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You’re walking through a crowd at the mall and an uneasiness settles around you as people bump into you. A church service amidst a sanctuary full of strangers sets you on edge. Your son’s high school football game leaves you an anxious mess. The thought of walking the streets downtown amidst the hustle and bustle of city life makes you question your weekend getaway.
If these scenarios describe your daily life, you may have Enochlophobia (pronounced [En-ah-cla-foh-bee-uh]) which can be defined as the abnormal or irrational fear of crowds. It is also referred to as Ochlophobia or Demophobia. Though not specifically designated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), Enochlophobia can fall under a Social Phobia, F40.1. It is closely associated with Agoraphobia, a fear of public places and/or situations in which you would be uncomfortable or embarrassed.
If you have a fear of large crowds, you are among many others:
- Dr. Signe Dayhoff, in a Psychology Today interview, stated nearly 20 million individuals at any one time suffer from some form of social anxiety.
- The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that in any given 12 month time span, 6.8% of US adults suffer from social phobias such as Enochlophobia.
- NIMH also states that the average age-of-onset is 13 years old.
Enochlophobia: Why are People Afraid of Crowds?
For some people, their fear of crowds stems from a trauma that they’ve not dealt with. Have you been mobbed by a crowd of people at a Black Friday event where someone was injured — or were you the one hurt? Maybe when you were a child you lost your parents in a large crowd and were overwhelmed with fear. Maybe being around the noise and chaos associated with crowds leaves you disoriented and afraid. Is there something traumatic you can pinpoint that has led to your enochlophobia?
Embarrassing Social Scenarios
I can clearly remember an incident that happened to me while I was a teenager. It was during a church service and I was singing on stage when I had an asthma attack. I couldn’t breathe, much less sing & chose to quickly walk off stage and out of the sanctuary, turning beet red as I felt everyone’s eyes boring into me. To this day I still flush with embarrassment if I perform in front of a crowd.
Everyone deals with embarrassment at some point in their lives, but some are more impacted by it than others. It could have been a botched public speech that left you running off the stage. A sporting event where you fell down the bleachers and broke your arm. A performance, like me, where things didn’t go as planned. Embarrassing situations such as these can lead to avoidance of places where people eyes are watching you.
3 Crowd Tragedies in History
There are 3 tragedies in history that remain prominent in the research. Though not exhaustive, they are examples of how crowds can be deadly.
The Who Fiasco
December 3rd, 1979 marked a tragic time in music history. Over 8,000 people crowded around a concert venue in Cincinnati, waiting in a mob to be the first to make it as close to stage as possible for The Who concert. When the band began their sound check, people towards the back of the crowd thought the concert started and began pushing forward. Waves and waves of people surged forward, unmoving. The venue didn’t open their doors, and 11 people died that day because they were trampled, or could no longer breath and asphyxiated in the mob.
England Soccer Game
In 1989, a tragedy occurred in England at a tournament match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Crowds of people surged forward into the stands, causing the deaths of 95 people due to suffocation or trampling. 180 others were severely injured as the world watched, helpless. The game was suspended after 6 minutes and never finished. This is one of the largest incidents of pedestrian deaths due to crowd surge.
A more recent incident was the trampling of a Walmart employee in 2008. Jdimytai Damour, a temp for the holiday season, was manning the doors when the crowd surged through the doors, trapping him underneath the glass. By the time other employees made it over to him, he was already dead.
The three previous examples are extreme circumstances that demonstrate the possible dangers of crowds. However, in the years following much work has been done to avoid these future tragedies. Here’s a summary:
Numerous studies and research has been done on understanding the dynamics of crowds and the psychology within. In a New Yorker article, John Seabrook stated “most crowd disasters are caused by “crazes” — people are usually moving toward something they want, rather than away from something they fear”.
A crowd management consultant, Paul Wertheimer, has worked with companies, concert venues, and the government to help bring about safer crowd environments. His work has helped pave the way for entering and exiting buildings so tragedies in the past will not be part of the future. Indeed, today tragedies like this have lessened and are few and far between as we learn to understand the psychology behind crowd behaviors.
So how do you know if you have an irrational fear of crowds
- When you think about scenarios in which you’d be in a crowd & you immediately think of scenarios in which you’d embarrass or hurt yourself, you could be suffering from Enochlophobia
- You avoid going to social gatherings to the dismay of family and friends
- You pass on going to church, concerts, sporting events, shopping malls, etc.
- You exhibit physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, and vomiting, and full-blown panic attacks
Crowds in the News
Newsworthy stories in which crowds are depicted both negatively and positively (because let’s be honest, deadly examples are the ones that get all the press):
- Most recently — at a Country Music event in Las Vegas — a gunman opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 and injuring 489 others. The largest massacre in the United States to date.
- Every year since 1904, people crowd into times square to witness the “Ball Drop” welcome in the New Year. Over a million people attend yearly to celebrate the coming year.
- February 13th, 2017 the “Loudest Crowd Roar at an Indoor Sports Event” was recorded at a basketball game in Kansas. The crowd cheered to an astonishing 130.4 decibels — a humans eardrum can rupture at 150 decibels.
Now that you understand the causes and symptoms, you’re probably interested in how to overcome enochlophobia, so we’ll cover a couple of options below: online options and self-treatment.
How do you overcome an abnormal fear of crowds on your own? Here are some suggestions:
- Find something positive to associate with crowds of people. For example, Improv Everywhere works with groups of people to pull of musical productions in public places such as a food court — entertaining and fun.
- Study crowd psychology (try this book!) and human behavior to understand why crowds act the way they do. This helps to learn warning signs to watch for, such as crowd agitation.
- Learn how to keep safe in crowd situations. Have an exit strategy. Work your way out with the crowd instead of pushing against the crowd. Stay near the edges or exits of crowds of people, etc.
- Slowly immerse yourself into scenarios where there are large groups of people. Bring a friend or family member with you. Go to stores and public places at times when they won’t be busy & slowly work towards being out in public during busier hours.
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