Fears don’t always make logical sense. For instance, many people who are afraid of flying aren’t afraid of driving even though road fatalities greatly outnumber fatalities in air crashes. All of us have fears and phobias, and the reasons behind them are still debated. Here’s a look at phobias, how they work and where they come from.
When a person suffers from an irrational fear that is significantly exaggerated, that fear is known as a phobia. This exaggerated fear — whether of heights, spiders, needles or even social interaction — can become so extreme that it interferes with daily life.
Phobias are categorized into three types:
- Specific phobias
Specific phobias are the most well-known phobia type. Specific phobias are an irrational fear of a specific thing or situation, such as a fear of spiders or a fear of heights. Specific phobias can be further subdivided into four types: situational (e.g., claustrophobia), natural environment (e.g., fear of thunderstorms), animal (e.g., fear of snakes) and blood-injection-injury (e.g., fear of needles).
- Social phobias
Social phobias are an irrational fear of how people will perceive you. Individuals with social phobia aren’t just shy — they are actually terrified of certain social interactions, not unlike how a person with arachnophobia is terrified of spiders.
Although most people think about agoraphobia as the fear of open spaces, this phobia actually describes a fear of any situation in which escape would be difficult (for example, a crowded train) or in which help would not be forthcoming (for example, the countryside).
How do individuals develop phobias? No one is sure, but scientists have some theories:
- Classical conditioning
One possibility is that individuals who develop phobias learned those phobias through classical conditioning. When people experience something bad in a certain context (e.g., while in a small space) or with a certain thing (e.g., a spider), they learn to associate their bad experience with that context or thing. As an example, a person may develop a fear of dogs after receiving a bite as a child. Whenever that individual encounters dogs in the future, friendly or not, he or she recalls the trauma associated with the bite.
People may also develop phobias via observation. For instance, a young child may witness her mother panic about flying on an airplane. That child may then develop her own fear of flying.
Sometimes, people are told to be afraid of something, whether by a person or through the media. For instance, many moviegoers developed a fear of the ocean after seeing “Jaws.” Even though shark attacks are very rare, the volume of these incidents depicted in the movie made them seem like a common occurrence.
Scientists suspect that some phobias may be rooted in evolution. For instance, research from one study indicated that primates learn to fear snakes more rapidly than they learn to fear other stimuli. Fearing snakes likely presents an evolutionary advantage, especially since these slithering creatures posed a threat to our ancestors.
Through extensive human and animal research, neuroscientists have found a likely biological culprit for phobias as well: the amygdala. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure located deep within the brain’s temporal lobe. Scientists largely believe that this region plays a role in fear processing. When a person develops a phobia, this so-called “fear center” may be responding incorrectly, causing that person to experience an inappropriate degree of fear.
Regardless of what causes phobias, their impact on daily life can be profound. Individuals who fear spiders might be unable to stay in their house if a spider finds its way inside. People who are afraid of flying might miss vacations, weddings or funerals. Finding out how these phobias arise — as well as how to treat them — is essential for both today’s and tomorrow’s clinicians.
Sovereign Mental Health Services prides itself on using cutting-edge, evidence-based techniques to treat a wide assortment of mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders. For more information, please contact 866-954-0529.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer