Different from fears, and still terrifying
Fear is a powerful force that can drive much of our actions and decisions. Fear of change can keep people in mediocre situations. On the flip side, fear of commitment can keep people from staying long in a situation and possibly keep a person from developing relationships and opportunities to their fullest potential.
Such fears are found to varying degrees in every person’s life. In general, fear is woven into our daily lives without much thought. We can talk with friends about being scared to approach someone new, make a presentation, or reach out for help. There are fears, though, that we have trouble talking about, that make us feel ill with anxiety. These are the less common phobias.
When fear goes beyond reluctance to do something or a spike in blood pressure, when fear becomes immobilizing and causes physical and psychological distress, it becomes a phobia.
“For something to be considered as a diagnosable phobia, it has to either cause significant impairment in social and occupational functioning or subjective distress: one of the two. Without that significant impairment, most clinicians would consider that to not be a particularly major issue from a clinical standpoint,” Dr. Thomas Hadjistavropoulos says. “The people who show that significant impairment would be 7-9 per cent of the population.”
Dr. Hadjistavropoulos is a professor of psychology, the Research Chair in aging and health at the University of Regina, and a registered clinical psychologist. Among other subjects, he has an interest in researching fear and pain. Though there is much research on fear, Dr. Hadjistavropoulos says that psychologists have difficulty determining the source of a phobia.
“Nobody has a good answer for that,” he states. “For many years it used to be believed that the primary way that you get a phobia is by associating the phobic stimulus with a negative event…And many times phobias are developed as a result of those associations, but many people with phobias never have those experiences. So we know now that there are other pathways to fear acquisitions.”
Hadjistavropoulos goes on to state, “People who are exposed to the same tragic or painful situation will react in different ways: some might develop an anxiety disorder such as a phobia, but others may not. There are so many different factors that contribute to these individual differences. Genetics and predispositions [are] one possible factor, but there are also psychological factors, their view of the situation, what they are thinking about it, [and] their coping skills.”
Thus, acquiring a phobia is not an easy thing for people who are resilient. As Dr. Hadjistavropoulos explains. It is unlikely that people are born with a phobia, but they are probably born with a tendency to acquire one. This tendency could be influenced by their environment — such as a lack of a proper support system — or their inherent inability to cope with dramatic events.
What is certain is that phobias are not a symptom of another underlying issue. In the past, phobias were thought to be a symptom of a larger problem lurking in a person’s subconscious.
“They used to say that if you treated the phobia, because the phobia is a symptom of a bigger issue, then you would get new symptoms to replace the phobia you just treated,” Dr. Hadjistavropoulos explained.
However, this is not the case, as no evidence exists of new phobias emerging if you treat the existing one.
To overcome a “regular” fear is a terrifying task. It is difficult to imagine confronting a debilitating fear, but Dr. Hadjistavropoulos says confrontation of the feared situation is what has been proven to be the most successful method of overcoming a phobia. A graduated approach, where you take it floor by floor — in the case of a fear of heights — is the most effective solution.
“When is it done in a systematic way, usually with a trained psychologist, the success rate of those treatments are extremely high. The difficulty with people who attempt to do it on their own is that sometimes they may not stay long enough in the feared situation or at a certain level of fear they may say, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ So having that professional support, encouraging the person to stay in the feared situation, and doing it gently in a graduated way will typically have good results. Whether people can do this on their own, I think they can, but it can be very challenging if the fear is intense,” says Dr. Hadjistavropoulos.
One of the most common phobias, popularly recognizable by its scientific name, is Arachnophobia (fear of spiders). Other common phobias include fear of snakes (Ophidiophobia), heights (Acrophobia), small animals (Microzoophobia), small insects (Entomophobia), open spaces (Agoraphobia), and closed spaces (Claustrophobia). A less commonly known phobia is Emetophobia, fear of vomiting — imagine how incredibly awful the flu would be.
We recognize some of these phobias because they have become part of our conversations and part of popular culture. The acknowledgement and recognition of such fears can in part be attributed to horror films and books.
“A lot of movies that constitute part of the popular culture will capitalize on common phobias,” says Dr. Hadjistavropoulos. “I think popular culture takes what is a common phobia and creates products that then become part of the popular culture. Can these products potentially perpetuate phobias? Probably because they do give information to people.”
In all likeliness, Dr. Hadjistavropoulos doesn’t believe watching a film about plane crashes will cause an increase in Aviophobia (fear of flying). However, it could potentially induce fear because it dramatizes terrifying accidents in a way that makes them seem more plausible than they are.
However, it is important to recognize the difference between fear and phobia. We have a tendency to use both terms synonymously, thus incorrectly judging the severity of a phobia. People can sometimes believe that they have a phobia when in reality, they are just reasonably scared.
“Phobia, in a clinical sense, means that the person is afraid of something that is not inherently dangerous,” Dr. Hadjistavropoulos explains. “If you’re faced with a cage of wild animals who are ready to kill you, and you are afraid of that, you can never say you have a phobia of that because that’s a reasonable fear that most people would have. Sometimes people might use the term to describe a milder fear that doesn’t impair their social or occupational functioning and therefore does not meet the clinical criteria for phobia.”
Interestingly, phobias are unlikely to be of modern situations or objects. Evolution, it seems, has an impact on what we irrationally fear.
“The most common phobias are about objects or situations that might have been important for the survival of our species over our evolutionary history,” says Dr. Hadjistavropoulos. “You don’t see people who are afraid of tables or chairs. Although, you are probably more likely to be injured falling off a table or chair than you are by crashing in an airplane, but chairs haven’t been around for our history of evolution.”
Studies have found that it is more difficult to make people fear products of modern society. Whereas things and objects that have been of importance throughout our history are easier to fear. However, this intensified fear is not necessarily an evolutionary advantage.
As Dr. Hadjistavropoulos says, “Everything is on a continuum.”
If we fear something too much, such as heights, we will not be able to benefit from the safety of higher ground. On the other hand, if we do not fear heights, we are at risk of injury if careless. Thus, fear seems to be a healthy emotion, but only when kept small enough so as not to control your own psychological and social well-being.