What is a Phobia?
Despite what people think, fears and phobias are very common. They are also a natural part of being human. Phobias and fear ward us away from dangers that can be potentially harmful, and even fatal, to us.
Back when humans were simply hunters and gatherers, fears and phobias helped our species steer clear of predators or animals that could do us harm. Fear and phobias are born out of experience and knowledge of our natural world. For centuries, it has helped the human race survive as a collective species.
But since then, the definition of fear has changed. Fear no longer needs to be life threatening to be a totally incapacitate an individual. Instead, fear has evolved to encompass many different things. As modern society continues to progress, more and more people have even more things to be afraid, worry, and be anxious about. Our fears have come to go beyond mere predators. Now, people fear for their finances, their social standing, for their belongings and their future. But fears have become even more specific than that. Fears have come to mean more than a determinant for survival. Fear has come to mold our self-image and our decisions in life. It has come to dictate what we can and cannot do.
Nowadays, people also recognize fear all too well to be a huge obstacle to many things in their lives. Fear of heights prevents people from scaling the top of tall buildings or reaching the peaks of mountains. Fear of public speaking prevents people from communicating with large audiences no matter how passionate they are regarding their ideas and beliefs.
In the modern context, phobias have come to refer to paralyzing fears usually rooted to a very specific source. They are normally psychological in nature, although their far reaching effects can feel entirely physical. In this article, we’ll be exploring what exactly a phobia is and how people suffering from it can hope to cope with them.
The Definition of Phobia
As mentioned earlier, a phobia usually refers to an overwhelming, sometimes paralyzing, fear. Its etymology is from the Greek word Phobos, which means “morbid fear”. This kind of fear is immediately far greater than any simple fright or minor episode of anxiety.
The textbook definition of phobia is as follows:
[A phobia] is, when used in the context of clinical psychology, a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding, typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational. In the event the phobia cannot be avoided entirely the sufferer will endure the situation or object with marked distress and significant interference in social or occupational activities.
There are literally hundreds of different kinds of phobias, each with their own unique definition. Arachnophobia refers to an unrelenting fear of spiders, while ornithophobia refers to the paralyzing fear of birds. More peculiar phobias include xenophobia which is a fear of strangers, graphophobia which is a fear of writing, or scopophobia which is a fear of being looked at. Read More
However a particularly interesting phobia is agoraphobia, which many people have come to know as a “fear of open spaces”. In truth, agoraphobia has very little to do with open spaces at all. Instead, it is a paralyzing fear of anxiety, stress, or fear itself.
This debilitating trait has made phobias intricately connected with anxiety disorders, whose symptoms are very much similar to that of a person whose phobias are triggered.
What Kind of Phobias are There
As mentioned earlier, there are literally hundreds of officially recorded phobias. Every one of them deals with a specific trigger or source. They span a variety of conditions, from animals to objects. It’s hard to believe that these phobias exist, but doctors and medical specialists continue to research how they originate and how they can be properly treated.
Listed below is a select list of various phobias alongside their definition:
- Ablutophobia – fear of bathing, washing, or cleaning
- Achluophobia – fear of darkness
- Acrophobia – fear of heights
- Agoraphobia – Fear of open spaces or of being in public places. Fear of leaving a safe place.
- Agraphobia – fear of sexual abuse.
- Agrizoophobia – fear of wild animals
- Agyrophobia –The fear of crossing the road.
- Aichmophobia – fear of sharp or pointed objects (such as a needle or knife)
- Ailurophobia – fear of cats
- Androphobia – fear of men
- Anthophobia – fear of flowers
- Anthropophobia – fear of people or the company of people, a form of social phobia.
- Aquaphobia – fear of water.
