Meningithophobia: characteristics, symptoms, causes and treatment
We are all, in a way, afraid of the possibility of suffering from some disease in the future. But when this fear is disproportionate and maladaptive, the person ends up developing a phobia. And when, in addition, the disease in question is meningitis, we talk about meningithophobia .
There are more phobias to certain diseases, although this one focuses on brain diseases. In this article we will know what it consists of, what characterizes it, how it differs from other disorders such as hypochondria, its symptoms, causes and possible treatments.
Meningithophobia: what is it?
Phobias are intense and disproportionate fears of a particular stimulus or situation. This fear can make a person unable to function normally. Thus, phobias differ from fears in that the intensity of the former is much higher, as is the interference it causes in the daily life of the affected person.
In the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders) phobias are categorized as “specific phobias”, and constitute a type of anxiety disorder. Specifically, meningithophobia is the phobia of having a brain disease (especially meningitis).
Brain diseases can be of different types; they can be related to genetic alterations, metabolic disorders, strokes (ACV’s), infections, tumors, trauma , substance use, epilepsy…
Meningitis, the disease typically feared in meningitophobia, consists of an infection of the meninges (membranes that cover the central nervous system), usually caused by a virus (in 80% of cases). Meningitis, however, can also be caused by bacteria (15-20% of cases) or by other factors: poisoning, drugs, fungi, and other diseases.
Meningithophobia is a specific phobia classified as “other types of phobia” in the DSM-5 . Remember that this manual groups the specific phobias into 5 groups, according to the feared stimulus: phobia of animals, blood/injection/injury, natural situations, situational phobia and other types of phobias.
Along with it, we find more phobias classified as “other”: phobia of choking, phobia of vomiting, phobia of contracting some kind of disease (as in the case of meningitophobia), etc. In children, common phobias considered “other” include the phobia of people in disguise, clowns, and loud sounds, among others.
Like meningithophobia, there are more phobias related to the fear of getting a certain disease. Some of them are: caridiophobia (pathological fear of heart attack), carcinophobia (pathological fear of cancer) or luiphobia (pathological fear of syphilis).
This type of phobia can make the person who suffers from it believe that he or she has really contracted the disease he or she fears , even feeling the symptoms of the disease (which in reality “do not exist”).
This causes the person to misinterpret each symptom as belonging to the disease, even if they do not have enough evidence to do so. As a result, checking behaviors, safety behaviors, etc. (typical of other disorders, such as hypochondria) may appear in the patient. In meningithophobia the same thing would occur.
The main symptom of meningithophobia is the intense, irrational and disproportionate fear of suffering from meningitis or brain disease in general . This fear appears even in the absence of evidence of suffering from it or of being at risk (which is why it is considered a disproportionate fear).
Logically, contracting diseases causes some fear or respect (and more if they are brain diseases), but when this fear becomes pathological (exaggeratedly intense or disabling), meningitophobia appears.
This fear can manifest itself through other symptoms, such as: high anxiety, irritability, nervousness, sweating, dizziness, nausea, vomiting , etc. When the fear is very intense, even panic attacks may occur.
Etiologically, the fear of getting sick (in general) can be related to ancestral and evolutionary responses of the human being, who has been avoiding approaching stimuli or situations that could cause some kind of illness, as an adaptive and survival mechanism. Thus, evolutionarily this type of responses had a certain meaning and function.
However, in phobias this adaptive mechanism is dysfunctional, and appears in an exaggerated form . This is the case with meningithophobia (and other disease related phobias).
Other possible causes are previous traumatic experiences related to a brain disease, vicarious experiences, conditioning, etc., as well as a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders.
Differences with hypochondria
In order to correctly diagnose a meningithophobia we must make a good differential diagnosis. One of the disorders with which it is advisable to do so is hypochondria, due to its similar characteristics:
Hypochondria (referred to as “disease disorder” in the DSM-5) is a disorder classified under the category of “somatic and related disorders. Its main characteristic is that the patient expresses a high level of concern and intense fear of suffering from a serious illness.
In some cases, this fear arises from the conviction that they already have the disease. But how does the disorder arise? It arises from the patient’s misinterpretation of all his symptoms (or signs), associating them directly with the disease in question. In reality, however, there is no disease (or if there is, the symptoms are not related to it).
The main difference between hypochondria and meningithophobia is that in the former, fear appears when faced with various illnesses (or any that one has in mind), whereas in meningithophobia, fear appears only when faced with the possibility of suffering from a brain disease (generally, as we have seen, meningitis). Furthermore, while hypochondria is a somatic disorder, meningitophobia is an anxiety disorder (as a phobia it is).
Finally, another distinctive feature between both disorders is that in hypochondria, many other associated symptoms appear (checking behaviors, visits to numerous doctors, histrionic symptoms, misinterpretation of symptoms, etc.). In contrast, in meningithophobia the fundamental fear is the fear of suffering from meningitis.
Specific phobias are treated with exposure techniques and cognitive techniques . In fact, exposure therapy is the first recommended therapeutic option, as it offers the best results. It involves the patient gradually approaching the feared stimuli (through a hierarchy of phobic items ordered by the degree of discomfort they cause).
Exposure therapy can be accompanied by relaxation and breathing techniques (in this case we speak of systematic desensitization, a type of therapy where a relaxing response is executed that is incompatible with anxiety during exposure).
In the specific case of meningithophobia, the exposure may consist of the patient gradually “getting closer” to the disease, rather metaphorically; this can be done through access to explanations of the disease, photographs, videos, contact with people who actually have meningitis, etc.
In the case of this particular phobia, moreover, it will be advisable to combine exposure therapy with cognitive techniques such as cognitive restructuring , since it is a phobia where the stimulus is difficult to “face” (since the patient does not really suffer from the disease).
In this way, cognitive techniques will help the patient to have a more realistic view of the probability of contracting meningitis, and will allow the intense fear of suffering from it to be reduced and/or eliminated.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA) (2014). DSM-5. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Madrid. Panamericana.
- Belloch, A., Sandín, B. and Ramos, F. (2010). Manual of Psychopathology. Volume I and II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.
- Pérez, M., Fernández, J.R., Fernández, C. and Amigo, I. (2010). Guide to effective psychological treatments I: Adults. Madrid: Pirámide