Erythrophobia (from greek: erythrós - red), also known as ereutophobia (from greek: ereuthós - redness, flushing), or known by the English word "facial blushing," is defined as the fear of blushing.
Closely related are the psychological factors related to the fear of making mistakes, to make a fool of failing an objective, do not feel up to the situation, the frustration of not achieving the perfection one aims at. The symptom occurs mainly in presence of a superior or in a group situation, when the individual, noticing the attention of the counterpart focused on her/him, starts compulsively thinking about the imminent risk of blushing and at the same time experiences tension, tachycardia, an unpleasant tightness in his chest and a intense sense of heat rising to the face.
Even the slightest hesitation in speech or even the awareness of not appearing relaxed may cause a loss of concentration, interfering with the individual's capacity to perform, to keep sovereignty in such situations, while desperately struggling to not get overwhelmed by embarrassment. This triggers a vicious spiral dominated by obsessive anxiety that in some instances may lead to a complete mental black-out and a wish to disappear or flee.
This may lead to a series of consequences for the individual:
There are several physical and mental techniques that aim to ease nervous tension and to prevent attacks of redness, useful in some people, less effective in others. These methods such as auto-suggestion, yoga, biofeedback, breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation, all aimed at improving self-esteem and self-confidence, and / or reducing inner tension and unwanted physical reactions (especially tachycardia and palpitations). These techniques can be practiced in groups or alone, or as a supplement to psychotherapy.
A counseling is almost always indicated. For erythrophobia, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or hypnosis is generally employed. More intense exposure/desensitation therapy techniques, like "flooding", potentially effective in other types of phobias, is not recommended and may even increase the vulnerability of the subject. In general, psychotherapy does not eliminate the autonomic reflex of blushing, established and consolidated over years, but it can help the person to live with this reaction, by increasing self-esteem, and thus reducing the negative impact on the quality of life.
The following pharmaceutical agents are often used to counteract physical symptoms and / or psychological consequences, especially anxiety:
Already in the 80ies, a positive effect on the syndrome of facial blushing was observed in patients undergoing interruption of the upper thoracic ganglia of the sympathetic chain for other reasons. In the 90ies, these findings were confirmed, allowing to extend the use of endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy, originally developed to treat hyperhidrosis, also for the treatment of erythrophobia.
Today, surgery of the sympathetic nerve is available as a therapeutic option for patients with disabling erythrophobia if satisfactory control of the disorder cannot be achieved through non-surgical measures.
Surgical therapy is most effective in the classical forms of sympathicogenic erythema, characterized, as described above, by sudden redness involving the entire face with or without concomitant symptoms associated with overreactivity of the sympathetic nervous system. The efficacy of the method can easily be demonstrated in one and the same patient if the surgery is performed sequentially, first on one side and then, after days or weeks, on the other (see photo). Such asymmetry ("Harlequin phenomenon") may also arise after the surgeon missed the correct level on one side, placing the clip too low on one side (usually on the left side, due to the physiological asymmetry of the pleural space).
Localized forms of facial blushing ("butterfly" erythema), characterized by intense redness of the cheeks and / or ears, while the forehead and typically the perioral area remain pale, do not respond equally well to the surgical treatment, yielding inconsistent results (good control in only 50% of the cases). Therefore, surgery can not be recommended for this type of blushing.
Facial redness developing slowly and gradually in response to physical activity / sport or prolonged exposure to heat may only be reduced partially by surgery, reflecting the secondary role of the sympathetic nervous system in these cases. Anyway, most patients operated for severe blushing do also report a certain degree of improvement of this slow type redness, too, though not having been a major problem previously.
The operation is performed under general anesthesia and aims at interrupting the sympathetic chain between the T1 and T2 ganglia to cut off the main stream of signals reaching the facial vessels without interfering with other functions (e.g. the movement of the eyelids). These ganglia are located in the uppermost part of the chest cavity close to the spinal column. Nowadays we prefer to compress the nerve using a titanium clip (ESB - Endoscopic Block of the Sympathetic Chain) instead of an severing it irreversibly (ETS - Endoscopic Thoracic Sympathectomy). The procedure is identical to the one usually used to treat facial sweating, but not the same as ETS/ESB for palmar hyperhidrosis.
Sympathetic surgery is unquestionably very effective with regard to the redness and the phobic state. Many patients feel suddenly liberated from years of silent, suffocating and often underestimated suffering. According to various studies, the success rate in centers with large experience in the surgical treatment of erythrophobia varies from 90-95%. It must be emphasised however that the procedure may be ineffective in some, and in others there is the risk of a partial or complete relapse (around 5-10% within the first 3 years after surgery). This results in a cure rate of over 85%, provided a careful selection of candidates for this treatment performed by a surgeon who not only possesses great experience with surgical techniques optimized for this purpose, but also a deep knowledge of the disorder.
The negative aspects of surgical treatment are characterized by a variety of side effects that may occur in the postoperative period in the short or long term (see also the page dedicated to ETS/ESB:
In summary, it is a safe procedure, with rare complications and a relatively high success rate regarding the control of blushing and related symptoms and sociophobic behaviour. The neurovegetative nervous system is, however, very dynamic and tends to adapt continuously during lifetime to all environmental or organic changes and conditions. Therefore, it reacts very individually when a reflex circuit has been blocked. The resulting side effects cannot be predicted in detail, and though they in most patients are relatively mild or even absent, there is a small group of patients developing heavy side effects. Therefore, surgery should only be considered in carefully selected cases in whom non-invasive treatment has failed and in whom the detrimental consequences of erythrophobia regarding the psychosocial situation and the quality of life is such to justify more adverse side effects. It should also always be kept in mind that therapy can be ineffective and that, in the long term, 10-15% of patients do not consider themselves satisfied with the result of surgery. In any case, the author prefers the use of a potentially reversible surgical technique (ESB), instead of destructive techniques (cutting, coagulation, removal of ganglia).