How irrational is your phobia?

At the age of 12 I sat down to watch the first Final Destination film which my dad had loaned from the local library. This was possibly one of the greatest mistakes of my life; to this day the thought of watching that film causes my heart to beat out of my chest and my whole body to tense up. This is a feeling some people may recognise but for most it is normally caused by spiders, snakes or heights.

A relatively large portion of the population feel a dislike towards snakes or spiders, but for this “fear” to become a full-fledged phobia it needs to bring about a specific reaction; nervousness, sweaty palms and shortness of breath. When this reaction occurs in response to a specific situation/event it is known, unsurprisingly, as a specific phobia.

There are three different kinds of phobias, the first – specific, is the most well-known and most common. In this group there are three that most people have heard of: a fear of heights, snakes or spiders (Or all three if you’re unlucky). However, not everyone has the same reaction to a situation and phobias can be very individual, like a phobia of films about avoiding death.

The second kind of phobias are called complex phobias and are caused by a fear of social situations. This phobia is specific to humans and occurs when someone is afraid of how other people will react in a given situation. This type of phobia is often known as social anxiety and can severely impact someone’s ability to function day to day; much of how we think and behave is influenced by the views and behaviors of others.

The final type of phobia is known as agoraphobia, which is commonly mistaken as a fear of going or being outside. The term agoraphobia stems from the Greek word agora, which means a central gathering place such as an assembly point or a market place. Based on this, in the past the term agoraphobia was used to describe someone who was afraid to go somewhere with large crowds. Now, according to the Diagnostic and statistics manual V(DSM-V) agoraphobia is known as a feeling of anxiety or panic about being in a place or situation from which escape might be difficult (or embarrassing). It is possible that we have all felt something similar when giving a presentation or on a first date however this nervousness is not enough for it to be classed as a phobia. For it to develop into a phobia the reaction needs to be a severe physical reaction. This underlines the key difference between a dislike and a true phobia; a phobia brings about a specific physical reaction which is much worse than just not liking the way a spider moves.

The reasons humans develop phobias is unclear, despite extensive research. Currently, there are two avenues of thought. The first possibility is that phobias are passed genetically through generations. For instance, a neuroscience study in Nature showed that when mice are trained to avoid a smell this aversion is passed onto their offspring. In the experiment, the mice were trained to fear a smell similar to cherry blossom and the result was that both the mice’s offspring, and their offspring, the grandchildren of the original mice, were sensitive to cherry blossom and would avoid the scent, despite having never been exposed to it. It is thought that this could be a survival mechanism to help prepare offspring for potential threats and dangers. This would support peoples fear of spiders and snakes which, generations ago, would have been a danger to our ancestors. However, this mechanism does not explain specific phobias which individuals can develop.

To account for this there is a second train of thought which suggests environmental exposure is responsible for phobias. A prime example of this would be my own fear, having been exposed to the “fear of survival” concept seen in Final Destination at an early age, the thought of watching any film with a similar tone causes me to physically panic. I doubt I’m missing out on any cinematic masterpieces, despite the fact there are now 5 different final destination films but the example still stands, some phobias can only be learned. Another example would be if a child had a particularly scary incident with a dog as a child they may be afraid of dogs. However, evidence indicates that phobias are not always straight forward. For instance, in the last example if the incident with the dog had happened while the child was in a pram then the child may grow up to be afraid of prams rather than dogs. This highlights the fact that phobias are not easily understood. Based on this it is likely that the true cause of phobias lies somewhere in between genetic and environmental and that we still have some way to go before we understand why we develop them.

While we don’t know the exact cause of phobias we have a slightly better understanding of the physical reactions someone has when confronted with a fearful stimulus. Brain scans of people with phobias who are exposed to a scary scenario, such as a picture of a spider, show that the amygdala becomes active, while non-phobic people display very limited activity in the amygdala. The reason for this is the amygdala is the emotional centre of the brain and processes events associated with fear. Based on this it is thought that people with phobias may have different amygdalae, but at this point we’re still unsure as to how different they may be.

While we have at least some understanding about the different kinds of phobias and what may be responsible for causing them that doesn’t make it any easier to rationalise your fears in an attempt to overcome them. It is easy enough to say that the next time there’s a spider in your bathroom you’ll decide not to be afraid, but realistically it’s hard to think your way past a phobia. One option is desensitization which involves exposure to the fearful stimuli to the point it becomes less scary. Likewise, if a phobia is bad enough it is possible to get a prescription for anti-anxiety medications to reduce the anxiety associated with phobias. However, the better option may just be to avoid the situation and maybe ask you significant other to take of the spider. If you suffer from more serious phobias, like fear of being that you’re watched by a duck, known as Anatidaephobia, I’m afraid there’s very little you can do to help stop that feeling.


Stephen Gibney


Image courtesy of JD, hosted on Flickr.

Leave a Reply