Harpaxophobia (fear of being robbed): symptoms, causes and treatment - psychology - 2023



Harpaxophobia is the persistent fear of thieves. It is a circumstance that, when classified as a phobia, implies the possibility that the assault experience provokes an irrational fear. But can this be considered an unwarranted fear? Is it a specific phobia or is it more of an experience that accompanies more complex social discomforts?

We will see below how harpaxophobia can be defined and what elements accompany it.

  • Related article: "Types of phobias: exploring fear disorders"

Harpaxophobia: fear of thieves

The term "harpaxophobia" is derived from the Latin "harpax" which means "thief" or "one who steals"; and also from the Greek word "phobos" which means fear. Thus, harpaxophobia is the persistent and intense fear of thieves, as well as of living an experience of theft.

It would be a fear that is activated by a specific stimulus: the possibility of someone around us can steal something from us. But, for someone to carry out this act, it is necessary that the circumstances allow it: in principle, it must be in a place where the theft can go unnoticed (a very lonely space, or a space with a large number of people).

On the other hand, many of the thefts, although they are committed by a single person, can be covered or endorsed by several other people. If coupled with this, it is a time when our attention is scattered or focused on a specific activity, or we find ourselves in a significant situation of helplessness in relation to possible aggressors, the whole circumstance turns in favor of representing a potential risk to our belongings or our physical integrity.

That said, we can see that harpaxophobia is not just the fear that a person will steal from us, but a whole circumstance that implies the real or perceived possibility of suffering an assault or direct aggression. In this several elements are mixed, which have to do with our previous experiences, direct or indirect to violence, our imaginations about who can be potential aggressors, our difficulties to function in certain public spaces, among others.

In this sense, harpaxophobia could be classified as a specific phobia of a situational type, following the criteria of specific phobia manuals. However, harpaxophobia has not been studied or considered as such by experts in psychology and psychopathology. This may be because, far from being a disorder, persistent and intense fear of an assault is rather an over-adaptive response generated by constant exposure to violence, either directly or indirectly.

  • You may be interested: "The 11 types of violence (and the different kinds of aggression)"

Main symptoms of specific phobias

The main symptoms of specific phobias are caused by the activation of the autonomic nervous system, which acts in the presence of a stimulus perceived as harmful. This system is in charge of regulating our involuntary motor responses, which prepares us to avoid possible damage, either by fleeing, hiding, exercising physical resistance, among others.

We thus generate a series of physiological reactions. For example, the increase in the speed of palpitations, hyperventilation, sweating, decreased digestive activity, among other. All this while we process the information about the threatening event at high speed. The latter constitutes the typical picture of anxiety, and in cases of greater exposure to the stimulus, it can transform into a panic attack, which is more frequent in specific situational phobias.

For its part, the level of anxiety experienced depends largely on the stimulus that causes the phobia. That is, it depends on the degree of danger it represents, as well as the safety signals that the stimulus itself can offer.

In the case of harpaxophobia, the experience of anxiety can increase significantly in contexts where the probability of suffering an assault is higher (going through a dark street alone, carrying a significant amount of money or items of high economic value , go through a generally troubled or too touristy neighborhood, etc.).

To the latter are added other elements, such as the person's mood (which can lead to increased susceptibility), and perceived chances of fleeing or receiving help if necessary.

Possible causes

Specific phobias are acquired experiences, which means that they are generated by associations constantly reinforced about a stimulus and the dangers associated with it. Three of the most popular explanatory models for such associations are classical conditioning, vicarious learning, and the transmission of information.

Likewise, three of the most important elements for the consolidation of a specific phobia are the following (Bados, 2005):

  • The severity and frequency of direct negative experiences with the stimulus, which in this case would have been robbed before.
  • Having had fewer previous safe experiences related to noxious stimuli. In the case of harpaxophobia, it can be, for example, not having crossed the same place without having been assaulted.
  • Related to the above, the third element is no having been exposed to the harmful situation in other conditions after the negative experience.

In this sense, harpaxophobia can develop due to direct or indirect exposure to violence. That is, after having been assaulted, or having witnessed one, or knowing someone who has suffered. The latter can easily translate into a constant feeling of threat, generating avoidance behaviors towards places that represent a risk, as well as defensive behaviors to prevent assaults, especially in places that have high crime rates.

Thus, this can hardly be defined as a disproportionate response, since the stimulus that provokes it (a robbery) is potentially harmful to physical and emotional integrity, with which, avoidance behaviors and the anxiety response are rather a set of adaptive and proportional responses to the stimulus.

If these responses become generalized and prevent the person from performing their daily activities regularly, or negatively impact their interpersonal relationships, or cause an experience of generalized anxiety, then it may not be harpaxophobia, but an experience of more complex discomfort. For example, an experience related to social interactions or open spaces, and of which the fear of thieves is only a part.


Once the above has been explored and determined, there are different emotional support strategies that can be used to reduce prolonged and intense experiences of anxiety.

The latter will not necessarily remove the fear of thieves, as this could be counterproductive, but they can minimize deeper fears (such as certain social interactions), while maintaining self-care strategies. In these cases, it is advisable to go to psychotherapy to learn to manage stress levels and regain autonomy.