- Arachnophobia – fear of spiders
- Astraphobia – fear of thunder and lightning
- Atychiphobia – fear of failure
- Autophobia – fear of being alone or isolated
- Aviophobia, Aviatophobia – fear of flying
- Chaetophobia – fear of hair
- Chemophobia – fear of chemicals
- Chiroptophobia – fear of bats
- Chronophobia – fear of time and time moving forward
- Cibophobia, Sitophobia – aversion to food, synonymous to Anorexia nervosa
- Claustrophobia – fear of having no escape and being closed in
- Coulrophobia – fear of clowns (not restricted to evil clowns)
- Cyberphobia – fear of or aversion to computers / Learning new technologies
- Decidophobia – fear of making decisions
- Dentophobia, Odontophobia – fear of dentists and dental procedures
- Descendophobia – fear or discomfort while descending stairs or down a hill
- Disposophobia – fear of getting rid of or losing things
- Dysmorphophobia – a phobic obsession with a real or imaginary body defect
- Ebulliophobia – fear of bubbles
- Emetophobia – fear of vomiting
- Ergasiophobia – fear of work or functioning, or a surgeon’s fear of operating
- Ergophobia – fear of work or functioning
- Erotophobia – fear of sexual love or sexual abuse
- Erythrophobia – pathological blushing
- Friggatriskaidekaphobia – fear of Friday the 13th
- Frigophobia – fear of becoming too cold
- Gamophobia – fear of marriage, commitment
- Gelotophobia – fear of being laughed at
- Gephyrophobia – fear of bridges
- Genophobia, Coitophobia – fear of sexual intercourse
- Gerascophobia – fear of growing old or aging
- Gerontophobia – fear of growing old, or a hatred or fear of the elderly
- Glossophobia – fear of speaking in public or of trying to speak
- Gymnophobia – fear of nudity
- Gynophobia – fear of women
- Halitophobia – fear of bad breath
- Haphephobia – fear of being touched
- Heliophobia – fear of sunlight
- Hemophobia, Haemophobia – fear of blood
- Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia – fear of the number 666
- Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia – fear of long words
- Hoplophobia – fear of weapons, specifically firearms
- Homophobia – fear of homosexuals or of homosexual relationships; homophobic
- Hydrophobia – fear of water, frequently noted as a common symptom of rabies
- Hylophobia – fear of trees, forests or wood
- Hypnophobia or somniphobia – fear of sleep
- Ichthyophobia – fear of fish, including fear of eating fish, or fear of dead fish
- Ipovlopsychophobia – fear of having one’s photograph taken.
- Lipophobia – fear/avoidance of fats in food
- Mysophobia – fear of germs, contamination or dirt
- Necrophobia – fear of death and/or the dead
- Neophobia,– fear of newness, novelty
- Nomophobia – fear of being out of mobile phone contact
- Nosocomephobia – fear of hospitals
- Nosophobia – fear of contracting a disease
- Nyctophobia, Achluophobia, Lygophobia, Scotophobia – fear of darkness
- Oikophobia – fear of home surroundings and household appliances
- Ombrophobia – fear of rain
- Omphalophobia – fear of bellybuttons
- Ophthalmophobia – fear of being stared at
- Osmophobia, Olfactophobia – fear of bad odours
- Panphobia – fear of everything or constant fear of an unknown cause
- Pediophobia – fear of dolls (a branch of automatonophobia: fear of humanoid figures)
- Phagophobia – fear of swallowing
- Pharmacophobia – fear of medications
- Philophobia – fear of love
- Phobophobia – fear of having a phobia
- Phonophobia – fear of loud sounds
- Pyrophobia – fear of fire
- Pteromerhanophobia – fear of being on an airplane
- Radiophobia – fear of radioactivity or X-rays
- Seismophobia – fear of earthquakes
- Sociophobia – fear of people or social situations
- Scopophobia – fear of being looked at or stared at
- Somniphobia – fear of sleep
- Spasmenagaliaphobia (neologism; no official name) – fear of broken glass
- Spectrophobia – fear of ghosts and phantoms
- Stygiophobia – fear of Hell
- Taphophobia, Taphephobia – fear of the grave, or fear of being placed in a grave while still alive
- Technophobia – fear of technology (see also Luddite)
- Telephone phobia – fear or reluctance of making or taking phone calls
- Tetraphobia – fear of the number 4
- Thalassophobia – fear of the sea, or fear of being in the ocean
- Thanatophobia – fear of death
- Thermophobia – fear of heat
- Tokophobia – fear of childbirth or pregnancy
- Traumatophobia – a synonym for injury phobia: fear of having an injury
- Trichophobia – a morbid disgust caused by the sight of loose hairs
- Triskaidekaphobia, Terdekaphobia – fear of the number 13
- Trypanophobia, Belonephobia, Enetophobia – fear of needles or injections
- Turophobia – fear of cheese
- Xanthophobia – fear of the colour yellow
- Xenophobia – fear of strangers, foreigners, or aliens
- Xylophobia, Hylophobia, Ylophobia – fear of trees, forests or wood
The list does not end there, however. There are literally hundreds more recorded phobias categorized by a variety of classifications. There phobias that deal solely with animals. While other phobias deal with specific objects and conditions. Others even more obscure phobias deal with specific cultures.
