Tomophobia (phobia of surgical operations): symptoms, causes and treatment

Have you ever heard of tomophobia? It is a phobia considered “rare”, although, in reality, more common than we really think. It is the phobia of surgical operations.

Why does it occur? What are your typical symptoms? And finally, what treatments exist, at the psychological level, to combat it? In this article we will answer all these questions in relation to tomophobia.

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Tomophobia: what is it?

Tomophobia is the phobia of surgical operations . On the other hand, phobias are intense fears, irrational and disproportionate to a particular object or situation, and are part of anxiety disorders , classified as such in the DSM-5 (Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

In the case of tomophobia, surgical operations are feared excessively. Although it might seem normal fear (because it is very common to be afraid of surgical operations), we insist that, in phobias, this fear becomes pathological. That is, the phobia of surgical operations goes far beyond normal fear , truly interfering with the person’s life and, in severe cases, becoming incapacitated.

Fear of surgical operations

It is normal and usual to be afraid of a surgical operation, since it is a complex process where someone accesses our body (although, logically, there are operations that are simpler than others).

They can operate on virtually any part of the body, to solve a problem, a pathology, remove a tumor, etc. There are operations with more risk than others, obviously it is not the same as operating from an appendicitis than an open heart or to remove a brain tumor.

Seeing all this, and going to the most rational part, we can understand that there are people who feel real panic to be operated, either by a previous bad experience, for having heard stories of operations that have gone wrong, for fear of hospitals, etc. .

However, in tomophobia we talk about an intense panic that occurs with the idea of ​​surgery when risk levels are reasonably low . This panic is sometimes translated into strong anxiety, psychophysiological symptoms, hyperactivation …

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The main symptom of tomophobia, as in any specific phobia, is anxiety and / or intense fear. This anxiety or fear can manifest itself in different ways; through physical (psychophysiological), cognitive and behavioral symptoms.

On a physical level, various symptoms appear before the idea of ​​surgery (or even before images of an operation), such as: excessive sweating, hyperactivation, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, choking sensation …

On a cognitive level, dysfunctional ideas or catastrophic thoughts appear in relation to operations (“everything will go wrong”, “all operations go wrong”, “I will not be able to wake up”, etc.).

Finally, at the behavioral level, the avoidance of phobic stimulation appears (for example, not wanting to watch medical programs on television, not wanting to approach a hospital, not wanting to hear stories of operations….). On the other hand, if avoidance does not appear, the situation is resisted (in this case, the operation), with great discomfort and associated intense anxiety.


The main cause of tomophobia is a traumatic experience with surgical operations . For example, having undergone an operation where complications arose, suffer sequelae resulting from an operation, medical negligence, difficulties in waking up, a lot of pain, etc.

Tomophobia can also be acquired by vicarious conditioning, if we see someone suffer greatly from an operation . Finally, the stories we hear regarding medical malpractice, operations that have not worked out, etc., may also have a lot to do with the origin of tomophobia.

On the other hand, other phobias related to medical situations can also affect the appearance of tomophobia (or coexist with it), such as: blood phobia (hemophobia or hemophobia), injection phobia (trypanophobia), the phobia of hospitals, the phobia of doctors, etc.


The treatment of tomophobia, like all phobia, focuses mainly on two types of therapy: exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy . Here, however, we will also see a third: psychoeducation techniques.

1. Exposure therapy (and virtual reality)

In the case of exposure therapy applied to tomophobia, it is somewhat complex, since how to simulate a medical operation to expose the patient? It `s difficult; That is why, in this particular case, we can go to exposure therapy using virtual reality (VR) .

This type of therapy, increasingly rising, simulates fictional situations through technology. The patient can experience the sensations associated with the phobic stimulus in a quite realistic way, and he has the positive part that he is never in danger and can always “escape” from the situation.

This type of therapy is increasingly used, which is ideal for some phobias where the phobic object is difficult to simulate, represent or use, as would be the case with tomophobia.

2. Cognitive behavioral therapy

On the other hand, the cognitive-behavioral therapy used for cases of tomophobia, would be focused on eliminating or modifying the negative and irrational thoughts that the patient has in relation to surgical operations , as well as adopting management habits and stress prevention.

That is, it would be that he could rationalize his fears and replace catastrophic thoughts with more realistic ones. Examples of thoughts associated with tomophobia, and which should be reviewed with the patient, are: “if I go to the operating room I will die”, “if I go to the operating room I will not wake up”, “I will get worse as I entered”, “my body will not he will bear it ”, etc.

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3. Psychoeducation and other techniques

The use (and teaching) of specific strategies to cope with anxiety will also be important , these being, for example: relaxation techniques, breathing, meditation, pleasant images …

In the case of children with tomophobia, you can opt for symbolic modeling techniques (through videos, stories … where fictional characters undergo successful surgical operations).

It will also be convenient to conduct psychoeducation sessions, so that the patient really understands the operation that will be performed (if this is the case) . In addition, in the latter case, it will be important to resolve all your doubts in relation to the operation to which you must undergo, so multidisciplinary work with the medical team will be essential.


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