Elizabeth Ross delves into the world of fear, and unearths the myths that surround phobias and anxiety.
Your heart rate races. You get a shiver down your spine. You freeze.
“I was so scared” “I don’t like those at all” “It just makes me uncomfortable”. Sound familiar? As living beings, human or animal, we all have something in common- fear. Essentially, we are all scared of something.
“Don’t be so silly” “Stop acting like that” “Just get over it”. Also sound familiar? This is nothing to be ashamed of though. Fears, and even phobias, are part of everyday life, and have become entangled into every society and culture around the globe.
Fear is an emotion caused by a threat, felt by all living entities. It causes a change in the brain and organ function which changes our behaviours- the common running away, hiding or freezing that we all know.
Fear may occur due to something specific happening in the present, or at the thought of a future situation. It can be anything which is perceived as a risk to health, life, status, security, or anything held valuable.
Sounds exhausting. Just what is the point though?
In both humans and animals fear is developed as a result of learning. A fear learnt by experiencing or watching a traumatic accident, such as falling into a well and struggling to get out, could lead to the fear of heights (acrophobia), enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) or water (aquaphobia).
Fear is also a part of human nature. Therefore, you will be happy to hear, fear is judged as rational and appropriate. And fear has been part of society as long as records have been going. The fear of death was ritualized by our ancestors. Such rituals were designed to reduce that fear, and helped to collect the cultural ideas that we now have in the present.
Many argue that the formation of communities happened because people lived in fear. This fear forced people to unite to fight any dangers together rather than fight alone.
An irrational fear however is classified as phobia. Identifying the difference between a fear and a phobia can be very important. The NHS describes phobias as an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal.
They are more pronounced than fears, and develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object. It is estimated by the NHS that around 10 million people in the UK have a phobia.
If a phobia becomes very severe, a person may organise their life around avoiding the thing that is causing them anxiety. As well as restricting their day-to-day life, it can also cause them considerable anguish.
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. Symptoms may not arise until contact is made with the source of the phobia. In some cases even thinking about the source of a phobia can make a person feel anxious or panicky. (This is known as anticipatory anxiety.)
There are different levels to having a phobia too. Specific or simple phobias centre around a particular object, animal, situation or activity. They often develop during childhood or adolescence and may become less severe as you get older.
Common examples are animal phobias (dogs, spiders, snakes); environmental phobias (visiting the dentist); and bodily phobias (blood, injections).
Complex phobias tend to be more disabling than simple phobias.
They tend to develop during adulthood and are often associated with a deep-rooted fear or anxiety about a particular situation or circumstance.
Agoraphobia and social phobia are two common complex phobias. An agoraphobia sufferer, often described as a fear of open spaces, will feel anxious about being in a place or situation where escaping may be difficult if they have a panic attack.
The anxiety usually results in the person avoiding situations as varied as being alone, being in crowded places or travelling on public transport. Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, centres around feeling anxious in social situations.
If you have a social phobia, you might be afraid of speaking in front of people for fear of embarrassing yourself and being humiliated in public. In severe cases, this can become debilitating and may prevent you from carrying out everyday activities, such as eating out or meeting friends.
Whilst the signs of fear are quite common, the symptoms expressed by someone who has a phobia can include nausea, dizziness, shaking and even an upset stomach.
Does any of this sound familiar too? Whilst having a phobia is never fully healthy, it is more unhealthy to let someone tell you to simply ‘get over it’.
Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder, and can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex and social background. Living with a phobia is very complex, and more is being done to highlight that it is okay, and that you can get help if you wish.
Phobias are not usually formally diagnosed as most people are fully aware of the problem without professional opinion. Some people choose to live with a phobia, taking great care to avoid the object or situation they’re afraid of.
However, if you have a phobia, continually trying to avoid what you’re afraid will more than likely make the situation worse.
Many do not know however that help is available from the GP, who may refer you to a specialist with expertise in behavioural therapy, such as a psychologist. It seems that the issue of fears and phobias in the UK are not dealt with enough in the mainstream outlets such as education and the media.
And this is having an impact on the way each generation views and deals with what they are scared of.
A national poll asked a sample of 13-17 year olds what they feared the most. The question was open-ended, so they could say anything they wanted, and the top fears included: spiders; death; being a failure; war; criminal violence; being alone; and the future. I am sure you could also add flying, heights, rejection, clowns, needles, exams, public speaking and snakes into the mix too.
Looks a bit extreme, but how many do you relate to when you think about it?
Some of these may not trigger the fight or flight response, but they are definitely something we have all thought about. This is because the phrase ‘fear of…’ more than often thought of as issues of concern, rather than a physical and psychological change.
Even Little Miss Muppet (think about the name) was scared of spiders. None of this helps the stigma of having a fear when growing up.
Our fears and phobias have become so ingrained in society that they have taken shape as something ‘less serious’ rather than as something natural, and albeit sometimes irrational, an issue that does not need to be fully addressed.
Ultimately, it is okay to be scared and feel fear- all living creatures have been doing it for years. And whilst a phobia may be serious and have a detrimental effect on one’s life, it is not something that needs to be swept under the rug.