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Phantom vibration syndrome: definition, treatments, and prevention

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Phantom vibration syndrome: definition, treatments, and prevention

Phantom vibration syndrome, also known as hypovibochondria or ringxiety, is a condition where people falsely assume that a digital device is vibrating when it actually is not. 

Phantom vibration syndrome encompasses various symptoms, including a tingling sensation in the pocket area, misinterpreted perceived vibrations on the phone, frequent false alerts causing anticipation, habitual checking behavior, heightened anxiety and stress, irritation from missed calls or texts, disruption of focus due to frequent phantom vibrations, and an increasing dependency on the phone, all of which contribute to this phenomenon of mistakenly feeling phone vibrations.

The exact causes of phantom vibration syndrome are not entirely understood, but preliminary studies believe it to be associated with over-involvement with cell phones, misinterpretation by the cerebral cortex and human signal detection issues, attachment anxiety, and cell phone location.

Although there is not much evidence on particular therapies for phantom phone vibration, certain experts suggest phantom vibration syndrome may be treated by developing awareness and mindfulness and adjusting phone habits and settings, such as limiting notifications, which can decrease the likelihood of experiencing PVS. Additionally, psychological support, like therapy or counseling, tackles underlying anxiety or attachment issues related to one’s phone, offering coping strategies. A digital detox and engaging in physical activity and stress-reduction techniques can also alleviate both physical and psychological symptoms of PVS. Moreover, sharing experiences with peers can provide emotional support. In severe cases, medication may be considered to address underlying psychological factors contributing to PVS.

What is phantom vibration syndrome?

Phantom vibration syndrome (PVS), also known as phantom ringing syndrome (PRS), phantom pocket vibration, and phantom phone vibration, is a false perception that a mobile phone is vibrating or buzzing when it is not. Commonly connected with the overuse of mobile phones, it’s often characterized as a tactile hallucination, where the brain senses a vibration that isn’t real.

The history of the phantom syndrome can be dated back to 1996 when cartoonist Scott Adams initially introduced a comparable sensation in his comic strip “Dilbert,” labeling it as “phantom-pager syndrome”, as stated in the 2019 issue of Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry titled “The Phantom Syndrome”.

Back in the day, false sensations of ringing and vibrations from smartphones were known by a variety of names, including vibranxiety, ringxiety, fauxcellarm, and audio illusion, until the term “phantom vibration syndrome” earned the title of the word of the year in 2012 by the Australian Macquarie Dictionary.

In 2007, the initial scientific investigation into this phenomenon was carried out by a young psychologist David Laramie who introduced the term “ringxiety” to describe the phantom experience. He wrote about the effect of cellphones on behavior in his thesis titled “Emotional and behavioral aspects of mobile phone use”, published in the Alliant International University Press. His study revealed that approximately two-thirds of respondents reported hearing or feeling their phone ring or vibrate when it had not actually rung. 

How common is phantom vibration syndrome?

typing on a phone

Phantom vibration syndrome is a relatively common phenomenon, with reported prevalence rates ranging from 27.4% to 89%, as claimed by Dr. Amrita Deb’s 2014 study titled “Phantom vibration and phantom ringing among mobile phone users: A systematic review of literature”, published in Asia-Pacific Psychiatry journal. 

The 2020 issue of the Journal of Education Technology in Health Sciences, “Assessment on prevalence and its factors on phantom vibration syndrome among UG and PG students in selected colleges,” revealed that 71% of undergraduate students (UG) reported experiencing phantom vibration syndrome, while 29% reported experiencing certain characteristics associated with this syndrome. Among postgraduate students (PG), 50% reported experiencing phantom vibration syndrome, while the remaining 50% did not exhibit any symptoms associated with this syndrome. 

In relation to the elements that contribute to phantom vibration syndrome, it was found that 78% of undergraduate students carried their mobile phones in the front pocket of their jeans, whereas 44% of postgraduate students reported keeping their phones in purses or other locations. 

A large number of UG students, namely 57%, reported checking their phones more than 20 times per day. The remaining 53% of PG students indicated a tendency to check their phones 10–20 times a day. Both UG and PG students reported experiencing a perceived vibration of their mobile phones when engaged in various activities, such as driving or sitting. 

