Photo looking at a person's feet standing on a high ledge

Surprising facts about phobias

February 7, 2018

Far from being a flippant fear, a genuine phobia can actually have quite a big impact on someone’s life.

With research reporting that up to 8% of Australians have a specific phobia (a phobia of a certain object or situation), we decided to gather together some facts about the topic.

#1. There’s a big difference between a fear and a phobia

You’d probably feel a bit scared and panicked if you saw a big hairy spider climbing up your wall or wobbly if you were standing on a high ledge, but this doesn’t mean you necessarily have a spider or height phobia.

Fear is a ‘normal’ emotional response to either a real or perceived threat, and although it’s unpleasant, it’s pretty common to feel anxious as a result.

A specific phobia, on the other hand, is an overwhelming fear of objects or situations. Someone with a specific phobia might do everything they can to avoid their fear at all costs, and it can start to consume their everyday life.

For example, if someone has a spider phobia, they may spend huge amounts of time worrying about spiders, making sure they do not come into contact with a spider, and avoiding places and activities where spiders might be.

#2. Experts have identified more than 400 phobias

You can have a phobia of pretty much anything, but some are definitely much more common than others – and there are more than 400 which are recognised by the experts.

Phobias such as acrophobia (fear of heights), aviophobia (fear of flying), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), cynophobia (fear of dogs), astraphobia (fear of storms), trypanophobia (fear of needles) and mysophobia (the fear of germs) are all pretty common.

#3. Some phobias may sound strange

There are also some rare and seemingly strange phobias out there, like caligynephobia (fear of beautiful women), turophobia (fear of cheese), and phobophobia, (fear of developing a phobia).

Ironically, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia is the term used to describe a chronic fear of long words – no doubt this 15 syllable word was coined by someone a bit unkind!

There is even a persistent fear that that one is being watched by a duck known as Anatidaephobia. A person with this phobia fears that no matter where they are or what they are doing, a duck is watching them.

#4. Some phobias are a sign of the times

While some phobias are as old as the hills, other phobias are much more recent.

For example, we’ve recently seen a big rise in nomophobia: the irrational fear of not having your mobile phone – a term coined only 5 years ago.

Someone with nomophobia can feel intense anxiety if they have no phone signal, have run out of data or battery power, or even if their phone is out of sight.

The rise in nomophobia is not surprising with a recent study showing that many people under the age of 30 check their phone at least once every 10 minutes (or 96 times a day). The same study showed that 9 out of every 10 people admitted to feeling addicted to their phones or anxious when their phone went missing.

#5. People from all backgrounds can have phobias

It might surprise you, but a fair few well-known celebrities have phobias.

For a start, Christina Ricci has a fear of indoor plants (botanophobia), saying that touching a dirty houseplant actually feels like torture.

Alfred Hitchcock also lived with ovophobia which is the fear of eggs. People who worked with him claimed cracking an egg made him gag, and he once told a reporter “have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid?”

Highly awarded actor, producer and musician, Johnny Depp also has not one, but three phobias. They include a phobia of clowns (coulrophobia), a phobia of spiders (arachnophobia) and a phobia of ghosts (plasmophobia).

#6. Phobias may be memories passed down in your DNA

Have you ever wondered how specific phobias develop? Some can be due to experiencing a traumatic event such as nearly falling off a great height, or they can also be learned (like picking up a fear of flying from listening to a parent swear they’ll never fly again after a bad experience).

But, what if you’ve never actually had a traumatic public speaking experience, but the very thought of public speaking still makes you struggle to catch a breath? Where does this come from?

As crazy as it sounds, experts say this could come down to an experience your ancestors had – and these resulting phobias can be passed down in our DNA. So if an ancestor had a run in with a snake and developed a phobia, research suggests this snake phobia can be passed down for generations to come.

#7. Phobias can be treated

Fortunately, there are ways to address and treat most specific phobias. To find the right treatment for you or someone you know, your best bet is to enlist the help of a medical professional who can assess your condition and monitor your progress.

One method that’s currently being used very successfully is ‘exposure therapy’, a type of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). In one clinical trial, cognitive-behavioural therapy helped as many as 90% of the group to overcome their phobia.

The idea is that if you are presented with your phobia repeatedly, but safely, and over time your fear reduces. In the case of a spider phobia, exposure therapy may start with just the thought of a spider, then move to looking at a picture of one, and slowly work up until a person is comfortable being close to, and possibly even holding a living spider.

Do you think you have a phobia yourself?

It is important to remember that phobias are often very successfully treated. If you (or someone you know) could have a phobia, it’s a good idea to seek advice from a medical professional.

If you need to talk to someone about mental illness or a crisis in your life, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.