Oct. 27, 2017 -- It’s nearly Halloween, the season of fright. But for people who suffer from phobias, fear isn’t just a seasonal thrill, it’s a way of life.
Nearly 9% of adults report having “specific phobias” -- a pronounced fear of something like heights, needles, or bugs.
That describes Charity White of Siler City, NC.
“If I see a picture of a snake, I cannot stand to look at it,” White says. “Fear runs through my body, resulting in me quickly closing my eyes, turning away, screaming, getting cold chills, etc.”
White says she’s had this fear of snakes for as long as she can remember and cannot remember a specific event that started it.
“I am not scared of what they would do, just scared of how they look,” she says.
Spiders are among the most common phobias, which also include dogs; situations like driving, flying, or being in confined spaces like elevators; or health issues, such as germs or vomiting, says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.
There’s nothing wrong with a healthy fear of something dangerous, Gallagher says. But a fear becomes a phobia when you start changing your habits to avoid something that’s normally harmless, or at least poses no immediate threat.
“It kind of comes down to impairment of your life,” Gallagher says. “None of us want to get bit by a snake, and that’s very normal. But if I can’t go to the zoo and even look at a snake, or see a picture of them, or I go to these kind of extreme lengths to keep them from coming into my house in Philadelphia, that’s where it starts to be a problem.”
White’s reaction to snakes is not unusual. Being around the object of a phobia can make you start shaking, sweating, feeling dizzy, and wanting to flee -- even if you know your fear is irrational, says Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Closely related to specific phobias are social phobia and agoraphobia -- the fear of being stuck in a public situation, such as on a bus or in a theater, with no way to escape. Nearly 1% of American adults are agoraphobic, while nearly 7% have a social phobia.
“In each case, it produces panicky kind of sensations, and people respond to panicky sensations, no matter what that circumstance is, as though it’s dangerous.” Bea says. “Even if they can tell you objectively, ‘I know I’m not in any danger.’”
Most phobias start in childhood, Bea says. They may be rooted in some sort of traumatic experience, but that only represents about a quarter of cases, he says.
“If a person had a near-drowning experience, they might become fearful of water,” Bea says. “But a lot of people are fearful of water who’ve never been traumatized.”
About 1 in 3 people get treatment for their phobias. Therapy usually starts with easing people into exposure to whatever they fear.
“Back in the day, they used to do a ‘flooding’ kind of treatment, where you’re kind of in a room of snakes,” Gallagher says. “People did get better, but patients don’t like that intensive manner as much anymore.”
Now, people are eased into facing their fears methodically, like climbing steps on a ladder -- assuming their phobia isn’t ladders.
Some phobias, like the fear of clowns, can be stoked by media reports and popular culture, Bea says, but they’re rooted in primal concerns.
“I think what it is about anybody in a costume or mask or makeup is that we can’t judge them accurately,” he says. “We don’t know what emotion or sentiment they may be conveying. We can’t judge their intentions.”
Clown fears have been stoked in recent years. There were random reports of clowns terrorizing children last year followed by a major marketing push for the movie It, which features a clown dragging children into sewers.
Bea says portrayals of clowns have shifted over the years, from the benign Bozo or Ronald McDonald to menacing It villain Pennywise -- or real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who moonlighted as a party clown. The new film “has a whole new generation of people rethinking whether a clown is an innocent, whimsical character, or can they have other intentions behind it,” he says. “That stuff gets in the brains of people.”
And at least one recent study suggests that human brains come wired with certain phobias. The study in Frontiers in Psychology found that when shown pictures of a snake or spider, infants’ eyes showed signs of worry when compared to their reaction to pictures of flowers and fish.
In other words, people with phobias might not just be scaredy-cats.