Xenophobia (Fear Of The Unknown)

Although the term xenophobia is heard quite often these days, the exact definition of it in the context of mental health may seem a bit confusing. Xenophobia is an extreme fear of that which is alien to us, particularly when it comes to cultural and/or ethnic identity. Outlined in this article is what exactly this phobia entails, its signs and symptoms, how to treat and prevent it, and what causes it.

Overview

Xenophobia, also known as fear of the unknown, is one of the more common phobias. While most of us are familiar with the sociological definition of xenophobia, which defines xenophobia as a type of prejudice toward foreigners, xenophobia as an anxiety disorder is described as a persistent, irrational, and obsessive fear of that which is unfamiliar, unknown, and alien to us. For most individuals suffering from xenophobia, the stimulus – what triggers the fear response in the individual – is something and/or someone from a different cultural background. Even so, phobia of someone who dresses differently or speaks in a foreign way may be categorized as certain types of xenophobia.

Causes

There are numerous reasons why an individual may develop a phobia, particularly a phobia such as xenophobia. It should be noted that phobias rarely develop later in life. For the most part, xenophobia develops in childhood, adolescence, or, sometimes, early adulthood. Xenophobia is very unlikely to spontaneously develop in adults past the age of 30. As a result, in order to determine the root cause of an individual’s xenophobia, it is most helpful to examine their early life.

Many times, xenophobia develops in an individual as a result of their upbringing. If a child witnesses a caregiver or parent exhibiting xenophobic behavior, such as shaming, demeaning, or acting aggressively toward individuals of other cultures, races, and/or ethnicities, the child may learn or acquire xenophobia. The child may internalize the xenophobia. Consequently, the fear of strangers and foreigners will become a part of the child’s belief system. An additional factor which may contribute to a child’s development of xenophobia is if the parent or caregiver encourages a strict and rigid cultural identity; this may encourage the belief that other cultural identities are inherently bad or inferior to one’s own.

If a child’s upbringing rarely involves exposure to individuals of foreign cultures, races, ethnic backgrounds, or even belief systems, xenophobia may develop as a result. This may occur whether the child is geographically isolated, or whether a parent and/or caregiver actively shelters the child from others.

Xenophobia may also develop as a result of a traumatic experience with something or someone foreign to one’s cultural identity. For example, if a youth is physically assaulted by a group of individuals from a shared cultural background, xenophobia may develop as a result – particularly a strain of xenophobia directed toward the cultural or ethnic background of the assailants. The specific details of the traumatic event will likely determine who the individual’s xenophobia is directed toward.

Though less common, a child may develop xenophobia as a result of hearing a traumatic anecdote or story involving someone of a different cultural identity. They may also develop it as a result of witnessing a traumatic act or event which involves something or someone foreign.

Furthermore, certain individuals are predisposed to developing phobias and phobic behavior. Because a phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, it is more likely to develop in an individual whose genetic composition and/or temperament predisposes them to similar disorders, such as OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) or GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder).

Symptoms

Symptoms of any phobia are very similar to those of other anxiety and panic disorders. However, the specific symptoms of xenophobia will focus on the particular stimulus of the individual’s fear response – that which is foreign or alien to them. Signs of this particular phobia are as follows:

  • A pervasive and irrational perception of any foreigner or foreign culture as a direct threat to the xenophobic individual
  • Extreme anxiety exhibited when an individual interacts with, or is exposed to, foreigners
  • Unwarranted aggression toward foreigners and/or strangers, such as slurs or physical aggression
  • They will avoid the stimulus (foreigner or foreign culture) at all costs. Individuals suffering from xenophobia will take extreme and extraordinary precautions to avoid any situation in which they may encounter the stimulus.

When faced with the stimulus, xenophobic individuals may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Flashes of hot and cold
  • Skin redness, irritation, and/or hives
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Gastrointestinal distress (such as nausea or, in extreme cases, vomiting)
  • Crying/weeping
  • Shaking/redness
  • Numbness
  • Confusion and/or lack of coherency
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting

Treatment

Treatment for xenophobia is similar to treatment for other phobias. Individuals suffering from xenophobia must be evaluated and examined by a mental health professional to ensure that xenophobia is an accurate diagnosis for the patient.

The most effective form of treatment for xenophobia is psychotherapy. CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) are both forms of psychotherapy which have been proven to be particularly helpful for phobic individuals. CBT works by helping individuals retrain their brains, and learn to identify negative thought patterns and beliefs, as well as differentiate emotions from thoughts, as well as from bodily sensations. ACT works by encouraging an individual to accept their emotions and actively change their behavior.

If the individual has a particularly severe case of xenophobia, they may require medication in order for them to fully participate in their treatment process and psychotherapy sessions. There is no medication that will cure xenophobia, so it is generally only recommended as a short-term treatment which functions best in conjunction with and complementary to regular psychotherapy sessions.

The three most popular medications for xenophobic individuals are as follows:

Beta blockers

When we experience a fear response or a panic attack, we experience a rush of a hormone called epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. This hormone is what causes symptoms such as sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat. Beta blockers work by blocking the physiological effects of an adrenaline rush.

Sedatives

Sedatives work by inducing a state of tranquility and calm in a phobic individual when they might otherwise experience a fear response to a stimulus. However, it is important to note that sedatives are highly addictive and are not suitable for individuals with a history of drug and/or alcohol abuse.

SSRIs

SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are primarily used to treat depression and anxiety disorders. They work by boosting the brain’s amount of a “happy hormone” known as serotonin.

Prevention

There is no surefire or definitive method of prevention against of any phobia, including xenophobia. However, there are ways that parents and/or caregivers can greatly decrease a child’s likelihood of developing xenophobia. Reduce the chance of your child becoming xenophobic by encouraging receptivity to and tolerance of individuals that are different from them. Expose your children to foreign cultures and ethnicities, and speak positively about cultural identities which may differ from your own. Avoid isolating your child from others.