What freaks the hell outta you? Heights, spiders, cockroaches, Halloween, or public speaking? When it comes to our worst nightmares, many flavors are out there. It doesn’t take a fabled dark and stormy night or a zombie apocalypse to scare most people. Ordinary and commonplace occurrences can raise hairs – and heart rates, too. In fact, most of the things voted Scariest can be found in any neighborhood.
Are you more courageous or more chicken than the average person? The Washington Post reports that a quarter of adults fear public speaking, and almost the same number fear heights. Over one fifth of adults fear some bug or animal. Weirdly enough, greater numbers of people fear bugs and animals than fear drowning. Strangers are considered worse than zombies, in terms of scariness, but ghosts are regarded as less threatening than clowns, zombies, or strangers.
Of course, some people are more easily creeped out than others. Several factors make a person more likely to be fearful – including media exposure. The shows we watch cause us to be more readily scared. Chapman University found that watching talk TV and true-crime TV increased susceptibility to fears about the future; fear of crime; and fear of disasters, both natural and man-made. TV also increases the likelihood of developing phobias.
Lack of or limited education is another strong predictor of fear. Those with high school diplomas or less are more likely to fear the government and immigration.
As you might have guessed, gender makes a difference, as well; women are twice as likely as men to develop phobias.
Democrats, too, are more faint-hearted. Compared to Republicans, Democrats reported greater degrees of fearfulness in all categories of most prevalent fears.
The Body’s Fear Response
When we fear, our body goes into high alert. Fear sets off a symphony of neural fireworks and bodily reactions that are designed to protect us through three emergency protocols: fight, flight, or freeze (Not really sure how freeze helps. Maybe that’s a last resort.). The instant our sensory organs receive input warning of danger (Eyes: We see a zombie!), our brains interpret the threat and rev up the adrenal glands, which then pump out the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol impedes insulin production, thus raising our blood sugar, which gives us added strength and speed.
Within three seconds, our adrenaline is running high and we breathe faster, bringing more air into our bodies. Our hearts race, pumping extra oxygen to the muscles. Our digestive systems pause to save energy, and we sweat to prevent overheating. Pupils dilate, to better see the enemy.
Within five seconds, our body releases endorphins, natural pain-killers and stress-relievers, plus dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical. That’s why fear can sometimes be pleasurable – a thrill. Feeling scared while knowing that we’re actually safe – for example, when riding a roller coaster or watching a thriller – can be fun, because it triggers chemicals that give us a drug-like high. If safety is not in sight, however, our body continues running in panic mode, going as far as to shed weight through vomiting or emitting waste (The science behind being “scared shitless”.).
Long term fearfulness and anxiety, however, is detrimental to our bodies. Chronic stress increases our risk for cardiovascular disease and depression. Stress impairs memory and learning, and increases gastrointestinal disorders. Also, stress hacks into our immune systems, and depletes fertility.
When fear is controlled, it can be helpful, or even fun. When fear is turned on too much or too often, it wears us out physically and mentally. Certainly, some fear is necessary and even life-saving. We should fear stepping over the yellow line in the subway station, and we should fear baby bears who look like they’re by themselves (because they’re not). But chronic fear in the form of a phobia may be more burdensome than beneficial.
Living with Phobia
If you are like 8.7 percent of adults, then you, too, have a pet nemesis: a phobia. Phobias can be terribly banal, commonplace, and trivial, like the fear of blood, or some hairy, toothy animal. Most people see these things, and shrug them off: “Who cares?” But if that thing is your phobia, then for you, it’s like the freaking mother of all nasty, slimy, evil ugliness.
Jessica Samakow knows what that’s like. She tells Huffington Post how simply seeing a snake, up close and personal or even on TV, would trigger such a huge reaction in her that “[it would] make me jump, my throat would close up…I would have a feeling that something was strangling me.”
Jessica is not alone. Kathleen Telesco has clown phobia. Seeing a creepy It movie poster effectively ruins her day. “I feel like I’m paralyzed, my whole body gets a flash of heat from my head down to my toes. I just feel…frozen,” she says.
Sara Benincasa, a comedian, once lived a secluded life because she had agoraphobia, a fear of stressful places. She sums it up, “I would no longer go to the grocery store, I would no longer go to class, I would no longer go to parties.”
For Tim Benjamin, flight phobia pinned him to a tiny corner of a vast country. He worried for weeks before getting on a plane. “Every time I stepped on an aircraft, I was convinced I was going to die. And that was before we’d even taken off,” he said. At one point, Tim quit flying altogether, which brought about another nightmare: Tim lived in Australia (roughly the size of continental USA), and when he had to travel for business or for family visits, he traveled by train, which took days.
Tim finally decided that he had to change things. He set off to defeat his phobia, and he succeeded (more on Tim’s story later). Sara Benincasa has done the same. This one-time agoraphobic loner is now a traveling speaker and comedian, having turned her frightful experiences into a one-woman comedy sketch, “Agorafabulous!” and a book: “Agorafabulous! Dispatches From My Bedroom.”
