A phobia is a very peculiar emotion. It’s a crippling feeling, being fearful and anxious at the sight or thought of a seemingly harmless situation or object. The hyperventilation, sweaty palms, locked muscles, and shutting down of the brain can feel paralyzing. It’s a feeling of knowing that you’re probably overreacting to something, but still having no control over it.
A new and widespread form is social phobia, or social anxiety. I am no stranger to this condition, as I am extremely aware of the pains some people take to avoid such situations. Seeing people confidently interacting with others, however, got me thinking… Why do we feel such crippling fears? Why are some people scared of spiders, while others faint at the sight of blood?
Fear and Phobia
After spending hours scrounging through various sources, I was able to conclude that humans are only born with 2 instinctive fears – the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. These two are ingrained in every fiber of our being, but what about all the other phobias?
First, let’s be clear about fears and phobias. Although often used interchangeably, the two are different things. Fear is the feeling we get when we perceive a threat. It helps us stay wary and alert and is an important tool in our learning processes. Humans have an emotional threat detection mechanism that basically ensures we stay alert in situations that could be a potential threat to us. Therefore, we have induced in ourselves the feeling of fear for such situations or objects, such that we don’t walk into them unaware. A phobia, on the other hand, is an extreme reaction to a seemingly harmless situation or object, or a reaction in anticipation of one. A person with a phobia towards a situation or object will go to great lengths to avoid it, rather than ever face it, unless it is absolutely necessary. However, the line between fear and phobia is quite blurry.
To better understand it, I went back to the roots. Basically, is there an evolutionary advantage to having a phobia?
Evolutionary Aspect of a Phobia
Being such an ambiguous concept, there are many theories pertaining to the origin and sustenance of a phobia. Since primitive times, man has learned about and adapted to his environment, attempting to develop and cultivate the best possible habits and mechanisms to survive. Today, fighting for our daily bread may be the biggest concern of an individual, but times were different back then. Survival was of the utmost importance, as primitive cavemen lived amongst a plethora of threats, ranging from diseases to wild, hungry animals.
Most common phobias are related to things that posed potential threats to our ancestors. For instance, acrophobia probably developed to keep people away from cliffs, whereas arachnophobia developed due to the sheer number of poisonous spiders present in the wild.
However, these threats are not such a major concern right now, which has led to the claim that phobias are just a malfunction of our normal threat detection mechanism. Most phobias – but not all – can be attributed to some sort of danger that existed in the past. Even though we learned to stay away from these potential threats hundreds of thousands of years ago, this sense malfunctions in some people, who develop an extremely strong reaction to it, much like an allergy.
Another theory, however, suggested that phobias should be considered as an adaptation of our stress response, rather than a malfunction. This is because, no matter how small, the central element of a phobia is a threat to us, be it snakes, spiders, heights, or even social embarrassment. Although it may seem redundant most of the time, there will be at least one occasion when a phobia will cause someone to be extra cautious, thus sparing them the eternal trauma of social embarrassment or the pain of a snake bite. A phobia therefore prevents us from getting too close, helping us avoid a situation or object that causes discomfort. Therefore, by natural selection and survival of the fittest, phobias were favored in people to keep them safe.
Studies have strongly suggested that it is not necessary for a person to acquire a phobia that their parents had, although there is some type of genetic connection. Some people may be more susceptible to developing the same phobia as their parents, as their experience and environment will favor the formation of the phobia. The mind, gradually over the years, promotes these elements as threats, thus leading to phobias. This is why people may be phobic about spiders, but not guns. This is due to the fact that these phobias did not develop in a single lifetime, unless they have been induced by some previous, traumatic exposure.
Some phobias are also affected by age. Babies have certain fears that go away as they grow up. For instance, a child is afraid of their mother leaving the room, and constantly searches for her when she does. However, this goes away once the baby grows up. This is because at an infantile stage, the baby needs its mother to protect it. Once it grows up and can start fending for itself, the fear simply goes away.
There are also some fears or phobias that don’t manifest until a certain age. A good example of this is agoraphobia, which is rarely seen in children. A possible explanation for this could be the fact that certain hormones, and the level of stress that a person experiences, both play a regulatory role in that kind of phobia.
While the theory of phobias being a result of evolution – whether a malfunction of adaptive response – currently seems to be the most satisfying explanation, it still has several loopholes. For instance, Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia – the phobia of big words – (ironic, isn’t it?) doesn’t seem to have much of an evolutionary benefit.
Recently, having met pilots with acrophobia, I realized that since these phobias have been learned, they can also be unlearned. This task is carried out by trained professionals who can help the brain overcome an outdated fear, or tone down the brain’s response to it. It also shows that our brain has the power to overcome its fears, and further supports the claim that these phobias can be altered, masked or “treated” if they are getting in the way of living a normal life.