Despite their definition, people need to understand that phobias are very different from common fears. Just because you fear going to work everyday doesn’t necessarily mean that you suffer from ergophobia.
But what exactly is the difference between a phobia and a fear?
What is the Difference between Phobias and Fears?
Many people do not like snakes or spiders. Some people, however, have irrationally excessive fears and may exhibit a marked reaction to even a drawing or the mere thought of snakes and spiders (or another feared object). Any reminders of the feared item will increase the heart rate of the phobic person, as well as their blood pressure and hormone levels. (Secretions of hormones such as cortisol will spike during times of a real or perceived threat.)
The primary difference between a normal fear that is shared by many people and a chronic phobia is that a phobia is irrational and impedes the individual’s daily life. When the fear becomes overwhelming, persistent, and enveloping and impedes an individual from normal life, it is considered a phobia.
Some fears and phobias stem from modern-day issues such as the fear of terrorism, which, if taken to extremes, could develop into irrational avoidance. Other fears are more individual, such as a fear of caves, which may be based on claustrophobia or caused by a distressing experience of being lost or trapped in a cave for many hours. The intensity and chronicity of a phobia are far greater than the reaction of simple fear.
Specialists on phobias have pointed out that one of the key qualities that differentiate fear from phobias is the sufferer’s ability to magnify the amount of risk when experiencing the source of fear or phobia. When an individual begins to overly exaggerate the threat a certain object, animal or aspect has on him or her, he or she begins to tread into phobic territory.
Phobias Caused by Traumatic Experiences
Some phobias evolve from traumatic experience, often occurring in childhood. A child who was bitten by a dog may fear all dogs even though the experience is suppressed or forgotten.
Someone who was trapped in an elevator and frightened may develop a fear of elevators and even a generalized fear of small enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). Adults abused as children may associate some objects to their childhood abuse; for example, a child who was injured by an iron thrown by her mother avoided irons as an adult.
A Multiplicity of Phobias
Specialists have described what they call “spreading phobias,” or phobias that have evolved beyond the original feared object to other items that are somehow linked with the initial phobia. For example, a laborer who is struck by a truck while painting a white line on a road subsequently develops a phobia of working on the road. The phobia then spreads to a fear of riding a motorcycle or bicycle on a road.
Many phobic individuals suffer from more than one phobia. Other researchers have reported individuals who have feared flying, sitting in a large audience, speaking before large groups, and going to parties.
Therapists found the underlying common factor of each of these phobias by asking these people what they thought could occur in each of these situations. The researchers discovered that the individuals felt that they could lose control, harm someone or humiliate themselves. They were afraid of traveling in an airplane because they feared going berserk, losing control or striking out at other passengers.
