Mastigophobia (phobia of punishment): symptoms, causes and treatment

Phobias constitute a very common group of anxiety disorders. In fact, and although they are rarely the main reason for consultation for a psychology professional, they are the most common comorbid problem in other clinical entities of the same category (generalized anxiety, for example).

Those who suffer some phobia experience an overflowing fear, which they usually perceive as uncontrollable, and that determines the way they live life or develop activities that are meaningful to them.

In this article we will discuss mastigophobia, a relatively common fear in childhood and that has been shown to have a very deep root. Here we will talk about your clinical expression, the potential underlying causes and the psychological treatment currently available.

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How is mastigophobia expressed?

Mastigophobia (also called poinephobia) consists of a widespread, irrational and disproportionate fear of punishment . It is a word composed of the confluence of two terms that come from the Greek: “mastigos” (which could be translated as whip or scourge) and “phobos” (which would mean fear or aversion). It describes any reaction of irrational panic at the time when a corrective is applied, and that exceeds what would be foreseeable according to its intensity or the immediate conditions in which it occurs.

It is important to consider, however, that punishments are strategies aimed at reducing the frequency with which a behavior considered undesirable is observed (for the child or for third parties). That is why, in an implicit way, they are attributed an aversive quality on which their effectiveness is based. This fear, therefore, must be differentiated in a matter of degree from that expected under normal conditions during the application of the procedure; in such a way that it conditions the way in which children (who are most affected by this disorder) feel, think and act.

Below are the forms that mastigophobia can take at a clinical level. Although the most common is that they take place in childhood, occasionally fear can remain until adulthood.

In general , fear is projected towards both physical and psychological punishment , and precipitates a physiological reaction similar to that of a panic attack. Likewise, the phobia extends to positive punishments (production of an aversive stimulus) and to negative ones (withdrawal of something that the child perceives as pleasant or reinforcing). Both behavior modification strategies have been debated in recent years.

1. Anxiety oriented to situations of punishment

The feelings of anxiety that emerge in the context of mastigophobia, as a result of punishment or anticipation, are very similar to those described in other phobic pictures. For descriptive purposes, three relatively independent essential areas can be distinguished (although they have multiple relationships with each other): physiological, cognitive and motor.

At the physiological level, hyperactivation of the autonomic nervous system is observed, and in particular of its sympathetic branch (tachycardia, tachypnea, sweating, tremor, etc.). At a cognitive level, the concern and catastrophic interpretation of fictions that occur within normal coexistence are very relevant . At the motor level, finally, the avoidance of any situation that could lead to the imposition of a physical or psychic punishment, although there is only one remote possibility for any of them, stands out.

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2. Fear of receiving physical punishment

Children suffering from mastigophobia fear being victims of physical punishment (whipping, for example) as a result of having carried out a behavior considered undesirable for those people (parents, for example) who could administer it. This feeling does not always have an objective basis, so it can be extended even to those who do not seek to generate any punitive situation.

This phenomenon is common in children who are adopted by a new family after having gone through traumatic experiences of physical abuse with their original caregivers. The previous parenting style would facilitate learning about the dynamics of conflict resolution that would extend to the current environment. That is why they react with a huge shock when the adoptive parents confront them or correct them for disruptive behavior, even though they do it in an appropriate way and without the mediation of any fuss.

Children with mastigophobia are very sensitive to the facial expression associated with anger, an emotion that often anticipated the physical punishment they suffered throughout their lives. It is a learning forged for a long time, from which it is possible to predict a negative and potentially dangerous stimulus. Over the years, disproportionate vigilance towards hostile nonverbal signals can be maintained.

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3. Fear of receiving psychological punishment

Punishments can be both physical and psychological. In the latter case, behaviors such as contempt, isolation, threat, unjustified disapproval or insult are included. Those who suffer from this phobia show an overflowing fear during any interaction in which these adverse exchanges can occur, so they develop a behavior aimed at avoiding them at all costs. Thus, they can assume an attitude that is too complacent towards others , even though there is a clear abuse in their relationships.

One of the situations that generate more anxiety for people who suffer from this disorder are the silences resulting from a situation of interpersonal conflict. The fact of feeling ignored is perceived as a punitive act of unbearable dimensions, before which intense bodily sensations emerge that can progress to an acute picture of hyperactivation (such as nausea, abdominal discomfort, tachycardia, tachypnea, etc.).

4. Anticipation of a potential punishment

Children with this phobia have the feeling that they could be subject to punishment anywhere and for any reason. At the moment in which they are aware that they have done something reprehensible, they harbor an intense fear of being discovered, given the possibility that their behaviors are reproached or a reprimand is applied.

All this leads to a constant concern for what could happen , as well as disproportionate ideas (suffer severe corrections for an innocuous, accidental or involuntary act).

5. Disproportionate reactions to errors

Children who suffer from mastigophobia are hypervigilant before any mistake they could make, so that fallibility also becomes a fact that triggers their anxiety levels (physiological, cognitive and motor). For this reason, they invest overwhelming efforts in many of their activities. It is essential to point out that they would not be involved in them for the intrinsic pleasure of performing them correctly (or for motivation of dominance), but for fear that the error could precipitate the dreaded punishment. They would not seek the good, but flee from the bad.

This expression of mastigophobia is common in children whose parents opted for authoritarian parenting styles, aimed at the exclusive reinforcement of achievements and the systematic punishment of any deviation from them. This pattern would forge a painful perfectionism that does not pursue excellence, but the avoidance of harm.

Why does mastigophobia occur?

Mastigophobia is common in those children who have been raised based on the use of punishment, both positive and negative , in order to systematically correct their way of proceeding. It is especially common in cases where the application of them was excessive, assuming physical damage or deprivation of activities necessary for a healthy physical / emotional development (blows, permanent prohibition of sharing time with friends, etc.).

Cases of children with mastigophobia who report a serious history of abuse behind their backs , and who live in constant fear of being punished for their acts, are not uncommon . Through the sensitive inquiry of the past one can often detect the point from which this disorder was articulated, which is usually associated with the deterioration of self-esteem and self-assessment weighed down by the belief that it is “undesirable and / or inappropriate”. It may also appear as a result of observing how severe punishment was applied to others (siblings, classmates, etc.).

What is the treatment of mastigophobia?

The treatment of mastigophobia is complex, since it must integrate many domains of children’s experience: past experiences of a traumatic or severely hostile type, deterioration in identity formation, persistent difficult emotions and even adaptive difficulties in areas such as school or home . Parents must also be involved in offering adequate psychoeducation about how reinforcements and punishments are correctly applied (and the situations in which it is appropriate).

Rigid perfection is also an issue that usually requires intervention , since the child sets a standard that is impossible to satisfy without deteriorating other key facets of his life (leisure, social relations with his peers, etc.), and which also does not allow him to build a positive image of himself. The pattern described can end up being associated with comorbidities such as depression (which is expressed in the form of irritability during this period), or other anxious conditions that extend to adulthood.

It is an approach that must contemplate the family system as a whole and be very sensitive to the specific needs of the child. Cognitive-behavioral treatment allows to modify the environmental contingencies that maintain the problem , and in turn to explore the thoughts and emotions of the child in order to detect and discuss the beliefs that are contributing to his symptoms.

Finally, in the event that it is evidenced that the family is carrying out any form of abuse with respect to the child, it will be essential to report to the competent authorities so that they can mediate the legal acts that may result.

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