Phobias are unreasonable and irrational by nature. I mean, why fear spiders when the chances of encountering a truly dangerous one are very low? Why fear flights when you’re nineteen times safer in a plane than in your own car? Not to mention those who run away in front of objects and/or situations that cannot do any harm, even if they wanted to. I, for example, am super scared of pigeons. Fat, mangy, perished, limped; whatever their appearance, as soon as my radar detects one less than five meters away, I start to sweat, scream and use other people as a personal human shield. Don’t laugh, this is a real thing. It’s called ornithophobia, it’s the phobia of birds in general, and 3% of the population is affected by it.
As described by Harvard Health Publishing, a phobia is “a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity or situation. A person with a phobia either tries to avoid the thing that triggers the fear, or endures it with great anxiety and distress.” According to the NHS website, phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder. In the UK, an estimated 10 million people have phobias. But how do these unjustified terrors arise? What is triggered in the brain of someone with a phobia?
Told in plain English, our emotions are controlled by our brain, more specifically by the amygdala (an almond-shaped clusters of nuclei involved in emotional responses; including fear, anxiety, and aggression) and the prefrontal cortex (which controls all the information coming from the amygdala and decides whether or not to prepare the body for a reaction). Only recently scientists have wondered how fear, a primary and very useful emotion for survival, can turn into phobia and therefore negatively affect one’s life. Yet, what causes one to develop any kind of phobia is a topic that is under continuous research.
Currently, there are three possible explanations: phobias could be due to the malfunction of a certain part of the brain, due to genetics or due to past trauma. A research has found that the malfunctioning of the amygdala may cause one to fear something: it becomes hyper-reactive, triggering exaggerated responses even in the face of negligible stimuli. Other scientists believe that in a phobic person the alarm systems are very receptive, are activated easily and return to quite with greater difficulty: this inability to extinguish fear becomes even more important than fear itself. It rewires the nervous system to be in a constant state of alert. This is how, for example, from the fear of bees we can pass to the phobia of any flying insect.
One other possibile explanations involves a mix of genetic and environmental factors. There is indeed a genetic predisposition to the development of pathological fears. Katherina K. Hauner, a postdoctoral fellow at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, explained that: “Estimates of genetic contributions to specific phobia range from roughly 25 to 65 percent, although we do not know which genes have a leading part. No specific phobia gene has been identified, and it is highly unlikely that a single gene is responsible. Rather variants in several genes may predispose an individual to developing a number of psychological symptoms and disorders, including specific phobia.”
For what concerns the environmental componet, a negative and/or frightening experience lived as a child can develop reasoning patterns that lead to giving a meaning of danger to some situations, even if they do not have it. This would explain why phobias - whether about blood, tunders or snakes - usually arise between the ages of four and eight. It is also very difficult to become phobic after the age of 30; especially when it comes to the so-called specific fears, those concerning only a particular object.
All the mechanisms considered so far, however, fail to explain social phobias (those not directed at a specific object), such as the terror of entering into relationships with others and the fear of open spaces - two phobias that are on the rise worldwide.
Whatever kind of phobia we have, it tells a lot about us; from the environment we live in, to what happened to us in the past. This does not mean that it is always easy to understand where our strangest fears arise: even a small mental disorder like this is never a bolt from the blue but the tip of the iceberg. What is important to remember is that in some cases these phobias do not have any kind of disabling consequence, but other others can become severe and create anxiety-inducing situations that can come in the way of leading a normal life.
The sentiment of fear protects us, because it makes us react to a potentially harmful stimulus. Phobia, on the other hand, paralyzes us, is disproportionate, completely irrational, and above all, it makes us suffer, compromising (more or less) the way we live.
Written by Miriam Tagini