At public gatherings, they feared jumping up, waving their arms frantically, or shout obscenities at the guests. They even had recurring fantasies of sitting at a concert and completely disrupting the performance by vomiting over the person seated in front of them. They feared they would distract the entire audience from the music. They feared speaking at professional meetings, which was related to a fear of demolishing someone else’s theory. Their anxiety at cocktail parties was related to the thought that they might spill a drink or that they might impulsively tell people that they were stupid.
It’s clear from these case studies that phobias do have potential to multiply, or in the given examples, spread. The common misconception of people without phobias (and even for a good number of those with), is that phobias stay isolated. But it turns out that phobias do not exist in a vacuum. They exist within a mental context that lies in our dormant subconscious. Despite this, our mind makes links to the possible threats and dangers stemming from our phobias. In the end, an untreated phobia may end up growing to other worse conditions.
Avoidance: The Common Reaction to Phobias
Many phobic people are able to avoid the things that they fear, unless they are ubiquitous. Those who fear social contact find it difficult to avoid people altogether unless they become recluses, while those who fear snakes can generally avoid them. It is when an individual, for whatever reason, is compelled to encounter and then remain with the object of the phobia, such as when the phobic person reacts by freezing rather than taking flight, which is the most stressful time.
Fear and Phobias as an Engrained Evolutionary Response
Many experts believe that there are some basic fears that may be hardwired into the human brain as an autonomic internal protection against dangerous creatures or other experiences.
Some examples are the fears of lightning, thunder, darkness, blood, spiders, snakes, high places, angry people, and storms, as well as the infant’s fear of strangers that manifests at about the same time that the baby starts to crawl. Many experts believe that humans have experienced and displayed their responses to certain primordial fears from before prerecorded history to the present day, and that such fears may have been largely adaptive in times long past.
For example, it is likely that the ancient cave dweller was extremely fearful of snakes, spiders, and many other real threats, just as many people today continue to shrink from such creatures—even though they rarely represent a threat to modern individuals. Some evidence for engrained fears comes from the fact that 85 percent of the people who are terrified of snakes have never seen a live snake.
This point is important to emphasize, because modern individuals are far more at risk from death or injury from a car crash than from a tiny household spider or a harmless garden snake.
Researchers have also pointed out that some clinical states of anxiety are actually adaptive in some situations. Animal phobia is a useful response when an individual is confronted with dangerous animals, while social phobia is an adaptive response when there is a valid threat to an individual’s reputation or status. Agoraphobia is adaptive as well when a person faces an environment that includes dangerous predators, while hypochondria is adaptive when perceived health threats are valid. Despite the apparent evolutionary aspect of fears and phobias, which may have become maladaptive reactions in a 21st-century world, today there are many available treatments for individuals suffering from debilitating phobias.
The ancient cave dweller could not seek out a therapist who was an expert in exposure therapy, nor could he talk it out with a cognitive behavior psychotherapist or take an anti-anxiety medication to ease his suffering. These options—and a variety of other means to resolve phobias, fears, and anxieties—are now available and even commonplace in the 21st century.
What Kinds of Things Trigger Phobias?
It seems that there is almost no limit to the different kinds of things of which people can be afraid. People are often more familiar with the phobias of things in the outside world like heights, injections, certain animals, natural phenomena such as lightning and flood, and objects such as bridges and balloons.
Some fears are much broader, such as being scrutinized or judged by other people, or going too far from home. People often fear experiences in their own bodies or minds, such as sensations of breathlessness; emotions such as sadness, anger or disgust that a person finds unacceptable; thoughts or images of germs all over their hands that compel them to clean themselves; and memories of past traumatic experiences that people try to push out of their mind. This means that even if the things that you are afraid of seem unusual to other people, there is no reason to believe your fears are abnormal.
The range is very broad. People fear very different things from one another because we all have unique experiences and make our own judgments about what is dangerous. Appendix 1 provides a range of other examples.
