Home alone at night, you hear a loud crash. In an instant your heart starts racing, your muscles tense and your breath quickens. You are immediately alert, primed to fight or flee the source of the sound, which turns out to be a pile of books falling off that shelf you’ve been meaning to fix. But in that moment, your brain and body reacted as if you were in mortal danger.
Fear is one of our strongest and most primal emotions. It’s a big bad world out there, and being afraid of certain things protects us from potential danger to make sure we survive. Some evolutionary fears are hard-wired into our brains, but we can also develop new fears throughout our lives. As children we pick up on what makes our parents anxious, and we may also learn to fear certain things after negative experiences. Despite this, most of us are able to ignore our fears when it’s clear we aren’t in any immediate danger. We can enjoy the view from the top of a skyscraper rather than worry about falling, or turn out the lights safe in the knowledge that a predator won’t devour us in the night.
However, people with phobias have an excessive fear response that causes both physical and psychological distress. These extreme fears are divided into three different groups: agoraphobia, social phobia and specific phobias. Agoraphobia is generally referred to as the fear of open spaces, but it applies to the dread of any situation that is difficult– to escape from, or where help would not be available if something went wrong. Social phobia is the intense fear of interacting with people or performing, while specific phobias are the fear of a particular situation, activity or thing. These irrational fears can cause major disruptions to everyday life; somebody with acrophobia – an extreme fear of heights – may experience a panic attack simply trying to walk across a bridge. Depending on the trigger of their phobia, sufferers often go to great lengths to avoid situations that could affect them.
The cause of phobias is not always clear, but many cases are linked to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. For example, somebody may develop cynophobia – the fear of dogs – after being bitten. But whether the trigger is rational or irrational, as soon as the brain registers a scary stimulus, it activates the fight-or-flight response, thus preparing the body for action.