Mastigophobia (punishment phobia): symptoms, causes and treatment

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

Those who suffer from a phobia experience an overflowing fear, which they usually perceive as uncontrollable, and which conditions the way in which they live life or carry out activities that are meaningful to them.

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

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How is mastigophobia expressed?

Mastigophobia (also called poinephobia) is a widespread, irrational, and disproportionate fear of punishment . It is a word made up 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). Describes any irrational panic reaction at the time a corrective is applied, and that exceeds what would be predictable given 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 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 determines the way in which children (who are most affected by this disorder) feel, think and act.

Below are the forms mastigophobia can take on a clinical level. Although they most commonly occur in childhood, fear can occasionally be maintained into adulthood.

In general , fear is projected as much towards physical as 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 punishment situations

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

At the physiological level, hyperactivation of the autonomic nervous system is observed, and specifically of its sympathetic branch (tachycardia, tachypnea, sweating, tremors, etc.). At the cognitive level, the concern and the catastrophic interpretation of the fictions that take place within normal coexistence are very relevant . At the motor level, lastly, the avoidance of any situation that could lead to the imposition of physical or mental punishment, although there is only a 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 (spanking, for example) as a consequence 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 frequent 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 conflict resolution dynamics that would extend to the current environment. That is why they react with a huge start when the adoptive parents confront or correct them for disruptive behavior, despite the fact that 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 punishments they suffered throughout their lives. It is a long-forged learning, 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 overwhelming fear during any interaction in which these adverse exchanges may occur, so they develop a behavior aimed at avoiding them at all costs. Thus, they can become too complacent with others , despite the fact that there is a clear abuse in their relationships.

One of the situations that generate the greatest anxiety for people suffering 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. Anxious anticipation of potential punishment

Children with this phobia have the feeling that they could be punished anywhere and for any reason. The moment they are aware that they have done something reprehensible, they harbor an intense fear of being discovered, in the face of the possibility that their behavior will be reproached or they will be reprimanded.

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

5. Disproportionate reactions to mistakes

Children with mastigophobia are hypervigilant in the face of any mistakes they may 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 doing them correctly (or for dominance reasons), but for fear that the error could precipitate the dreaded punishment. They would not seek the good, but would flee from the bad.

This expression of mastigophobia is common in children whose parents opted for authoritarian parenting styles, aimed at exclusively reinforcing achievement and systematically punishing any deviation from it. This pattern would forge a painful perfectionism that does not pursue excellence, but avoidance of harm.

Why does mastigophobia occur?

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

It is not uncommon for children with mastigophobia to report a serious history of abuse behind their backs , and who live in constant fear of being punished for their actions. Through sensitive investigation of the past, the point at which this disorder was articulated can often be detected, which is usually associated with the deterioration of self-esteem and a self-evaluation weighed down by the belief of being “undesirable and / or inappropriate”. It can also appear as a consequence of having observed how severe punishments were applied to others (siblings, schoolmates, etc.).

What is the treatment of mastigophobia?

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

Rigid perfection is also a matter 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 self-image. The described pattern may end up being associated with comorbidities such as depression (which is expressed in the form of irritability during this period), or other anxious pictures 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 modifying the environmental contingencies that maintain the problem , and in turn exploring the child’s thoughts and emotions in order to detect and debate the beliefs that are contributing to his symptoms.

Finally, in the event that it is evident that the family is carrying out any form of mistreatment with respect to the child, it will be essential to inform the competent authorities so that they can mediate the appropriate legal acts.


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