What are Phobias? Unpacking the Correlation Between Fear and Anxiety


When people think about phobias, the most common phobias they think of are the fear of spiders or tight spaces. However, people are not aware there is a larger spectrum of phobias that fall under the anxiety disorders category. Phobias are characterized as the irrational fear of certain objects or situations.  They are also categorized as a type of anxiety disorder ranging from very broad to very specific. For example, social anxiety is categorized under phobia related disorders and was previously known as social phobia referring to the fear of social interactions with others. Approximately 7.1% of people in the US suffer from social anxiety.  

Believe it or not, having a phobia is more common than you think. In the US, 10% of people suffer from some type of phobia, such as agoraphobia (fear of certain situations or going outside) or coulrophobia (fear of clowns). To put that into perspective, approximately 19 million people in the US alone suffer from some type of phobia (Fristcher 2020). 

The most common phobias are glossophobia (fear of public speaking) followed by arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and acrophobia (fear of heights). In fact, 40% of phobias are related to bugs, which includes spiders. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men suffer from arachnophobia. In the US alone, 73% of people suffer from glossophobia, which makes it the top phobia in the US, narrowly beating out thanatophobia (fear of death). As for acrophobia, up to 20 million people suffer from this type of phobia. Many of these phobias are rooted in anxiety on some level. 

Research has identified a “fear network” that contributes to the overwhelming physical responses attributed to panic attacks and anxiety. “No one brain region drives anxiety on its own. Instead, interactions among many brain areas are all important for how we experience anxiety.” We experience anxiety when the amygdala, the brain region responsible for emotion-based responses, overpowers the frontal cortex, the region responsible for logical thinking (Gadye 2018). 

Common symptoms associated with exposure to the specific phobia include increased heartbeat, shortness of breath, shaking or trembling, and an overwhelming desire to escape the situation. These symptoms are also typical for panic attacks, which are caused by experiences of an overwhelming surge of anxiety brought on by a certain event or action. 

Phobias can often be debilitating for people and can hinder their everyday interactions. For example, Chinonso Elelleh suffers from atychiphobia (the fear of failure) and claustrophobia (the fear of tight spaces). As a result of her atychiphobia, Elelleh also suffers from imposter syndrome and believes “it’s a self-esteem thing. You just think you aren’t worthy of anything valuable. It prevents me from reaching out to people or trying out for a team. It can very much stop you from doing anything you want” (C. Elelleh, personal communication, September 13, 2020).

Elelleh is a student at Sarah Lawrence College and says that her atychiophobia hinders her academic performance. “Especially with tests, it takes days before the test to convince me of my worth. Otherwise, I psych myself out to the point where it makes me fail the test,” said Elelleh (C. Elelleh, personal communication, September 13, 2020). She relies on that sense of validation to reassure herself. Since school can be a stressful environment for many people, it can further trigger their anxiety responses.

Through treatment and therapy, many people learn how to cope with their phobias. There are a handful of solutions that can work, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and anti-anxiety medications that control the anxiety responses to phobias. Additionally, exposure therapy can help people overcome their phobias by “changing your response to the object or situation that you fear,” and can manage anxiety through repeated exposure to said phobia. However, it is important to consult with medical professionals before embarking on any of these routes. Phobias can be difficult to overcome, but with the right techniques, those who suffer from fear-based anxiety can live normal and fulfilling lives.

 

References

Anxiety Disorders. (2018, July). Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

Fritscher, L. (2020, March 09). Do You Know How Many People Have Phobias in the U.S.? Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/prevalence-of-phobias-in-the-united-states-2671912

Gadye, L. (2018, June 29). What Part of the Brain Deals With Anxiety? What Can Brains Affected by Anxiety Tell us? Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.brainfacts.org/diseases-and-disorders/mental-health/2018/what-part-of-the-brain-deals-with-anxiety-what-can-brains-affected-by-anxiety-tell-us-062918

Montopoli, J. (2017, February 20). PUBLIC SPEAKING ANXIETY AND FEAR OF BRAIN FREEZES. Retrieved September 16, 2020, from https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/2017/02/20/public-speaking-and-fear-of-brain-freezes/ 

Phobias. (2017, August 22). Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/anxiety-disorders/phobias

Specific phobias. (2016, October 19). Retrieved September 16, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/specific-phobias/symptoms-causes/syc-20355156 

Forgey, B., MD. (2019, May 30). 7 Most Common Phobias & How They Affect Patients. Retrieved September 16, 2020, from https://www.psychiatryassociatesofbatonrouge.com/blog/7-most-common-phobias-how-they-affect-patients

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