What are we so Afraid of?

| December 21, 2016 | 0 Comments

“Hide.” (CC BY 2.0) by avocadogirlfriend

Whoever you might be, there’s a good chance that you’re afraid of something (statistically, it’s more likely to be two things) so you’re far from alone if sleeping in the bath is preferable to sharing a room with a spider. Given how common and debilitating phobias are, the obvious question is why do we have them at all?

Ancient World

According to Scientific American, specific phobias – i.e. a “persistent fear of a certain situation or object” – are at least partly genetic, with our biology contributing between 25% and 65% to the cause of a phobia, depending on what it is. The best way of understanding this kind of fear is as a reflex or memory passed down from our ancestors.

For example, in an ancient world where spiders, snakes, and the winter darkness presented a more persistent, deadly threat, early humans would eventually come to fear them as a survival mechanism. Modern people simply inherit those phobias as a bit of evolutionary garbage, although they can obviously be life-saving in certain situations. Fearing all spiders and snakes, for example, is likely to mean you’re never in a position to be bitten by one.

There are also environmental phobias, which are picked up during a person’s lifetime as a consequence of an unpleasant event. Falling from a tree and breaking a leg may give a person a lifelong fear of heights; similarly, coulrophobia – the fear of clowns – may come from meeting one as a child or by watching a horror film like Stephen King’s IT.

So, with the science out of the way, what are the most common phobias affecting the more evolved humans?


“Natural History Museum DC” (CC BY 2.0) by m01229

Creepy Crawlies

Of 1,000 British people interviewed by Voucherbox, the most prevalent fear was personal failure, loneliness, unemployment, and financial hardship. The second most common phobia affects women in particular – spiders and other creepy crawlies – while personal anxieties (clowns, the dark, enclosed spaces, heights, and flying) rank third.

Potentially awkward social situations – public speaking, relationships, meeting new people or being touched – and terrorism are the fourth and fifth things most likely to keep Brits up at night. It’s interesting to note that social phobias disproportionately affect men. Overall, though, it’s distinctly modern things that seem to trouble people the most.

Phobias can also scale and change with age. For example, 18-34 year olds are the demographic most afraid of insects while teenagers tend to have more personal hang-ups like a fear of flying. One of the more interesting statistics from the above study is the fact that people in general don’t feel totally helpless in the face of their fears.


“Reading” (CC BY 2.0) by eekim

Exposure Therapy

For example, a good 37% of people with a pronounced phobia try to face it, which perhaps indicates that many of the most common fears are mild. The 22% of Brits surveyed who prefer to wait for the object of their concern to go away or leave of its own accord may be among the more unfortunate people, at least as far as terrifying ordeals are concerned.

Many sufferers may also try to help themselves, using books and videos to educate themselves or by signing up to exposure therapy, a type of medical treatment commonly used to treat stress and anxiety-related disorders. In the case of spiders, the patient may begin with information about arachnids before progressing to a real-life meeting with a friendly tarantula.

It’s enough to make your skin crawl.

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Category: Health

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