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A Brief Musing on Phobias

Jul 31, 2008
A blood-curdling shriek resonates throughout the house, like a soon-to-be victim in a slasher horror movie. I turn the page of my newspaper and remain planted in my comfy sofa. I'm not racing to the kitchen with weapon in hand because I know the cause of all this panic is a harmless house spider slightly smaller than a finger-nail and about as dangerous as a floating feather.

Phobias are a fascinating thing. I don't suffer from any myself (not that I've encountered to far) so I am in the fortunate position where I can roll my eyes and "psh" at other people's irrational fears. The closest I come to this sense of panic is when I'm looking over a ledge high enough to kill me if I dropped. I imagine clambering over the ledge and a feeling of dread hits my chest and stomach- a very physical sensation.

The difference with a phobia is that it is irrational and a person in this situation would be filled with fear despite the danger only occurring if they made the conscious decision to climb up onto the ledge and waver over the end. Assuming they had not just pissed off Derren Brown, there would be no danger at all. So why does a phobia of heights take such control over some people in this instance?

Phobias are widely regarded as a panic disorder because it appears to be a physical fault. When people encounter something they perceive as dangerous, the amygdala, in the brain, automatically triggers the secretion of hormones that put the body on alert. Heart rate increases, awareness increases and the body is put into a state referred to as the "fight or flight" response. So far this all makes perfect sense: man meets monster with sharp teeth, man becomes afraid, man's body kicks into action with an injection of hormones to help run away or fight against being eaten.

But in this instance, if the monster grinned, made a cute purring noise, wagged it's bushy tails and rubbed itself affectionately against your leg, the secretion of hormones would instantly cease as the logical parts of your brain register that there is no actual endangerment. However, a person with an irrational phobia of monsters (rethinking my use of this example now!) would continue to suffer because the hormone secretion would simply continue and so their behavioral state would not resume normality at recognition of safety.

A fear of flying is one of those strange ones. I can fully understand the fear because, as a passenger, you have no control over events whatsoever and, if something were to go wrong, there's not a great deal you can do about it. But when you know the statistics of airline crashes, a fear of flying does appear to be quite irrational.

The chances of you being involved in an airline accident are 1 in 11 million! Considering the frequency in which we get into a car and drive about busy roads, of which the chances of being in an accident are 1 in 5000, this suddenly becomes quite an irrational fear. This means you are 200 times more likely to have an accident in a car- yet most of us enter one on a daily basis without question. Though I'm still subject to a feeling of enormous gratitude when I disembark a plane safely. Thanking someone for driving me somewhere without a crash would seem a bit patronising though.
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