All you need to know about phobias (WITHOUT pictures of phobias!)
Updated: Mar 8
First of all, what is a phobia? The concept is commonly described as "an extreme or irrational fear or aversion to something". But what if I were to tell you, that all phobias make total sense? Yes, there might be unexplored reasoning behind them, but the way phobias develop is actually quite easy to explain.
Nevertheless, the reasoning behind calling a fear "irrational" is probably due to the fact that it activates the part of the brain which deals with emotions and survival, rather than "logic". This part is called the amygdala (as it is almond shaped) and it is where emotional memories are stored. It is also called the "primitive" part of the brain. The amygdala is what is activated when fear responses such as fight, flight, or freeze are triggered. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain) is what is responsible for "rational" responses. Interestingly, this part does not fully develop in humans until about the age of 24, which explains why at times younger people can make more rash decisions. Therefore, when a person experiences a phobia trigger, the amygdala takes charge, and the frontal cortex is taking a back seat to the interaction. This means that the person is feeling fear in a "disproportionate" way to if they could calculate the real extent of the threat using their "rational" brain.
Briefly, there are six main reasons why a phobia develops:
Because of something traumatic that has happened to you before that involved the specific trigger. For example, if you fell down from a high place, you might develop a fear of heights. You might remember this event explicitly, vaguely, or even not have any recollection of it whatsoever. However, the body tends to remember and then will let your brain know that you need to avoid the particular stimulus in order to stay safe.
Because you heard/saw that something is dangerous. For example, if you are told that a dog's bite is dangerous, with details attached, you might develop a dog phobia. This can also include the form of seeing something being dangerous, either in real life, or in TV. Sometimes the concept of danger attached to this stimulus is repeated many times until you develop a phobia. However, you might only hear/see something once and it can get imprinted in your brain as a phobia, especially if it is something you witness in childhood. For example, certain people got a fear of flying after witnessing the news surrounding 9/11.
Because you have associated (usually unconsciously) the fearful stimulus with an actually scary event. If you heard a bell right before you were going to receive an electric shock, you would probably be very afraid of bell sounds. You might then also be afraid of people speaking loudly, horns beeping in the street, and any sort of loud noise that you might have connected with a very unpleasant experience. Again, you might remember this explicitly or not at all. This example is usually linked to intentional conditioning (now thankfully mostly illegal). However, you might unintentionally link your fear with an object that is in theory completely unrelated to the source of the actual fear, because you have connected the two in your brain. For instance, if you were a small child and you fell and hit your head while you were looking at flowers, you might develop a fear of flowers.
Because your brain calculates that something is wrong. This might be related to the collective unconscious (i.e. information we are storing in our brains from thousands of years of human knowledge, that we don't know is there). For example, why are clowns scary to many people? Part of it might be related to all 3 previous reasons, with #2 the more prominent, as clowns have been portrayed as evil in popular films. However, I also think that the reason for this portrayal might have been the vastly exaggerated human features and peculiar colour combinations, that can signify that this person is not trustworthy, or even not completely human. Another connotation about someone or something not looking "exactly right" is that they might be "sick" and thus we need to avoid this stimulus for our own survival.
Because something is unknown. Humans instinctively understand that if something is unknown, it might be good, but it also might be bad. It makes more sense for the brain to be rather safe than sorry, and predispose you to be weary of the unknown. However, this is usually also reinforced by stories of "stranger danger". In a way, the unknown has a 50-50 chance of being good or bad, so we are also conditioned to fear the unknown a bit more than realistically plausible.
Because something is similar to the initial scary stimulus. For example, you developed a fear of crowds, and it eventually became a fear of socialising even with small groups. You are afraid of dogs and now you are afraid of most animals, etc. This is usually the brain's way of trying to protect you from all possible dangers, by making all the connections it can.
Now, let's unpack some rather common phobias:
TRIGGER WARNING: Unpack means explain what your brain might be afraid of happening to you. Reading the rationalisation of phobias is extremely unlikely to cause you to develop an actual phobia. However, please be compassionate to yourself if you have high anxiety or if you do not want to read the explanation of the phobia you already have.
Fear of heights (Acrophobia)
This is really a fear of falling. Humans don't like feeling vulnerable and in potential danger, and looking at something from really high up is certainly a way to feel powerless. If the fear progresses, you might get a general fear of falling if the ground is slightly steep or you are in a slightly elevated space.
