Post No.: 0535
The difference between phobias and fears is that phobias cause an anxiety that’s so extreme and debilitating that it interferes with one’s quality of life and ability to function. It’s therefore considered a medical condition – a type of anxiety disorder. It might cause someone to have a panic attack, where one’s heart rate suddenly soars, breathing shortens, skin feels sweaty, stomach feels sick, body trembles and/or head feels dizzy, amongst other distressing and frightening symptoms. Just imagining or anticipating being in a triggering situation can be enough to cause the symptoms of panic.
A phobia can develop during childhood, adolescence or early adulthood; but mostly during childhood. Simple phobias can be learnt from firsthand experience, such as after one bad experience with a dog when young (not me guv’nor!), be taught to us by others, such as when taught about how germs cause illnesses, or be socially copied from others, such as seeing other people scream when they see a rat. There may also be genetic factors that mean that some are born with a greater tendency to be anxious than others.
A simple phobia is a phobia of a specific object, animal, environment (e.g. heights or deep water), situation (e.g. flying or visiting the dentist), or even of the feeling of anxiety itself. Lots of phobias involve bodily secretions such as blood or vomit, or of harmful or painful things entering the body such as germs or injections.
Whereas someone with a simple phobia might be able to manage on a daily basis without needing any treatments by simply avoiding their phobia trigger(s) – someone with a complex phobia will likely find it far more difficult. The two most common complex phobias are agoraphobia and social phobia.
Agoraphobia isn’t simply a fear of open spaces but can manifest as a fear of going outside or leaving the home, travelling on public transport and/or visiting crowded places. A sufferer might also have a fear of places where they’ll feel trapped (claustrophobia) or left alone – basically situations where escape feels difficult or help won’t be there if something might go wrong.
Social phobia is a fear of social situations, speaking in front of people, being watched and judged when doing something and/or even of just being seen in public. There’s a deep worry about being embarrassed or humiliated. It’s more than just shyness, and it can affect one’s self-confidence, self-esteem, relationships and school or work life.
The great news is that phobias are quite treatable and virtually all are curable! But there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment programme that’ll work for everyone. A treatment programme may include a combination of self-help, therapies and prescribed medications. Self-help may involve mindfulness exercises or lifestyle changes. Therapies that can help tackle phobias include talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and graded exposure therapy – see Post No.: 0515 for more information about these. Hypnotherapy might also work for some.
There are some quite obscure phobias (e.g. hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia – or the fear of long words!) But the most common phobias concern things that should cause vigilance for all of us to a degree (e.g. falling from a height, drowning, potentially harmful germs or dangerous animals) but where these survival instincts have become amplified to irrational levels. Many phobias are based on applying over-generalisations, such as trypophobia and the fear of clusters of holes or bumps that can look like infected skin – but it includes a fear of the textures of things like sponges or crumpets too, which are safe.
Since new environmental objects and stressors are being created all the time – new specific phobias are also being created too (e.g. nomophobia – or the fear of being without one’s mobile phone).
Our fears tend to group around physical harm, captivity/a loss of freedom, or invisible contagious diseases. Well invisible threats tend to either lead us to become overly paranoid or are neglected or denied altogether – some people will (initially) believe that any threats that are invisible to the naked eye are hoaxes.
Fear can make us revert to our personal defaults – when we’re afraid and mentally overwhelmed, we can’t think calmly or clearly, hence we’ll likely fall back onto our most primitive or basic default behaviours and instincts, which are sometimes fallible. We’re less creative when we’re afraid and we’ll stick to what we know.
People also tend to be more afraid of doing something that causes harm than doing nothing and then harm occurs, and this is one contributory reason why, regarding certain vaccinations and weighing the balance between one’s child getting either measles or autism – even though measles is far worse than autism (if it were true that the MMR vaccine causes autism, which it doesn’t) – many parents will prefer choosing to do nothing i.e. not give their child the vaccine and hope that they won’t get measles. They anticipate they’d feel more guilt if they choose to give the vaccine and this causes their child harm, than choosing to do nothing and a (worse) harm happens to their child. The same kind of reasoning is often given to the ‘trolley problem’ – where not pulling the lever, pressing the button or doing anything will mean that one will not be responsible for any deaths, no matter how many people die as a consequence.
More education and knowledge can help decrease a fear or phobia. For instance, if one isn’t a qualified dermatologist or otherwise educated enough in this area – any skin condition that’s unknown or little understood by oneself will likely be automatically assumed to be contagious. People over-generalise things the less they understand them, and probably no more than when it comes to sources of fear. Things tend to be over-generalised on the side of fear. For instance, people may start to be concerned about ‘all chemicals’ when a few examples of harmful chemicals are reported in the media; especially if they don’t understand that every material thing is made from chemicals, whether organic or industrial. Yet hearing about a few examples of safe or even beneficial chemicals doesn’t tend to make people generalise that ‘all chemicals’ must be safe and beneficial. There are natural chemicals that are harmful and there are synthetic chemicals that are safe – it’s a case of taking them on a case-by-case basis rather than relying on broad heuristics like ‘organic is good and artificial is bad’.
