Mastigophobia (punishment phobia): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Mastigophobia (punishment phobia): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Phobias are a very common group of anxiety disorders. In fact, and even though 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 overwhelming fear, which they usually perceive as uncontrollable, and which conditions the way they live life or carry out activities that are meaningful to them.


In this article we will address Mastigophobia, a relatively common fear in childhood and that has 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.

How is mastigophoran expressed?

Mastigophobia (also called poinephobia) consists of 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). It describes any irrational panic reaction at the moment in which a corrective is applied, and that exceeds what would be foreseeable because of 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 (for the child or third parties) is observed. That is why, implicitly, they have attributed an aversive quality on which their effectiveness is based. This fear, therefore, must be differentiated in a matter of degree concerning what is expected under normal conditions during the application of the procedure; in such a way that it conditions how children (who are the most affected by this disorder) feel, think and act.

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


Usually, fear is projected both towards physical punishment and towards psychological 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 negative ones (withdrawal of something that the child perceives as pleasant or reinforcing). Both of these behavior modification strategies have been the subject of debate in recent years.

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#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 (although they have multiple relationships with each other): physiological, cognitive, and motor.


At a physiological level, hyperactivation of the autonomic nervous system is observed, and specifically of its sympathetic branch (tachycardia, tachypnea, sweating, tremors, etc.). At a cognitive level, the concern and catastrophic interpretation of fiction are very relevant that happen within the normal coexistence. Finally, at the motor level, the avoidance of any situation that could lead to the imposition of physical or mental punishment stands out, although there is only a remote possibility for any of them.


#2.Fear of physical punishment

Children who suffer from mastigophobia fear being victims of physical punishment (spanking, 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 extend 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 undergone 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. It is because of that react with a huge start when adoptive parents confront 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 highly sensitive to facial expressions associated with anger, an emotion that often anticipated the physical punishment they suffered throughout their lives. It is learning forged over a long time, from which it is possible to predict a negative and potentially dangerous stimulus. Over the years, disproportionate vigilance towards hostile non-verbal 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, threats, unjustified disapproval, or insult are included. Those who suffer from this phobia show an overflowing fear during any interaction in which these adverse exchanges may occur, so they develop a behavior aimed at avoiding them at all costs. A) Yes, they can become overly accommodating to others, even though there is a clear abuse in their relationships.


One of the situations that generate more anxiety for people with this disorder is 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 hyperarousal (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, facing the possibility that their behavior will be reproached or a reprimand applied.

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


#5.Disproportionate reactions to errors

Children with mastigophobia are hyper-vigilant about any mistakes they might make, so 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 note that they would not be involved in them for the intrinsic pleasure of doing them correctly (or for mastery motivation), but for fear that the mistake 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 achievements and the systematic punishment of any deviation from them. 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 received upbringing based on the use of punishment, both positive and negative, to systematically correct their way of proceeding. It is especially common in cases in which their application was excessive, involving physical damage or deprivation of activities necessary for healthy physical/emotional development (blows, permanent prohibition of spending time with friends, etc.).

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

What is the treatment of mastigophobia?

The treatment of mastigophobia is complex, as it must integrate many domains of the childhood experience: past experiences of a traumatic or seriously hostile type, 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 about how reinforcements and punishments are correctly applied (and where appropriate).


Rigid perfection is also an issue that often 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 that also does not allow him to build a positive image of himself. The pattern described 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 into adulthood.


It is an approach that must consider 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 to detect and discuss the beliefs that are contributing to their symptoms.


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

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