What is a Phobia?


Phobia comes from the Greek word for “fear”. It is a strong, persistent fear of situations, objects, activities, or persons. The main symptom of this disorder is the excessive, unreasonable desire to avoid the feared subject. When the fear is beyond one’s control or if the fear is interfering with daily life then a diagnosis under one of the anxiety disorders can be made.

So, in essence, phobias are a type of anxiety disorder much along the lines of panic and fear. An American study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that between 8.7% and 18.1% of Americans suffer from phobias.

Broken down by age and gender, the study found that phobias were the most common mental illness among women in all age groups and the second most common illness among men older than 25.

Phobias affect people of all ages, from all walks of life, and in every part of the country. The American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education (APIRE) has reported that in any given year, 7.8% of American adults have phobias. They are the most common psychiatric illness among women of all ages and are the second most common illness among men older than 25.

Phobias are among several anxiety disorders, which also include panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Such unrealistic or excessive fear of objects or situations is a psychological disorder that can makes life miserable for years.

Phobias should not be confused with fear. Fear is much less dramatic than a phobia. According to the dictionary, the word “fear” denotes a painful feeling of impending danger, evil; trouble etc…the feeling or condition of being afraid. While fear is a consequence of a phobia, it is not the definition of it. It is simply a symptom.

Phobia is also used in a non-medical sense for aversions of all sorts. These terms are usually constructed with suffix -phobia. A number of these terms describe negative attitudes or prejudices toward the named subject.

Some examples include homophobia (fear or dislike of homosexuals), xenophobia (fear or dislike of strangers), and even Christianophobia (fear or dislike of Christians).

It is possible for an individual to develop a phobia over virtually anything. The name of a phobia generally contains a Greek word for what the patient fears plus the suffix -phobia as we have said. Creating these terms can become a type of word game, however, few of these terms are found in medical literature.

Still, many people wear their phobic badges around their family and friends. They may be claustrophobic (afraid of closed in spaces), agoraphobic (afraid of wide open spaces or crowds), hydrophobic (afraid of water), or genophobic (afraid of sex). The list goes on and on.

It is not exaggerated to say that majority of people have an irrational fear of certain things or situations, without necessarily fulfilling the diagnostic criteria for a phobia (irrational fear may grow into a phobia when it starts interfering with the person’s usual activities). The most common simple (specific) phobias are those of the insects (arachnophobia in your case), mice, reptiles and other animals. These phobias usually begin in childhood and often disappear without treatment.

While technically we can call anything a phobia, the actual definition – you will remember – involves having an irrational fear of something that can cause no physical harm or trauma. For example, to have a fear of cotton balls (yes, some people do) would technically be classified as a true phobia since cotton balls cannot cause harm.

However, fearing lions or a hurricane does not classically qualify as a phobia because encounters with either do carry a possibility of harm or death. So what about the fear of spiders?

Technically called arachnophobia, the fear of spiders is real, but is it irrational? Perhaps. After all, we, as humans are slightly bigger than our arachnid neighbors, so can they cause us harm? Yes, but only if we are unaware of their presence. Well, unless it’s the spider in that episode of “Gilligan’s Island” that was the size of a hippopotamus.

At any rate, even though some spiders are poisonous, we still should not have fear of them. We can exterminate them and be on with our lives. For the arachnophobe, yes, that is easier said than done, but it is truth.

So, yes, fear of spiders does really qualify as a phobia.

When encountered with the phobic stimuli, people are overcome with a strong and immediate anxiety reaction (sweating, palpitations, paleness, breathing difficulty). Gradually, mere anticipation or imagery of the phobic stimulus comes to provoke anxiety symptoms and can lead to avoidance behavior and/or significant modification of one’s lifestyle.

It is at this point when the phobia becomes problematic and treatment should be explored.

It can be confusing to try and figure out why some people fear certain things.