In the minds of too many parents, stories about the DPT and MMR vaccines eventually became generalised to mean that ‘all vaccines’ are more harmful than they are beneficial. Some people are more worried about COVID-19 vaccines than the disease itself. (It’s ironic that those who are more sensitive to disgust and more aversive to germs are more likely to hold anti-vaccination attitudes.)
Fear of course has its adaptive functions – the line between fearlessness and stupidity is often blurry! But when this emotion overplays, one could try to take a step back and mindfully understand why one is feeling anxious in a given situation – is it really more about your excitement, a warning that should be prompting you to back off or double-check some things, or is it irrational according to the statistical risks?
When eating some food while watching a telly programme (perhaps a nature documentary) that’s talking or displaying things to do with defecation, our instinct will likely be to be put off eating our food. But if we engage in more mindful and reasoned thinking, we should recognise that some faeces over there doesn’t mean our food over here has suddenly become physically contaminated by it. Moreover, it’s a TV screen and a bunch of illuminated pixels doesn’t magically make poop! There isn’t even a smell emanating from the screen if one actually pays attention to one’s senses rather than one’s imagination. The closely-packed holes on a tea crumpet that trigger trypophobia in some people could be overcome with better awareness of how those holes form when they’re being cooked and in turn the reasoning that they’re fine to eat.
The body itself often errs on the side of being over-active too, with allergies that cause the body to over-react to otherwise harmless triggers, and autoimmune diseases where the body will attack its own tissues due to an over-active immune system. The problem here is an over-active immune system – just like the problem with phobias is an over-active fear response. That’s evolution for you because those with under-active defence systems will more likely die off while those with over-active defence systems might survive but in pain, discomfort and with irrational fears.
So over-generalised fears and phobias aid our survival since being safe is better than sorry hence why they evolved and why they’re more likely to express as over-active than under-active instincts. But someone could end up being afraid of and prejudicial against nearly 100% of, say, foreign-looking people just because that <1% are out to harm them. Although easier said than done, if we can engage in more rational thinking then we’ll question beyond the shallow surfaces, because not only are some things that look unsafe are safe for us but some things that look safe to us are unsafe.
A sense of control can alleviate fear, although a risk is that people can end up underestimating the risks of the things that they think are under their control – hence driving a car can feel less scary than being flown in a plane, even though the latter is less statistically dangerous than the former per mile. Designed or inbuilt safety or security features can also have a side-effect of leading users to take greater risks. People drive faster for instance, and greater product safety features can promote less user carefulness and responsibility, and therefore if those safety features fail, the severity of the accidents can be greater.
Now stating facts or logical arguments that are worrisome is not ‘scare mongering’ or ‘project fear’ because they are facts or logical arguments – the problem is exaggerated emotive arguments that foment fear. Exaggerated emotive arguments that promote over-optimism would also be misleading.
However, ‘compassion collapse’ and ‘psychic numbing’ are the collapse of compassion when we’re exposed to too much atrocity, and the tendency for us to withdraw our attention from experiences that are considered traumatic or from grave future threats that are perceived to have a low probability, respectively. It gets too much so we turn away. ‘Desensitisation’ can also occur if we’re repeatedly exposed to emotional situations in the real world, such as COVID-19 news. It can be adaptive for oneself to become desensitised to constant distressing situations though (e.g. experienced paramedics need to be able to work without feeling emotionally overwhelmed in the face of constant traumatic situations). But it’s perhaps not adaptive for whole societies – societies can end up paying disproportionately more attention to distressing individual cases of something rare than distressing cases of something that’s far more common because people have become desensitised to the latter.
Those who’ve personally experienced adversity tend to experience the least compassion collapse – this might be due to the feeling of efficacy to improve a situation for having been through something tough themselves. This suggests that if we’ve never personally faced enough adversity in our own lives (e.g. because we’ve lived a fortunate and cosseted life), this can stunt our compassion for others. But if we can instil a sense of efficacy then compassion can be raised; as can regularly doing random acts of kindness or loving-kindness meditation.
…All things considered, it’s normal and adaptive to feel frightened of some things to a certain degree. But if a fear becomes irrational or develops into a phobia, there are ways to treat and even cure it. A mental health specialist will be able to help you.
Woof! If you have a personal story of overcoming a phobia that might help inspire others then please share it by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below. Thanks.