In 2010 M. Rothberg et al. conducted a study called “Phantom vibration syndrome among medical staff: a cross-sectional survey”, which was published in the British medical journal, and found that approximately 68% of 169 individuals experienced PVS in their daily lives. The majority of participants reported the first sign of phantom vibrations after carrying the device for one month to one year. 

Who is particularly prone to phantom vibration syndrome?

Individuals who frequently use smartphones, especially those in technology professions, younger generations, and people with anxiety and stress, are prone to phantom vibration syndrome.

The 2018 research in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, titled “Prevalence and Pattern of Phantom Ringing and Phantom Vibration among Medical Interns and their Relationship with Smartphone Use and Perceived Stress,” has shown that young people increase the use of mobile devices as a way to cope with stress. The extensive use of such a particular coping mechanism makes it unlikely to sustain the benefits of these devices in the long term, leading to negative consequences for mental well-being.

Moreover, the findings discovered a positive correlation between elevated levels of stress and increased smartphone use, both of which have been linked to heightened perceptions of personal vulnerability and perceived risk. However, phantom vibrations cannot be solely attributed to the influence of stress. There are several factors that might affect the experience, including behavioral traits like anxiety and avoidance as well as situational ones like anticipating a call or message and worrying about a problem that one could be contacted about at a certain moment.

What are the causes of phantom vibration syndrome?

The causes of phantom vibration syndrome are listed below.

  • Over-involvement with cell phones: Over-involvement with cell phones is the excessive or compulsive reliance on mobile devices, frequently at the expense of other life priorities like work, social connections, or personal health. The initial findings of the Dr. Amrita Deb 2014 study titled “Phantom vibration and phantom ringing among mobile phone users: A systematic review of literature”, published in the journal of Asia-Pacific Psychiatry, suggest that excessive engagement with one’s mobile phone may potentially cause the development of phantom vibration syndrome. According to the expert, between 7.4% and 89% of mobile users experience phantom vibration or phantom ringing linked to the increasing use of cellphones.
  • Misinterpretation by the cerebral cortex and human signal detection issues: The cerebral cortex might misinterpret various sensory inputs as a phone vibration or ringtone when someone expects a phone call. This could be seen as an issue in human signal detection, influenced by psychological characteristics, and potentially carrying significant implications.
  • Attachment anxiety: Attachment anxiety refers to a psychological condition characterized by heightened fear, worry, or insecurity in interpersonal relationships, often resulting in a need for constant reassurance and validation from others. This increased anxiety may make individuals more prone to misinterpret sensory cues, such as phone vibrations or ringtones. The heightened psychological distress associated with attachment anxiety can lower the threshold for detecting these phantom sensations, potentially leading to their occurrence.
  • Cell Phone location: Carrying the cellphone in the same location for an extended period may be the cause of the pocket buzz, creating a tactile memory in the brain. When a person anticipates a phone notification, the brain may misinterpret unrelated sensations in that location as phone vibrations. Certain researchers have suggested that PVS is associated with the habituation of phones to particular locations. Over time, the nervous system becomes attuned to certain patterns of response. Consequently, when these neural responses activate, individuals may perceive that a phone could still be located in that specific place, even when it is not.

What are the symptoms of phantom vibration syndrome?

a woman typing on a phone

The common symptoms of phantom vibration syndrome are listed below.

  • Tingling sensation
  • Perceived vibrations
  • False alerts
  • Checking behavior
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Irritation or frustration
  • Disruption of focus
  • Dependency on the phone

1. Tingling sensation

A tingling sensation, known as paresthesia in medicine, is a physical condition characterized by a prickling or mildly vibrating feeling on the skin or in various parts of the body. Tingling can also be described as a sensation of pins and needles. According to a HealthLine article titled “Why Am I Experiencing Numbness and Tingling?”, updated in April 2023, people typically experience these sensations in their hands, feet, arms, and legs because of sitting with crossed legs or from sleeping in an awkward position.