2. Fear of the dark (Nyctophobia)
This is mostly fear of the unknown, which has been reinforced by the idea that crimes usually happen in the dark. This is therefore more a fear of association rather than of the stimulus itself. Also, because people usually associate the dark with sleep, there is the association of being more vulnerable at the time, which again gets projected on the dark rather than the sleep/lying down itself. The fear can even at times manifest itself with fear of dark colours, especially in living spaces.
3. Fear of crowds (Agoraphobia)
Crowds can be scary because you might feel closed in by them. You might have had a bad experience in a smaller or larger group, and now fear groups of all sizes. Many humans together have the potential to become threatening, so it makes sense. Another version of this can be social anxiety, where it seems that the fear of judgement from others is so strong, that one can decide it is best to avoid interactions with most other people.
4. Fear of closed, tight spaces (Claustrophobia)
Who wants to feel stuck in a small space? Your brain probably tries to calculate how much oxygen there is, and as it usually doesn’t have to do that, it’s getting stressed. Usually, the phobia expands in a way that the spaces are realistically not as dangerous as perceived, but the brain does the best to protect you "just in case".
5. Fear of germs (Germophobia)
Covid-19 happened, and existing germophobes probably protected themselves more! However, what is germy/dirty is rather relevant, and sometimes it is worth re-evaluating what you are in control of touching and cleaning, and what you might not be in control of.
[(Greece's most famous TV germophobe character, declaring he is D I S G U S T E D!]
6. Fear of spiders or insects (Arachnophobia/Entomophobia)
These little creatures might carry disease or they might not, but to our primitive brain, they are all equally dangerous. Some of them might also cause certain people serious reactions such as allergies. It might be worth checking the new science of how dangerous the ones you have in front of you actually are, and what you can do to protect yourself, but it is overall a logical fear.
7. Fear of needles (Trypanophobia)
A foreign sharp body inside your own body! The real question would be, who is not afraid of needles? It is however worth looking at the balancing of the risks and benefits (eg Covid-19 vaccine vs fear of needles). However, I have noticed that medical professionals tend to be more informed about this fear and have good distracting techniques to help you feel a bit safer.
8. Fear of sudden/loud noises (Phonophobia)
I hope that by now it is obvious that this is normal. The fear might of course expand and include usual sounds of the city that might make one's life more limited if trying to avoid them, and then this becomes a phobia in the sense that you might need to readdress the balance of the fear versus living life. However, if someone at school clapped their hands in front of your eyes or shouted behind your back and said "haha you got scared!", joke's on them, because your reflexes worked perfectly well!
Now, let's unpack some not so common phobias, which are usually rather misunderstood:
Fear of (a cluster) of holes (Trypophobia)
Fear of holes is more often a fear of cluster of holes, or of bumps. Does the second bit make more sense? It something is bumpy it might be sick, and therefore might make us sick, so the brain warns us to avoid it. Swiss cheese is probably not sick, but tell that to your primitive brain. It's only doing its job to keep you alive! Sometimes the association of holes might be made with a cluster of spots as it might resemble a large wild animal, that our ancestors would instinctively be afraid of.
2. Fear of buttons (Koumpounophobia)
It seems that this phobia is very similar to the one above. Buttons can look like pimples or spots to the part of the brain that is protective of your well-being. They also have strange colours and patterns that might trigger the "something is wrong" response. Put them together, and you got a cluster of potentially sick objects.
3. Fear of high ceilings (Altocelarophobia)
The brain probably thinks something is very wrong. This room looks like it was made for a giant- will I get stomped on? There is unreachable space, it's unknown, do bad things live there? Also the feeling of being closed in might play a role there-unlike claustrophobia, it's not that the space is very small, but it is still closed and not to scale, so it triggers the "something is wrong" response. Sometimes this fear expands to fear of being next to very tall buildings such as skyscrapers.
4. Fear of long words (NAME OMITTED)
This phobia has a very cruel name that is a very long word so I won't include it here. This is most likely a fear of associating trying to read with some sort of punishing behaviours from others. However, taking the time to read a very long word might also trigger the danger button as you might be focusing your attention for too long, rather than being able to be vigilant for actual danger. Too many letters together don't look exactly right either.
BONUS: Very common phobia for Millennials/Gen Z's that I read about in the early '00s as "obscure"
5. Fear of phonecalls (Telephonophobia)
Fear of making/receiving phonecalls! The irony is that in the early '00s it was even scarier making a telephone call, as you probably had to call a landline, and ANYONE could answer! Also, caller ID wasn't as widespread, so ANYONE could be calling you! Talk about fear of the unknown, plus a tad of the dark (as you can't see the other side), plus being judged by others. This is a prime example of how the world evolves to avoid the necessity of triggering/scary stimuli. It could also perhaps be a sign that if you can have the choice, you can feel more free to a)express your aversion towards something without fear of being ridiculed and b)make the choice to alter your behaviour to avoid the fear with minimal consequences (send an email or text).
