Spiders and ‘man’s best friend’. One of these is responsible for 25,000 human deaths annually and the other causes about two deaths per year. One of them is the source of the most common human phobia and the other is considered a trusted human companion.
Hmmm. Considering the numbers, you’d think the one responsible for so many deaths would bring on our worst phobia, and other one would be our best friend.
But you’d be wrong.
What is a Phobia?
The fact that the fear of spiders is the most common phobia we humans endure, even though there are no rational reasons to fear them, is the first clue to what is a phobia. The Canadian Psychological Association describes a phobia as ‘an excessive and persistent fear of a situation (e.g., enclosed places, driving, flying, seeing blood, heights) or an object (e.g., animals such as rats, snakes, spiders, dogs, or birds)”.
‘Excessive’ is the operative word in the CPA’s definition. The fear we experience due to a phobia is out of proportion, or excessive, to any danger that might be associated with the object or situation that triggers the fear. Spiders represent little or no danger to humans, but the mere sight of one in a photograph can trigger an anxiety attack for those who suffer the worst cases of arachnophobia (fear of spiders).
Considered to be a type of anxiety disorder, phobias are common. The CPA estimates that more than 10% of Canadians have one or more phobias. And there’s a phobia for just about everything!
From ablutophobia, which is the fear of bathing, washing or cleaning, to zoophobia, which is the fear of (can you guess?) animals, Wikipedia lists over 150 different phobias, (including a phobia for literally everything: panophobia.)
Just because phobias involve irrational levels of fear doesn’t mean that their symptoms are any less real or debilitating. A recent promotional campaign for the television show American Horror Story (AHS) proves the power of phobias to negatively affect the lives of those who suffer them.
In a recent case widely reported in the media, sufferers of trypophobia, a lesser-known fear of clusters of small holes, have reported a variety of reactions, ranging from mild anxiety to serious panic attacks, in response to promotional images for the new season of AHS.
As reported by CNN, Jennifer Andresen of New York City had the following reaction after seeing an ad for the upcoming AHS season on the side of a taxi. (The ad features a photoshopped image of a cluster of small holes on the underside of a woman’s tongue.)
“I (had) a full-blown panic attack. My pulse was racing. I was so nauseous. I thought I would throw up. My mother and grandmother were like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ I didn’t want to ruin my family’s day, but I couldn’t help myself.”
How Do Phobias Develop?
While research into the sources, triggers and treatments for phobias is ongoing, they are known to have a variety of causes. Phobias can result from ‘direct conditioning’, or experiencing real fear due to the phobic situation or object, like having a spider drop on you. They can also result from ‘vicarious acquisition’, which can happen when you see someone else’s reaction to a phobic situation or object, like someone screaming at the sight of a snake. Another cause of phobias is ‘informational transmission’, which is hearing about a phobic situation or object from an acquaintance or in the media.
Yet, despite all the known causes, many phobia sufferers report no known reason for their affliction.
How We Deal with Phobias
Unfortunately, most people never seek any help for their phobias. Instead, they consciously or unconsciously structure their lives to avoid the triggers of their phobia(s). A simple example would be someone with cynophobia who takes regular evening walks, but chooses routes that avoid places where they know they might encounter a dog. (Yes, despite them being our best friends, many people suffer from cynophobia – the fear of dogs.)
But without treatment, the ‘avoidance’ reaction to phobias can result in feelings of loneliness, relationship problems and depression.
If there is any good news for sufferers, most phobias have been shown to be very treatable. If you would like to learn more about phobias and their treatments, get in touch with us here at BRCook Psychological Services, we’d be happy to answer your questions.