The etiology of this condition often stems from pressure or compression on nerves, which disrupts normal nerve function. Tingling may also result from poor blood circulation, nerve damage, certain medical conditions, or even psychological factors.

Tingling sensations can sometimes be linked to phantom vibration syndrome in the sense that both involve unusual sensory perceptions. In the case of phantom vibration syndrome, the person may feel a false sensation of their phone vibrating, often in a pocket or on their purse, even when the phone is not vibrating or is not present. This sensation is thought to be related to psychological factors, including anticipation and habituation toward mobile phone use.

2. Perceived vibrations

Perceived vibrations refer to a sensory experience in which an individual feels the sensation of vibrations or buzzing in a part of their body, typically in the absence of any external stimuli that would cause such sensations. 

Perceived vibrations are often considered a symptom of phantom vibration syndrome, which is related to the brain’s tendency to interpret sensory input based on learned patterns and expectations. In this context, those imaginary or non-existent vibrations are perceived on one’s body, typically in the location where a mobile phone is usually carried. 

The person’s perception of vibrations can range from a mild tingling or buzzing sensation to a more pronounced feeling of movement or oscillation. The emotional and cognitive response to perceived vibrations can also vary; some individuals may find them relaxing, while others might experience anxiety buzzing feeling, resulting from heightened muscle tension and changes in blood flow as part of the body’s response to stress.

3. False alerts

False alerts refer to the perception of nonexistent sensory stimuli or signals. During false alerts, individuals may feel vibrations, hear sounds, or see visual cues that suggest they have received a message or notification on their electronic device when in reality, there is no such notification. 

During a false alert, a person may experience a range of sensations and cognitive responses that can mimic a genuine alert or threat. In the case of phantom vibrations, false alerts are viewed as a symptom of phantom vibration syndrome when they are specifically related to the tactile sensation of a vibrating phone or device. 

An individual may feel a subtle vibration sensation in their pocket or on their skin, similar to what they would feel when receiving a text message or notification. However, upon checking their device, they find that there was no incoming message or notification. It can be exacerbated by factors like anxiety, anticipation, or the habit of frequently checking one’s phone.

The experience of false alerts can evoke a variety of emotions and sensations. In some cases, false alerts can lead to heightened anxiety or stress, especially if the person interprets them as signs of a potential threat or problem. This emotional and physiological response can vary from person to person and may depend on their individual sensitivities and psychological factors.

4. Checking behavior

Checking behavior is a repetitive and often compulsive action where an individual repeatedly inspects or verifies something, typically without any real need to do so. It can manifest in various aspects of life, such as repeatedly checking if doors are locked, if there are phone notifications, or if appliances are turned off. Checking behavior is often associated with anxiety disorders, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but it can also occur independently or in response to stress.

The emotional responses associated with checking behavior, considered a symptom of phantom vibration syndrome, might exhibit a range of manifestations, often including sensations of anxiety, fear, or uneasiness. Individuals may have an increased desire to engage in the act of checking to momentarily decrease these uncomfortable emotions. Nevertheless, the temporary alleviation is often of limited duration since anxiety may return, leading to a cycle of continued checking behavior.

5. Anxiety and stress

Stress and anxiety are cognitive and physiological reactions to perceived threats or challenges. Anxiety is characterized by excessive concern or unease, typically about future events, whereas stress is the body’s response to any demand or pressure.  Anxious individuals may experience restlessness, irritability, and racing thoughts.

When an individual experiences stress, the body initiates the production of stress hormones, like cortisol, which subsequently leads to the manifestation of physiological symptoms, including heightened heart rate and muscular tension. People under stress may feel overwhelmed and fatigued and have difficulty concentrating.

The researchers of the study “Investigation of the Role of Anxiety and Depression on the Formation of Phantom Vibration and Ringing Syndrome Caused by Working Stress during Medical Internship”, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020, found that severe PVS and PRS are linked to high levels of depression and anxiety through their effects on cognitive mechanisms such as abnormal executive inhibition and negative emotions.

Anxiety and stress have the potential to induce increased responsiveness to sensory signals, resulting in the manifestation of PVS. When a person is apprehensive or agitated, they may be more attuned to bodily sensations, leading them to misinterpret normal bodily movements or sensations as phone vibrations, which contributes to the perception of phantom phone alerts.

