Why do we have Fears and Phobias?

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There are few of us who don't have at least one irrational fear or phobia but probably in a fairly mild form such that it doesn't really cause undue distress. For example, I know of many people who are not keen on being in the same room as a spider, or who don't like climbing ladders because they have a fear of heights.

For most of us, however, these situations are either avoidable or the fear symptoms are not that great when they do occur so the phobia is not a major issue and is not something for which we would feel a strong enough need to seek treatment.

But for some people, their phobia has become too severe for comfort and is seriously getting in the way of their life.

There are numerous names out there for phobias, some so obscure that we only become aware of them when the question is asked in a pub quiz. Does it matter to the sufferer if they know that their fear of spiders is called 'arachnophobia'. 

Or that the fear of the number thirteen is 'Triskaidekaphobia'?

Not really. Knowing what it's called doesn't help us cope with it.

What is a Phobia?

A phobia is an irrational fear of something. Irrational means that either the feared thing is harmless or that the degree of fear felt is totally out of proportion to the potential harm.

In the UK, for instance, we have no native species of spiders which are harmful to humans, yet there are thousands of people who would claim to have arachnophobia. 

Phobias can be broadly divided into two categories, specific and non-specific phobias.

See our Fears & Phobias Pinterest board

Specific Phobias

The term, specific phobia, appears straightforward. It refers to a fear of something in particular. Examples of a specific phobia include a fear of spiders, snakes, mice, dentists, lifts, heights, injections, dogs, water, clowns, etc. In each case the fear only happens when the feared object is present either in reality or in a photo, film, on tv, and so on.

Many such 'fears' are more a dislike rather than something which provokes terror. Many people just live with such fears because they are able to avoid their feared object for most of the time. Instead they just carry the fear all their lives because there is never sufficient cause for them to change. For example, they use the stairs rather than the lift, they leave the room when they see a spider, they don't go to the dentist... etc.

People only usually seek treatment for a specific phobia when they find themselves having to face it too frequently for comfort or they have become disabled by it in that it stops them doing something which they really want to do. There is an example of a lady I treated for a spider phobia in the relevant section. Having had a quite severe phobia all her life she only finally sought treatment because it would interfere with a planned holiday of a lifetime.

You will never overcome a fear of anything if you don't really want to!

It takes a degree of motivation and persistence to overcome any fear. Fears are controlled by our thoughts so nobody can cure them for you because nobody but you can control your thoughts.

People often seek treatment for phobias but fail to realise that the therapist can only tell or show them how to go about overcoming it. They can't do it for you. That's why you need to really want to overcome it in order to put in the required effort.

For example, I don't like snakes. I have trained myself not to over-react if I come across an image of one in a magazine, and if I happen to see one on TV I just look away.

I wouldn't visit the reptile house at the zoo, or walk past a snake charmer… But since I am usually able to avoid close contact with snakes in my everyday life, I have never had sufficient desire to put myself through totally losing my fear (or what has become more of a dislike now). 

But any fear can be overcome if you truly want to overcome it!

The same human process is involved in the development of every kind of fear.
The same process is required to overcome each of them.
The same principles apply to all the specific fears, no matter how unusual or obscure they are. 

To make this process clearer I have briefly described each of the following more common specific phobias, how they developed and the steps needed to unlearn them. 

More info on some specific phobias by clicking these links:

navigation symbol for fear of heights
navigation symbol for fear of lifts
navigation symbol for needle phobia
navigation symbol for fear of dentist
navigation symbol for spider phobia
navigation symbol for page about fear of flying

Non-specific Phobias

The second group are the non-specific phobias which are characterized by fear of fear itself. The most common of these are agoraphobia and social phobia.

Whereas the specific phobias are easily understood by most people, the reasons behind the non-specific phobias are often mystifying to both sufferers and their friends and family.  This often results in a lack of sympathy for sufferers on the part of their nearest and dearest.

These fears seem to arise on some occasions but not others and to happen in a whole variety of places and situations. Their apparent unpredictability makes them terrifying to sufferers who, because they can never be sure whether the fear will arise, end up avoiding many situations where it might. Thus their lives become restricted.

The biggest fear of those experiencing one of the non-specific phobias is of having a panic attack of some sort!

The sufferer is often afraid of having a panic attack in a public place and being unable to control their own reactions. There is a fear of being embarrassed in public and that some passer-by, whilst trying to be helpful, might send for an ambulance and have them carted off to hospital.

Someone in this situation usually just wants to become invisible and preferably to get the hell out of there.

The word, agoraphobia, means a fear of the market place, yet in all my years as a psychologist, having treated numerous agoraphobia sufferers, I have never come across any who were actually afraid of any particular place per se.

However, even though these phobias may appear inconsistent, they are not. The fears of both the agoraphobia and social phobia sufferers are following a pattern. 

Social Phobia is characterised by someone not wanting to attend various social events because they are afraid they might have a panic attack whilst there. Alternatively, they are afraid of what others will think of them. This thinking makes them embarrassed and causes them to focus only on how they are feeling rather than on what's going on.

Agoraphobia is characterised by the sufferer not wanting to go somewhere or do something especially on their own because they might have a panic attack. Many panic attack sufferers won't leave home on their own because they fear having a panic while out, someone calling an ambulance, and them being taken off to hospital. This is usually the reason why they are able to go out as long as someone is with them because they trust this other person to look after them and stop others intervening. 

As is explained in Panic Disorder, a panic attack is brought about by the sufferer's focus on the early symptoms and the fear that they will escalate, i.e. a fear of fear itself. Many cases of Agoraphobia or Social Phobia might just as easily be classified as Panic Disorder.

It is not so much the label which is put on the problem that is important as the way it can be cured. Any phobia can be overcome if the sufferer is prepared to work at it with the right guidance. All phobias come about because the survival instinct has learnt to recognise situations and events which have caused fear in the past so now gives a startle warning whenever it encounters them. The person reacts to the startle warning with more raised negative arousal or fear, and so it continues. 

Other pages which may be relevant:

Navigation symbol for link to page about Agoraphobia
Navigation symbol for link to page about social phobia
Navigation symbol for link to page about overcoming panic attacks.

  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Fears and Phobias