What’s the difference between phobias and fear?
Phobias are an extreme, persistent, irrational fear of objects or situations, but they differ from fear. In addition to immediate anxiety, people with phobias often actively avoid things related to the subject, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “bible” of psychiatry. People with this type of anxiety disorder also experience excessive or unreasonable fear that is out of proportion to the actual danger. For example, someone with thalassophobia, or fear of the deep ocean, probably won’t travel by ferry, despite the low risk something might go wrong. It’s a reaction that goes beyond the nervousness or uncomfortable feeling of moderate fear and it can impair their ability to live daily life.
So why are these fears so common?
As mentioned earlier, there are four possible reasons behind every fear. A fear can develop through the process of evolution and be handed down as a result of genetics. With emotion-based fears and phobias, a person may learn fearful behavior from a close family member or experience it after a severe trauma. Because all people have a common evolutionary history, and because we all learn behaviors and take part in the same society, it is only natural that people often fear the same things.
What does evolution have to do with it?
“While individuals are unique,” Dr. Dorfman explains, “there are fundamental similarities in our construction. From an evolutionary standpoint, our brains are wired with a protective alarm system that alerts us to potential threats.” This is what people commonly refer to as “animal instinct.” Humans want to avoid harm and death, so we avoid and fear whatever we think may cause that. That is why when people experience fear, they become “equipped with physiological responses (anxiety symptoms) to notify [them] of imminent danger.” Adrenaline starts pumping. There is the urge to flee, or maybe just freeze; anything that the human brain thinks may help someone get out of a dangerous situation.
How does the brain process fear?
The human brain is nothing short of incredible. Neuroscientists at MIT have found that “the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds.” So before the brain is even fully aware of the exact details of a situation, it is able to process it in some form. Dr. Dorfman asserts, “Before fully being able to process information through reason, our brains scan and detect environmental threats to physical safety and notifies the rest of the body to respond accordingly.” The brain immediately tags something as threatening or non-threatening, so when two different objects appear to be similar, the brain may erroneously treat them as if they are equally dangerous when they aren’t.