It makes sense to fear some things. Falling out of aeroplanes, getting bitten by deadly spiders, being on a ship as it sinks or being murdered by an axe wielding maniac are all situations that’s its perfectly sensible to try and avoid. Even an excessive or extreme fear of such things is understandable, if not desirable. But what about fears which are clearly irrational?
Plenty of phobias exist for objects or situations which, to an objective observer- clearly pose no real threat. The moon has no power to affect your life, yet selenophobia still affects thousands of people. A bit of rain rarely hurts anyone, yet pluviophobics will still avoid rain like it’s going to burn their skin to a crisp. And such people will often know that their phobia is irrational, or not totally grounded in reality, but this knowledge does nothing to reduce their fear. In fact, it may make them feel worse- knowing that your fear is irrational or “silly” is likely to lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment. But irrational fear is not a sign of weakness or stupid thinking- it’s simply a sign of your brain’s fear response doing its job properly.
The part of your brain that decides if something is frightening is totally separate from the part that decides what is rational.
Imagine that your mind is a car, and the steering wheel, pedals and other controls are the different ways your brain sends you messages and thoughts. Your ability to think rationally is like the acceleration and brake pedals- you can control how strong the signal is by how hard you press your foot against them, and this determines the speed you drive at. The fear response is more like the handbrake- its effect is instant and absolute. The handbrake is either on or off, and when it is on no amount of accelerating or using the other pedals will have any effect on your speed.
If there is some problem with your handbrake, expecting to solve it by examining the pedals isn’t going to get you very far. The two are unrelated. On a very simple level, the fear response and conscious thought are the same.
Fight or Flight
The reason for this lies in the purpose of fear. Fear is part of your body’s response to threats- it alerts you to danger, increases your heart rate to allow your muscles extra oxygen, and gives you a sudden burst of adrenaline enabling you to take action. When faced with a potential threat to your life you need to be able to act on it instantly- you can’t deliberate for ten minutes as to whether the axe-wielding maniac running towards you really intends to murder you or whether he just wants to ask you the time of day.
Fear, by necessity, is an immediate and absolute response. If your mind isn’t 100% sure you are safe, it assumed you are not. Conscious, rational thinking never enters into the equation. So you can consciously know that something isn’t dangerous, but by the point you’ve realised this you’re already running for your life.
What Causes Irrational Fears?
So you can still fear things which pose no real threat. But how do those fears form?
Sometimes it’s due to association. Experiencing two things together can make the brain think they are linked when in reality they aren’t. Being involved in an accident when the full moon is visible might lead to you thinking the moon was somehow responsible. Having a panic attack when out in a thunderstorm can lead to fear of bad weather even if the rain isn’t what caused the attack.
Phobias are often also caused by the information we are exposed to in society, and irrational beliefs are everywhere in society. Superstitions about the number 13 are so prevalent that hotels go straight from room 12 to room 14. Elevators only even feature in films when they’re breaking down and trapping their occupants between floors. Parents tell their children about a man in a red and white suit driving a flying reindeer sleigh, and we wonder why they believe in “imaginary” things like ghosts and monsters?