In an effort to explore Americans’ most common fears and how these relate to phobias, we recently conducted a large-scale survey of a broad sample of the U.S. population and asked respondents to tell us what they were most afraid of. The goal was to better understand the relationship between fears and phobias (two distinct yet related phenomena) and the driving force behind phobias in particular. What follow are the results of this landmark survey into Americans’ most common fears, including a discussion of phobias and how they develop….
First, What Is a Phobia?
A phobia describes an intense, chronic, and irrational fear of something specific. Most phobias involve something that can be dangerous or harmful, but a person’s response manifests itself in a way that’s not equal to the level of potential risk, which is what makes a phobia irrational by definition.
For example, phobias involving spiders, germs, and heights are among our most common fears, and it’s true—these things could be dangerous. Germs can cause disease, spider bites can be poisonous, and falling from a high place can cause fatal injury. But most cases in which phobias arise are situations in which the subject of fear doesn’t pose a threat to the person experiencing the phobia. For instance, a person with acrophobia (a fear of heights) may still be affected by this crippling fear on higher stories of a building, even when surrounded by walls and windows.
Specific phobia fits into a category of documented anxiety disorders — conditions where anxiety, panic, fear, and worry detract from a person’s ability to function normally, either on a chronic (long-term) or acute (temporary) basis.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 1 in 5 people will suffer from an anxiety disorder during any given year. How many of these cases involve phobias?
The Prevalence of Phobias in America
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, based on findings from a 2017 study, an estimated 9.1 percent of Americans had a specific phobia in the previous year. This rate was higher—more than double—for women than for men.
People also experience phobias in varying degrees. The same study sought to explore this, testing a person’s experience with their phobia on the Sheehan Disability Scale.
The most common form of phobia is the one that causes the lowest level of impairment. Around 48 percent of respondents said they suffered from a mild phobia, 30 percent reported the effects of their disorder were moderate, and 22 percent experienced extreme phobic impairment.
Symptoms of Phobia
Phobia symptoms tend to manifest in stages. People don’t have to be physically exposed to the source of their fear. In fact, thinking about a specific phobia can induce a feeling of dread, fear, and anxiety.
When presented with phobic stimuli, someone with a phobia may experience nausea, panic attacks, sweating, increased heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and difficulties breathing. This experience can lead to an internalization of the response, so that over time a person becomes habituated to reacting in the same way. Feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and the urge to make lifestyle changes to avoid exposure at all costs in the future are also common outgrowths over time.
What Causes Phobias to Develop?
Many fears are understandable—spiders, snakes, heights, and illnesses are all among the most common fears faced by a large segment of the population. But how do extreme fears become documented phobias?
Although nothing is certain in this regard, scientists and mental health researchers believe there are two primary causes of phobia:
- Adverse experiences: It’s believed that a traumatic experience can cause a phobia to develop. Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and treatment for phobias are often heavily linked and discussed in the same breath.
- Genetic links: In some cases, phobias appear to be hereditary, but it’s essential to recognize the difference between a genetic phobia and one that results from being forced to experience a parent or guardian’s phobia secondhand.
Common Myths About Phobias
There are some myths about phobias that can pose obstacles to treatment. Here are just a couple:
- Phobias and fears are the same: In most cases, fear is natural. Necessarily, it’s your nervous system’s way to take action against something that could put your health or safety at risk. Phobias occur when fear isn’t proportional to the threat posed by a given source and causes a nervous system overreaction.
- People who struggle with phobias are crazy: The stigma that presides over mental health in society is dangerous, and this applies to the urge to conclude that a person can be qualified as crazy. To a degree, everyone is affected by their mental health at some point in their lives, and ultimately it’s no different than coming down with a virus that makes you physically ill.
Our Phobias Survey Results
We conducted a survey of 200 respondents, asking some basic demographic questions and scoring topics on fear. At the beginning of our survey, we asked respondents to provide their own answers for their top fears, before we asked them about specific topics. The bulk of our survey addressed common objects of fear, scoring them on a 1-10 scale (with 1 being “not scared at all” and 10 being “terrified”). Using the scores assigned each topic, we were able to calculate a total “fear score” based on all of the respondent’s ratings.
When Should You Seek Treatment?
When phobias are mild, they don’t affect your life to the same degree as more severe phobias do. If you’re irrationally afraid of snakes, for example, maybe you’ll skip a trip to the zoo with friends. If you have a phobia of elevators, you’ll take the stairs whenever possible. These are inconveniences, but ultimately, they don’t affect your ability to lead a healthy, functional life.
However, even some of the most common fears can completely halt your life—especially if you find yourself exposed to them often in your line of work or daily life. If your anxiety detracts from your ability to live the life you want, it’s time to consult a professional.
Phobia treatment can take many forms, ranging from conventional—psychotherapy or talk therapy, consisting of sessions with a licensed counselor—to the extreme, including controversial methods of exposure therapy.
At FHE Health, we see countless people every day who struggle with anxiety disorders, including specific phobias. You don’t have to continue to miss out on experiences because of your most common fears. Contact us today at (833) 596-3502 and learn about your options to get high-quality help from addiction and mental specialists in South Florida.