As there are so many things that people fear, it might seem that a different treatment is needed for each one, making it very complicated. However, this is not the case for two reasons. First, because, whatever the source of the phobia, the same principles that we have covered seem to apply.
For example, in all phobias, people tend to be particularly sensitive to noticing the things of which they are afraid. Second, there is one source of fear that is the same across all these phobias, namely the bodily feelings of fear itself. This is why learning to face, understand and tolerate these feelings in our own bodies is such a useful part of coping. Often it is not the thing itself (for example, a spider) that we are afraid of, but of the way that it makes us feel (for example, disgusted or frightened), and what we think these feelings mean.
For example, one recorded patient interpreted her feelings when she saw a spider as signaling ‘the presence of evil’. We discussed how these feelings might be better explained as her normal fear reaction triggered by adrenaline. We discussed whether the spider was evil or not, and how could you tell? If the spider had the spirit of a saint but still looked like a spider, moved like a spider, and made her feel nervous, then would it still be ‘evil’? We shall return several times to learning to tolerate feelings of anxiety a small step at a time.
How do Fears and Phobias Begin?
There is no single answer to what causes fears and phobias. Problems with anxiety do tend to run in families. Research indicates that part of the cause is inherited and part is caused by what happens to us early on in life. These studies are carried out in several ways. One kind of study takes advantage of the fact that identical twins have identical genes. We get our genes from our parents. They are fixed before we are born and do not change during our lifetime; whatever happens to us.
The most informative studies are ones where two identical twins have been adopted and are reared apart. In this way, they only share the same genes and not the same environment. It is found that if one twin has an anxiety disorder then there is a much greater chance that the other twin will have anxiety disorder too. This means that genes do affect whether a person gets an anxiety disorder. However, genes are not even half of the story. There is a large percentage of identical twins for whom only one of the pair has an anxiety disorder (or any kind of phobia). This must mean that people’s experiences are important too.
There is a great deal of evidence that certain fears develop naturally at a certain age during childhood in most children. For example, the fear of heights appears around the age of eighteen to twenty-four months when a child is mobile and therefore risks falling over. So what leads these fears to become phobias in adulthood for some people? Although the evidence is in its early stages, it seems that it depends on the way that the caregivers of the child (usually the parents) deal with the fear and the child’s distress about it. Some parents will comfort their child, listen to their concerns and help them to face this situation in future.
These children tend to lose their fears with time. Other parents, however, may be convinced that there was a real danger and respond to the child’s distress by trying to prevent any slightly risky situations of the same kind in future. They may also sometimes be very critical of their child’s anxiety problems, rather than accepting them and helping them learn how to deal with them.
These children are more likely to develop phobias.
It is important to note that phobias are not simply caused by genes and parenting style. Some people may have distressing experiences that trigger the phobia, or make it worse.
Sometimes these experiences may be severe traumatic events such as serious injury, prolonged bullying, sexual assault or witnessing violence or death at close hand. Indeed, there is one disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is partly defined by the past experience of a trauma. Other anxiety problems can be triggered by traumas too. Some people who have experienced or witnessed a trauma, such as a car accident, may engage in repetitive checking.
For example, they may check their car repeatedly after driving past a pedestrian, just in case they might have been responsible for an accident too. Other people report frightening experiences that are less traumatic, but nonetheless personally powerful, such as being lost in a supermarket, or being stranded in a thunderstorm. So, at the very least, we need to consider that genes, parenting behavior and personal experiences contribute to phobias. The balance of which of these is more important will vary widely between different people, and these experiences build upon one another over a person’s life.
When these experiences occur early on in life, they are more likely to have a big effect on a person’s way of thinking. Psychological therapy can help people to see how these ways of thinking started, which often involves talking about distressing experiences from the past and being heard in a considerate way.
The therapy also often helps people to see how their past experiences have colored their thinking in the present. Often there is a close relationship between the past experience and the current problem. For example, it is common for people with fears of physical illnesses to have close family members who have died from the illness they are worried about. People with fears of social situations have often experienced nasty incidents of bullying or teasing at a young age.
