What It’s Like to Be Deathly Afraid of Feet

What It’s Like to Be Deathly Afraid of Feet

Jordyn Bristow can’t remember how or why she became unbearably repulsed by feet. All she knows is that starting about three years ago, when she caught a glimpse of someone’s bare feet, she wanted to vomit. The urge hasn’t let up. “I start gagging—it’s horrible,” says Bristow, 18, who lives in Tasmania, Australia. She was recently at a grocery store when her dad pointed out an older man wearing flip-flops, which accentuated his cracked and apparently infected ingrown toenails. She started dry-heaving and had to leave the store and sit outside, struggling to catch her breath.

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Bristow has podophobia: an overwhelming fear of feet. While it’s unclear exactly how many people share this aversion, experts agree it’s rare. (It’s basically nonexistent in scientific literature.) That means it’s often misunderstood; when Bristow tells her friends about her phobia, they usually start laughing and shove their feet on her, or touch hers, thinking it’s a joke. “It’s humiliating,” she says. “I want more people to know about it and take it seriously.”

When summer kicks off and shoes are shed, podophobes brace themselves for visible toes—knowing one look in the wrong direction could trigger a visceral reaction. Here’s what it’s like to live with podophobia.

A pounding heart, shortness of breath, and feeling like you’re going to die

Podophobia transcends your average feeling of disgust. “It’s not just the general feeling of the ick,” says Lienna Wilson, a clinical psychologist in Princeton, N.J., who treats phobias. “We all have things we don’t like that create that nails-on-the-chalkboard feeling. Phobia is much more intense.” People sometimes have panic attacks, she says, and experience heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and dizziness; they also start sweating and feel like they can’t breathe. “They really think they’re going to die,” she says. “It’s a very severe physical and emotional reaction.”

That resonates with Jamie Bichelman, 33, of N.Y., who’s had podophobia since at least kindergarten. Back then, he recalls, kids would gather on the floor in front of the teacher for reading time—and if someone was wearing sandals or took their shoes off, he quickly scooted away. When his parents enrolled him in karate lessons, he was only able to take one class because he was so fixated on avoiding kicks from the other students and not being touched by anyone who was barefoot. “I was paralyzed with fear and disgust and confusion,” he recalls. “Your heart starts racing, your chest gets tight, and you feel nauseated.” 

Bichelman, who has obsessive compulsive disorder, suspects his aversion to feet has to do with hygiene preferences. Men’s feet bother him most of all; he believes that’s because there’s heightened cultural pressure on women to keep their feet “nice-looking.” He’s read about podophobia extensively online, and that helped him make sense of it, he says. Now, as an adult, the intensity of his symptoms has lessened. “It’s as if, over the years, the volume has been turned down a bit on the anxiety,” he says. “Let’s say I’m in a shoe store. It’s not somewhere I must avoid anymore. Or if we’re out eating at a restaurant, and someone’s wearing sandals, I’m not immediately losing my appetite.”

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There’s not always a specific reason why someone develops a phobia. But sometimes, therapists can trace it back to a traumatic incident that becomes a core memory and then amplifies in someone’s life. Dr. Jasmine Sawhne, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles, recalls working with a 20-something woman who avoided places or situations where people might be barefoot—like the yoga classes she would have otherwise loved to attend. As a child, the woman was accidentally stepped on by a classmate while wearing sandals; that triggered a fear that lingered, gradually worsening throughout her life. “She associated that embarrassment and fear from her childhood with why she felt so uncomfortable seeing feet in the present,” Sawhne says. “She was a high-functioning executive, but this was something she was struggling with.”

Missing out on funand foot care

Like the would-be yoga aficionado, people with podophobia often avoid activities they’d otherwise enjoy: They might not go to swimming pools or beaches, or even venture outside during open-toe season. Plus, many struggle to take care of their own feet, Wilson points out. Some might take a shower but not want to look at or touch their feet, she says, so as soon as they emerge, they pull socks on without properly drying themselves. That opens the door to health risks like fungal infections and delayed treatment for ongoing issues.

Every couple months, Julie Schottenstein, a podiatrist who runs the Schottenstein Center in Miami and Hallandale, Fla., encounters a patient with podophobia who’s reluctantly seeking treatment for a foot concern they tried to ignore. “There’s a lot of tears,” Schottenstein says. “People are panicked, with a lot of fear.” Some turn white in the face and are so distressed they need to lay down; they don’t want their feet touched, so they jump at the doctor’s exam. Many resist taking off their socks and shoes, or clutch their feet with both hands to protect them. They tell her they never wear open-toed shoes, even in the Miami heat, because they can’t stand what they see. Schottenstein recalls one person who tried to bolt out of the exam room and had to be coaxed back inside. Another put their shoes back on and said, “I don’t think I can do this.” “It’s like a trauma has catapulted them into this thing,” Schottenstein says.

Schottenstein makes it a point to proceed slowly and carefully, explaining everything she’s about to do. “We talk it out,” she says. “Then I go, ‘OK, now I’m going to do what we talked about. Remember, I’m doing this and doing that.’” She encourages patients to look out the window at the pretty waterfront view, and to do breathing exercises. She asks them distracting questions, like what they did that weekend—any cool restaurants? When the appointment is over and they go home, everyone is relieved.

How to deal with podophobia 

Depending how severe it is, overcoming a phobia can require a combination of therapy and medication. Sawhne, for example, recalls treating a woman who had lived with podophobia for years and was struggling to get intimate with a new partner. The woman was terrified of having to look at or touch her boyfriend’s feet, causing physical symptoms—sweating, trembling hands, heart palpitations, ringing in her ears—followed by ruminating thoughts and a deep sense of shame.

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Sawhne suggested exposure therapy. “The goal is to desensitize the individual to their fear,” she says. She and her client created a hierarchy chart and ranked foot-related situations from least to most anxiety-provoking, and then worked their way through them. Among the easiest steps: visualizing images of feet and looking at abstract and then close-up pictures. The woman eventually had to touch her own feet, and then her partner’s feet. “The most anxiety-provoking, at least in this person’s case, was giving a foot massage,” Sawhne recalls, so that was the final assignment. “At the same time, I was teaching mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation skills, so in the moment, as she was experiencing anxiety, she had tools to help manage the symptoms.”

While most people who go through exposure therapy don’t end up loving feet, their phobia no longer diminishes quality of life. That’s why experts say it’s essential to raise awareness and combat the shame that often surrounds rare phobias. There’s no need to keep your phobia a secret and suffer in silence, Sawhne stresses. “People know this is an irrational fear, but they create avoidance behaviors to help manage their day-to-day so they don’t have to deal with it,” she says. “They come into treatment when they realize their fear is getting in the way of something greater,” like a fulfilling relationship or enjoying foot-loose fun all summer long.

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