A phobia is a persistent irrational fear that causes a person to feel extreme anxiety. When people have a phobic reaction to a situation, a condition, or a thing, they may experience sweating, increased heart rate, difficulty in breathing, and an overwhelming desire to run away. Sometimes they even fear that they are in imminent danger of dying.
Phobias are the most common of anxiety disorders, and they affect men and women of all ages, income levels, and ethnic groups. A phobia may develop from an unpleasant childhood memory. For example, an individual may feel uneasy around cats because of being bitten or scratched as an infant. If over the years such an uneasiness develops into an unreasoning fear of cats that causes the person to scream, run, or faint at the very presence of a cat, that person has ailurophobia (from the Greek words ailuro for cat, phobia for fear). Those individuals who have this phobia may take some comfort in knowing that a fear of cats also troubled such military conquerors as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Psychologists have categorized as many as 500 phobias, and according to the estimates of some health professionals, as many as 50 million individuals in the United States suffer from some kind of phobia. While the causes of phobias remain unknown and open to much speculation, some of the most frequent theories name biological, chemical, cultural, and psychological origins—or a mix of the four. Health care professionals stress that the most important thing for people with phobias to remember is that phobic disorders respond well to treatment and a phobia is not something that they must continue to endure.
Among the most common phobias is a fear of flying, aviophobia (avio, Latin for bird; avion, French for airplane). In 1980, a study conducted by Boeing Aircraft Corporation found that 25 million Americans readily expressed a fear of getting on board an airplane. Many individuals who suffer from this phobia break out into cold sweat and suffer from difficulty in breathing even while boarding the aircraft. Nearly all are consumed by an overwhelming conviction that the aircraft will crash and they will die in the ensuing disaster. Such a phobia can make life extremely difficult for those professionals who must travel for their work, and many refuse to fly regardless of the consequences to their livelihood. The "First Lady of Soul," singer Aretha Franklin, refuses to fly, even if it means canceling a concert date. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton refuses to commit to any appearance that requires him to board an airplane. Although science fiction author Ray Bradbury has taken his readers to outer space on numerous occasions, he avoids airplanes. Actors Tony Curtis, Whoopi Goldberg, and Cher are also aviophobes. Prescription tranquilizers and other medications have proven effective for most individuals who suffer from aviophobia.
Agoraphobia is considered the most disabling of all the phobias. Treatment is difficult because those who suffer from this phobia fear being someplace outside of their home where they will not be able to escape if they should experience a panic attack—and that can be anywhere from a supermarket, the office, or a crowded street. Usually defined as a fear of open spaces and unfamiliar places, the phobia takes its name from agora, the Greek word for marketplace, and literally translates as "fear of the marketplace." Some people develop this phobia so severely that they choose to leave their home and familiar surroundings as seldom as possible. Interestingly, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the famous psychotherapist who sought to unravel the phobias of his patients, suffered from agoraphobia. The wealthy and extremely eccentric aviator and investor Howard Hughes numbered agoraphobia among his fears. Academy Award-winning actress Kim Basinger is another agoraphobic. Treatment generally consists of behavioral therapy combined with antianxiety or antidepressant medications.
Psychologists generally agree that it is common for children to have extreme fear reactions before the age of seven and to learn to distinguish between actual dangers and legitimate fears as they mature. Those researchers who delve into the origins of phobic responses have theorized that as many as 40 percent of all those who suffer from specific phobias have inherited those fears from their parents or close relatives. Whether one's mother jumped up on a chair and screamed at a spider, one's father went into a frenzy at the sight of a rat, or one's aunt fainted at the sight of blood, the child who perceives such dramatic demonstrations of fear is likely to remember them forever and to enact them in his or her own life experiences.
Other experts state that childhood traumas, such as being bitten by a cat, being stung by a bee, or becoming lost for a time in a dark, wooded area, create more than enough memories of fears to be lodged in the brain as phobic responses to cats, bees, and forests. Individual sensitivity may also play an important role in the development of a trauma. Two individuals may experience a similar trauma as children, but only the more emotionally sensitive person will develop a phobia because of the incident.
Most experts identify phobias as falling into one of three basic kinds of fears: social phobias, in which the individual suffers from a paralyzing dread of social or professional encounters; panic disorders, in which the sufferer is periodically assailed by a sudden overwhelming fear for no apparent reason; and specific phobias, in which the person has a horror of a single thing, such as spiders, snakes, air travel, and so forth. Of the three, psychologists generally agree that specific phobias are the easiest to treat because they are the easiest to comprehend. In addition, there are understandable reasons why individuals might not wish to encounter a poisonous snake or spider or why they might be fearful of flying after the media has publicized a number of airline crashes. Because some phobias have developed out of an appropriate response to a legitimate fear, it is sometimes difficult to draw clear distinctions between phobic reactions and normal responses to danger that may have become exaggerated by imagination.
Many experts believe that it is no coincidence that specific phobias most often fall into one of four categories: fear of insects and animals; fear of the natural environment, such as dreading what lies in the dark; fear of dangerous situations, such as being trapped in a tight place or falling from a high place; and fear of blood or being injured. Each of these categories reflect fears that have enabled the human species to survive.
Because of a keen development of the fear and flight response of humankind's ancient ancestors over many centuries, millions of contemporary men and women have inherited fears that may no longer be as valid and as life-threatening as they once were. The common fear of snakes is an example of survival learning that has been passed on from generation to generation. Although the number of modern people who live in an environment threatened by poisonous reptiles has been vastly reduced, millions of individuals retain an unreasoning fear of snakes.
