Oct. 28, 2021 — Have you ever felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety or panic, along with an intense need to escape from something? Did it come with dizziness, a pounding heart, and hot or cold flashes?
Unless it was an objectively threatening situation, you may have been having the debilitating symptoms of a phobia.
A phobia is an irrational, excessive, and disabling fear — something that you will do almost anything to avoid. It can arise from genetics, observed behavior, bad experiences, or even evolution, says Martin Antony, PhD, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and co-author of The Anti-Anxiety Program: A Workbook of Proven Strategies to Overcome Worry, Panic, and Phobias.
“There are many things that influence the development of phobias,” Antony says. “Fear, like pain, exists to protect us from harm. When that fear becomes overwhelming and affects our lives, it moves into phobia territory.”
Fears are also often more rational than phobias. For example, according to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 7 (2020/2021), the top five fears in the United States as of January 2021 include:
- Corrupt government officials
- A loved one dying
- A loved one contracting COVID-19
- A loved one becoming seriously ill
- Widespread civil unrest
These fears could be attributed to a divisive political climate and a deadly global pandemic.
But phobias, on the other hand, often lead to intense anxiety and are caused by things that generally pose no direct threat. For example, social phobias, like fears of public speaking and meeting new people, are anxiety disorders and are often rooted in the fear of being judged, criticized, or humiliated.
An estimated 12.5% of U.S. adults have a specific phobia at some time in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Area52, a California-based CBD company, analyzed Google trend data to determine the most common phobias by state.
It found the most-searched phobia was fear of the dark. But, Antony says, that fear is usually less about the dark itself and more about what we may encounter in the dark.
“Someone who is afraid of the dark may have posttraumatic stress disorder,” he says. “Maybe they were attacked in the dark, or maybe they’re afraid of snakes and being bitten in the dark. From a diagnostic perspective, you need more information.”
Other common phobias by state include:
Fear of blood
This was the most-searched phobia in states including Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Massachusetts. Phobia of blood, injury, and needles affects about 3%-4% of the population.
This phobia has a strong physiological response, often causing nausea and/or fainting due to a fast blood pressure dip. Some suggest this has an evolutionary advantage — if you’re bleeding, the drop in blood pressure could prevent further blood loss.
Researchers have found there is likely a genetic component to it, with up to 60% of people with this phobia reporting a first-degree relative with the same aversion.
Fear of people, or social anxiety
Interestingly, this fear was most searched in two of the states that are most heavily populated: New York and California. But it was also prevalent in Arkansas, Kansas, and North Dakota. This phobia may come from traumatic or difficult experiences with people, including betrayal from close loved ones.
Trypophobia is a condition in which a person has a strong aversion to clusters or patterns of small holes. Though the American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not recognize it as an official phobia yet, the term has gotten more popular in recent years. The condition causes a person to become anxious, afraid, and disgusted when faced with patterns of clustered holes, like those on honeycombs.
Trypophobia was found to be prevalent in Rhode Island, South Dakota, Alaska, and Wyoming.
Antony says it may be a type of “prepared fear” — that is, a phobia that arises from evolutionary protective mechanisms.
For example, patterned clusters of holes are found on some poisonous animals and can be a sign of infectious disease in humans.
Ways to treat phobias
Although phobias can interfere with your daily life, there are several methods of treatment with proven success:
- Exposure therapy uses repeated encounters with the source of your phobia, aiming to change your response through desensitization and managing anxiety over time.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) uses exposure combined with other techniques to reframe ways you view and cope with the feared object.
- Beta–blockers can block the effects of adrenaline, like increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, a pounding heart, and a shaking voice.
- Sedatives called benzodiazepines can help you relax by easing anxiety.
Some phobias may be prevented by managing one’s response to traumatic situations, Antony says.
“A major thing that influences intense fear is what people do after they have traumatic experiences,” he says. “Treatment can prevent spiraling and developing a long-lasting phobia.”