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The Science Behind Phobias

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Contributor Phoebe Yin

What are phobias?

Fear is a natural human response to dangerous situations, and it can often protect us from the threats around us. However, when fear becomes irrational or uncontrollable, it can be debilitating and significantly decrease your quality of life. From heights to needles to the colour yellow, a wide variety of phobias affects millions of people worldwide. Phobias are considered to be a type of anxiety disorder—exposure to a feared object, creature, place, or situation can cause extreme distress and potential panic attacks. Even if a person with a phobia recognizes that the fear is irrational, they are unable to control their reaction nonetheless.


The American Psychiatric Association classifies phobias into three categories. Specific phobias refer to the fear of a specific trigger, social phobias are based on the fear of public judgement or humiliation, and agoraphobia is the fear of being caught in a situation that is difficult to escape from (such as being on public transport).


Why do we develop phobias?

Studies show that phobias likely arise as a result of environmental and genetic factors. Although it’s unclear which genes have a significant effect, it’s believed that variants in multiple genes may give someone a genetic predisposition to develop phobias. Alternatively, a previous encounter with the feared object or situation that left a person feeling out of control can contribute to phobias. For example, having an uncomfortable experience in a confined space can lead to the development of claustrophobia, the fear of tight spaces. Since phobias tend to develop early on in life, usually before the age of 30, psychologists suggest that children can also “learn” phobias from their parents. Generally, children whose parents have a certain phobia are more likely to grow up with the same phobia, compared to children whose parents don’t have that phobia.


Common and uncommon phobias

Some phobias affect more people than others, and these are considered to be relatively common:

Hypochondria: phobia of being ill

Claustrophobia: phobia of confined/small spaces

Emetophobia: phobia of vomiting

Acrophobia: phobia of heights

Zoophobia: phobia of animals


There are also rare phobias that affect a much smaller proportion of the population:

Arachibutyrophobia: phobia of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth, likely due to a fear of choking

Chirophobia: phobia of hands, likely due to injury or conditions such as arthritis

Globophobia: phobia of balloons, likely linked to jump scares and phobia of clowns

Chloephobia: phobia of newspapers, likely due to the rustling sound and smell of ink

Ablutophobia: phobia of bathing, likely due to an incident with water


What happens in the brain?

One of the most important functions of the brain is memory. Most of the time, memory makes life easier, but not all memories are positive ones. If the brain stores a memory of an event that was especially dangerous, and that memory is later recalled by facing a similar event, the body may have the same “fight-or-flight” reaction. In the brain of someone with a phobia, that dangerous event is retrieved at inappropriate times. One specific area of the brain that may be responsible is the amygdala, which controls the “fight-or-flight” hormones.


Treatments

Luckily, phobias are treatable, especially if the person is aware of their phobia (which most are). Often, people choose not to treat their phobia if it isn’t too severe. Many people find that simply avoiding the trigger helps them to manage their phobia and live a relatively normal, unaffected life. In some cases, the trigger is harder to avoid, or the symptoms are harder to manage. Cognitive behavioural therapy, exposure therapy, and taking medications such as beta blockers can help manage the anxiety that specific triggers may induce.


References

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