And what about the I-don't-like-difference-phobias?
Notice how people often talk about their phobias: I HATE insects! I HATE heights! Rather than saying "I am fearful of..." the emphasis goes on how the scary stimulus is bad, and thus makes someone feel strongly against it. Now, this happens when people are also afraid of a group of humans. Sometimes, there are special words constructed for if you are particularly afraid and thus hate other races (racist). There is an accurate word for people that hate women (misogynist), because misos means hate in Greek, and gyni means woman. However, sometimes words declaring that people hate other groups can directly include the word phobia in them: Xenophobia (hate/fear of foreigners), fatphobia (of overweight individuals), homophobia (of homosexual individuals), transphobia (of trans individuals).
A lot of people argue that this is not an actual fear, as it is simply someone being nasty towards others. However, I still believe that it does originate in a fear, but it has a different solution than if someone is afraid of inanimate objects. There is a very fine line when someone is afraid of insects (would be nice if you tried not to kill them in the process) and of course animals (would be extremely decent of you to not hurt them in any way). However, people can usually choose to not interact with these triggers if they can, until and if they choose to deal with their phobia. On the other hand, we live in an integrated society, and we cannot be ignoring other humans on the basis of being afraid of a part of their identity, and definitely not being violent towards them because of it either.
If you would like to take the first steps towards understanding and eliminating certain prejudices/phobias of groups of people you might have, take a look at my other blog post,
https://www.eirinipsychotherapy.co.uk/post/challenging-unconscious-prejudice-and-racism-a-starting-point. It mostly addresses implicit (unconscious) racist beliefs, but the points can be applied to all sort of groups-of-other-people-are-scary thoughts. Overall, these fears get reinforced via our fear of the unknown as well as then associating the unknown with all kinds of new dangers (e.g. "immigrants are attacking our way of life") that then get reinforced by certain parts of society that have the power to influence our emotions towards these groups of people.
Why doesn't everyone have the same phobias?
You might be now wondering: Ok, some of that maybe makes sense, but if it's so "logical", how come we don't all have these phobias? Our understanding of the human brain is really good compared to what it was 100 years ago, but really bad if we consider the fact that we don't fully understand what is going on in there. One of the things neuroscientists know, is that not all brains have the same neurological connections, and this can be both due to nature (e.g. your genes), and nurture (your experiences, not only since you were born, but since you were conceived).
So, some people will have different genetic predispositions towards certain phobias, but we don't quite understand which genes might be behind each phobia. And a lot of people will experience something that makes them develop that phobia. Keep in mind, that you might not remember or understand why you find something scary in the first place, but it doesn't necessarily mean that your brain didn't make this connection at some point during your lifetime.
Nature and nurture can also interact in that you might have a certain gene that makes it more likely to develop a phobia, but you will only develop it if you happen to encounter a certain stimulus in your lifetime. The gene might also be there because your ancestors encountered the stimulus and it made more explicit sense for them to avoid it. For example, it seems that some of our ancestors developed and passed on the phobia of clusters of holes/bumps, and some did not.
So, how can I actually overcome a phobia?
Try to make sense of it, and be compassionate towards yourself. Points 1-6 might be helpful in getting you started to hypothesise what might have triggered the phobia. Looking at what might be behind the phobia can help you understand that you are not "irrational" or "weak" and thus might make you braver in being able to address the roots of the phobia.
Understand whether you need to face it or not (balancing risk and benefit). For example, if you have a needle phobia, you might need to make sure that you get extra support if you decide to have a vaccine. However, you don't need to go all out and become a habitual bone marrow donor just to overcome this specific phobia, if it's not something you want to be doing.
You don't need to enter any exposure therapy if not sure this is the best for you. A lot of people avoid mentioning their phobias to others, and especially to therapists, due to the misconception that they will then be made to face their fears head on. In fact, just talking about it might already be helping you overcome it, and only you can know if and when you are ready to then expose yourself to the phobia.
Supportive social networks can be really helpful. A supportive family member or friend, or a therapist, can help you make sense of the phobia, and of what you need in order to feel more comfortable if you are encountering the stimulus.
Do not harm anyone verbally or physically (including animals). Instead, try to understand where a phobia/intolerance might be coming from.
Do the non-magic version of Riddikulous!