Phobias trouble people all over the world. In her book, Phobias: Fighting the Fear, Helen Saul says phobias
“are truly international, crossing the boundaries of language and culture.”
A New Yorker who fears airports and everything that soars out of them has a different phobia than an African tribes- man who screams at the sight of any snake that slithers into his family’s hut, but the feelings of panic they both experience are very similar.
Anyone can develop a phobia—men and women, teens and young adults, an elderly lady or a one-year-old boy. People who suffer from these uncontrollable fears are often laughed at and ridiculed, especially if the thing they fear—dust, for example, or flowers or balloons—is something that is not typically dangerous. But phobias are no laughing matter, and having one does not make someone crazy. In fact, people who have phobias are usually very aware that their fears are not logical. A phobia is a mental disorder—a tendency to panic at the mere thought of a certain thing or situation. Phobias are believed to be one of the most common problems affecting the human mind.
Phobias and Age
Humans fear different things at different ages. Many infants have irrational fears of strangers, or sometimes, of anyone who is not their mother. At eighteen months of age, a toddler is most likely to fear being away from his parents.
Kids who are four to six years old tend to be scared of imaginary stuff: monsters, ghosts, and the “thing under the bed.”
By age seven, fear of the dark might shift to a fear of something more specific that can actually happen, such as a fear of getting caught in a storm, being bitten by a dog, or crashing on a bicycle.
At about age twelve, common fears shift again. Just in time for the teenage years, social phobias tend to take root. Fear of giving presentations in class, taking tests in front of a teacher, or going to school at all tend to crop up at about this time.
For some adults, childhood fears have not vanished. The older the fear, the harder it is to get rid of. Phobics learn ways to avoid situations or people that make them nervous, and these bad habits can be hard to kick.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
People have long been interested in stories about weird terrors. Even fairy tales are full of phobias. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, a dread of being unfashionable developed into a fear of public nudity, and the Pied Piper’s promise to rid Hamelin of its rat problem probably came as a welcome offer to a town afflicted with musophobia, the fear of rodents.
Fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen was himself neurotically phobic. Among the things that terrified him were dogs, scratches, and being buried alive. (He was known to leave notes on his bedside table at night to remind people he was not dead, just asleep.) So unusual were Andersen’s problems that he was among the early phobia cases studied by psychologist Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century.
Absurd as Andersen’s fears may seem, phobias like these are surprisingly common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19 million Americans admit to having a specific phobia—a fear of one particular thing or situation, such as wasps or heights. This comes out to about 9 percent of the population, and these statistics do not include people who have a phobia but have not admitted it. Saul says the percentage might be even higher if more people were honest about their fears. Women have
“consistently higher fear ratings than men,” she says, but this is “possibly because men are less willing to admit to fears.”
Although a phobia can start at any age, specific ones usually take root in childhood. Fears of weather, natural disasters, or animals are most likely to start when a person is young. The fears most people have when they are kids wither over time, but for some, they grow into phobias. The most common age a specific phobia develops is seven years old. Some people’s childhood fear never goes away, and by the time they are teen- agers or young adults, they have a phobia.
“More often than not a phobia can start with a small concern, which grows into a worry and then builds to become a full- blown phobia,” says journalist Madeleine Brindley. This fear, she says, “can have a negative effect on a person’s life as it takes over and stops them from doing something that might, in fact, be enjoyable.”16
Teenagers and adults can develop phobias, too, even of things that never bothered them as kids. These fears are especially puzzling because they seem to come out of nowhere. A sixteen-year-old who thought nothing of heights as a young kid might suddenly start to perspire heavily with fear on a roller coaster or a Ferris wheel. The unexpected terror, with no link to any frightening experience from his childhood, might be humiliating for him.
This teenager certainly would not be alone in his fear. More men than women have a phobia of heights, and it usually begins in the teenage years. The fear might not be a problem if a man simply learns to avoid Ferris wheels and roller coasters. If, however, a job requires him to work on the top floor of a high- rise building, he might be forced to make a major career choice because of his phobia, and this is what sets phobias apart from the normal jitters that bother the rest of us.
“Every person has had a fear or fears at some time in their life and will do so in the future,” says Brindley. “It is how we deal with those fears that makes the difference.”
For people with a true phobia, the urge to deal with the fear by avoiding the frightening object or situation overpowers other important things in their lives.