People with claustrophobic fears have often had frightening experiences of being smothered or restrained in some way. In my experience, it seems as though these experiences build up over a person’s life, and at each stage they make decisions to try to prevent the bad experiences from happening again in a way that gears their life in a certain direction.
Part of learning to cope is gradually realizing the way that your life has been directed by events like this, and trying out a new direction where instead of trying to avoid the danger, you try to face it. Is this current situation really the same as it was in the past? How can you respond differently to what is happening right now that is different from how you managed then?
Making these links does not have to occur in therapy itself, but it seems as though a safe relationship with another person is important. Again, this is probably not the complete answer but is one of the things that others with phobias have found helpful.
Phobias Triggered by Memories and Images
We have already underlined that we need to consider phobias of experiences in the mind and body as well as events that lie outside in the real world. We have talked already about the causes of the physical feelings in our body that come with anxiety. Also important are the memories and mental images that we get in our mind when it comes to fears and phobias.
Very often, when a person is confronted with the object of their fears, they don’t so much react to the object itself, but to the images and memories that this object triggers in their mind. Many of these images are visual, but they can also involve sounds, smells and physical feelings. For this reason, they are sometimes called body memories.
For example, a person who is afraid of fur may experience the mental image of being smothered by fur – this is clearly more frightening than a cuddly toy and explains why the person’s anxiety is so extreme. Any of us would become anxious if we experienced being smothered by fur. What people see from the outside when a person with a phobia is reacting to an object, very rarely reflects what that person is really experiencing, inside their body and their mind.
So what is the cause of these mental images? Are they normal? There is a long history of psychological research into mental imagery. People can use mental images to navigate their way round new towns after memorizing a map.
They use it for solving spatial puzzles such as jigsaws. Our memory of the past is based partly on images stored in our minds that we somehow conjure up when we need to remember events.
Mental imagery is not only normal but very important. The problem is when some of these images contain elements of which we are afraid.
When these images from the past, which can feel very vivid and real, come back in the present, our tendency is to push them to the back of our minds rather than to really see them and manipulate them as you might do if it was the memory of the map of your town. Yet you can no more erase a distressing memory than you can force yourself to forget the layout of your local shopping centre. Pushing images to the back of our minds is an attempt to fool ourselves into thinking that they are not there, rather like believing you can avoid having to pay a parking fine by hiding it at the bottom of a drawer.
You would be less aware of it there, but it would still exist. It seems that our memories cannot be erased in this way. However, psychologists have found that if people experience these images, and notice how they may often be memories of past events, they can start to piece together a story of how they developed their fears. When people have a clear understanding of these past incidents and have started to confront them, the images start to have less of an impact on them in the present.
The signs are that people who learn to face, focus on and piece together the scary images in their mind, can learn to cope with their fears better. This seems to be for two reasons. First, if these memories are of real events, then by being aware of them people actually get a better understanding of their past and how they got to where they are.
Second, when looking at memories and images in this way, people begin to see them as what they are – images and memories, rather than the distressing events happening all over again.
It’s rather like editing the clips from a frightening movie. When we watch a horror film in a darkened cinema, the scary scenes can often jump out of the blue and make us want to turn away. However, imagine you were to get hold of the movie reel, or get an electronic version to manipulate on a computer. You can now see the scenes that make up the movie. You could slow them down, speed them up, maybe even change the order or the ending; but now it’s a lot easier to look at those scenes and see them as bits of film, rather than the event itself, while at the same time understanding the movie in more detail.
Another way of thinking about a mental image is to see it as the map of a location. If you were using a map to plan a difficult, stressful journey, you wouldn’t be afraid of the piece of paper with the map on it.
In the same way, an image in our head is like a map of the outside world. The outside world can help us or harm us, but the image cannot do this. It can only prepare us for what we plan to do.