Of those who suffer from a specific phobia, researchers state that as many as 90 percent are women. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, phobias were the most common psychiatric illness among women in all age groups and the second most common illness among men over 25. Perhaps more women than men admit to having a phobia because of hormones, genes, and being reared in a culture in which men are not encouraged to acknowledge mental or physical problems.
Psychologists have made great strides in understanding the nature of phobias and helping those vulnerable to such fears to overcome them. There are depressant or stimulant medications that phobics can take to help overcome their fears, and there are many kinds of treatment programs. There are exposure therapies that habituate phobic individuals to become nonresponsive to the thing that once terrorized them; virtual-reality programs that simulate the thing the phobic person most fears in a safe environment; and various drugs to treat anxiety that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
There are a number of other phobias that are quite common:
Acrophobia, a fear of heights, may have developed in an individual because of a childhood fear of falling. Some individuals are unable to ascend to the upper floors of buildings or are even unable to climb up on ladders to hang pictures in their home because of such a dread of falling. The name of this phobia is derived from the Greek word acro to denote a great height.
Arachnophobia, a fear of spiders, is an extremely common fear that undoubtedly has its basis in the reality that some spiders are poisonous or inflict painful bites. The name for this phobia comes from the Greek word for spider, arachne. There is also the Greek myth of Arachne, a woman from the ancient city of Lydia, who had the boldness to challenge the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. As a punishment, Arachne was changed into a spider.
Claustrophobia, a fear of being enclosed in a small or tight place, was experienced by the great escape artist Houdini, who often accepted the challenge of freeing himself from very small and tight boxes and trunks. Disciplining himself to conquer his phobia was one of his greatest feats. The name of this phobia comes from the Latin word claustro, to shut or to close. The word is also very close to cloister, in which individuals voluntarily shut themselves off from the world. The singer-actor Dean Martin tried to avoid elevators whenever possible because of his claustrophobia. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), the writer and poet, was a claustrophobic, and he is said to have drawn on such fears when he wrote such stories as "Premature Burial" (1844).
Glossophobia, a fear of public speaking, is one of the most common of phobias and one that must be overcome by many individuals who find themselves in the position of having to make a speech to a group of people for business, professional, or educational reasons. From the Greek word for tongue, glosso, many people find themselves tongue-tied, feeling faint, their heart pounding when they are placed in the position of speaking in public. Even professional entertainers can experience cold sweat, nausea, vomiting, and light-headedness when they step before an audience. Extreme stage fright kept singer-songwriter Carly Simon from performing live for many years.
Hemaphobia, a fear of blood, is likely encouraged by the reverence that was placed upon the shedding of blood in religious sacrifices for thousands of years. Although medical science has added knowledge to the definition of what constitutes a fully functioning human body, on the unconscious level it is likely that many people still regard blood as the physical expression of the life force. Reinforcing such an ancient belief is the importance that is given to samples of blood in diagnosing illnesses and in identifying everything from culpability in a crime to responsibility in parenthood. The word comes from the Greek haima, meaning blood.
Mysophobia, a fear of germs or dirt, originates from the Greek myso, filth. This phobia is an environmental one that causes the sufferers constantly to wash their hands, to cleanse the area around them, and to avoid any type of dirt or any source that might breed bacteria. Many people with this disorder become housebound and often cause dermal harm to themselves by constantly scrubbing and washing their skin. Singer-songwriter Michael Jackson has become well-known for his phobia regarding germs. Millionaire-eccentric Howard Hughes and actress Joan Crawford were among those who shared this fear.
Necrophobia, a fear of dead people or animals, is likely one of those phobias that has its roots in humankind's earliest taboos and reflects such commonsense reasoning as the danger of contracting diseases from the deceased. All of the world's religions have strict rules about how the dead should be handled and how a proper burial should be conducted. And all world cultures have superstitions and legends about vampires, zombies, and other members of the undead who seek the blood of the living. Tales of the dead returning to communicate with their relatives or exact revenge on their enemies are known to every society. With such a heritage of fear of the dead lurking in the unconscious, it is to be expected that some individuals would develop such a crippling dread of a deceased person that therapy or medications must be prescribed. The word comes from the Greek nekros, meaning dead body or deceased person.
Scotophobia, a fear of the dark, is another basic human response to centuries of concern for the dangers in venturing out after nightfall where wild animals or savage people may lie in ambush, waiting to attack the vulnerable. While even in modern times it seems only an exercise of common sense to be cautious while out walking after dark, an unreasoning fear and overwhelming dread of dark places can cause individuals to be confined to their homes after nightfall. The word comes from the Greek scoto, darkness.
Xenophobia, fear of strangers or foreigners and their customs, can be especially troublesome in modern times when the globe shrinks more every year, and cultures once far removed from one another become closely involved in trade, tourism, or international tension. In primitive times when people encountered individuals from different tribes, a caution or fear of strangers was the most primitive kind of protective device. Although few areas of the world remain isolated from the technology of modern communications and few people are so isolated as to remain ignorant of people outside of their own tribal boundaries, ancient beliefs, superstitions, and fears concerning those different from themselves perpetuate xenophobia (from the Greek xenos, for stranger or foreigner) even among certain individuals living in modern society. Education and an encouragement to learn about and to appreciate the similarities, rather than the differences, among all people is the only cure for xenophobia.
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