I’m sure all of us are a little afraid of something; be it something small, something big or even something exceptionally common. Take Arachnophobia for example: research shows that 50% of all women in the US suffer from the fear of spiders, and it’s the most common phobia in the UK. However, not one species of native UK spider is classified as deadly. So we have to ask ourselves, in general, are phobias rational or irrational?
It was Walter Bradford Cannon who first coined the term ‘fight or flight’. Cannon was a physiologist who studied the response of animals when faced with an immediate threat. As well as acceleration of heart rate, increased breathing and loss of peripheral vision, the body releases a series of hormones (including adrenaline and noradrenaline) to prepare itself for danger. Now, as humans, we’ve evolved from our prehistoric roots; we no longer face the terrible dangers of times past, yet we still undergo that same fight or flight response relatively frequently. As complex mammals though, the way we handle these dangers differs tremendously.
If we go back to our spider example, does the phobia come from what our brain perceives to be true rather than what we know to be true? We know the spider to be harmless, yet we see the way it moves, the way it looks and our brain instantly senses danger, preparing our body for an attack. We can safely say that this is an irrational fear, especially when compared to say the fear of guns for example. It is our senses that come to the fore and determine what we find scary and what we don’t. A hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous animals in the world, yet when we mention the word ‘hippopotamus’ there is rarely the same reaction as when we mention the word ‘spider’.
As a society, we must admit to being slightly naïve. Evidence clearly shows that we are influenced by media culture. Is Coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) more prominent since the release of Stephen King’s It (a popular book with a clown-based antagonist)? Well, the consensus seems to be yes. The clown disguise, and the fear of who lies behind the painted face is now so prevalent that festivals have been cancelled because of it.
Phobias are complicated, each suffered for a different reason and, depending on the individual, often dealt with very differently too. The actions and reactions of phobia sufferers have always been intriguing to me and its what sparked the initial idea for my book, The Caseworker’s Memoirs. The book tells of a grieving widower (Malcolm) trying to move on with his life. Malcolm suffers from nightmares about his previous patients, and woven into the narrative are the stories of seven of these patients who all suffer from a different phobia. It was the reactions of each of the characters that I found so captivating. Candace flees, Mark unleashes his anger, Neil overdoses on medication. I conducted many hours of research on phobias before writing The Caseworker’s Memoirs because I wanted it to reflect this fascinating area of human psychology as accurately as possible.
- The English ‘Phobia’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘Phobos’ which means fear.
- Alexander the Great was allegedly reported to suffer from Ailurophobia – the fear of cats.
- Hippocrates recorded the earliest known example of a phobia – a man called Nicanor, who was afraid of flutes.
- Statistics show that 1 in 75,000 people in the UK suffer from the fear of buttons.
Do you have any phobias? How do you deal with them? Let us know in the comments section below.