What is a Phobia?

Everyone is afraid of something. From the moment of birth, humans can experience fear. Almost all newborn babies are terrified by loud noises and seem to dread falling, even if they have never been dropped. They get over these fears as they grow, but they pick up new ones on their journey through child- hood. Studies have shown that 40 percent of kids can name something that terrifies them. By the time they become adults, 17 percent of people still cling to at least one fear.

Fright is both natural and useful. The world is full of things that cause harm. Being scared of these things makes people avoid them so they might live to see another day. Even animals use fear to survive. A rabbit that panics at the sight of a coyote, for instance, will probably live longer than a rabbit that dashes across open fields without caution.

People, of course, do not live with the same kinds of dangers that plague rabbits and other creatures. Unless they swim in shark-infested water or get lost in Africa where there are man- eating predators, there is little need to worry about things with pointed teeth. Yet, most people have a healthy respect for any creature with claws or fangs, even people who live in cities and encounter very few wild animals outside of a zoo. Having some fear of certain things is normal and natural.

Human fears, however, do not always serve a survival purpose. It is one thing to be scared of something that is actually dangerous, such as falling off a cliff or getting buried in an avalanche. But many people fear things they know could not possibly harm or kill them. Some people lie awake at night fretting endlessly about an upcoming meeting or test. Others chew their fingernails at the thought of giving a speech to an audience. Some become anxious and start to sweat in small rooms, even if a window is open and they know there is plenty of air. When fears like these, which have nothing to do with survival, start to take over a person’s life, they become a real problem. These fears are phobias.

Life-Changing Fears

Most people can name at least one thing that really unnerves them, but not every fear is a phobia. A true phobia is a fear that transforms a person’s life. People who have phobias are so frightened of the thing that scares them, they will do almost anything to avoid it. Phobias force people to make choices they might not make if it were not for their fear.

Take Stephanie and Logan, two teenagers who dislike spiders. If Stephanie sees a spider, she screams, waves her arms, and runs around the room until it crawls into a crack or some- one comes along and kills it. Only then can she sit down and relax. No doubt, Stephanie has a strong fear of spiders, but she does not have a phobia.

Compare Stephanie’s behavior to Logan’s. He does not have to see a spider to experience fear. Even the mere thought of a spider bothers him so much that he has not worn shorts or sandals in nine years. He wears pants, heavy socks, and shoes all the time just to make sure no spider could possibly touch his bare skin. He rips all the covers off of his bed every evening to search for spiders, then makes the bed again before going to sleep with the light on. He sets his alarm clock to go off every hour so he can check the ceiling for spiders throughout the night.

Logan has never gone camping, because there might be spiders in the tent. Logan neatly folds and stacks his dirty laundry in the hamper instead of throwing it on the floor, where spiders might crawl into his socks or T-shirts. Logan has few friends.

He refuses to spend the night at anyone else’s house—after all, other houses might not have been sprayed for spiders. Logan has a phobia.

According to Edmund J. Bourne, author of The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, many people develop a fear of some situation or thing during their lifetime, but “only when you start to avoid that situation or object,” he says, “do you learn to be phobic.”1 By definition, phobics are habitual avoiders. Some avoid specific things or situations that scare them. Others avoid people. And some phobics are afraid of fear itself.