6. Irritation or frustration

A woman using phone while writing

Irritation and frustration are emotional states that people often experience in response to various situations or stimuli. During irritation and frustration, individuals frequently experience elevated levels of tension, agitation, and a perception of being bothered or limited by a particular situation or condition. The physiological manifestations of these emotions may include muscular tension, an elevated pulse rate, and intensified levels of hostility or irritation. 

Phantom vibration syndrome may result from heightened sensitivity and anticipation, which is frequently prompted by an individual’s desire to receive a message or phone call. Individuals who are already experiencing fury or irritation may demonstrate heightened anxiety in response to incoming messages or alerts. As a result, they may be more susceptible to perceiving phantom vibrations, as their cognitive processes become hypersensitive to external stimuli.

7. Disruption of focus

Disruption of focus is when a person’s ability to focus on a certain job is disrupted by external stimuli or intrusive cognitions. This phenomenon causes difficulties in maintaining active involvement in their current tasks. 

People with phantom vibration syndrome frequently perceive vibrations or notifications from their phone, even when they haven’t actually occurred. This constant anticipation of a phone notification can be detrimental to an individual’s focus and productivity. Emotionally, people may experience feelings of frustration or irritation as a result of their failure to maintain sustained focus.

8. Dependency on phone

Dependency on a phone is a compulsive reliance on one’s smartphone for social interaction, entertainment, or information seeking. Individuals with phone dependency often feel a strong urge to check their phones constantly, even in inappropriate or potentially dangerous situations, and they may experience anxiety, restlessness, or irritability when unable to use their phones.

The reliance on a mobile phone might potentially lead to phantom vibration syndrome, as the brain gets excessively sensitive to the expectation of notifications due to frequent smartphone use. 

Researchers Daniel J. Kruger and Jaikob M. Djerf proposed a hypothesis on the correlation of phone dependency and phantom vibration in their 2017 study titled “Bad vibrations? Cell phone dependency predicts phantom communication experiences,” published in the Computers in Human Behavior journal.

This phenomenon occurs because psychological addiction to smartphones can sensitize individuals to rewarding stimuli, making them hypersensitive to cues associated with phone use. Consequently, sensations resembling phone alerts, such as ringing, vibrations, or visual displays, may be interpreted as incoming messages. People who are more psychologically dependent on phone communication are more likely to misinterpret ambiguous sensations as phone notifications. 

When do phantom vibration syndrome symptoms usually occur?

A group of people using their phones

Phantom vibration syndrome symptoms can usually occur during various activities like showering, watching TV, or using noisy gadgets. In his 2006 interview with The New York Times, titled “I Hear Ringing and There’s No One There. I Wonder Why”, David Laramie mentioned that he himself experienced phantom vibrations triggered by background music or a few notes that resemble his phone’s ringtone, sound effects in songs on the radio, and even running water, such as when he was shaving.

Additionally, phantom vibration syndrome symptoms can occur during periods of heightened anticipation or anxiety, such as when individuals are expecting an important call or message. As indicated in the study “Phantom vibrations among undergraduates: Prevalence and associated psychological characteristics” published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior in 2012, phantom vibrations mostly occur among young adult undergraduates who excessively use mobile phones and engage in frequent text messaging. The study reveals that around 89% of the surveyed undergraduates experienced phantom vibrations, manifesting roughly once every two weeks on average. Interestingly, most of these individuals did not find these phantom sensations bothersome.

How is phantom vibration syndrome diagnosed?

The primary method for diagnosing phantom vibration syndrome is clinical, with an emphasis on the patient’s self-reporting of these experiences. A medical professional often starts the process by conducting a comprehensive interview to collect data on the patient’s experiences, including the frequency and length of these feelings, as well as any accompanying discomfort or disruption to their normal activities. 

Additionally, professionals might query the patient’s smartphone use habits and their mental condition. In order to provide further support for the diagnosis, it is possible to expand the evidence by including the use of self-report questionnaires or scales that have been specifically developed to evaluate the intensity and consequences of phantom vibrations on an individual’s psychological state of being. 

