Halloween is here! The time you can dress up, eat junk food and watch scary movies. You know that feeling of sheer terror when the killer in the Ghost Face mask seemed dead but next time you see where he was laying, he’s disappeared?? Some people feel that terror in ordinary day-to-day situations that you may take for granted. I’m talking about phobias!
The word phobia comes from the Greek word Phobos, which means irrational fear. A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or experience, resulting in a fear response to a stimulus that would not elicit fear from the normal population. For example, no one LIKES spiders, but some people have arachnophobia – fear of spiders. Arachnaphobes react to spiders with extreme anxiety, not just dislike. Their body goes into the fear response mode, increased heart rate, sweating, irregular breathing, and an overwhelming desire to withdraw from the situation. Realistically this spider is just chilling in their house because it’s raining outside or because they thought you looked like a cool dude and wanted to hang out with you. Even if that person knows realistically that spider poses no threat to them, their amygdala still goes into overdrive, and activates fight or flight mode (causing all the effects mentioned above). That is a phobia.
“Realistically this spider is just chilling in their house because it’s raining outside or because they thought you looked like a cool dude and wanted to hang out with you”
Some phobias are triggered by specific events. For example Acrophobia – fear of heights – may be triggered because as a child you were walking along a brick wall, fell and injured yourself. Other times the person with the phobia can’t pinpoint what it was that triggered it. It could be because it happened gradually, or it could be because they were so young when an incident occurred that they have no memory of it.
The list of phobias is long, and so are the phobias themselves, so long in fact that someone with Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliphobia – fear of long words – or Phobophobia – fear of phobias – would find absolutely frightening. There are phobias of everything, ranging from the commonly known, fear of open spaces – Agoraphobia – to the obscure, fear of having peanut butter stuck to the top of your mouth – Arachibutyrophobia – to the more ridiculous sounding, fear of string – Linonophobia. While these might sound funny, to someone, even if it’s just one person, the reality of their experience of that one thing can have a devastating impact on his or her life.
Someone with a phobia of new foods – food Neophobia – may be stuck eating essentially children’s foods their entire life, which may lead to health problems, going anywhere new to eat or with new people would terrifying and may impact their relationships. Anyone would find it frustrating if their boyfriend or girlfriend only ever ate fish and chips.
Someone with a phobia of small spaces – claustrophobia – may not be able to travel on an aeroplane, work in a building that requires them to use an elevator, or use public restrooms. They wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere, overseas, or even to the shopping centre for very long, and could potentially miss out on job opportunities.
Some people have fears of animals, which is quite common. You can avoid a lot of animals, so you’d think ‘well just don’t go to the zoo’, but it’s not as simple as that. Someone with phobia of snakes – Ophidiophobia – will constantly need to check everywhere they go to make sure there is no way a snake could get in. This may restrict them going to new places because they find it too taxing to scope out every new place for possible snake entry points!
“…body goes into the fear response mode, increased heart rate, sweating, irregular breathing, and an overwhelming desire to withdraw from the situation…”
Some phobias may not impact on a person’s life as much depending on how often they encounter that particular thing. The person with Arachibutyrophobia just has to avoid eating peanut butter and they’ll be fine! But for a lot of people with phobias, it is debilitating.
The traditional method of treatment is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy essentially retrains the part of your brain that is responsible for the fear response, the Amygdala. When you experience a fearful stimulus your brain goes into flight or fight mode, and the Amygdala releases chemicals that produce those symptoms of the fear response mentioned before. This mechanism evolved in humans as a way to help us survive dangerous situations. These days this mechanism helps us get through stressful periods in our lives. But in people who have a phobia, this system gets activated when it shouldn’t.
Exposure therapy allows you to expose you (and your Amygdala) to your fear, in a controlled way. Slowly building up your exposure so that your amygdala gradually reduces the fear response.
Find out about more phobias here!