Phobias in Pop Culture
In pop culture, phobia is often misrepresented. The media use phobia as a catchword (“Sia Furler, the Socially Phobic Pop Star” appeared in The New York Times Magazine) or to criticize someone’s bias. Case in point: Homophobia and Islamophobia are not really phobias, they’re prejudices.
In reality, phobia is more than a joke, a catchphrase, or just a strong distaste for something. Phobia is a real condition, and a part of life for many people.
With phobia, ordinary things raise emergencies. Consider common phobias, like claustrophobia, where riding in an over-crowded train compartment produces the terror of being trapped. Or acrophobia, in which standing near a tenth-floor window makes you weak-kneed and ashen. Or hemophobia, where getting a routine blood test means becoming nauseous, or fainting.
How Do I Know If I Have a Phobia?
Everybody fears something. But does that mean that everybody has a phobia? Not quite.
There are two kinds of fear: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy fear protects us from danger, makes us react quickly to threats, and is appropriate for the situation. A phobia, on the other hand, is a way-overblown response to something that isn’t bad enough to justify a composure meltdown.
Although many phobia-sufferers realize that there’s no real danger present, they feel powerless to suppress their code-red responses when they encounter – or even just think about encountering – their phobias. They go to great extents to avoid their phobias, which then ends up hampering their lives.
The good news is, phobia is explained in medical science – and it’s highly curable.
Psychiatry’s Chapter on Phobia
Medically, phobia is considered a type of anxiety disorder. It’s outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, the psychiatry handbook.
According to DSM-5, there are three types of phobias:
Specific Phobia: Fear caused by a specific thing or situation
– Situational: Claustrophobia
– Natural Environment: Acrophobia
– Animal: Arachnophobia
– Blood or Injection: Algophobia
Social Phobia: Fear of how people will react to you, including fear of rejection and judgment
Agoraphobia: Fear of stressful situations
Phobia is defined as marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable. The symptoms include pounding heart, shortness of breath, dry mouth, nausea, elevated blood pressure, trembling or shaking, profuse sweating, and a sense of impending doom. Children may react to phobias by crying, freezing, or clinging. To qualify as a phobia, symptoms need to last at least six months; so, occasional fears or freaking out for the first time don’t count as phobias.
Some phobias develop in childhood. They can born of a scary event: a child who was chased by a dog may grow up to fear dogs, for example. Phobias can also run in families. Familial phobias are usually shared through social conditioning: a girl who watches her mother react excessively to a spider in the house learns to fear spiders. Phobias can also develop through instruction, for example, a teenager watches the movie Psycho, which fosters a fear of showers.
Other phobias seem to pop up suddenly and inexplicably. Phobias can appear in adolescence or adulthood, and they can occur in situations not previously causing anxiety (Tim, for instance, flew in airplanes as a child without issue.). For some, phobias disappear over time.
Phobias can be linked to other anxiety disorders. For instance, panic disorder can be amplified by phobias. Obsessive compulsive disorder can lead to germophobia. Social phobia is often accompanied by depression.
Phobia, I’m Afraid It’s Time to Say Goodbye
As disturbing as they are, phobias are not forever. Treatment for phobia achieves an astounding success rate of 95-98 percent, meaning that almost everyone who receives treatment sheds their phobia. The cure for phobia is called exposure therapy. Through voluntary, gradual encounters with the source of their fear, people are able to overcome their feelings and fear no more.
In 2012, Katherina Hauner’s experiments in exposure therapy saved 12 people from arachnophobia. At the end of the one-day program, people who were once freakishly afraid of spiders could touch or hold tarantulas with their bare hands.
“Before treatment, some of these participants wouldn’t walk on grass for fear of spiders or would stay out of their home or dorm room for days if they thought a spider was present,” said Hauner, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Hauner’s team began by leading participants to look at images of spiders. The team imparted knowledge about spiders, which extinguished some myth-based fears. Whereas people had imagined spiders to be deadly and malicious, Hauner taught them that “the tarantula is fragile and more interested in trying to hide herself.”
Slowly, participants worked their way toward observing tarantulas in terrariums, and then poking tarantulas with paintbrushes. Next, participants learned to pet tarantulas with gloves on, and later, with their bare hands.
Six months later, participants were still able to touch tarantulas without fear, proving the experiment’s success.
Tim, the flight phobic, also overcame his fear through treatment. He participated in a fear of flying program run by an airline company. There, he became an expert in the science of flying, learning how planes stay afloat in the air, what happens in case of engine failure, how planes navigate through turbulence, and how they fly safely at night. In addition to knowledge, Tim also picked up relaxation techniques and adopted positive thinking. After graduating from the program, Tim became an avid flyer. He later founded his own Fear of Flying School to help others overcome their phobias about flying.
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