Human beings have a love/hate relationship with fear. Medals are given to valiant warriors who charge fearlessly into combat, while those who sneak around whimpering in their battle helmets are labeled cowards and in some cultures are even put to death for what is considered a war-time crime. As a whole, people generally find fear to be disgraceful.
Fear in perspective
At the same time, people are fascinated by fear. In fact, they pay money to be scared out of their wits. They wait in long lines to see horror movies in theaters and to scream their lungs out on amusement park rides. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor recruit people to do unthinkably scary things. Fear has become an industry.
A lesser-known fact is that fear is a widespread health problem. Millions of people do not seem to have an “off” switch when it comes to being afraid. They do not need to watch a scary movie or bungee jump off of a bridge to panic—they do it at the sight or even the thought of a certain thing or situation that petrifies them. They cannot put their fear out of their mind. They have what doctors and scientists call a phobia.
Phobias way back in history
Phobias are as ancient as fear itself. The Greeks believed that senseless fears were the mischievous work of Phobos, the god of fright. (Phobos is the root of the modern word phobia.) The Greeks also believed that the god of nature, Pan, loved to spread fear, and this is where the modern word panic comes from.
Stories of phobic people date back at least 2,400 years, when the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about a pecu- liar man named Damocles who would not go near the edge of a ditch for any reason. Hippocrates also wrote about another man, an enemy of the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great, who was struck by horror if he heard anyone playing the flute after dark.
The ancients believed these seemingly senseless fears were the work of the gods. They had no other explanation for what could make an otherwise sensible, respectable man tremble at the sight of something that was not dangerous. These days, the ancient problem continues. There are common fears of every- thing from horses to hailstorms and dinner parties to public toi- lets. In more than two thousand years, doctors have not made a great deal more progress at explaining this problem than Hippocrates did.
Phobias in psychoanalysis
Doctors of the human mind have examined many possible causes of phobias. In the early 1900s, psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that these senseless fears, like almost every- thing else that goes on in the mind, are tied to hidden sexual feelings. Some of his peers, meanwhile, did not bother to understand their fearful patients but merely dulled their panic attacks with opium.
No one—Hippocrates, Freud, or anyone in between—has yet come up with an answer that fits. One of the few things doctors do know about phobias is that they are fearfully com- mon. Even today, they are everywhere. There is also evidence that our ancestors are, at least in part, to blame for the strange disorder, since phobias seem to run in families. Sons and daughters with phobic parents often grow up to suffer from phobias themselves. It has been said that they learn these fears, but there have also been studies of twins separated at birth who have the same phobia. A single, certain cause of phobias has yet to be found.
Phobias can strike anyone at any time. No one is immune. Certain types of phobias are more common at certain ages or in certain stages of life, but all phobias are unpredictable phenomena. Phobic reactions are far worse than the kind of fear people experience riding a roller coaster or watching a scary movie. They involve panic so extreme that the person has no control over it. People with phobias describe fainting, throwing up, sweating, clenching their hands, being unable to breathe, and feeling like they are having a heart attack or dying. The experience is as scary and senseless to them as the thing that set off the phobia. Phobics usually realize that their fear is not reasonable, but this gives them no control over it.
Actually curing the condition seems as unpredictable as pho- bias themselves. It can be so difficult to root out the source of the fear that many people just find ways to live with it, often developing very strange behaviors to avoid the thing that trig- gers their panic. These behaviors can have ill effects. They can keep phobics from traveling, for example, or from going to col- lege, dating or marrying, or having their dream job. In this way, fear can truly ruin lives.
Some desperate people seek help for phobias in extreme forms, plunging headfirst into their fear to force themselves to get over it. Modern technology gives people more options for this kind of treatment than Hippocrates had to offer.
Computer simulated experiences are among the new ways people try to get over senseless but powerful fears. Using virtual technology, a modern-day Damocles can simulate standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and look his fear in the eye. Technology could be what finally changes the fate of phobias.
Still, there is not yet a standard cure for a condition that has existed for thousands of years. Fear is widely studied but poorly understood. The ancient phenomenon of phobias is still alive and well.