Some professionals employ the perceived stress scale (PSS) to measure the level of stress perception in individuals. PSS is the most popular psychological instrument for measuring the perception of stress. 

This 10-item scale assesses how stressful individuals perceive situations in their lives, with responses rated on a 5-point Likert scale. Higher scores on the PSS indicate higher perception of stress, as described in the 2018 issue of the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine “Prevalence and Pattern of Phantom Ringing and Phantom Vibration among Medical Interns and their Relationship with Smartphone Use and Perceived Stress”. This instrument provides valuable insights into the psychological state of individuals experiencing PVS, as stress levels may be linked to the occurrence of these sensations.

What are the available treatments for phantom vibration syndrome?

Currently, there is no specific medical treatment for phantom vibration syndrome, as it is not considered a medical condition but rather a perceptual issue related to smartphone usage habits and psychological factors. However, there are several strategies and approaches that can help individuals manage and reduce the impact of PVS. The available treatments for phantom vibration syndrome are listed below.

  • Awareness and mindfulness: Developing awareness and mindfulness involves recognizing the sensations and anxieties associated with phantom vibrations. Mindfulness techniques can help individuals acknowledge these sensations without reacting negatively, thus reducing their impact on daily life.
  • Phone habits and settings: Adjusting phone habits and settings includes modifying notification settings, limiting unnecessary alerts, and practicing digital hygiene. According to the 2019 issue of the Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry titled “The Phantom Syndrome”, phantom sensations related to smartphone use can be effectively managed through several strategies, which include setting time limits for smartphone use, reducing dependency on the device, regularly switching between different notification modes (e.g., from vibration to ringing), carrying the smartphone in different pockets or positions, and avoiding the use of the vibration mode on smartphones. 
  • Psychological support: Psychological support may include therapy or counseling to address any underlying anxiety or attachment issues related to one’s phone. Professionals can help individuals manage their emotional responses to these sensations and provide coping strategies.
  • Digital detox: A digital detox involves temporarily disconnecting from electronic devices, especially smartphones. Taking breaks from constant connectivity can help reset sensory perceptions and reduce the occurrence of phantom vibrations.
  • Physical activity and stress reduction: Engaging in physical activity and stress-reduction techniques can alleviate the physical and psychological symptoms associated with phantom vibrations. Exercise and relaxation practices can help improve overall well-being.
  • Peer discussions: Sharing experiences and discussing PVS with peers who have encountered similar sensations can provide emotional support and offer coping strategies. Although PVS is a relatively new phenomenon, the principles of peer support remain applicable, as they have been shown to be beneficial in various mental health-related experiences, as such discussions can help individuals feel less isolated in their experiences.
  • Medications: In some cases, when PVS is associated with severe anxiety or related mental health issues, medications prescribed by a healthcare professional may be considered. These medications aim to address the underlying psychological factors contributing to the condition.

Can cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) be effective in treating PVS?

A girl on phone sitting with a therapist

No, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has not been proven to be an effective treatment for PVS, as it is not intended to treat sensory or perceptual disorders. PVS is a relatively recent and not thoroughly studied phenomenon, and the research focusing on its treatment, especially using cognitive-behavioral therapy, is not well-established or supported by empirical evidence.

How to get help for phantom vibration syndrome?

In order to get help for phantom vibration syndrome, one should first recognize its impact on their daily lives. To minimize the risk of encountering PVS, it is advisable to limit one’s smartphone use, particularly during non-essential activities. Participating in mindfulness exercises or engaging in meditation will also enhance one’s level of consciousness and alleviate anxiety associated with smartphone alerts.

In addition, including periodic intervals of digital detoxification and participating in activities that do not include online engagement may be effective in disrupting the pattern of reliance. Last but not least, it is important to seek guidance and assistance from a healthcare expert in order to get individualized advice.

How to prevent phantom vibration syndrome?

