It could be the horn of a speeding car, distant yelling from an unknown voice, or even just a friend popping out from around a corner. Instantly, you flinch, and your heart begins to race. But as you realize that there’s no threat, your muscles relax, and you continue with your day.
This is fear, and it’s a completely reasonable response to danger by your brain. But for some people, their fears are taken to extremes and past the “normal” threshold. These are known as phobias or irrational fears.
Phobias are fairly common. More than a billion people (12.5%) are estimated to have a specific irrational fear. They can range from a simple discomfort around the subject to a deep, shrill feeling of terror in the presence of fear. The irrationality of many of them comes from the fact that the thing you’re afraid of might be harmless, but it’s interpreted as a threat to your brain.
I became interested in the topic of phobias through the curiosity of my irrational fear: pelicans. Yes, I know, it’s silly, but it’s something that I’ve noticed in myself for years now, and it’s left me to wonder where these fears come from. Originally, I planned to write an article focused on this, how phobias can come from things like trauma or environmental factors (some might even be genetic!), but then another question arose from my studies: If phobias are so prominent, then why aren’t they a bigger deal in society?
First, we need to take a step back and look at phobias themselves and their presence in our daily lives. Many people have some sort of fear, whether it’s fear of spiders, snakes, or something else. While all of these are important, social phobias remain one the most prevalent, and detrimental, to us today. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is estimated to affect about 40% of the American population, with almost 75% who are somewhat afraid of it, but not to an extreme degree. As a student, speaking in front of classmates and teachers is fairly common, and feeling this fear can deeply disrupt your school experience. Not only can it hurt your grade, but it can have a huge impact on your mental health, your confidence, and your willingness to be in a public environment. I’ve even seen kids apologize and feel guilty for something like this that’s out of their control.
Many misconceptions come with phobias, a great example being gynophobia. Not to be confused with misogyny, which is an ideological hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women, gynophobia is the overall fear of them. Phobias of certain individuals or aspects of them can be dangerously misinterpreted as something else and can serve as an obstacle in someone’s life. According to multiple health clinics such as Ro and Phobia Guru, gynophobia can damage family relationships, make it hard to go outside, and have other side effects like more social phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, mood disorders, and alcohol dependence.
I spoke with a teacher at Boston Latin Academy and her experience with phobias in the classroom, tapping into her phobia. She’s terrified of flying due to the traumatic loss of a friend due to a plane accident, and, as a European who travels back and forth to see family, it posed a huge challenge throughout life. Behavioral therapy lessened the crippling anxiety she felt before a trip, but there are just some habits that won’t go away. “I go through this whole ritual of making sure that everything in the house is (clean) . . . I get frantic, making sure everything is in its place, and everything is really orderly.” While many are understanding of her fears, some just don’t understand the extreme impact it has on her. Many people, like friends and family, have bombarded her with facts about how it’s not as dangerous as it seems, but it doesn’t help and makes her feel like they just don’t understand. “It just takes one time,” she told me. As an educator and someone terrified of public speaking, her mindset is to always be aware of those who have phobias, such as if they are too afraid to speak in front of the class and believe that there’s hope for the rest of society as well. “Talking about it is the important thing, I feel like we don’t talk about our fears. But everyone has fears. I think the more we talk about it and the more we break it down, I think that’s very helpful.” She continues, “I think we are doing a lot, with workshops, support, wellness for teachers and students . . . I do feel hopeful, some people are committed to that who have experience with it themselves, and people are recognizing it.”
While you may not suffer from a traumatic loss as she did, there may be other factors that put you more at risk than you think. Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center focused on integrated health care, education, and research here in Boston, sums it up in 5 points:
- Age: For example, a teenager might experience a deeper social phobia than other ages from things like school.
- Family: If a relative has a phobia, you may be more likely to learn it as a child by observing their phobic tendencies (my mother is terrified of large birds, so this could explain my fear of pelicans).
- Temperament: You may have an increased risk if you’re a more sensitive person, or if you’re suffering from other mental health issues.
- Negative experiences: A traumatic experience, like a bad relationship with a female figure, can lead to phobias like gynophobia.
- Learning about the negative experiences of others: Even hearing about traumatic events, like animal attacks, can put you at risk for a phobia.
Another factor that is still being tested is genetics. According to the studies by psychiatrist Sandra Villafuerte and Ph.D. geneticist Margit Burmeister, if one twin had an anxiety disorder, such as agoraphobia (the fear of crowds/public spaces), the other twin would have a 39% chance of having the same phobia, much higher than the 10% of the general population.
Classified as mental health disorders by the World Health Organization, phobias are no joke. Yet some corporations don’t seem to care, and exploit people with phobias for views. The perfect example of this is Fear Factor. Fear Factor was a show that aired between 2001 and 2006, and then again from 2011- 2012, that put its contestants through disgusting and terrifying stunts. Why? For the money, entertainment, and more money. The winners would get $50,000, and the show itself ended up making over $600 million. Contestants, specifically those with intense fears and phobias, were put through scenarios like being locked in a small space, submerged in water while hanging upside-down, or shocked in an electric chair. This isn’t even looking at the disgusting aspect of the show, where families were forced to jump into a bath of leeches and suck and then eat them off of their loved ones. Originally, the show was canceled due to low ratings, but the second time, it was because of the absolute torment contestants have to endure. After finishing the show, contestants were traumatized by the events that occurred. Not only are companies and shows like these creating more terrifying situations that could result in phobias, but it’s belittling those who do. It makes it seem like if these people were able to get over it, then so should everybody else, when that’s not the case. People reported feeling sick or even accidentally injuring themselves, because of the show’s impact.
Its influence is seen all over the world. Multiple other countries have tried the same thing, and some, like Thai pop singer Vaikoon Boonthanom, only 22 years old, died from brain injuries in 2005 after getting hit on the head by a barrel during a challenge.
We know that global society needs to fix this normalization, and one way we can start is by observing what we shouldn’t do. Ever heard phrases like, “Just picture the audience sitting in their underwear!” for someone who’s phobic of public speaking? Simple quick fixes like these usually come from someone with little comprehension of the fear and often don’t help the situation. Instead, asking the person what they need or even not saying anything at all could be the best option. It’s just important to understand that phobias are not just overrated fears, nor are they things the person can never get over. There are many treatment options for all types of phobias. Psychotherapy is the most common and efficient, slowly exposing you to your fear (in around 10 to 12 sessions) until the anxiety has diminished. Some medications help to relieve the stress of phobias. If you know someone who has a phobia, try talking to them about it and see what you can do to help. In the end, it’ll improve their quality of life and make simple things easier.
With the recent COVID pandemic, rising suicide numbers, and substance abuse rates, mental health is now at the forefront of the nation’s concerns, and phobias should be no exception. Too long have phobias been normalized by the public or ignored in school or work environments. If we want to progress in this ongoing struggle, policymakers, schools, and the whole of society is going to need to pay more attention to those who are mentally challenged by their phobias. Treating those with phobias will allow us to refrain from stigmatization, create a more inclusive environment, and set up our generation for the future.