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Fear and Phobias: Part 1

Right, let’s talk about something scary. Literally. Something that can cause you to feel anything from a vague sense of forboding to all-out, adrenaline-pumping, heart-beating-out-of-your-chest, cold-sweat-inducing panic. It’s part and parcel of being human. I am of course talking about fear itself.

Anything can cause a phobic reaction


Now you might be feeling a bit disappointed. Perhaps you were expecting me to be building up to a common physical fear like spiders, an experiential one like the fear of public speaking, or a conceptual one like the fear of failure. But what makes fear so fascinating (for me at least) is that it can be caused by just about anything.


Type “list of fears” on Google and you’ll come up with some pretty interesting results, ranging from common fears like claustrophobia and aviophobia to hilarious ones like carpophobia, octophobia and hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia. It’s hard to believe that someone could be scared witless by peaches, the number 8 or long words, but those people exist and for them it’s no laughing matter (especially if the name of their phobia alone causes them a phobic reaction).


By the way, for the sake of argument let’s say that a phobia is an irrational fear that causes an extreme physical and psychological reaction. Fear is the emotion that we experience, whether consistently as a result of a phobia, or a rational response to something scary or unexpected (e.g. if you thought someone was following you down a dark, deserted alleyway, or if someone did something to give you a scare as a frightfully funny joke).


Fear is subjective

Where were we? Oh right, phobias can be caused by almost anything, and what can make one person shake with laughter can make another quake with fear. You probably know someone who is terrified of spiders. Personally I don’t mind them at all. In fact, I decided a while back that I actually like them because they help get rid of nasty flies which are dirty and spread disease. Ok, there aren’t any dangerous spiders in England, and the ones we have aren’t that big anyway, so that helps. If I found a Brazilian bird-eating spider in my bed I would probably think twice before snuggling up to it, but for now they’re all good in my book. But some people won’t go into a room if there’s even a tiny one in there.


Phobias are irrational

Actually, this shouldn’t be suprising because phobias by definition are irrational. Even though we know that something can’t hurt us, it still doesn’t make any difference. Let’s use another example, this time an invisible fear, the fear of rejection. No one died (to my knowledge) as a result of someone saying no to them, but many of us still dread being rejected. Why? Is it built into our DNA, like the fight-flight response, because historically humans needed to be part of a community or tribe in order to survive, so exclusion was tantamount to a death sentence? This might explain why public speaking is the most common fear – the audience is the modern day equivalent of the tribe. Perhaps, but how are some people still able to brush off rejection and keep going until they get the desired response? And how can some people love making speeches and look so relaxed doing it?


How phobias start

It’s said that as babies we are born with two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. These are encoded in our DNA; that means that all our other fears are learned. They might be passed down to us from our parents, because as children we learn primarily by association, so if we witness our mother scream and run out of the room when she sees a duck-billed platypus in the corner of the room, then we make a simple connection in our young minds. And then, tragically, every time we see a duck-billed platypus we trigger – and reinforce – the same response. Which explains why more people are afraid of spiders: spiders are everywhere, so plenty of opportunities to reinforce that fear.


Useful fear vs. phobias

So the bottom line is that our fears are really our fears, things that we have learned and which have been reinforced by repetition until they became automatic. That means they can be “unlearned” as well. Ignoring them doesn’t help, and avoiding them reinforces them all the more. The conventional way is to confront them. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain”, but that requires a certain level of cast-iron willpower which not all of us have. Fear can be extremely useful, for example as a caution against risking our physical wellbeing. Going back to our ancestors, the ones whose fear held them back from boldly going into unchartered territory tended to live longer, so the survival genes got passed down. We don’t want to eradicate all fear, just phobias because they don’t serve a useful purpose. In fact they just hold us back.


Next time I’m going to take you on a roller coaster ride and delve a bit deeper into fear. In the meantime, what’s that I just saw waddling under your bed?

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