I hate being tickled. I’ve hated it for as long as I can remember. Even though I may laugh, as a reflex action, I’m also constantly screaming: “Stop! This isn’t funny, I’m serious!” — often to no avail. Tickling makes me feel like I’m under attack and completely helpless, which causes me tremendous anxiety and panic to the point I cannot breathe. Living in a world that doesn’t respect physical boundaries, and often makes people feel guilty for even having them, I have grown to fear tickle-attacks.
Is this normal? Turns out, it is.
People may hate being tickled due to the loss of control over their bodies, experts say. Tickling can overwhelm the nervous system, causing actual, if temporary, paralysis, Alan Fridlund, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, told Vice.
And just because the person being tickled is laughing, doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it. Laughter may be a panic reflex meant to release the stress of the experience. “At that point, the laughter is no longer the usual social laughter that accompanies play, but just a spasmodic reflex that the body uses to release tension,” Fridlund told The New York Times.
“When you tickle someone, you actually stimulate the unmyelinated nerve fibers that cause pain,” notes Dr. Alan Hirsch, who specializes in neurology and psychiatry at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. The laughter, therefore, may be an evolutionary defense mechanism to signal submissiveness in order to prevent being attacked further.
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People who are generally wary of being touched are also more ticklish, Robert Provine, a neuroscientist from the University of Maryland, explained. People who are more anxious also hate being tickled more than less-anxious people; the stress induced by tickling may add to their existing anxiety. Additionally, the element of surprise that tickling often involves can catch people off-guard, making them even more anxious.
“When you consider that tickling often comes as a surprise, and without clear consent, you can imagine how invasive it might feel to someone who has had previous negative experiences with unwanted tickling or other forms of unwanted touch,” Katie Lear, a child and adolescent therapist from North Carolina, told The Healthy.
In fact, traumatic or negative experiences with tickling, especially during childhood, can lead to a fear of being tickled — or even life-long trust issues. “I hated and feared being tickled as a child and still do. It reminds me of gasping for my breath while being suffocated and unable to communicate,” an unnamed individual told HuffPost.
Historically, tickling was used as a method of torture, especially in China, since it caused suffering while leaving no scars on the individual being punished. Similar reports exist from Ancient Rome, as well as Japan, where the practice was called kusuguri-zeme, or “merciless tickling.” And some reports suggest Medieval warriors sometimes tortured victims to death — simply by tickling them relentlessly. Depending on its intensity and duration, tickling can, in fact, lead to death from asphyxia, brain aneurysms, or other stress-related injuries, as people are unable to regulate their breathing under the stress of tickling.
In essence, what is ‘fun and games’ for one, may cause panic attacks for another. And while the latter is a normal response, it may mean it’s time to make respecting others’ physical boundaries normal, too.