a phobia, implies the possibility that the experience of assault provokes an irrational fear. But can this be considered an unjustified fear? Is it a specific phobia or is it more of an experience that accompanies more complex social discomforts?
We will see below how harpaxophobia can be defined and what elements accompany it.
Harpaxophobia: fear of thieves
The term “harpaxophobia” is derived from the Latin “harpax” which means “thief” or “one who steals”; and also from the Greek word “phobos” which means fear. Thus, harpaxophobia is the persistent and intense fear of thieves, as well as of experiencing theft.
It would be a fear that is activated by a specific stimulus: the possibility that someone around us might steal something from us. But, for someone to be able to perform such an act, circumstances must allow it: in principle, it must be in a place where the theft can go unnoticed (a very solitary space, or a space with a large number of people).
On the other hand, many of the thefts, although committed by one person, may be covered or supported by several other people. If, in addition, it is a moment in which our attention is dispersed or focused on a specific activity, or we find ourselves in a significant situation of defenselessness with respect to possible aggressors , the whole circumstance becomes favourable to representing a potential risk to our belongings or our physical integrity.
Having said that, we can see that harpaxophobia is not just the fear of being robbed by a person, but a whole circumstance involving the real or perceived possibility of being assaulted or directly attacked. In this, several elements are mixed, which have to do with our previous experiences, direct or indirect to violence, our imaginaries about who can be potential aggressors, our difficulties to develop in certain public spaces, among others.
In this sense, harpaxophobia could be catalogued as a specific phobia of a situational type , following the criteria of specific phobia manuals. However, harpaxophobia has not been studied or considered as such by experts in psychology and psychopathology. This may be because, far from being a disorder, the persistent and intense fear of an assault is more of an over-adaptive response generated by constant exposure to violence, either directly or indirectly.
Main symptoms of specific phobias
The main symptoms of specific phobias are caused by the activation of the autonomic nervous system, which acts in the presence of a perceived harmful stimulus. This system is in charge of regulating our involuntary motor responses, which prepares us to avoid possible damage, whether it be running away, hiding, exercising physical resistance, among others.
This generates a series of physiological reactions. For example, an increase in the speed of palpitations, hyperventilation, sweating, and a decrease in digestive activity , among others. All this while processing the information about the threatening event at great speed. The latter constitutes the typical picture of anxiety, and in cases of greater exposure to the stimulus, it can be transformed into a panic attack, which is more frequent in specific phobias of a situational type.
In turn, the level of anxiety experienced depends largely on the stimulus that causes the phobia. That is, it depends on the degree of danger it represents, as well as the safety signals that the stimulus itself can offer.
In the case of harpaxophobia, the experience of anxiety can increase significantly in contexts where the probability of being assaulted is higher (walking down a dark street alone, carrying a large amount of money or items of high economic value, going through a generally conflictive or overly touristy neighborhood, etc.).
To the latter are added other elements, such as the person’s state of mind (which may lead to greater susceptibility), and the perceived possibilities of running away or receiving help if necessary.
Specific phobias are acquired experiences, which means that they are generated by associations constantly reinforced on a stimulus and the dangers related to it . Three of the most popular explanatory models of such associations are classical conditioning, vicarious learning and the transmission of information.
Likewise, three of the most important elements for the consolidation of a specific phobia are the following (Bados, 2005):
- The severity and frequency of direct negative experiences with the stimulus , which in this case would be having suffered robberies before.
- Have had fewer previous safe experiences related to harmful stimuli In the case of harpaxophobia it may be, for example, not having passed through the same place without being assaulted.
- Related to the above, the third element is not having been exposed to the harmful situation in other conditions after the negative experience .
In this sense, harpaxophobia can develop through direct or indirect exposure to violence. That is, after having been assaulted, or having witnessed one, or knowing someone who has suffered one. The latter can easily translate into a constant sense of threat, generating avoidance behaviors towards places that represent a risk, as well as defensive behaviors to prevent assaults, especially in places that have high crime rates.
Thus, it is difficult to define this as a disproportionate response, given that the stimulus that provokes it (a theft) is potentially harmful to physical and emotional integrity, so that avoidance behaviours and the anxiety response are rather a set of adaptive responses proportional to the stimulus .
If such responses become widespread and prevent the person from carrying out their daily activities regularly, or negatively impact their interpersonal relationships, or cause a generalized anxiety experience, then it may not be harpaxophobia, but a more complex experience of discomfort. For example, an experience related to social interactions or open spaces, and of which the fear of thieves is only a part.
Once the above has been explored and determined, there are different strategies for emotional accompaniment that can be used to reduce prolonged and intense experiences of anxiety .
The latter will not necessarily remove the fear of thieves, as this could be counterproductive, but can minimize deeper fears (such as of certain social interactions), while maintaining self-care strategies. In these cases, it is advisable to seek psychotherapy to learn how to manage stress levels and regain autonomy.
- Bados, A. (2005). Specific phobias. Faculty of Psychology. Department of personality, evaluation and psychological treatments. University of Barcelona. Recovered September 17, 2018.
- Harpaxophobia. (2017). Common-Phobias.com. Retrieved September 17, 2018. Available at http://common-phobias.com/Harpaxo/phobia.htm