To prevent phantom vibration syndrome, it’s crucial to distinguish between genuine and imagined vibrations by adjusting phone alerts and vibrations to minimize false alarms. Additionally, taking regular breaks from digital devices can help reduce hypersensitivity to vibrations, considering repositioning the device to prevent physical discomfort, and placing greater emphasis on real-life interactions to divert attention from constant phone notifications and decrease mental preoccupation.

What are the risk factors for phantom vibration syndrome?

Although the understanding of phantom vibration syndrome is continuously evolving, researchers have explored various factors associated with the phantom vibration syndrome, including occupation, smartphone location, carrying duration, frequency of use, and mode of use.

As per Lin YH et al.’s paper “Investigation of the Role of Anxiety and Depression on the Formation of Phantom Vibration and Ringing Syndrome Caused by Working Stress during Medical Internship”, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020, stress-related phantom sensations, such as vibrations and ringing, during high-pressure periods like medical internships, can be attributed to a combination of factors including depression and anxiety. 

Notably, the significant role of depression in these sensations, reveals that it plays a more substantial part than anxiety in both phantom vibrations and ringing. This suggests that taking a dimensional approach to identify and address these sensations linked to anxiety and depression in various stressful situations might prove more beneficial in clinical practice, potentially aiding in the prevention of burnout in the workplace.

The researchers of the 2019 issue of Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry titled “The Phantom Syndrome”, found that emotional attachment to smartphones is a significant risk factor for phantom syndrome. Those who develop emotional bonds with their phone contents, such as contacts, apps, and social updates, are more susceptible. Personality traits, including extraversion and agreeableness, which reflect social connectivity needs, can also influence the syndrome.

The experts also highlighted that while some earlier studies found no significant link between smartphone use duration and the syndrome, the phenomenon is directly related to the hours spent carrying and using smartphones.

Is phone addiction a risk factor for phantom vibration syndrome?

A man using phone on bed at night

Yes, phone addiction may be a risk factor for phantom vibration syndrome. Although PVS is primarily a perceptual and psychological issue, certain researchers believe that phone addiction is indirectly linked with PVS.

A 2013 study titled “Ringxiety and the Mobile Phone Usage Pattern among the Students of a Medical College in South India” in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research reported that ringxiety or phantom vibration syndrome typically results from excessive mobile phone use. Researchers found that medical students with ringxiety were more likely to use mobile phones in restricted places, such as classrooms or libraries, during meals, and while driving. Most of these students reported using their mobile phones in vibrating or silent mode.

Additionally, a vast number of the researched students also reported being either very or extremely devastated if there was network inaccessibility, supporting the hypothesis that phone addiction is a risk factor for developing phantom vibration syndrome. 

Is online shopping addiction a risk factor for phantom vibration syndrome?

No, there is currently no direct evidence or scientifically established link between online shopping addiction and phantom vibration syndrome. As of today, PVS has been studied in the context of mobile phone use and dependency, but the relationship is not limited to online shopping. 

Individuals with an online shopping addiction might frequently use their mobile devices to shop and may be anxiously awaiting notifications related to their transactions, deliveries, or deals. This heightened anticipation and sensitivity to phone notifications could, in theory, increase the likelihood of experiencing phantom vibrations. However, this speculation isn’t backed by specific research studies and, therefore, shouldn’t be considered evidence-based. 

How does phantom vibration syndrome affect the body?

Phantom vibration syndrome may affect the body through psychological stress and the misinterpretation of sensory signals. Individuals with PVS experience tingling hallucinations during which they falsely think their mobile devices are vibrating. 

This phenomenon is commonly associated with increased stress and anxiety, as those with PVS may be in constant anticipation of receiving notifications, resulting in increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli. These repeated false alarms could potentially cause mental fatigue and exacerbate stress-related disorders over time.

How does phantom vibration syndrome affect the brain?

A girl with phone on her left hand.

As of today, there is no evidence or scientific proof to suggest that phantom vibration syndrome has substantial or enduring effects on the brain, although it may be intriguing and occasionally bothersome. 

Certain research findings indicate that the deterioration of mental health due to heightened anxiety and hyper-vigilance may potentially progress into psychiatric conditions if not properly addressed, however, the scarcity of available data on this subject limits our understanding.